Dec. 18, 2012
Bath School Massacre
The worst school massacre in U.S. history took place in 1927 in the little town of Bath, Michigan where 38 students, two teachers and two rescuers were murdered and 53 others seriously injured.
by David Robb
The worst school massacre in U.S. history was not Virginia Tech, where in 2007 a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 18 others; it was not Columbine High School, where in 1999 two teenagers shot and killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 21 others; and sadly, it was not Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, where another mass murderer killed 20 children and six adults.
The worst school massacre in U.S. history took place in 1927 in the little town of Bath, Michigan, when Andrew Kehoe blew up part of a school and his own car, killing 37 students, two teachers and two rescuers – and seriously injuring 58 others, including two students who would die later from their injuries. If the 400 pounds of dynamite Kehoe had placed at the other end of the school’s basement had detonated as planned, the bombing could have killed far more of the 275 students and 12 teachers in the school that day.
Today, Kehoe’s heinous crime is all but forgotten.
Born on February 1, 1872, Kehoe and his 12 brothers and sisters were raised on a small family farm in the tiny town of Tecumseh on the banks of the River Raisin in southeastern Michigan.
It was a quiet town surrounded by blueberry fields and apple orchards. About the most exciting thing that ever happened in Tecumseh was the day General George Armstrong Custer’s famous civil war horse, Don Juan, was buried there when Andrew was 4 years old. Andrew’s father took the kids to see the horse’s grave.
Andrew’s mother died the same year as Custer’s horse, and his father remarried a local widow named Frances Wilder. She was a sweet woman who loved children, but she and Andrew didn’t get along from the very beginning. He was sullen, withdrawn and pathologically stubborn, and the way he looked at her when he was angry gave her the creeps. They fought all the time when he wasn’t in school or tinkering with the farm equipment. Andrew was a born tinkerer.
One day when he was 14, his stepmother was alone in the kitchen trying to light the family stove when it exploded, dousing her with flaming fuel oil. Andrew had been outside tinkering, and when he heard the explosion, raced into the kitchen to see his stepmother rolling around on the floor, screaming in agony as flames engulfed her entire body. Andrew went back outside to the well and pumped a bucket full of water. By the time he got back to the kitchen, she wasn’t screaming anymore. He poured the water on her and put out the flames before the kitchen could burn down, but she died anyway.
It was his first experience with fiery death, but it would not be his last.
Years later, many of the town folk would come to believe that Andrew had had something to do with the stove exploding.
He graduated from Tecumseh High School, where he was not well liked, and then enrolled at Michigan State College in East Lansing, where he wasn’t liked much, either. Majoring in electrical engineering, which was the big new thing in those days, he started courting a shy, plain girl there named Nellie Price, whose family had money and land.
By the time he left college in the mid-1890s, big cities all across the country were being lit by electric light. Horse-drawn trolleys were giving way to electric streetcars, and the future looked bright for young Andrew. He moved to St. Louis and left his family – and his new girlfriend – behind. No one knows much about the years he spent there, other than that he got a job as an electrician in a park, and that somewhere along the line, he fell off a ladder and suffered a serious head injury, slipping in and out of a coma for two months.
It wasn’t known in those days, but brain injuries are very common among sociopaths.
Andrew survived and moved back to Michigan and bought his father’s 185-acre farm in Tecumseh. He married Nellie in 1912, and together they worked the farm for seven years. But he wasn’t much of a farmer. He spent more time tinkering with the farm equipment than planting and harvesting. And it didn’t help that he was cruel to his animals, which he abused mercilessly.
Andrew, meanwhile, was growing more resentful and suspicious by the day.
He and Nellie were both Catholics, but when the local priest stopped by the house one day to ask him to contribute to the building of a new church, Andrew threatened to shoot him if he didn’t get off his land. After that, he forbade Nellie from ever going to church again.
In the spring of 1919, he sold the family farm for what he paid for it – $8,000 – and bought a 185-acre spread from Nellie’s aunt just up the road in the little town of Bath, Michigan. He paid $12,000 for the farm – paying half up front and owing the rest to Nellie’s aunt on a mortgage.
An Enraging School Tax
Andrew and Nellie had no children, but in 1922, when a new school was built in Bath, they had to help pay for it all the same. He was assessed $137 – a fair amount of money in those days – and complained bitterly about having to pay to send other people’s kids to school. The next year, when his school tax was increased to $225, he was outraged, saying the tax was going to put him out of business. He told everyone who would listen that if he were on the school board, he would cut expenses and taxes.
He got his wish on July 14, 1924, when he was elected to the school board, and because of his reputation for thriftiness, was appointed treasurer.
It didn’t make him any happier, though. He fought constantly with the school superintendent, Emory Huyck. He accused Huyck of financial mismanagement, and tried to have him barred from school board meetings. But the other board members stood by Huyck.
Huyck had been superintendent of the school since it opened in 1922, and was still one of the youngest school superintendents in the state – only 30 years old – when Kehoe joined the board in 1924.
Andrew Kehoe was not an imposing figure – 5’9” and 150 pounds with gray hair and mean eyes – but he was able to dominate most of the men on the board with his arrogance and obstinacy. But not Huyck; he stood his ground and fought Kehoe on everything.
Huyck, a distant cousin of Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States, was a graduate of Michigan State College, where Kehoe had studied electrical engineering. But that’s about all they had in common – that and their mutual hatred of one another.
Kehoe was always furious about something, and he made everyone on the school board miserable. But he was good with his hands, so they paid him a small stipend to work as the school’s handyman, figuring that if they threw a little money his way, maybe he’d stop crying poor all the time. Instead, he used the money to buy nearly a ton of dynamite and Pyrotol, an explosive farmers used to clear their land of boulders and tree stumps.
A Plan of Revenge
But Kehoe wasn’t planning to blow up tree stumps; he was planning to blow up the school. His plan began to take shape in 1924, the same year he was elected to the school board. That year, records show, he bought two large boxes of Giant Hercules dynamite sticks from a store in Lansing, and 500 pounds of Pyrotol from the Jackson Farm Bureau. Over the next three years, he bought small amounts of explosives here and there, something that was easy for farmers to do in those days. A neighbor recalled driving Kehoe into town one day to buy a box of dynamite sticks and blasting caps.
On New Year’s Eve, 1926, the little town of Bath was rocked by the sound of a giant explosion coming from the direction of the Kehoe farm. No one thought much of it at the time; farmers were always blowing up tree stumps and boulders around those parts. Even so, neighbors would later recall that the New Year’s Eve blast had been a particularly loud one.
But Kehoe wasn’t blowing up tree stumps on that last day of 1926. He’d pretty much quit farming altogether by that time. His wife Nellie had been in and out of the hospital with an undiagnosed case of tuberculosis, and Kehoe spent nearly all his time tending to her needs – and tinkering with wires and alarm clocks. Every day he was sinking deeper into debt.
In hindsight, neighbors would later say, there’s been plenty of warning signs that something wasn’t quite right out at the Kehoe place. They recalled that he beat one of his old horses to death, and killed one of his dogs out of spite. He’d stopped paying his homeowner’s insurance and he’d stopped paying his mortgage, and Nellie’s aunt finally had to serve him with a foreclosure notice.
And he would say the most peculiar things.
The school bus driver recalled that in the second week of May, after he’d received his paycheck, Kehoe told him grandly, “My boy, you want to take good care of that check as it is probably the last check you will ever get.” The bus driver thought it was an odd comment, but didn’t think any more of it – until later.
On May 16, Nellie Kehoe was discharged from Lawrence Hospital in Lansing. That same day, first grade teacher Bernice Sterling telephoned Kehoe to ask his permission to use his apple orchard for a school picnic.
“Okay,” he told her, “but if you want a picnic, you better have it at once."
Later that night, he drove out to the school in his car, loaded with dynamite and Pyrotol, and entered the school’s basement through a side door he’d left unlocked. If anyone had been watching that night and the next, they would have seen him making several trips from his beat up car to the basement, his arms loaded with bundles of dynamite, wires and alarm clocks. But no one was watching.
The next day, he loaded the back seat of his car with nuts and bolts and saws and shovels and every rusted piece of farm equipment he could find, and placed his rifle in the front seat. Then he drove out to the school. It was May 18, a Wednesday, and a beautiful spring day in southern Michigan.
9: 45 a.m. May 18, 1927
The school bell rang at 9 o’clock sharp, just as it did every school day. Some 275 children – grades 1st through 12th – noisily took their seats as a dozen teachers in as many classrooms began taking attendance.
After everyone was accounted for, the children stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then sat down to begin the day’s lessons.
Thirty minutes later, the school janitor, Frank Smith, was heading down into the basement when Kehoe emerged out of the darkness and passed him going up the stairs. “I’m in an awful hurry,” Kehoe murmured, not slowing down to talk.
Fifteen minutes later, Arthur Woodman, a senior, was playing catch with a friend in the schoolyard. Their first classes wouldn’t start for another few minutes. His friend threw the baseball, and as Arthur reached out his glove to catch it, the northeast wing of the schoolhouse exploded, knocking him to the ground and stopping every clock in the large two-story building at 9:45. Classrooms heaved into the air and came crashing down in a thunderous avalanche of bricks, splintered wood and dead children. Through a thick white haze of powered plaster dust, Arthur Woodman could see smoke and flames rising from the debris.
The explosion was heard for miles. One of the first rescuers on the scene noticed a little girl’s bloodstained coat and hat hanging limply from the branch of a nearby tree, and bits and pieces of children lying on the ground everywhere.
School Superintendent Huyck was in his office at the far end of the building and was thrown to the floor by the explosion. Nearly deafened by the blast, he ran from his office to see children jumping from windows and crawling through the yawning chasm where a brick wall had once stood. Just then he saw Kehoe, standing next to his car. As Huyck approached, he saw that Kehoe was holding a rifle.
Kehoe turned, pointed the rifle at the backseat of his car and pulled the trigger. The shot detonated a pile of dynamite in the back seat, exploding the car and sending jagged pieces of metal flying in all directions. Kehoe was blown to bits; Huyck was killed instantly. Cleo Claton, an 8-year-old second grader who had just then staggered out of the collapsed schoolhouse, was struck by a flying piece of shrapnel and was killed instantly – twice a victim of Kehoe’s mad cruelty.
Thirty-seven children and two teachers were killed that day. Two rescuers – including Huyck and the town’s postmaster – were also killed when Kehoe detonated his car. Fourth-grader Beatrice Gibbs, who celebrated her 10th birthday the day before the explosion, died in the hospital on August 22 after three months of intense suffering. She had been pulled from the debris with two broken legs, a broken arm and numerous other serious injuries. Student Richard Fritz subcumbed to his lingering injuries just shy of a year after the bombing, bringing the total fatality count to 46 persons.
Among those seriously wounded by the twin blasts that horrible day in May were 53 students, three teachers, several rescuers and a bystander, Mrs. Joseph Perrone. She was standing nearly a block away watching the unfolding horror with her baby in her arms and holding another child by the hand, when Kehoe blew up his car. A jagged piece of flying metal struck her in the face, fracturing her skull and gouging out an eye – but she survived.
“CRIMINALS ARE MADE. NOT BORN.”
But there was one other death in Bath that day.
When authorities went to Kehoe’s place, they found the farmhouse and barn totally destroyed, burned to the ground, and all the livestock dead. Kehoe had rigged his farm with dynamite, too, and set the timing devices to go off at the same time the school exploded.
In all the confusion, they didn’t find Kehoe’s wife Nellie until the next morning. Before he’d left for the school that day, he bashed her head in, loaded her dead body onto a hog cart, and pushed her over by the chicken coop, which he also blew up.
Investigators later found a five-word suicide note – a suicide sign, really – that Kehoe had attached to a fence. Carefully stenciled on a flat 12-inch plank were the words: “CRIMINALS ARE MADE. NOT BORN.”
And that was his explanation. He wasn’t born this way; it was somebody else’s fault. It was somebody else’s fault that he bashed his wife’s brains in; it was somebody else’s fault that he killed all those teachers and kids. It was somebody else’s fault that he was a coward and a failure.
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