It’s important to realize that horrible events like mass killings of children such as we just saw in Newtown, CT are not only recent phenomena. Rarely does the following story appear in the list of ignoble deeds of mass slaughter, but it stands as the worst school attack in the US and it happened 85 years ago: On May 18, 1927, ten or fifteen miles away from where my eleven year old parents attended school, a horrific bombing killed 39 school children, two teachers, four other adults and the bomber himself. At least 58 people were injured. It is the third worst act of domestic terrorism in American history, after 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.
Bath is a small town in Michigan just north of Lansing, the state capital. In the early part of the 20th century it was a sleepy agricultural community, and education took place in multiple one-room schoolhouses. Education reforms in the 1920s recommended that children be moved to larger schools where age groups could be separated into their own classes, and in 1922 the Bath voters approved the construction of a such a school. The new Bath Consolidated School opened with 236 students. Andrew Kehoe was on the school board.
The details of Andrew Kehoe’s crime are outrageous and disgusting. He had close ties with the school and was employed as maintenance man, so his access to the school’s basement was unquestioned. Over the course of several weeks he planted one thousand pounds of dynamite in the floor framing and rigged it up to alarm clock detonators. The blasts were set to go off in two parts, one for each wing of the school. The second was delayed so as to kill rescuers. Fortunately, the second 500 lbs did not detonate, its wiring was severed by the first blast.
On the day of the disaster Kehoe started out by killing his wife Nellie with blunt trauma to the head. He then systematically set off incendiaries in his own house and barn, making sure his animals were not able to escape. He loaded up his pickup with more explosives and shrapnel and drove to the school to pretend to take part in the rescue. He parked his pickup where it would kill the most people and set it off, killing five more people including himself.
I knew about this story not from history books or old newspapers, but from my family. My stepfather, Keith Southwell, who married my mother after my father’s death, had a paper route in 1927. He was 15. His girlfriend was Iola Irene Hart, 12, a student at the Bath School. Iola, her eight year old sister Vivian Oletta and her eleven year old brother Percy Eugene were all killed in the blast. My stepfather named his only child after Iola. After my mother died Keith married a surviving Hart sister, Elva. They were both in their late 80s. Seventy years after the disaster it was difficult for either of them to talk about it, and especially Elva seemed to think that giving details made the tragedy a possible source of profit for someone, which she was dead-set against. Keith grudgingly answered some questions so that my friend Walter Bilderback could write a play about it which he called Flame of Powder, Soul of Man. Both Elva and Keith have since died.
Much speculation about the motives of Andrew Kehoe has occurred through the years. His wife was sick, his farm was in foreclosure, he was angry about high taxes. Similar speculation has happened about recent mass killers, but there is one thing we can learn from the 1927 Bath Disaster: psychopaths occur throughout history. The only thing that changes is the tools they use to accomplish their horrible deeds, and how many they can kill before it’s over.
Wikipedia article: Bath School Disaster
Findagrave memorial: Andrew Kehoe
Findagrave memorial: Nellie Price Kehoe
Findagrave virtual cemetery for Bath Disaster victims.