Bath School disaster
The Bath School disaster, sometimes known as the Bath School massacre, was a series of violent attacks perpetrated by Andrew Kehoe on May 18, 1927 in Bath Township, Michigan, which killed 38 elementary schoolchildren and 6 adults and injured at least 58 other people.[Note 1] Kehoe killed his wife and firebombed his farm, then detonated an explosion in the Bath Consolidated School before committing suicide by detonating a final device in his truck. It is the deadliest mass murder to take place at a school in United States history.
|Bath School disaster|
Bath Consolidated School before the bombing.
|Location||Bath Township, Michigan, U.S.|
|Date||May 18, 1927|
|Target||Bath Consolidated School, house, farm and wife|
|School bombing, mass murder, murder-suicide, suicide truck bombing, arson|
|Weapons||Dynamite, Pyrotol, firebombs, Winchester Model 54 rifle|
|Deaths||45 total – 44 at the school (including perpetrator),
1 at the perpetrator's house
|Perpetrator||Andrew P. Kehoe|
|Motive||Revenge for defeat in local election, personal and financial stress|
Andrew Kehoe was the 55-year-old school board treasurer and was angered by increased taxes and his defeat in the Spring 1926 election for township clerk. He was thought to have planned his "murderous revenge" after that public defeat. He had a reputation for difficulty on the school board and in personal dealings. In addition, he was notified that his mortgage was going to be foreclosed upon in June 1926. For much of the next year, a neighbor noticed that he had stopped working on his farm and thought that he might be planning suicide. During that period, Kehoe purchased explosives and discreetly planted them on his property and under the school.
Kehoe murdered his wife Nellie sometime between May 16 and the morning of May 18, 1927; she had just been discharged from the hospital with an undefined illness. He then set off various incendiary devices on his homestead on the morning of May 18 at about 8:45 a.m., causing the house and other farm buildings to be destroyed by the explosives' blasts and subsequent fires.
Almost simultaneously, an explosion devastated the north wing of the Bath Consolidated School building, killing 36 schoolchildren and two teachers. Kehoe had used a timed detonator to ignite hundreds of pounds of dynamite and incendiary pyrotol, which he had secretly planted inside the school over the course of many months. As rescuers began working at the school, Kehoe drove up, stopped, and used a rifle to detonate dynamite inside his shrapnel-filled truck, killing himself, the school superintendent, and several others nearby, as well as injuring more bystanders. During rescue efforts at the school, searchers discovered an additional 500 pounds (230 kg) of unexploded dynamite and pyrotol connected to a timing device set to detonate at the same time as the first explosions; the material was hidden throughout the basement of the south wing. Kehoe had apparently intended to blow up and destroy the entire school.
Bath Township is a small community located ten miles (16 km) northeast of Lansing, Michigan which contains the unincorporated village of Bath. The area was primarily agricultural in the early 1920s. In the early part of the 20th century, many small one-room schools were closed, where different grades shared the same classroom and teacher. Educators of the era believed that children would receive a better and more complete education if students could attend a single school at one location. The grades could be age-divided into classes, and the facilities could be of a higher quality.
After years of debate, Bath Township voters approved creation of the consolidated school district in 1922, along with the increase in property taxes to pay for the new school. When the school opened, it had 236 students enrolled in grades 1–12. All area landowners had to pay higher property taxes. At the time of the bombing, the village had about 300 residents.
Andrew Philip Kehoe was born in Tecumseh, Michigan on February 1, 1872 into a family of 13 children. He attended the local high school in Tecumseh. After graduating high school Kehoe studied electrical engineering at Michigan State College in East Lansing and moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he worked as an electrician. After several years in Missouri, he returned to Michigan and his father's farm. After his mother's death, Kehoe's father Philip had married a much younger widow and they had a daughter together. In September 1911, as his stepmother was attempting to light the family's oil stove it exploded and set her body on fire. Kehoe threw a bucket of water on her, but the fire was oil-based and his action spread the flames more rapidly over her body. She died from her injuries. Some of his neighbors believed that Kehoe had caused the stove explosion.[a]
After his stepmother's death Andrew Kehoe married Ellen "Nellie" Price in 1912 at the age of 40. Seven years later, they moved to a farm outside the village of Bath. Kehoe was said to be dependable, doing favors and volunteer work for his neighbors, but they also described him as being impatient with all who disagreed with him. They recounted that he had shot and killed a neighbor's dog that had come on his property and annoyed him by barking. He was known to have beaten one of his horses to death when it did not perform as well as he wanted.
Kehoe had a reputation for frugality, and he was elected in 1924 as a trustee on the school board for three years and treasurer for one year. He argued endlessly for lower taxes, and later superintendent of the board M. W. Keys said that he "fought the expenditure of money for the most necessary equipment." He was considered extremely difficult to work with, often voting against the rest of the board and wanting his own way. He repeatedly accused Superintendent Emory Huyck of financial mismanagement. He argued with township financial authorities, trying to get the valuation of his property reduced, and claimed that he had paid too much for the farm. He also tried to get the mortgage taken off but was not successful. In June 1926, he was notified that the mortgage company was going to foreclose on his property.
Kehoe was appointed in 1925 to temporarily fill the position of town clerk, but he was defeated in the spring 1926 election several months later. This public rejection by the community angered him. Monty J. Ellsworth said in his eyewitness account The Bath School Disaster that he thought that this rejection was the reason that Kehoe had planned his "murderous revenge" of the bombings, to destroy the school and kill the community's children and many of its members.
Kehoe's neighbor A. McMullen noted that Kehoe had stopped working on his farm altogether for most of the preceding year, and he thought that he might be planning suicide. Kehoe had given him one of his horses about April 1927, but McMullen returned it for this reason.
It was discovered later that Kehoe had cut all his wire fences as part of his preparations to destroy his farm, girdling young shade trees to kill them and cutting off his grapevine plants before putting them back on their stumps to hide the damage. He gathered lumber and other materials and put them in the tool shed, which he later exploded with an incendiary bomb.
By the time of the bombing, Nellie Kehoe had become chronically ill with what resembled tuberculosis, for which there was no effective treatment or cure. Her frequent hospital stays may have contributed to the family's debt. Kehoe had ceased making mortgage and homeowner's insurance payments months earlier.
Purchase and planting of explosivesEdit
There is no clear indication when Kehoe conceived and planned the steps leading to the ultimate events, but his neighbor M. J. Ellsworth thought that Kehoe conceived his plan after being defeated in early 1926 for the election as town clerk. The general consensus of the townspeople was that he had worked on his plan at least since August of the previous year. Bath School Board member M.W. Keyes was quoted by the New York Times:
I have no doubt that he made his plans last Fall  to blow up the school… He was an experienced electrician and the board employed him in November to make some repairs on the school lighting system. He had ample opportunity then to plant the explosives and lay the wires for touching it off.
Kehoe had free access to the building during the summer vacation of 1926. From mid-1926, he began buying more than a ton of pyrotol, an incendiary explosive used by farmers during the era for excavation and burning debris. In November 1926, he drove to Lansing and bought two boxes of dynamite at a sporting goods store. Dynamite was also commonly used on farms, so his purchase of small amounts of explosives at different stores and on different dates did not raise any suspicions. Neighbors reported hearing explosions set off on the farm, with one even calling him "the dynamite farmer".
Kehoe purchased a .30-caliber Winchester bolt-action rifle in December 1926, according to the testimony of Lieutenant Lyle Morse, a Michigan State Police investigator with the Department of Public Safety.[Note 2]
Day of the disasterEdit
Prior to the disasterEdit
Prior to May 18, Kehoe had loaded the back seat of his truck with metal debris capable of producing shrapnel during an explosion. He also bought a new set of tires for his truck to avoid breaking down when transporting the explosives. He made many trips to Lansing for more explosives, as well as to the school, town, and his house. A neighbor allegedly saw Kehoe carrying objects into the school building at night numerous times but never thought to mention it to anyone.
Nellie Kehoe was discharged from Lansing's St. Lawrence Hospital on May 16, and her husband murdered her some time between her release and the bombings two days later. He put her body in a wheelbarrow located in the rear of the farm's chicken coop, where it was found in a heavily charred condition after the farm explosions and fire. Piled around the cart were silverware and a metal cash box. Ashes of several bank notes could be seen through a slit in the cash box. Kehoe had placed and wired homemade pyrotol firebombs in the house and all the buildings of the farm. The burned remains of his two horses were found tied in their enclosures with their legs wired together to prevent their rescue during the fire.
At approximately 8:45 a.m., Kehoe detonated the firebombs in his house and farm buildings, causing some debris to fly into a neighbor's poultry brooding house. Neighbors noticed the fire, and volunteers rushed to the scene.
A fireman named O. H. Bush[Note 3] and several other men crawled through a broken window of the farmhouse in search of survivors. When they determined that no one was in the house, they salvaged what furniture they could before the fire spread into the living room. Bush discovered dynamite in the corner; he picked up an armful of explosives and handed it to one of the men.[Note 3] As Kehoe left his burning farm and house in his Ford truck, he stopped to tell those fighting the fire, "Boys, you're my friends. You better get out of here. You better head down to the school", and drove off.
Explosion in north wing of schoolEdit
Classes began at 8:30 that morning. Kehoe had set an alarm clock in the basement of the north wing of the school, and remotely detonated the dynamite and pyrotol which he had hidden there at about 8:45 a.m.
Rescuers heading to the scene of the Kehoe farm fire heard the explosion at the school building, turned back, and headed toward the school. Parents within the rural community also began rushing to the school. The school building had turned into a war zone with 38 people killed in the initial explosion, mostly children.
First-grade teacher Bernice Sterling told an Associated Press reporter that the explosion was like an earthquake:
"It seemed as though the floor went up several feet," she said. "After the first shock I thought for a moment I was blind. When it came the air seemed to be full of children and flying desks and books. Children were tossed high in the air; some were catapulted out of the building."
The north wing of the school had collapsed. Parts of the walls had crumbled, and the edge of the roof had fallen to the ground. Monty Ellsworth, a neighbor of the Kehoes, recounted:
There was a pile of children of about five or six under the roof and some of them had arms sticking out, some had legs, and some just their heads sticking out. They were unrecognizable because they were covered with dust, plaster, and blood. There were not enough of us to move the roof.
Ellsworth volunteered to drive back to his farm and get a rope heavy enough to pull the school roof off the children's bodies. Returning to his farm, he saw Kehoe driving in the opposite direction, heading toward the school. "He grinned and waved his hand," Ellsworth said. "When he grinned, I could see both rows of his teeth."
The scene was chaotic at the school building. Eye-witness Robert Gates said:
Mother after mother came running into the school yard, and demanded information about her child and, on seeing the lifeless form lying on the lawn, sobbed and swooned… In no time more than 100 men were at work tearing away the debris of the school, and nearly as many women were frantically pawing over the timber and broken bricks for traces of their children.
Kehoe drove up to the school about half an hour after the explosion. He saw Superintendent Huyck and summoned him over to his truck. Charles Hawson testified at the inquest that he saw the two men struggle over some type of long gun before Kehoe detonated the dynamite stored in his truck, killing himself, Superintendent Huyck, Nelson McFarren (a retired farmer), and Cleo Clayton, an eight-year-old second grader. Clayton had survived the first blast and had wandered out of the school building debris; he was killed by the fragmentation from the exploding vehicle. The explosion also mortally wounded postmaster Glenn O. Smith, who lost a leg and died later that day of his wounds, and injured several others.
After Kehoe's truck exploded, Ellsworth recounted:
I saw one mother, Mrs. Eugene Hart, sitting on the bank a short distance from the school with a little dead girl on each side of her and holding a little boy, Percy, who died a short time after they got him to the hospital. This was about the time Kehoe blew his car up in the street, severely wounding Perry, the oldest child of Mr. and Mrs. Hart.
O. H. Bush, foreman of the road crew, recalled the scene after the final explosion:
I began to feel as though the world was coming to an end. I guess I was a bit hazy. Anyway, the next thing I remember I was out on the street. One of our men was binding up the wounds of Glenn Smith, the postmaster. His leg had been blown off. I went back to the building and helped with the rescue work until we were ordered to stop while a search was made for dynamite.
Recovery and rescueEdit
Telephone operators stayed at their stations for hours to summon doctors, undertakers, area hospital workers, and anyone else who might help. The Lansing Fire Department sent several firefighters and its chief.
Local physician Dr. J. A. Crum and his wife, a nurse, had both served in World War I and had returned to Bath to open a pharmacy. After the explosion, they turned their drugstore into a triage center, with the dead bodies being taken to the town hall, which was being used as a morgue.
Hundreds of people worked in the wreckage all day and into the night in an effort to find and rescue any children pinned underneath. Area contractors had sent all their men to assist, and many other people came to the scene in response to the pleas for help. Eventually, 34 firefighters and the Chief of the Lansing Fire Department arrived on the scene, as did several Michigan State Police officers who managed traffic to and from the scene. The injured and dying were transported to Sparrow Hospital and St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing. The construction of the St. Lawrence facility had been financed in large part by Lawrence Price, Nellie Kehoe's uncle and formerly an executive in charge of Oldsmobile's Lansing Car Assembly.
Michigan Governor Fred W. Green arrived during the afternoon of the disaster and assisted in the relief work, carting bricks away from the scene. The Lawrence Baking Company of Lansing sent a truck filled with pies and sandwiches which were served to rescuers in the township's community hall.
The bombing had destroyed the north wing of the school. During the search, rescuers found an additional 500 pounds (230 kg) of dynamite which had failed to detonate in the south wing. The search was halted to allow the Michigan State Police to disarm the devices, and they found an alarm clock timed to go off at 8:45 a.m. Investigators speculated that the initial explosion may have caused a short circuit in the second set of bombs, preventing them from detonating. They searched the building and then returned to the recovery work.
Police and fire officials gathered at the Kehoe farm to investigate the fires. State troopers had searched for Nellie Kehoe throughout Michigan, thinking that she was at a tuberculosis sanitorium, but her charred body was found the following day (May 19) among the ruins of the farm. All the Kehoe farm buildings were destroyed and the two horses had died, trapped inside the barn. Investigators found a wooden sign wired to the farm's fence with Kehoe's last message stenciled on it: "Criminals are made, not born".
|Killed in the disaster|
|Before the school bombing
|Killed in the school bombing
|Killed by the truck bombing
|Died later of injuries
The American Red Cross set up operations at the Crum drugstore and took the lead in providing aid and comfort to the victims. The Lansing Red Cross headquarters stayed open until 11:30 that night to answer telephone calls, update the list of dead and injured, and provide information and planning services for the following day.
The local community responded generously, as reported at the time by the Associated Press: "a sympathetic public assured the rehabilitation of the stricken community. Aid was tendered freely in the hope that the grief of those who lost loved ones might be even slightly mitigated." The Red Cross managed donations sent to pay for both the medical expenses of the survivors and the burial costs of the dead. In a few weeks, $5,284.15 (about $72,854 today) was raised through donations, including $2,500 from the Clinton County board of supervisors and $2,000 from the Michigan legislature. In addition to monetary donations, the Red Cross Headquarters received extensive donations of flowers from strangers.
The disaster received nationwide coverage in the days following, sharing headlines with Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic crossing (though Lindbergh's crossing received much more attention) and eliciting a national outpouring of grief. Newspaper headlines from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles characterized Kehoe as a maniac, madman, and fiend.
People from all around the world provided sympathy to the families and the community of Bath, Michigan, including letters from some Italian schoolchildren. One 5th grader wrote: "Even though we are small, we understand all the sorrow and misfortune that has struck our dear brothers." And another wrote: "We are praying to God to give to the unfortunate mothers and fathers, the strength to bear the great sorrow that has descent on them, we are near to you in spirit."
Andrew Kehoe's body was eventually claimed by one of his sisters. Without ceremony, she had him buried in an unmarked grave in an initially unnamed cemetery. It was later revealed that Kehoe was buried in the paupers' section of Mount Rest Cemetery, St. Johns, Clinton County, Michigan. The Price family buried Nellie Price Kehoe in Lansing's Mount Hope Cemetery under her maiden name.
Vehicles from outlying areas and surrounding states descended upon Bath by the thousands. Over 100,000 vehicles passed through on Saturday alone, an enormous amount of traffic for the area. Some Bath citizens regarded this armada as an unwarranted intrusion into their time of grief, but most accepted it as a show of sympathy and support from surrounding communities. Many of the victims were buried starting Friday, May 20.
The coroner arrived at the scene on the day of the disaster and swore in six community leaders to serve as a jury investigating the death of Superintendent Huyck. A coroner's inquest into the matter was held the following week, starting on May 23. The Clinton County Prosecutor conducted the examination, and more than 50 people testified before the jury. During his testimony, David Hart testified that Kehoe had told him that Kehoe had "killed a horse". and the New York Times reported people as saying that Kehoe had "an ungovernable temper" and "seemed to have a mania for killing things." Neighbors had seen him wiring his house in early April 1927.
Kehoe's neighbor Sidney J. Howell testified that after the fire began, Kehoe warned him and three boys to leave the farm, saying "Boys, you are my friends, you better get out of here, you better go down to the school." Three telephone linemen working near Bath testified that Kehoe passed them on the road toward the school, and they saw him arrive there. He swerved his truck and stopped in front of the building. In the next instant, according to the linemen, the truck blew up, and one of them was struck by shrapnel. Other witnesses testified that Kehoe paused after stopping and called Superintendent Huyck over before blowing up his truck.
Although there was never any doubt that Kehoe was the perpetrator, the jury was asked to determine if the school board or its employees were guilty of criminal negligence. After more than a week of testimony, the jury exonerated the school board and its employees. In its verdict, the jury concluded that Kehoe "conducted himself sanely and so concealed his operations that there was no cause to suspect any of his actions; and we further find that the school board, and Frank Smith, janitor of the school building, were not negligent in and about their duties, and were not guilty of any negligence in not discovering Kehoe's plan."
The inquest determined that Kehoe murdered Superintendent Emory Huyck on the morning of May 18. It was also the jury's verdict that the school was blown up as part of a plan and that Kehoe alone, without the aid of conspirators, murdered 43 people in total, including his wife Nellie. Suicide was determined to be the cause of Andrew Kehoe's death, which brought the total number of dead to 44 at the time of the inquest.
On August 22, three months after the bombing, fourth-grader Beatrice Gibbs died following hip surgery. Hers was the 45th and final death directly attributable to the Bath School disaster, which made it the most deadly attack ever to occur in an American school. Richard Fritz, brother of Marjorie Fritz, was injured in the explosion and died almost one year later of myocarditis. Though Fritz is not included on many lists of the victims, his death from myocarditis is thought to have been brought on by an infection because of his injuries.
Governor Fred Green quickly called for donations to aid the townspeople and created the Bath Relief Fund with the money supplied by donors, the state, and local governments. People from around the country donated to the fund.
School resumed on September 5, 1927, and, for the 1927–1928 school year, was held in the community hall, township hall, and two retail buildings. Most of the students returned. The board appointed O. M. Brant of Luther, Michigan, to succeed Huyck as superintendent. The Lansing architect Warren Holmes donated construction plans, and the school board approved the contracts for the new building on September 14. On September 15, Michigan's Republican U.S. Senator James J. Couzens presented his personal check for $75,000 (roughly $1,034,000 in today's money) to the Bath construction fund to build the new school.
The board demolished the damaged portion of the school and constructed a new wing with the donated funds. The "James Couzens Agricultural School," named for the senator, was dedicated on August 18, 1928. The Kehoe farm was completely plowed to ensure that no explosives were hidden in the ground and was sold at auction to pay the mortgage.
- In 1928, artist Carlton W. Angell presented the board with a memorial statue entitled Girl With a Cat. The statue is presently in the Bath School Museum located within the school district's middle school.
- In 1975, the Couzens building was demolished and the site was redeveloped as the James Couzens Memorial Park, dedicated to the victims. At the center of the park is the original Bath Consolidated School's cupola, which survived the disaster and remained on the school until the building was torn down.
- In 1991, a Michigan Historical Marker was installed at the park, a bronze plaque bearing the names of those killed and a brief description of events.
- On November 3, 2008, the town announced that tombstones had been donated for Emilie and Robert Bromundt, the last two bombing victims whose graves were still unmarked. A grant from a foundation paid for the grave markers.
- Most of the victims were Bath Consolidated School students in the second to sixth grades (7–14 years of age), according to Ellsworth's The Bath School Disaster, p. 126.
- Ellsworth said in his account:
- I went down there to use their telephone last winter, about February 1927, and he had just been shooting at the target. When I got through using the telephone, he showed me his new thirty Winchester bolt action rifle that he had bought two or three months before.
- This man's name is given in the New York Times as "O.H. Buck" but in the Coroner's Inquest as "O.H. Bush". The Inquest is an official government document, so his name is rendered O.H. Bush in this article.
- Monty Ellsworth's version of these events in The Bath School Disaster incorrectly differs on one detail - he says that the fire happened when Kehoe was 14 but agrees with other sources on points of fact. He does mention the rumors that the stove was tampered with.
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I went back to the building and helped with the rescue work until we were ordered to stop while a search was made for dynamite.
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- Harry Barnard (2002), Independent man: the life of Senator James Couzens, Wayne State University Press, p. Introduction, ISBN 0-8143-3085-1
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- Ashlee (2005), Traveling Through Time, p. 96.
- "Property of Maniac Written Off Records". Ironwood Daily Globe. March 26, 1930. p. 8. Retrieved October 5, 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
- Cunningham, Darren (December 22, 2012). "Bath School Massacre Remembered in Wake of Sandy Hook Tragedy". Fox17Online (WXMI). Retrieved December 25, 2012.
- "Bath School Disaster Memorial Park:Couzens School Plaque inscription". (Reprinted on J. L. Daggy website). Retrieved January 15, 2013.
- Laura Rose Ashlee, Traveling Through Time: A Guide To Michigan's Historical Markers, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p. 1.
- "Bath School Bombing Victims Remembered". Lansing, Michigan: WLAJ. Associated Press. November 3, 2008. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved April 14, 2011.
|Presentation by Arnie Bernstein on Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing, May 2, 2009, C-SPAN|
- Bernstein, Arnie (2009). Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-03346-1.
- Wilkins, Gene H. (2002). The Bath School Disaster, May 18, 1927. OCLC 49750105.
- Spencer, Betty, and Jared Gallinger. Life is fragile: one girl's story of the Bath School Disaster. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2007. Print.
- Parker, Grant (1980). Mayday, The History of a Village Holocaust. Perry, Michigan: Parker Press. ISBN 0-9604958-0-0.
- Regan, Andy (2017). The Stars Move Still. Publish Nation.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bath School disaster.|
- Ellsworth, Monty J. The Bath School Disaster (1927) 1st Printing/Self-published
- Complete Transcript (350 pages) of Coroner's Inquest into death of Bath School Superintendent Emory Huyck, via Daggy Space website
- FBIIC/Department of Treasury reprint of unclassified FBI National Counterterrorism Center September 2007 Report
- "Mass school bombing in 1927 puts Sandy Hook in context" (Scott Bomboy, Yahoo News)
- Survivors Recall 1927 Michigan School Massacre Transcript of interviews with Donald Huffman and Willis Cressman (two survivors of the school explosions). StoryCorps Project, NPR, broadcast on April 17, 2009.
- Survivors Recall 1927 Michigan School Massacre Overview of survivors' stories with photographs. StoryCorps Project, NPR, broadcast April 17, 2009.
- Transcripts of interviews with survivors and items collected, Michigan State University
- (Judy) Putnam: Evil of Bath School Disaster remembered 89 years later - Interview of Bruce Baird, one of the last surviving students of Bath School the day of the explosion