Sunday, May 18, 2014

Eerily Familiar—The Bath School Disaster

Stunned family and community members gather at the wreckage of Bath School.

The most surprising things about the Bath School Disaster, a bomb attack on a Michigan elementary school on May 18, 1927 in which 45 people, mostly students, died and more than 50 were injured is not that it happened at all.  It is that it seems so modern, so predictable, as if it was an item on last night’s news; that the perpetrator’s biography and motives are so similar to members of right wing fringe and hate groups of today; and that it has been virtually forgotten despite being the worst mass killing at a school in U.S. history.

The facts are these.  On the morning of the attack 55 year old Andrew Kehoe awoke on his farm near the village of Bath, Michigan.  He had planned and prepared for the day’s events down to the last detail for weeks, if not months.  He may already have killed his wife who had been critically ill and had returned from a sanitarium stay for treatment of tuberculosis two days earlier.  He moved her body in a wheel barrow to a chicken coop.  He went to the barn and tied the legs of his two horses together so they could not be rescued.   Then using incendiary devices of his own design set off by a detonator set fire to the house and all of the outbuildings. 
He had already placed hundreds of pounds of explosives—two bombs made of dynamite and pyrotol, a World War I surplus incendiary then used by farmers to remove tree stumps and clear ditches—one in the basement  under each wing of Bath Consolidated School.  The bombs were wired to timed detonators set to go off shortly after the time Kehoe finished setting the arson of his home.

The Fire Department and neighbors were rushing to the scene of the farm at 8:45 when they heard a huge explosion.  Fifteen minutes after the start of classes the bomb under the north end of the school went off turning that half of the building into an instant smoking ruin.  The bomb detonator under the south wing failed to go off and was later discovered by rescuers.

Kehoe calmly drove to the school.  He had packed his truck with more explosives and crammed metal debris of all types behind the bench seat to act as shrapnel.  He was armed with a lever action Winchester rifle.  He arrived at the school about 30 minutes after the explosion.  He pulled up to the scene and waved over School Superintendent Emory E. Huyck, with whom Kehoe had often clashed.  Some witnesses thought they could see a struggle between the two at the window of the truck.  Moments later Kehoe fired his rifle into the explosives in the cab setting off a second explosion.  The blast killed him, Huyck, Postmaster Glenn Smith, a retired farmer, and hapless G. Cleo Clayton who a second grader who had miraculously survived the first blast.  It was one on of the first recorded uses of a second bomb to attack those who we would today call first responders.

The scene at the school was heartbreaking and chaotic.  Surviving first grade teacher Bernice Sterling told the Associated Press:

It seemed as though the floor went up several feet…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.
Monty Ellsworth, a neighbor of the Kehoes, recalled:

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.
He volunteered to drive back to his farm to get heavy rope to help pull the roof off.  It was on the way that he encountered Kehoe going the opposite direction in his truck.  Kehoe grinned and waved at him.  

Hundreds of men from the surrounding farms and village soon swarmed the debris in a desperate search for survivors.  Mother ran to the scene and fell screaming as the mangled bodies of their children were retrieved or sat in a bewildered, catatonic shock.  They were joined by scores of fire fighters from Lansing and other communities.  Local contractors arrived with heavy equipment.

When more than a dozen Michigan State Police, they ordered rescue efforts suspended until a search for more explosives could be conducted.  That’s when the second bomb in the south basement was found.  Its alarm clock detonator, also set for 8:45, had apparently become dislodged by the shock of the first explosion saving scores of lives.

Dr. J. A. Crum and his wife, a nurse, had both served in World War I.  They set up a primitive sort of triage center on the floor of their pharmacy.  Ambulances, trucks, and auto rushed critically injured survivors to Sparrow Hospital and St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing.

Thirty-eight elementary students and six adults including two young women teachers were killed in the two blasts at the school.  Fifty-eight were injured, most seriously.  The incalculable trauma to surviving children, their families, and rescuers would linger for decades.

So who was this Andrew Kehoe who was capable of master minding a terrorist attack that would be the envy of any modern menace?

Kehoe was born in Tecumseh, Michiganon February 1, 1872.  After his mother died when he was quite young, his father remarried.  Kehoe clashed repeatedly with his stepmother.  When he was 14 years old the woman splashed fuel oil on herself as she attempted to re-fill an oil stove, infighting her clothes.  Or so the boy told authorities.  He said he tried to save her by throwing a bucket of water on the flames, which only spread them.  She died in agony days later.

But the boy was exceptionally bright and a tinkerer, perhaps inspired by tales of Thomas Edison and other inventors.  He went on to study electrical engineering at Michigan State University in Lansing.  While a student there he met and apparently fell in love with Ellen “Nellie” Price a lovely young woman from a wealthy family.  Either the family disapproved of Kehoe, or he felt he had to establish himself before marriage.  At any rate, he went west seeking opportunities and Ellen apparently pledged to wait for him.

Kehoe worked as an electrician for several years in St. Louis.  While there he suffered a severe head injury in a fall which may—or may not have—had an effect on his personality and behavior.
At the late age of 40, he returned to Michigan in 1912 and married Nellie.  They lived a nomadic existence for the first several years, moving from town to town around the state as Kehoe tried to find whatever it was he was looking for.  The couple had no children.

In 1919 the couple bought a 185-acre farm outside the village of Bath from Nellie’s aunt for $12,000. Kehoe paid $6,000 in cash and took out a $6,000 mortgage.  Once on the land he insisted on unusual “modern” farming techniques and spent much of his time tinkering with farm equipment to make his vision of a completely mechanized operation a reality.  Not all of his efforts were successful.  An attempt to hitch multiple mowers to his tractor left swaths uncut and was difficult to maneuver.  He would sometimes just abandon his hay fields in frustration.  The farm did not prosper. 

Kehoe also exhibited a vicious temper, noted by all of his neighbors.  He shot one’s dog for wandering onto his property, and beat a horse to death.  He engaged in several feuds and was noted for not being able to abide with not being agreed with or deferred to.

In 1922 voters in the rural township voted to close the various one room schools scattered around the farm land and build a modern consolidated school with multiple classrooms and students separated by grade level.  It was an educational reform that was picking up steam across the Midwest. Bath, evidently a progressive community, was among the early communities to adopt the system.

Kehoe bitterly opposed the referendum.  His ire was further raised when a new property tax was levied to support the construction of the school and the operation of the consolidated district. The school opened in 1923 and was the pride of the community.

Kehoe made himself the voice of all of those disgruntled by the tax.  In 1924, thanks to the notoriously low voter turn-out in such elections, Kehoe was elected Treasurer of the School Board.  He was notoriously difficult for other board members, supporters of the new system.  He railed against every expenditure no matter how small or essential.  He regularly demanded that tax rates be slashed.  And he clashed with the Superintendent who he repeatedly accused of fiscal mismanagement and fraud.  Several times he engaged in shouting matches at Board meeting and stalked out when, inevitably, he did not get his way.

His self-proclaimed frugality extended to other matters.  Both he and his wife were Catholics and she was quite devout.  But he refused to pay the parish assessment and out of embarrassment his wife, in declining health, stopped attending services.  He also regularly disputed bills from local merchants and suppliers.

In 1926 he was briefly appointed Bath Township Clerk, a position that carried with it a modest salary.  Later that year he ran for election to the job but was soundly defeated.  The rejection may have been the final straw.

His financial situation was by this time desperate.  What money he had went mostly to Nellies repeated hospitalizations.  The bank began foreclosure proceedings.  Neighbors noted that he stopped working his farm entirely and was even more aggressive than usual.  At least one thought that he might be contemplating suicide.

Instead Kehoe was meticulously spending what little money he had left on explosives and other equipment to carry out his plan, which was well under way by March of 1927.   Still a Board member he had keys to the school and easy access to set his bombs in furtive night visits.

If this portrait of a delusional, paranoid, and resentful tax and government hater sound familiar, it’s because Kehoe has so many modern clones—personal bombs on the fringes of the Tea Party, militia movement, and the so-called Patriot movement ready to go off at any minute.  In fact if many of them ever heard of Kehoe, he would be there hero.

But there is a kind of amnesia about the event.  The very name Bath School Disaster seems to deny what it was—a bombing and a terrorist attack.  Perhaps because it was too painful, the bombing is seldom mentioned in Michigan and absent from school curriculums.  It is recalled by a couple of historical markers.  And last year a private foundation finally got around to buying markers for the last two of the unmarked graves of victims whose families were too poor to erect them.

Kehoe left no suicide note.  But he did hang a hand painted sign on his fence that greeted the firefighters who responded to the explosions and blazes at this farm.  It said, “Criminals are made, not born.”

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