Wednesday, January 13, 2010

#208: May 18, 1927

On May 18, 1927, a disgruntled Bath, Michigan resident committed the worst school-related mass murder in United States history. 45 people were killed (mostly children) and 58 were injured after Andrew Kehoe, upset over increased property taxes, blew up his farm, the Bath Consolidated School and his car, killing himself in the process.

Bath, Michigan, in the 1920s, was an unincorporated agricultural village. In 1922, voters voted to create a new school district to fund and construct a consolidated school. After years of debate, when Bath Township created the district, it raised property taxes to pay for the project. As a result, new taxes were imposed on landowners, including Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was born in Tecumseh, Michigan, on February 1, 1872. Kehoe's mother died when he was young, and his father remarried. Reportedly, Kehoe often fought with his stepmother. When he was fourteen, an accident at the oil stove set his stepmother on fire. Andrew threw a bucket of water on her which, because the fire was oil-based, spread the flames more rapidly over her body. She later died from the injuries. Kehoe married Ellen "Nellie" Price in 1912 and moved to Bath in 1919. Kehoe was regarded by his neighbors as an intelligent man who grew impatient with those who disagreed with him. Neighbors also recounted how Kehoe was cruel to his farm animals, having once beaten a horse to death.

Kehoe was elected as treasurer of the Bath Consolidated school board in 1924 and endlessly fought for lower taxes. He said that the previous tax levies were to cause for his family's poor financial situation. And he constantly blamed superintendent Emory Huyck of financial mismanagement. About this time, Nellie had become chronically ill with tuberculosis and her frequent hospital stays probably contributed to the Kehoe's debt. Kehoe stopped paying his mortgage and homeowner's insurance and the bank began foreclosure proceedings against him. There is no clear indication as to when Kehoe conceived and planned the steps leading to the ultimate events. A subsequent investigation concluded that, based upon the activity at the school and the purchases of explosives, his plan had probably been under way for at least a year. In early 1926, the board asked Kehoe to perform maintenance inside the school building. As a board member appointed to conduct repairs, he had free access to the building and his presence was never questioned.

There were a few warning signs prior to the events. Beginning in mid-1926, Kehoe began purchasing over a ton of pyrotol, an incendiary explosive introduced in World War I. Farmers during the era used the substance for excavation. In November 1926, Kehoe drove to Lansing and purchased two boxes of dynamite at a sporting goods store. Dynamite is also commonly used on farms, and Kehoe's purchase of small amounts of the substances at different stores and on different dates did not raise any suspicions. Neighbors reported hearing explosions set off on the farm, as well as recalling conversations where Kehoe explained he was using dynamite for tree stump removal. Kehoe passed out employee paychecks the prior week and told bus driver Warden Keyes, "My boy, you want to take good care of that check as it is probably the last check you will ever get." Teacher Bernice Sterling telephoned Kehoe two days before the blast and asked to use his grove for a class picnic. Kehoe told her that if she "wanted a picnic she would better have it at once." Prior to May 18, Kehoe had loaded the back seat of his car with metal debris. He threw in old tools, nails, pieces of rusted farm machinery, digging shovels, and anything else capable of producing shrapnel during an explosion. After the back seat was filled, Kehoe placed a large cache of dynamite behind the front seat and a loaded rifle on the passenger's seat.

Records at Lansing's St. Lawrence Hospital revealed that Nellie Kehoe had been discharged on May 16. Between her release and the bombing two days later, Kehoe killed Nellie by what was later determined to be blunt force trauma to the head with some unknown heavy object. Kehoe had completely wired the farm, and inside every building he inserted homemade pyrotol firebombs. Farm animals were found tied up in their enclosures, apparently to ensure their deaths in the subsequent fire. At approximately 8:45 a.m., Kehoe detonated the firebombs at his farm. The neighbors noticed the fire, and volunteer fire departments from all over the area began rushing to the scene.

At 9:45 a.m. an explosion was heard from the school building. Rescuers heading to the scene of the Kehoe fire turned back and headed toward the school. Parents within the rural community also began rushing to the school. 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 obtain the heavy rope from his slaughterhouse needed to pull the structure off the children's bodies.

About a half hour after the explosion, Kehoe drove up to the school and saw Superintendent Huyck. Kehoe summoned the superintendent over to his vehicle. According to one eyewitness, when Huyck drew close, Kehoe pulled out his rifle and fired into the back seat. Whether by gunshot or otherwise, the dynamite in the vehicle ignited and the resulting explosion killed Kehoe, the superintendent, Postmaster Glenn O. Smith, and Smith's father-in-law Nelson McFarren, a retired farmer. Cleo Claton, an eight-year-old second grader, had wandered out of the collapsed school building and was killed by the shrapnel from the exploding vehicle. Several others were injured as the shrapnel flew through the crowd.

During the search rescuers found an additional 500 pounds of dynamite Kehoe had placed in the south wing, which had failed to detonate. The search was halted to allow the Michigan State Police to disarm the devices. After this was completed and a sweep of the building made, the recovery efforts recommenced. The local physician was Dr. J.A. Crum. He and his wife, a nurse, had both served in World War I, and they had returned to Bath to open a pharmacy. After the explosion the Crums turned their drugstore into a triage center. The dead were removed to the town hall, now converted into a morgue. Private citizens were enlisted to use their automobiles as additional ambulances to take survivors and family members to area hospitals. By the afternoon some 13 ambulances were at the township hall to transport the dead to undertakers.

Although there was never any doubt that Kehoe was the perpetrator, a coroner's inquest was ordered and 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 manner of Andrew Kehoe's death, which brought the total to 44 dead at the time of the inquest.

Kehoe's body was eventually claimed by his sister. Without ceremony, he was buried in an unmarked grave in an initially unnamed cemetery. Later, it was revealed that Kehoe was buried in the paupers' section of Mt. Rest Cemetery, St. Johns, in Clinton County. Nellie Kehoe was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing by her family under her maiden name of Price. On August 22, some three months after the bombing, fourth-grader Beatrice Gibbs died following hip surgery. Hers was accounted the forty-fifth and final death directly attributable to the Bath School disaster. The disaster made the front pages of national newspapers and remained there until news of Michigan native Charles Lindbergh's completion of first solo transatlantic flight broke on May 23, 1927.

School resumed on September 5, 1927, and, for the 1927–28 school year, was held in the community hall, township hall, and two retail buildings. Most of the students returned. 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 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" was dedicated on August 18, 1928. In 1975 the Couzens building was demolished and a small park dedicated to the victims replaced it. At the center of the park is the cupola of the building, the only part preserved. At the park entrance, a bronze plaque affixed to a white boulder bears the names of the adults and children killed. On November 3, 2008, it was 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 will pay for the grave markers.

More information and pictures about the disaster can be found here and here.