Bath School disaster

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Bath School Disaster

Bath Consolidated School after the bombing
Location Bath Township, Michigan, United States
Date May 18, 1927
Attack type Shooting, explosives, suicide bombing, fire
Weapon(s) Rifle, pyrotol, dynamite, club
Deaths 45 (including the perpetrator)
Injured 58
Perpetrator(s) Andrew P. Kehoe

The Bath School disaster is the name given to three bombings in Bath Township, Michigan, USA, on May 18, 1927, which killed 45 people and injured 58. Most of the victims were children in the second to sixth grades (7-12 years of age) attending the Bath Consolidated School. Their deaths constitute the deadliest act of mass murder in a school in U.S. history. The perpetrator was school board member Andrew Kehoe, who was upset by a property tax that had been levied to fund the construction of the school building. He blamed the additional tax for financial hardships which led to foreclosure proceedings against his farm. These events apparently provoked Kehoe to plan his attack.

On the morning of May 18, Kehoe first killed his wife and then set his farm buildings on fire. As fire fighters arrived at the farm, an explosion devastated the north wing of the school building, killing many of the people inside. Kehoe used a detonator to ignite dynamite and hundreds of pounds of pyrotol which he had secretly planted inside the school over the course of many months. As rescuers started gathering at the school, Kehoe drove up, stopped, and detonated a bomb inside his shrapnel-filled vehicle, killing himself and the school superintendent, and killing and injuring several others. During the rescue efforts, searchers discovered an additional 500 pounds (230 kg) of unexploded dynamite and pyrotol planted throughout the basement of the school's south wing.

The state historic site marker placed on the site.


[edit] Background

[edit] Bath Township

Bath Consolidated School before the disaster.

Bath Township is a small community located ten miles (16 km) northeast of Lansing, Michigan, and contains the unincorporated village of Bath. In the early 1920s, the area was primarily agricultural. In 1922, Bath voters voted to form a district for the purpose of funding and constructing a consolidated school. There were 236 students enrolled when the school opened, ranging from the first to twelfth grades.[1]

The early part of the 20th century saw the disappearance of many small one-room schools, 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.[2] The grades could be age-divided into classes, and the facilities could be of a higher quality. 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.

[edit] Andrew Kehoe

Andrew Philip 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 oil accident set his stepmother on fire. Andrew reportedly watched his stepmother burn for a few minutes before dumping a bucket of water on her. She later died from the injuries.[3]

Kehoe married in 1912 and moved in 1919, with his wife Ellen "Nellie" Price, to a farm they bought outside the village of Bath.[4] 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.

With a reputation for thriftiness, Kehoe was elected treasurer of the Bath Consolidated School board in 1924. While on the board, Kehoe fought endlessly for lower taxes. He had blamed the previous property tax levy for his family's poor financial condition, and repeatedly accused superintendent Emory Huyck of financial mismanagement.[5]

Nellie Kehoe had become chronically ill with tuberculosis at the time of the bombing, and her frequent hospital stays may have played a role in putting the family into debt. Kehoe had ceased making mortgage and homeowner's insurance payments and the mortgage lender had begun foreclosure proceedings against the farm.[6]

[edit] Purchase and planting of explosives

Explosives recovered from under the school.

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. Regarded by most as a talented handyman, he was known to be familiar with electrical equipment. As a board member appointed to conduct repairs, he had free access to the building and his presence was never questioned.

Beginning in mid-1926, Kehoe began purchasing over a ton of pyrotol, an incendiary 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.

[edit] The day of the disaster

Andrew and Nellie Kehoe's house before the disaster.

There were a few warning signs prior to the events. 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."[7] 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."[8]

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.[9]

The remains of Kehoe's house after the explosion.

Records at Lansing's St. Lawrence Hospital revealed that Nellie Kehoe had been discharged on May 16.[10] 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. Her body was found in a wheelbarrow located in the rear of the farm's chicken coop. Piled around the cart were silverware, jewels and a metal cash box. Ashes of several bank notes could be seen through a slit in the cash box.[11] 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.[12]

[edit] First explosion

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.

[edit] Second explosion

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.[13]

Rear view of the school building after the explosion.

First-grade teacher Bernice Sterling recounted the explosion to an Associated Press reporter as being like a terrible 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."[14]

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.

On the way back to his farm, Ellsworth reported seeing Kehoe in his car heading in the opposite direction toward the school. "He grinned and waved his hand; when he grinned, I could see both rows of his teeth," said Ellsworth.[15]

The scene at the school building was chaotic. One witness, Robert Gates, recounted how "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, broke into sobs. 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."

[edit] Third explosion

The remains of Kehoe's car after the explosion.

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.[16] 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.

After Kehoe's car exploded, Ellsworth recounted that "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 Percy, the oldest child of Mr. and Mrs. Hart."

O.H. Buck, 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."[17]

[edit] Recovery and rescue

Telephone operators stayed at their stations for hours to summon doctors, undertakers, area hospitals and anyone else who might help. The Lansing Fire Department sent three men and the city's chemical truck.

The location where Nellie Kehoe's body was found.

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.

Hundreds of people worked in the wreckage all day in an effort to find and rescue the children pinned underneath. Area contractors had sent all their men to assist, and many ordinary 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 latter 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.[18]

Michigan Governor Fred 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.[19]

Kehoe's last message wrapped inside one of the farm's fences.

The bombing had destroyed the north wing of the school. During the search rescuers found an additional 500 pounds (230 kg) 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.[20]

In the south wing, the State Police found unexploded materials along with an alarm clock timed to go off at 9:45 a.m., the same time as the explosion went off in the north wing. The reason why these explosives failed to detonate could never be conclusively determined. Investigators speculated that the initial explosion may have caused a short circuit in the second set of bombs.

Police and fire officials also gathered at the Kehoe farm to investigate the fires. It was not until the following day, May 19, that investigators identified Nellie Kehoe's charred body among the ruins of the farm. The body was so disfigured it went unnoticed by hundreds who walked past it the previous day.

All the Kehoe farm buildings were destroyed, and the animals trapped inside the barn had perished. The amount of unused equipment and materials on the farm could have easily paid off the Kehoes' mortgage.[21] Investigators found a wooden sign wired to the farm's fence with Kehoe's last message, "CRIMINALS ARE MADE, NOT BORN." stenciled on it.[22]

[edit] Aftermath

Chronology of deaths in the disaster
Died before the bombings
1. Nellie Kehoe, age 52, wife of Andrew Kehoe.
Killed in the school bombing
2. Arnold V. Bauerle, age 8, third grade student.
3. Henry Bergan, age 14, sixth grade student.
4. Herman Bergan age 11, fourth grade student.
5. Emilie M. Bromundt, age 11, fifth grade student.
6. Robert F. Bromundt, age 12, fifth grade student.
7. Floyd E. Burnett, age 12, sixth grade student.
8. Russell J. Chapman, age 8, fourth grade student.
9. F. Robert Cochran, age 8, third grade student.
10. Ralph A. Cushman, age 7, third grade student.
11. Earl E. Ewing, age 11, sixth grade student.
12. Katherine O. Foote, age 10, sixth grade student.
13. Marjorie Fritz, age 9, fourth grade student.
14. Carlyle W. Geisenhaver, age 9, fourth grade student.
15. George P. Hall Jr., age 8, third grade student.
16. Willa M. Hall, age 11, fifth grade student.
17. Iola I. Hart, age 12, sixth grade student.
18. Percy E. Hart, age 11, third grade student.
19. Vivian O. Hart, age 8, third grade student.
20. Blanche E. Harte, age 30, fifth grade teacher.
21. Gailand L. Harte, age 12, sixth grade student.
22. LaVere R. Harte, age 9, fourth grade student.
23. Stanley H. Harte, age 12, sixth grade student.
24. Francis O. Hoeppner, age 13, sixth grade student.
25. Cecial L. Hunter, age 13, sixth grade student.
26. Doris E. Johns, age 8, third grade student.
27. Thelma I. MacDonald, age 8, third grade student.
28. Clarence W. McFarren, age 13, sixth grade student.
29. J. Emerson Medcoff, age 8, fourth grade student.
30. Emma A. Nickols, age 13, sixth grade student.
31. Richard D. Richardson, age 12, sixth grade student.
32. Elsie M. Robb, age 12, sixth grade student.
33. Pauline M. Shirts, age 10, fifth grade student.
34. Hazel I. Weatherby, age 21, teacher.
35. Elizabeth J. Witchell, age 10, fifth grade student.
36. Lucile J. Witchell, age 9, fifth grade student.
37. Harold L. Woodman, age 8, third grade student.
38. George O. Zimmerman, age 10, third grade student.
39. Lloyd Zimmerman, age 12, fifth grade student.
Killed by explosion of Kehoe's car
40. Andrew P. Kehoe, age 55, School Board member/perpetrator.
41. Emory E. Huyck, age 33, superintendent.
42. G. Cleo Claton, age 8, second grade student.
43. Nelson McFarren, age 74, retired farmer.
44. Glenn O. Smith, age 33, postmaster.
Died later due to injuries from bombing
45. Beatrice P. Gibbs, age 10, fourth grade student.

The American Red Cross, setting up operations at the Crum drugstore, took the lead in providing aid and comfort to the victims. The Lansing Red Cross headquarters were kept 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.[23]

Clean-up crew at the ruins of Bath Consolidated School.

The Red Cross also managed donations sent to pay for both the medical expenses of the survivors and the burial costs of the deceased. In a few short weeks, $5,284.15 was raised through donations, including $2,500 from the Clinton County board of supervisors and $2,000 from the Michigan legislature.[24] Unlike the Columbine High School massacre later that century, there was no legislative response, either by the state or federal governments, aimed at preventing a recurrence, although pyrotol was quietly taken off the market.

Over the next few days there were multiple funerals, with the most, eighteen, held on Saturday, May 22. 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.

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.[25] The Ku Klux Klan interjected that as a Roman Catholic, Kehoe's actions were the result of his adherence to the stance of the Roman Catholic Church against "Protestant or godless schools."[26]

[edit] Coroner's inquest

The coroner arrived at the scene on the day of the disaster and swore in six community leaders to serve as an investigative jury. A coroner's inquest into the matter was held the following week. Dozens of Bath citizens and law enforcement personnel testified before the jury, and the Clinton County Prosecutor conducted the examination. 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.[27]

Cupola from the school building, today displayed at Bath School Memorial Park.

Kehoe's neighbor Sidney J. Howell testified that after the fire began, Kehoe warned him and three boys to leave the farm, telling them, "Boys, you're my friends. You'd better get out of here and go to the school house." Three telephone linemen working near Bath testified that after first going to the farm and then to the school, Kehoe passed them en route, and they saw him reach the school right before them. Kehoe's car swerved to the right and stopped in front of the building. In the next instant, according to the linemen, the car blew up, and one of them was struck by shrapnel. This testimony contradicted statements from others that Kehoe paused after stopping and called Superintendent Huyck over before blowing up the vehicle.

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.[28]

Flag atop the school on May 18, 1927, today displayed at the school museum.

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.[29] Nellie Kehoe was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing by her family under her maiden name of Price.[30]

On August 22, some three months after the bombing, fourth-grader Beatrice Gibbs died following hip surgery. She was counted as the 45th and final death directly attributable to the Bath School disaster.[31]

[edit] Rebuilding

Governor Fred Green created the Bath Relief Fund with the money supplied by donors and the state and local governments. Numerous people from around the country donated to the fund. The school board began a separate fund for the repair of the school building.

Plaque at the entrance of Bath School Memorial Park.

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. The board appointed O. M. Brant of Luther, Michigan, to succeed Huyck as superintendent. 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.

In 1928, artist Carlton W. Angell presented the board with a statue titled "Girl With a Cat." The statue is presently in the Bath School Museum located within the school district's middle school, adjacent to the site of the destroyed building. Angell's inscription states that it is dedicated to the courage and determination of the people of Bath. The sculpture was financed by penny donations from young students from the state of Michigan. It was rumored that the donated pennies were melted down to make the cast of the statue.[32]

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.

[edit] Legacy

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.[33]

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.[34]

[edit] See also

[edit] References


  • Ellsworth, M.J. (1928). The Bath School Disaster. LC Control Number: 29010236. 
  • Gado, Mark (2005). Crime Library: Hell Comes to Bath.  Link
  • Parker, Grant (1992). Mayday, History of a Village Holocaust. ISBN 0-9604958-0-0. 
  • Pawlak, Debra (2000). Mediadrome: Just Another Summer Day. Link
  • Wilkins, Gene H. (2002). The Bath School Disaster, May 18, 1927. ASIN B0006RW8CU. 

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Ellsworth, M.J. (1928) The Bath School Disaster, Ch. 1. The Bath School Memorial.
  2. ^ Public Education (1993). Encyclopedia of American Social History.
  3. ^ Gado, M. (2005) Hell Comes to Bath, Part 2,
  4. ^  Parker, G. (1980) Mayday, History of a Village Holocaust 27. Liberty Press
  5. ^ Ellsworth, op cit., Ch. 3.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^  Ellsworth, op cit., Ch. 2
  8. ^  School Dynamiter First Slew Wife, New York Times (May 20, 1927) The New York Times.
  9. ^  Gado, op cit., Part 3.
  10. ^  Parker, op cit. 97–98.
  11. ^  New York Times (May 20, 1927} op cit.
  12. ^  Gado, op cit., Part 3.
  13. ^  Fate's Whim Foils Plot to Sacrifice All Pupils, Associated Press (May 19, 1927).
  14. ^  Ellsworth, op cit., Ch. 2
  15. ^  Pawlak, D. (2000) Just Another Summer Day: The Bath School Disaster Mediadrome.
  16. ^  New York Times, op cit. (May 20, 1927)
  17. ^  Parker, op cit. 76.
  18. ^  Ellsworth, op cit., Ch. 2
  19. ^  Pawlak, op cit.
  20. ^  Ellsworth, op cit., Ch. 2
  21. ^  Gado, op cit., Part 5
  22. ^  Report: Bath Relief Work, Clinton County Republican News, (June 2, 1927) Clinton County Republican News.
  23. ^  Ewing Reports on Bath Fund, Clinton County Republican News (June 23, 1927) Clinton County Republican News.
  24. ^  Board Votes Aid for Bath, Clinton County Republican News (May 26, 1927) Clinton County Republican News.
  25. ^  Circular: Roman Catholic Dynamites Bath Public Schools (May, 1927) Knights of the Ku Klux Klan .
  26. ^  Parker, op cit. 160.
  27. ^  Clinton County Republican News, op cit. (May 26, 1927) Clinton County Republican News.
  28. ^  Daggy, J., Information About the Bath School Disaster, at p. 13 (2001).
  29. ^  Ibid. at p. 37.
  30. ^  Ibid. at p. 29.
  31. ^  Gado, op cit., Part 6.
  32. ^  Daggy, J.L. (2001) The Bath Memorial Park.
  33. ^  Final 2 victims of 1927 bombing to get tombstones, Chicago Tribune/Associated Press, 2008-11-03, retrieved 2008-11-07

[edit] External links

General information

Historical research and commemorative materials

Coordinates: 42°49′00″N 84°26′57″W / 42.816667°N 84.44917°W / 42.816667; -84.44917

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