Bath, Michigan, School disaster

Location: Bath Township, Michigan, U.S.
Date: May 18, 1927
Perpetrator: Andrew P. Kehoe
Target: Bath Consolidated School, house, farm and wife.

School bombing, mass murder, murder-suicide, suicide truck bombing, arson, uxoricide Weapons Dynamite, Pyrotol, firebombs, Winchester Model 54 rifle Deaths 45 total 44 at the school (including perpetrator), 1 elsewhere, Non-fatal injuries 58.

"Click on image to enlarge."

Perpetrator: Andrew P. Kehoe
Motive Revenge for defeat in local election, personal and financial stress. The Bath School disaster was a series of violent attacks perpetrated by Andrew Kehoe on May 18, 1927, in Bath Township, Michigan, that killed 38 elementary school children and six adults and injured at least 58 other people. Kehoe killed his wife and firebombed his farm, then detonated a major explosion in the Bath Consolidated School, before committing suicide by detonating a final explosion in his truck. It is the deadliest mass murder to take place at a school in United States history.

Andrew Kehoe, the 55-year-old school board treasurer, 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, in June 1926, he was notified that his mortgage was going to be foreclosed.[3] For much of the next year, a neighbor noticed Kehoe had stopped working on his farm and thought he might be planning suicide. During that period, Kehoe purchased explosives and discreetly planted them on his property and under the school.

Kehoe's wife was ill with tuberculosis, he had stopped making mortgage payments, and he was under pressure for foreclosure. Some time between May 16 and the morning of May 18, 1927, Kehoe murdered his wife. Then on the morning of May 18 at about 8:45 a.m., he set off various incendiary devices on his homestead that caused the house and other farm buildings to be destroyed by the explosives' blast and the subsequent fires.

Almost simultaneously, an explosion devastated the north wing of the 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

See also: Bath Township, Michigan, Bath, Michigan and Bath Consolidated School 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 the early part of the 20th century, many small one-room schools, where different grades shared the same classroom and teacher, were closed. 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, in 1922 Bath Township voters approved creation of the consolidated school district, and the increase in property taxes to pay for the new school. When the school opened, it had 236 students enrolled in grades 112. All area landowners had to pay higher property taxes. At the time of the bombing, the village had about 300 residents.

Andrew Kehoe
a single grey-haired man dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, is looking directly at the photographer, while sitting in a chair at a table while apparently holding up a cigar

Andrew Kehoe, circa 1920
Andrew Philip Kehoe was born in Tecumseh, Michigan, on February 1, 1872. Kehoe's mother died when he was young, and his father married a much younger widow. Reportedly, Kehoe often quarreled with his stepmother. When he was fourteen, the family's oil stove exploded and set his stepmother on fire. Kehoe threw a bucket of water on her, but because the fire was oil-based, 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.

He studied electrical engineering at Michigan State College in East Lansing. After that, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as an electrician. After several years in Missouri, Kehoe returned to Michigan. At the age of 40, he married Ellen "Nellie" Price in 1912. Seven years later they moved to a farm they bought outside the village of Bath.[8] Even though Kehoe was said to be dependable, doing favors and volunteer work for his neighbors, they also described him as being impatient with all who disagreed with him. They recounted that Kehoe 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.

With a reputation for frugality, Kehoe was elected in 1924 as a trustee for three years and treasurer for one year on the school board. He argued endlessly for lower taxes[10] The later superintendent of the board, M. W. Keys, said that Kehoe "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. Kehoe 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 company was going to foreclose on his property. Kehoe was appointed in 1925 to temporarily fill the position of town clerk but, several months later, he was defeated in the regular spring 1926 election for the position. This public rejection by the community angered him. In his eyewitness account, The Bath School Disaster, Monty J. Ellsworth said he thought this rejection was the reason Kehoe had planned his "murderous revenge" of the bombings, to destroy the school and kill the community's children and many of its members.

A. McMullen, another neighbor, noted that Kehoe had stopped working on his farm altogether for most of the preceding year, and thought he might be planning suicide. For this reason, when Kehoe gave him one of his horses about April 1927, McMullen returned it.

It was discovered later that, as part of Kehoe's preparations to destroy his farm, he had cut all his wire fences, girdled young shade trees to kill them, and cut 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 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.

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 Kehoe had worked on his plan at least since August of the previous year.

M.W. Keyes, a member of the Bath School Board was quoted by the New York Times as saying; I have no doubt that he made his plans last Fall [1926] 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, Kehoe began buying more than a ton of pyrotol, an incendiary explosive used by farmers during the era for excavation and burning of debris. In November 1926, he drove to Lansing and bought two boxes of dynamite at a sporting goods store. As dynamite was also commonly used on farms, Kehoe's 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".

In December 1926, according to the testimony of Lieutenant Lyle Morse, a Michigan State Police investigator with the Department of Public Safety, Kehoe purchased a .30-caliber Winchester bolt-action rifle.

Day of the disaster
Prior to May 18, Kehoe had loaded the back seat of his truck with all sorts of metal debris capable of producing shrapnel during an explosion. He also bought a new set of tires for his truck so it wouldn't break down when transporting the explosives. He didn't want it to look suspicious that his truck was full of dangerous products. He made many trips to Lansing for more explosives, as well as the school, town, and his house. Many of his neighbors noticed how busy he was driving around, but never thought to make any comment about it. Multiple times, a neighbor to the school saw a man carrying objects into the building at night, but never thought to mention it to anyone.

a single chimney is all that is left standing after Kehoe's bombs destroyed his farm The remains of Kehoe's house after the explosion..

Nellie Kehoe had been discharged on May 16 from Lansing's St. Lawrence Hospital. Between her release and the bombings two days later, Kehoe killed his wife. He put her body in a wheelbarrow located in the rear of the farm's chicken coop, where it was found after the farm explosions and fire in a heavily charred state. 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.

Farm bombs
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.

O. H. Bush, a fireman, and several other men crawled through a broken window of the farmhouse in search of survivors. When they determined no one was in the farmhouse, they salvaged what furniture they could before the fire spread into the living room. Discovering dynamite in the corner, Bush picked up an armful of explosives and handed it to one of the men. 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.

Classes began at 8:30 a.m. that morning. At about 8:45 a.m.,[20] in the basement of the north wing of the school, an alarm clock set by Kehoe detonated the dynamite and pyrotol he had hidden there.

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 thirty-eight people, mostly children, being killed in the initial explosion.

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, Ellsworth saw Kehoe in the opposite direction heading toward the school. "He grinned and waved his hand; when he grinned, I could see both rows of his teeth", said Ellsworth.

The scene at the school building was chaotic. Robert Gates, a witness, 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."

Truck explosion The almost destroyed chassis of Kehoe's Ford pickup truck, surrounded by onlookers The remains of Kehoe's Ford truck 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 truck. Charles Hawson testified at the Inquest that he saw the two men struggle over some type of long gun and that the car then went up in an explosion, killing Superintendent Huyck, Kehoe, Nelson McFarren (a retired farmer) and Cleo Clayton, an eight-year-old second grader. Clayton, a survivor of the first blast, had wandered out of the school building debris and 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 rescue The pushcart or wheelbarrow where Nellie Kehoe's dead body was found (covered by a cloth and surrounded by onlookers) and protected with a crude fence. The pushcart where Nellie Kehoe's body was found. 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 several firefighters and its chief.

The 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 the Crums 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 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.

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. The State Police 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 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 trapped inside the barn died. Investigators found a wooden sign wired to the farm's fence with Kehoe's last message, "Criminals are made, not born", stenciled on it.

Aftermath: Killed in the disaster.
Nellie Kehoe, age 52, wife of Andrew Kehoe
Killed in the school bombing
Arnold V. Bauerle, age 8, 3rd grade
Henry Bergan, age 14, 6th grade
Herman Bergan, age 11, 4th grade
Emilie M. Bromundt, age 11, 5th grade
Robert F. Bromundt, age 12, 5th grade
Floyd E. Burnett, age 12, 6th grade
Russell J. Chapman, age 8, 4th grade
F. Robert Cochran, age 8, 3rd grade
Ralph A. Cushman, age 7, 3rd grade
Earl E. Ewing, age 11, 6th grade
Katherine O. Foote, age 10, 6th grade
Marjorie Fritz, age 9, 4th grade
Carlyle W. Geisenhaver, age 9, 4th grade
George P. Hall, Jr., age 8, 3rd grade
Willa M. Hall, age 11, 5th grade
Iola I. Hart, age 12, 6th grade
Percy E. Hart, age 11, 3rd grade
Vivian O. Hart, age 8, 3rd grade
Blanche E. Harte, age 30, teacher
Gailand L. Harte, age 12, 6th grade
LaVere R. Harte, age 9, 4th grade
Stanley H. Harte, age 12, 6th grade
Francis O. Hoeppner, age 13, 6th grade
Cecial L. Hunter, age 13, 6th grade
Doris E. Johns, age 8, 3rd grade
Thelma I. MacDonald, age 8, 3rd grade
Clarence W. McFarren, age 13, 6th grade
J. Emerson Medcoff, age 8, 4th grade
Emma A. Nickols, age 13, 6th grade
Richard D. Richardson, age 12, 6th grade
Elsie M. Robb, age 12, 6th grade
Pauline M. Shirts, age 10, 5th grade
Hazel I. Weatherby, age 21, teacher
Elizabeth J. Witchell, age 10, 5th grade
Lucile J. Witchell, age 9, 5th grade
Harold L. Woodman, age 8, 3rd grade
George O. Zimmerman, age 10, 3rd grade Lloyd Zimmerman, age 12, 5th grade

Killed by the truck bombing
G. Cleo Clayton, age 8, 2nd grade
Emory E. Huyck, age 33, superintendent
Andrew P. Kehoe, age 55, perpetrator
Nelson McFarren, age 74, retired farmer
Glenn O. Smith, age 33, postmaster

Died later of injuries
Beatrice P. Gibbs, age 10, 4th grade

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 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.

A wheelbarrow full of debris sits in the foreground, while townspeople and workers look at the unknown photographer, apparently taking a break from cleaning up debris after the bombing at the school. Clean-up crew at the ruins of Bath Consolidated School 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 $71,741 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: "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.[38] Later it was 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.

Coroner's inquest 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.

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, 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, the 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 to ever occur in an American school.

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.

Brass plaque listing the people's names who died during the disaster (with the exception of the Kehoes, fixed to a large boulder. Plaque at the entrance of Bath School Memorial Park. School resumed on September 5, 1927, and, for the 19271928 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 $1,018,000 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.

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