Can You Name America’s Worst School Violence Incident?

Note: No Off the Beaten Path segment for today. I’ll have a new post in this series next Friday.

I have always been interested in history and crime. Related to these topics and specifically dealing with school violence, a recent post over at the General Blog of Crime had me doing some extra reading. See if you can answer the following multiple choice question.

In what state did the US’ worst instance of school violence (measured in total loss of lives) occur?

(A) Texas
(B) Michigan
(C) Virginia
(D) Colorado
(E) Alabama
(F) None of the Above
Well, if you answered A, C, D E or F, then you are incorrect and do not get a gold star on your paper—don’t feel bad as neither did I.

Surprisingly, the greatest loss of life involving US school violence occurred in Bath, Michigan in 1927. This little remembered yet tragic incident resulted in the deaths of forty-five persons—including thirty-eight school children. Fifty-eight others were injured.

The terrible crime is documented in a new book entitled America's First School Bombing by author Arnie Bernstein. Amazon book reviewer L. Blumenthal provides this background to the disturbing event and a brief review of the book:

…The story takes place in 1927 in the small town of Bath, Michigan, where a farming community built their first consolidated school after a history of one-room schoolhouses. On the school board was a man named Andrew Kehoe.

The book sets up the psychopath Kehoe quite well with descriptions of his bizarre upbringing, then neighbors' commentary on his odd methods of farming (leaving most of the crop to rot in the fields), and some pretty nasty stories about his relationships with animals. It always seems to me that if a person is cruel to animals, it says volumes about what kind of character he has. Kehoe, it seems, had very little character at all.

But he managed to fool a lot of people. To some he was just the neighbor down the way--who had a fondness for dynamite and blowing things up in the middle of the night.

As the school board treasurer, Kehoe would balance books to the penny. But he wouldn't always get his way in policy decisions. He also had an unexplainable, long-running hatred for superintendent Emory Huyck. No one knew what gripes were festering in Kehoe's brain, but something made him spend long hours in the basement under Bath Consolidated School. When discovered by the janitor, he'd explain it away as "fixing the wiring."

Meanwhile, he kept ordering more dynamite from various sources.

There are a few side tales. Kehoe's wife Nellie was chronically sick with breathing problems and was often in the hospital, giving Kehoe plenty of time alone. He also had at least two severe brain injuries, for which he never got proper treatment.

The day before the school year ended, Kehoe finally cracked. That morning, a clock triggered an electrical system that set off an enormous amount of dynamite hidden in the school's basement.

The school heaved up and then its roof came crashing down. Children were trapped--alive and dead. Teachers tried to save them, if they weren't seriously injured themselves. Huyck helped the high school students jump from the roof to safety.

Meanwhile, the Kehoe home burst into flames and dynamite roared there too.

Bernstein does a remarkable job of portraying what the confusion might have felt like by slowing down the time and writing small vignettes. One child wonders about his siblings as he is trapped in the rubble. A teacher instinctively reaches out and hugs two children to her chest.

A child watches an inkwell shoot to the ceiling. Later, that's all he can remember. A woman plants melons, looks up after hearing a boom, and hears faint screams coming from down the road.

Amid all the chaos and confusion, the little stories like these are what we remember. The rest of the story ends in predictable horror. Kehoe drives up to the school, his car full of explosives, calls Huyck to his vehicle and blows the both of them sky high. The farm continues to burn. Only later do authorities find the charred remains of Nellie. Thirty-eight children and six adults die. The funerals go on for days...

Today, you will find a memorial in Bath, Mich., on the grounds of the old school. It's a peaceful park now. The violence that marked its past seems to have been erased. But Bernstein makes sure that the significance of Bath never is forgotten.
The photographs of the incident are unbelievable. I cannot imagine coordinating an emergency response to such chaos in an era before well organized public safety departments even existed. The emotional effect for those at the scene must have been overwhelming.

Here are five vivid photographs of/related to the incident (these images and more can be found here):

Above is a shot of the heavily damaged second and third grade classrooms. Notice in the upper left hand corner the children’s jackets neatly hung.

This is Hazel Weatherby, who at age 21 taught 3rd and 4th grade at the school.
When the building collapsed, she pulled two children into her arms for protection. Weatherby was found in rubble still holding her students, both of whom were killed in the explosion. After handing them to rescuers, she gave into death.
The final three pictures do not need much explanation, but give a glimpse as to the scope of the incident. The first is a triage area onsite setup for the wounded, and the second one is a temporary morgue established adjacent to the school grounds. The last one is a shot of the heavily damaged building.

One additional note—the first blast at the school building that heavily damaged one wing of the school, was evidently only half of the killer's plan. State police investigators later found an additional 500 lbs. of explosives wired to a timing device hidden underneath the undamaged side of the school--dynamite that did not detonate.

Bernstein’s book looks very interesting if you are looking for a summer read.

The Bath School disaster is certainly one of the most horrific yet forgotten events in US history.

I have an idea for a follow-up post to this, but I’ll have to see how it pans out.


Ashley said...

Wow, so interesting, I may have to pick that book up!

Erin said...

Oh wow. How horrible. I can understand why something so bad would be "forgotten"--who would want to remember? But it's so important to remember, to honor the innocent people who died.

mrs. fuzz said...

Wow. You really don't think of things like that happening that long ago. That is heartbreaking. And what is it with Michigan? Isn't Detroit still considered the most dangerous city in the US? Maybe that's changed by now with it now being abandoned.

aubnash said...

never heard this story before. keep up the good stuff.


Raindog said...

Thank you for the excellent, educational post.

The Bus Driver said...

wow thats rather morbid, but really sad! In a way it was luck that the other half of the building didnt blow.

Karen J. Weyant said...

I've read about this incident -- but I haven't read an entire book dedicated to the event. I'm going to have to pick it up!

Arnie Bernstein said...

I'm the author of Bath Massacre. Thanks so much for your kind words about my book. I threw everything I had into it and it's very gratifying to see these reactions.

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for stopping by the blog Arnie.

I will be ordering your book this week and look forward to posting another blog article that contains my own thoughts.