More on America's First School Bombing

I just finished reading the book Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing and enjoyed it immensely.

The author, Arnie Bernstein, combines the research of a good writer with a crime reporter’s insights to effectively describe one of America’s tragic and forgotten events:

On May 18, 1927, the small town of Bath. Michigan, was forever changed when Andrew Kehoe set off a cache of explosives concealed in the basement of the local school. Thirty eight children and six adults were dead, among them Kehoe, who had literally blown himself to bits by setting off a dynamite charge in his car.

The next day, on the Kehoe farm, what was left of his wife—burned beyond recognition after Kehoe set his property and buildings ablaze—was found tied to a handcart, her skull crushed…
From a policing perspective, the book contained several “what the frijoles?”

Here are my top three:

Number 3: With all of the destruction and death that occurred that day, it is mind boggling to consider that only 100 lbs of the planted explosives discharged (only half of the school was destroyed). While working the site for several weeks, authorities recovered more than 500 additional pounds of explosives—much of it hidden below the surviving part of the structure.

Number 2: Investigators retracing perpetrator Kehoe’s movements on the day of the disaster learned that he had mailed a package that morning using a train service. The attendant remembered that the box was labeled as containing explosives, and authorities were rightfully concerned that the bomber had also more surprises waiting.

The package was inadvertently directed to an incorrect destination so it took nearly 12 hours before the box was located. Thus, two detectives were sent by command to secure the package, and um, bring it back to police headquarters.

Yes, these two agents picked-up what authorities believed to be a booby-trapped package, loaded it into the back of a truck, and the pair made the tense (that is an understatement) return drive 20 miles along a bumpy dirt road at a very slow speed back to police HQ.

I am not sure if the two officers immediately filed pension paperwork after this trip, or they were too busy wringing out the remains of their tidy-whities.

Number 1: With rescue efforts of those trapped and injured in the catastrophe underway (oddly being handled by the townspeople), Lansing fire department officials examined the school building in an effort to determine the cause of the disaster.

The responders soon found unexploded devices hooked to wires in the basement. Once police bomb experts arrived, they began removing the dynamite and pyrotol.

Unfortunately, some of the explosives were hidden in crevices that were too small for an adult to negotiate.

What should authorities do to clear the scene?

They recruited a local smallish youngster to retrieve the explosives from the building. With the term “youngster I mean they used a fourteen year old boy named Chester Sweet. Yes, fourteen.

Certainly a move not repeated since in the annals of law enforcement bomb removals.

I did try to envision the conversation that Chester had with mom later in the day when she asked her smallish kiddo how his day went. “You did what????” {sounds of screaming in disbelief}

In sum, Bernstein’s book is a full of unbelievable tales of courage and sadness. It is a quick read and places the school bombing, an event that every American should be familiar with, into a clear yet disturbing focus.

Note: The two images were used from Arnie Bernstein's website.
One further note, Mr. Bernstein has graciously agreed to participate in a brief discussion with me about the book and I’ll post my standard “two questions” and his responses in a subsequent blog entry.


Natalie said...

What I find interesting about this is that he was a grown man and bombed the school. Clearly he had vendettas against others, but the more recent shootings and bombings in our public schools have almost always involved people directly connected, usually in the form of students. Thanks for the recommendation as I fill out more interlibrary loan papers!

On a side note, the loss of people in this tragic event would make it seem like a no-brainer that we should be learning from it so as to prevent it from happening again. I'm a certified secondary history teacher and have never even heard about this! History repeats itself over and over again, which is why it's so important to learn from the past.

For instance, the genocide in Armenia was swept under the rug as it took place during WWI, giving Hitler motivation to repeat history because no one either knew or remembered the hundreds of thousands of people killed due to race. Rwanda in the '90s had similar tragic events. History repeats itself, and it's our job to learn and not let it happen again.

Sorry for hijacking your comments! This was a really thought-provoking post.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

Natalie, interesting ideas that needed to be posted. When we don't acknowledge history, it's easier for tragedies to happen again because no one knows what to look for.

Of course there will always be copy-cats, but copy-cats have always existed. It's easier to catch a copy-cat if you know what cat is being copied.

Did ANY of that make sense?

Erin said...

I've been reading a lot of true history books lately (The Devil in the White City, In the Heart of the Sea) and I'm always ASTOUNDED at the different standard protocols...or rather, lack of standard dangerous situations. The most disconcerting thing about it is how NOT that long ago all of these things happened.

Expat From Hell said...

After watching the movie The Changeling, I am wondering if there isn't all sorts of skeletons lingering in closets around America like this. Thanks for posting this, SD. This is very compelling and sobering stuff.


chuckmullis said...

Intresting. Thanks for writing, I'll definitely give this a read.
Also, I have enjoyed reading your comments on my site. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Thaks for your posts. I have been looking around for this topic and I will definitely visit your site more often.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, amazing ideas. Keep writing!

Douglas Haney said...

My name is Douglas R. Haney, and I am currently authoring a novel titled "The Angels of May", and so in researching anything and everything I have been able to get my hands on, I came across your "Blogger" site. I want to point out a typo error not to criticize your efforts, but to assist. The actual date of the "Bath School Disaster" is Wednesday May 18, 1927. (Your typo indicates, "1937") The initial north end blast occurred at precisely 9:43am, as verified by building investigators who discovered that all of the clocks within stopped working at that time. I hope my input has not upset you, but I thought you might want to know. Thank you. Doug