The small community of Bath, Michigan, was the scene of the largest school bombings in terms of loss of life in U.S. history. On May 18, 1927, the North Wing of Bath Consolidated School exploded, leading to the deaths of 38 students plus five adults. The final death toll stood at 45 and included the perpetrator and his wife (who was killed before the bombing at the school took place). The perpetrator of this mass murder was school board member Andrew Kehoe, a 55-year-old man who lived in the small community. Although the bombing in Bath resembles many contemporary news stories, the story of this small community and those who lost their lives is not widely known.
In 1927, the Bath Township, located 10 miles northeast of Lansing, was a small agricultural community. There were no street lights in Bath–just one road ran through the middle of town. There was a drug store, a gas station, a small grocery store, and an auto repair/blacksmith shop. There was also the recently built Bath Consolidated School, located in the town’s center. In 1922, the citizens of Bath voted to form a consolidated school distinct to serve the school-aged children of Bath and the surrounding areas. As was the case for all public schools in the United States, the township planned to support the school through property taxes levied on property owners. When the newly constructed Bath Consolidated School opened, there were 236 students enrolled from first through 12th grades.
Andrew Kehoe was born in Tecumseh, Michigan, on February 1, 1872. His mother died when Kehoe was very young and his father soon remarried. According to some sources, the relationship between Kehoe and his stepmother was not good. When Kehoe was 14 years of age, his stepmother suffered a horrible accident in their home: While she was attempting to light the family’s oil stove, the stove exploded. Kehoe was home at the time of the explosion but reportedly did little to help his stepmother. She later died as a result of the burns she sustained in the explosion. Some believed at the time that Kehoe was involved in the accident.
Kehoe completed high school and later attended Michigan State College in East Lansing, where his interests included electronics and mechanics. He traveled during his early adult years to the Midwest to continue his study of electronics. Eventually he returned to Michigan and married Nellie Price. Kehoe had met Nellie while attending Michigan State College. Once married, the couple bought a 185-acre farm from the estate of one of Nellie’s uncles near the township of Bath. They remained there until their deaths in May 1927.
Kehoe was known throughout the area as intelligent, meticulous, and good with machinery and electronics. He was also considered an expert in the use of dynamite and explosives, which were common tools among local farmers for clearing land and stump removal. But there was also a darker side of Andrew Kehoe–he was known for his short temper and the cruel treatment of his farm animals.
Nellie Kehoe contracted tuberculosis, and required many hospitalizations over the years. Her chronic condition was thought to have placed a severe drain on the family finances. Kehoe was publicly critical of the property tax rates assessed by the Bath Consolidated School District and he eventually stopped making his mortgage payments. In an ironic twist, he was elected to the school board in 1924 and served as Treasurer. Throughout this time, Kehoe developed an antagonistic relationship with School Superintendent Emory Huyck, whom he consistently accused of financial mismanagement. While on the school board, Kehoe campaigned for lower taxes, and he blamed the school district for much of his personal financial troubles. Kehoe was an enigma: He was critical of the school district itself, yet he volunteered around the school as an informal mechanic or handyman.
On the morning of May 18, 1927, Kehoe’s neighbor, Monty Ellsworth, was planting melons on his farm. He later recalled that at 9:45 a.m., he felt “a tremendous explosion.” Ellsworth could not tell where the explosion originated, but his wife was on the second story of their home and could see smoke coming from the east, where the Bath school was located. Monty Ellsworth detected smoke coming from the Kehoe Farm to the west. Suddenly the smoke in the direction of the school cleared, and Mrs. Ellsworth screamed, “My God, the schoolhouse has blown up!” Both Ellsworths ran for the family car and drove as fast as they could to the site that was once the Bath Consolidated School. When they arrived, there were already a dozen or so people on the scene, and the Ellsworths were told that their son, a second-grader, was free from the rubble and evidently unharmed. Immediately Monty Ellsworth began assisting others.
The scene was horrific. The walls of the building had been blown outward, allowing the roof to collapse down into the classrooms, trapping many children. Children both living and dead could be seen in the rubble. It quickly became clear that the rescue effort would require many tools. Ellsworth, along with other townspeople, went back to their homes to gather the necessary items. As he drove back toward his farm, Ellsworth passed Andrew Kehoe driving in the opposite direction, toward the school. Kehoe smiled and gave Ellsworth a big wave.
At that time, no one realized that two bomb blasts had already taken place in Bath that morning: one at the Kehoe farm and one at the school. A third explosion was still to come. Throughout the preceding days, Andrew Kehoe had filled the back seat of his car with metal bits and debris: nails, old pieces of farm machinery, broken tools, and anything else he could find that would act as shrapnel. He then loaded a large amount of dynamite behind the front seat and placed a loaded rifle in the passenger’s seat. He drove to the Bath Consolidated School site. When he arrived, he saw Superintendent Huyck and called him over to the car. One eyewitness stated that once Huyck got close to the vehicle, Kehoe fired the rifle into the back seat. The dynamite in the car detonated, causing a third large explosion, instantly killing Kehoe and Huyck, along with Postmaster Glenn O. Smith and Smith’s father-in-law. Cleo Claton, a second grader who had survived the school explosion, was hit and killed by flying shrapnel from Kehoe’s car. Several others in the crowd of rescuers were injured in this third and final blast.
Those on the scene were now in complete shock. Many did not understand the source of the explosions. O. H. Buck was a foreman for a road crew working in the area. He described the scene: “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.”
Hundreds of people worked all day to save children and teachers from the debris of the Bath school building. Volunteers came from surrounding communities, many bringing much needed equipment plus human power. Fire fighters and the Fire Chief of the Lansing Fire Department came to aid the effort, along with members of the Michigan State Police. A triage center was set up in the pharmacy and a temporary morgue in the Town Hall.
Ambulances joined the steady stream of personal vehicles to transport the injured to hospitals in Lansing. Michigan Governor Fred Green arrived in Bath in the afternoon and immediately pitched in to help. As the relief effort went on throughout the day, another 500 pounds of dynamite was found in the school’s South Wing–unexploded. The Michigan State Police immediately stopped the recovery effort and disarmed Kehoe’s last unexploded device.
In the aftermath of the disaster, along with the discovery of the South Wing unexploded device, a full and complete picture of horrific mass murder began to emerge. Investigators moved to Kehoe’s farm to investigate the fires seen by Ellsworth earlier in the day. The next day, investigators combing through the remains of Kehoe’s farm discovered the badly burned corpse of Nellie Kehoe. Hospital records showed that she had been released from St. Lawrence Hospital in
Lansing on May 16. The coroner speculated that her death was caused by blunt-force trauma to the head before the fire took place. All of Kehoe’s animals were trapped in their pens and stalls and died as a result of the fire. Investigators at the Kehoe farm found a wooden sign on the fence that carried one last message: “Criminals are made, not born.” The investigators estimated that the unused materials and farm equipment would have easily paid off Kehoe’s mortgage.
Andrew Kehoe devised a merciless act of terror. His actions took the lives of 44 other people, most of whom were children. Somehow the story of the Bath School Bombing has faded from history. The week following the bombing in Bath, another famous Michigander made national headlines: Charles Lindbergh made his historic trans-Atlantic flight on May 20-21, 1927. The Bath School Bombing may not be a well-known story, but it remains the most costly act of school violence in U.S. history.
- The Bath School Disaster on Rootsweb: http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~bauerle/disaster.htm
- Bernstein, A. (2009). Bath massacre: America’s first school bombing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
- Information about the Bath School Disaster (includes the text of Monty J. Ellsworth’s book): http://daggy.name/tbsd/
- National Public Radio: Bath School disaster. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103186662