The Bath School Disaster

We live in a world where when we hear of an especially heinous crime people will say they wish we lived in the "Good 'Ol Days" or how our "world has gone to hell."  Among my reasons for my more recent blogs is to show that there was no such thing. Murder and extraordinary crimes have been occurring since the beginning of time, almost literally. Also, admittedly as a true crime "buff" it seems I hear the same stories over and over and this is an attempt to bring to others, like myself, new stories.  We all knew, justified or not, murder has always occurred.  We had forefathers having duels in fields; we have all heard of Jesse James and the gangsters of the 1930's.  What we have not heard about are many crimes that were lost to history but were very prominent in their time.  

After reading about the Bath School Disaster I was intrigued.  I think like most people we believe that school shootings and disasters are more of a modern thing.  Most of us probably believe they really started in Littleton Colorado at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 when two students entered the school and by the time they were done they had killed twelve students, one teacher and injured more than twenty before turning the guns on themselves. When doing a search about school shootings I was amazed at what I found.  There had been hundreds upon hundreds of shootings on school grounds going back to the earliest known or recorded on July 26, 1764.  It occurred in Greencastle, PA. Four American Indians entered a school and killed the master and 9-10 children. Now, admittedly many of those many hundreds of cases that followed did not touch the level of Columbine, over two centuries later. A vast majority of those shootings involved parents shooting schoolmasters, scorned lovers shooting teachers (and often themselves), fights between a few students, some accidental shootings and several suicides.  There were even many where no one was injured or only a few people were left with minor injuries. However, it should be pointed out that these were all shootings of some sort.  Were there incidences with axes in a time where that was a preferred weapon? Without checking I would gander to guess so. And what about The Bath School Disaster?  It was not on the list that I found. Why? Because this crime was committed with dynamite and gunpowder. And yet by 1927 when this occurred there had already been over a hundred documented SHOOTINGS on school properties. That being said, most agree, shooting or not, The Bath School Disaster remains the deadliest incident to happen on school property.

Near the town of Lansing Michigan lies an unincorporated town called Bath.  For those who do not know what I mean by know how you are driving down the road and you see a sign for a town and before you have a chance to blink it seems it is gone? You probably were not even required to lower your speed as you drove through. In many cases that is likely an unincorporated town.  I cannot say of prior but in modern times in order to officially be considered a town there must be a post office located within the limits. It was said that in 1927 there were about 300 residents in Bath.  However, I also read that about 250 students went to the school so not sure of the accuracy.  It is likely their most famous resident was Andrew Phillip Kehoe.

Andrew Kehoe had been born in New York in 1872.  Soon after his family moved to Michigan.  Kehoe was "one of the youngest" of a family of thirteen children.  He was five when his mother died and soon after his father remarried.  It was reported that he did not get along well with his step-mother and argued with her often.  When he was fourteen, his step-mother went to light the family stove when it exploded.  Reports say that Kehoe stood by for a few minutes before attempting to help and that when he did he used water, which caused the oil to burn more. A few days later his step-mother died and there were questions as to if the stove had been tampered with but apparently there was only suspicion as nothing came of it. Andrew went to what is now Michigan State University and graduated presumably with a degree pertaining to or akin to electrical engineer.  After graduation he went to work as an electrician in St. Louis for several years. It was reported that in 1911, while in St. Louis he suffered a severe head injury in a fall.  Aside from the incident with his step-mother I found no other references to his stability or behaviors prior to this head injury.  As we know head injuries are often associated with some of the more well known criminals of modern times.  

In 1912 he returned to Michigan and married Ellen "Nellie" Price who he had met while in college. She was from a fairly prominent family in Lansing.  He was forty years old by now and this was considered rather old for a first marriage.  I saw no record of Nellie having a previous marriage either. Neither ever had children. In 1919, Andrew and Nellie bought an 80 acre farm from one of her relatives in Bath for $12,000.  Andrew had paid $6,000 and got a mortgage loan for the remaining $6,000.  

Neighbors later stated that Andrew had never seemed like much of a farmer but liked to tinker with equipment more like a mechanic. He would sometimes attempt to modify his tractor to perform things on the farm but when they failed he all but did not do much to which his farming career did not prosper.  Neighbors described him as an intelligent man but stated that he often grew impatient with things and would be quick to anger when someone disagreed with him.  He was cruel to his animals and more than likely to his wife also.  Another oddity that the neighbors found was Andrew's use of dynamite.  He often used it to blow tree stumps and rocks.

In 1922 a new school opened in Bath.  It was considered an elaborate building but one of, if not the, best school in the area.  Andrew Kehoe had vehemently opposed this building because it would require more taxes being paid.  He felt he should not have to pay taxes at school when he did not have children.  In 1924 however he joined the school board as the treasurer.  Those in the community were said to have wanted him there because he was known for being thrifty. In the same respect it was soon believed that he wanted the position in order to prevent anymore tax raises.  He often opposed the other board members in votes and was said to have called adjournments of meetings when things were not going his way.  He bantered with all the board members, but especially with Superintendent, Emory Huyck who he despised.
For the next year or so the board members apparently tolerated his antics partly because he was willing to do odds jobs at the school, that included electrical work, that saved the system money.  In 1925 he was appointed as the Bath Township Clerk. Since he ran for the office in the spring of 1926 presumably the previous clerk either died or resigned.  One has to wonder if he was not appointed as the intern clerk as a way to get him out of the school board.  When he was defeated in the election, things seemed to change.  People noticed at that point that he was extremely angry and while most did not believe he would ultimately do as he did, many believed he may be suicidal. Things got worse when in June of 1926 he was informed that foreclosure was to begin on his farm.  Andrew at some point obviously had stopped making mortgage and insurance payments on his property. He told people that it was all due to the school tax.  He claimed he could not afford his mortgage payments any longer due to this. One has to wonder if this was completely true.  I do believe that he lost his home due to the school taxes but not because he could not pay them, but because he refused to pay them based on his principals. Then again, maybe he could not afford them it was said that as a farmer he was not prosperous.  There again though the taxes could not be the blame.  

At some point late in 1926 or early 1927 Nellie became ill with tuberculosis.  There was no cure at that time but she was in and out of hospital for several months. This presumably added to Andrew's financial burden. She returned from her last hospital stay on May 16, 1927.  Sometime between her return home and the morning of May 18, 1927 it is believed that Andrew killed her. In the preceding months (although no one knows for how many) Andrew had been going to the school and planting bags filled with hundreds of pounds dynamite and gunpowder in the basement in the school.  There was a stack in the north end and another stack in the south end.  Both were wired to a detonator.  No one is certain just when this was all done as Andrew had a key to the school since he was "so kind" doing the handyman work. He also proceeded to rig his home, his barns, and much of his land with dynamite. He filled his truck with pieces of metal and dynamite that when set would be like shrapnel.  

On the morning of May 18, 1927 as it neared the 9:00 hour two explosions went off, apparently at the the exact same time.  One was at the Kehoe farm.  The second was in the north wing of the school. Andrew expected there to be a third explosion... the one in the south wing.  It was discovered after that there was over 500 pounds of dynamite and gunpowder in the south wing that by sort of malfunction failed to detonate.  It is presumed that the explosion at the farm was supposed to be more of a distraction. Apparently Andrew expected at least his neighbors to come to the farm to let out the fires when they heard the explosions, keeping them away from the school and presumably from rescuing others because his plan was not complete.  However, neighbors were so used to hearing dynamite go off at the Kehoe farm they all but ignored it.  In the mean time, people were scrambling to the school.  Soon Andrew pulled up in his truck.  Reports say that he waited until he spotted Emory Huyck and waved him over to his truck.  As Huyck was approaching him, Andrew shot into his truck detonating the truck.

When his rampage was over he managed to kill his wife and forty three others and himself.  Thirty-eight of his victims were children. 

After dealing with the situation at the school, clean up crews moved on to the Kehoe farm where they found Nellie as well as discovered that he had literally wired some of his animals ensuring their deaths.  On a fence that apparently was far enough away from the explosions they saw where Kehoe wrote in paint.... "Criminals are made...not born." That is still up for debate.


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