A Brief History
On May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe committed the worst mass murder in an American school ever, proving that this type of tragedy is not just something started recently. Having a reputation as someone difficult to work with, Kehoe was a school board member and had recently been beaten in an election for township clerk.
The 55 year old Kehoe’s life was falling apart. Upset about his election loss, rising taxes, his farm being under foreclosure and his wife having tuberculosis, the Michigan farmer went off the deep end.
No longer making mortgage payments, Kehoe bought explosives and rigged his house and the local school with them. He murdered his wife and set off the dynamite and pyrotol (an incendiary type of explosive) that he had rigged in his house and farm buildings as well as around the local (Bath Township, Michigan) elementary school. Timed to blow up together, his farm and the school went up in explosions and flames, killing 36 students and 2 teachers.
As frantic rescuers worked trying to save survivors in the blown up and burning school, Kehoe fired his rifle into dynamite loaded in his truck, which he had pre-packed with metal scrap to make a deadlier bomb. The truck exploded, killing the school superintendent as well as Kehoe and some bystanders. Luckily, another 500 pounds of dynamite and pyrotol that had been planted in the other wing of the school failed to detonate, keeping the carnage from being even worse.
Kehoe had attended the nearby Michigan State College and had worked as an electrician before becoming a farmer. He had reputation as someone unpleasant to disagree with, had shot a neighbor’s dog and had beaten one of his horses to death. Prior to his murderous rampage, Kehoe had girdled the trees on his farm (cutting through the bark in a circle around the tree, guaranteeing they would die), cut his fences, killed his grape vines, and piled lumber in his buildings to feed the coming fires.
The death toll numbered 45 people ranging from 7 to 74 years old, and included Kehoe and his wife. Another 58 people were injured. An inquest found that Kehoe acted alone and that no negligence on the part of the school board or other school employees had taken place. The Associated Press reported that the American Red Cross and local population responded to the emergency with energy and generosity. A new school stands on the location of the old one, and a plaque commemorates the event. Only a small part of the bombed school was preserved as a memorial.
No books, movies, or made for television films have been based on this event. Unfortunately, a mentally deranged person with no court determination of mental illness could buy explosives and create havoc as Andrew Kehoe did. Today, with all the attention to potential terrorist activity the average person cannot legally purchase explosives, but farmers still can (as well as certain construction and mining workers) so this type of incident can happen again, and the sobering fact is, it probably cannot be stopped.
(Note: To illustrate how much more deadly explosives can be than guns, the next 2 deadliest school massacres were the Virginia Tech killings in 2007 with 32 dead and the Newtown massacre in 2012 with 27 dead. The famous Columbine rampage of 1999 killed 13, far less than the Bath school bombing related above.)
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For more information, please see…
Bernstein, Arnie. Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing. UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN REGIONAL, 2009.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.