THE NEFF ZONE -- BY JIM NEFF
CADILLAC NEWS -- MARCH 17, 2018
The school disaster was worse than Columbine, Virginia Tech, the University of Texas, Sandy Hook and Parkland. It stands as the deadliest school massacre U.S. history. In the end 44 people died, 38 of them students.
The perpetrator was a an angry white male. He obtained the weapons of destruction legally. He was having personal problems, but one of his acquaintances said: "There couldn't be a better neighbor than him."
After the massacre newspapers described him as an “insane, demented, a madman.” No one had connected the dots beforehand.
If this sounds familiar in the light of recent school tragedies, the sad fact that this happened on May 18, 1927 in Bath, Michigan. Bath is a small town ten miles north of Lansing and 135 miles south of Cadillac. In 1927, the consolidated school housed 314 students. The students who perished were all from grades three to six.
As awful as this tragedy was, it was only front page news for a day. “The Bath school massacre made national headlines, and was the lead story in the New York Times on May 19, 1927. But it was quickly overshadowed by one of the biggest news events of the early 20th century: Charles Lindbergh's historic flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh left Long Island on May 20 and arrived in Paris 33 hours later on May 22.”
This brief coverage may confound modern readers used to the 24/7/365 news cycle, but it's important to put the era in context. The key word is “before.” The Bath Massacre happened before social media and the Internet. It came before television. In fact, in 1927 only about 35 percent of American families even owned a radio. NBC had been formed in 1926 and CBS would not begin operation until 1928, national networks were a new concept. National news crept very slowly across America.
The perpetrator of the Bath Massacre was a man named Andrew Kehoe. He was a graduate of Michigan State College and had been a school board treasurer and former Bath Township clerk. One resident said: “I never saw a saner man.”
Still, there had been some warning signs prior to the massacre. “Kehoe killed his neighbor’s dog, beat one of his horses to death, and argued with members of the school board over the cost of ongoing taxes. In the few years leading up to the bombing, Kehoe was having financial problems, and wasn't paying his mortgage or his taxes; he lost an election for township clerk, and his wife was in failing health. Despite his financial issues, his neighbors noticed he seemed to have given up on farming, having failed to harvest his crops in fall 1926.”
The means of destruction that Kehoe chose was dynamite. “Farmers in the 1920s could easily obtained dynamite, which they used to clear stumps from their property. Kehoe was so good with explosives that neighbors sought his advice.”
Using dynamite that he had purchased at a Farm Bureau office and a Lansing sporting goods store, he hid 900 pounds of dynamite between the basement ceiling and the main floor of the Bath school. Later, investigators determined that about 200
pounds of the explosives actually detonated, which meant the remaining 700 pounds failed to make the tragedy even worse.
The blast caused horrific damage. A 1927 eyewitness account related: “There was a pile of children about five or six under the roof and some of them had arms sticking out, some had legs, and some just their heads sticking out. They were unrecognizable because they were covered with dust, plaster and blood. It is a miracle that many parents didn’t lose their minds before the task of getting their children out of the ruins was completed.”
Kehoe died a half hour after the school blast. “Kehoe pulled up to the school about 20 to 30 minutes after the initial explosion and set off dynamite in his Ford truck, which was packed with nuts, bolts and other machine parts that turned into shrapnel.”
As if that was not enough, more was found later that day. “In addition to the hundreds of pounds of explosives that had set off the blast at the school, police officers found another 500 pounds of unexploded pyrotol dynamite rigged up around the school’s basement, along with a container of gasoline that may have been placed there to cause a fire if the dynamite failed. Kehoe had also burned his farmhouse and killed his wife and two horses; their bodies were discovered at the farm, along with a sign attached to the property fence that read, 'Criminals are made, not born.'”
The reason behind Kehoe's actions will never be fully known. “The conventional wisdom is that Kehoe dynamited the school because he was angry about his school property taxes. For years, he was a vocal opponent of spending $43,000 in 1922 to build Bath Consolidated School, which led to a big tax hike. Kehoe owned 80 acres of farmland that had an assessed value of $10,000 in 1927 -- about $139,000 in today's dollars. His school tax bill was $198 in 1927, which is equivalent to $2,758 today.”
Due to the slow dissemination of news back then, many people traveled to Bath the next day to get a first-hand look at the crime scene. It was estimated that during the weekend, as many as 50,000-85,000 people drove through the town, causing massive traffic jams.
Perhaps the most bizarre chapter in the Bath Massacre story occurred in the days following the event. “The Klu Klux Klan printed up 5 million leaflets claiming Kehoe's Catholic upbringing caused the massacre.”
There was nothing left to do but remove the reminder of the tragedy. “After the bombing, the school was razed and a new school was built with funds donated by state Sen. James Couzens, who made his millions by being an early investor in Ford Motor Co. He spent $75,000 on a replacement building in Bath. The James Couzens School opened in 1928; the building was torn down in 1975.” On the site now is a memorial park. “In the center of the park stands the school’s cupola, exactly where it would have been on the school.”
*Radio History: http://lcweb2.loc.gov:8081/ammem/amrlhtml/inradio.html and https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-radio-industry-in-the-united-states-to-1940/
*Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/1927-bombing-remains-americas-deadliest-school-massacre-180963355/
*Lansing State Journal: https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2017/05/11/bath-school-bombing-oldest-surviving-student-recalls-how-awful/101194330/
*1927 eye witness article: http://daggy.name/tbsd/tbsd-x.htm
*Thanks to Cadillac resident and former Cadillac Area Public Schools board member Gert Claypool for her assistance on this column.
Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zone columns online at Cadillac News.com and NeffZone.com/cadillacnews.