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Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing Paperback – March 16, 2009
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About the Author
A native of Chicago, Arnie Bernstein earned a Masters degree in Creative Writing from Columbia College. He has authored three nonfiction books: The Hoofs and Guns of the Storm: Chicago's Civil War Connections, The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg's Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928, and Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago & the Movies.
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Writer Arnie Bernstein chronicles the first United States' mass murder in "Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing," which is rich with detailed interviews, newspaper snippets, public documents, and psychological discussions. The story takes place in 1927 in the small town of Bath, Michigan, where a farming community built their first consolidated school after a history of one-room schoolhouses. On the school board was a man named Andrew Kehoe. As the book goes on, we get to know Kehoe quite well.
The book sets up the psychopath Kehoe quite well with descriptions of his bizarre upbringing, then neighbors' commentary on his odd methods of farming (leaving most of the crop to rot in the fields), and some pretty nasty stories about his relationships with animals. It always seems to me that if a person is cruel to animals, it says volumes about what kind of character he has. Kehoe, it seems, had very little character at all.
But he managed to fool a lot of people. To some he was just the neighbor down the way--who had a fondness for dynamite and blowing things up in the middle of the night.
As the school board treasurer, Kehoe would balance books to the penny. But he wouldn't always get his way in policy decisions. He also had an unexplainable, long-running hatred for superintendent Emory Huyck. No one knew what gripes were festering in Kehoe's brain, but something made him spend long hours in the basement under Bath Consolidated School. When discovered by the janitor, he'd explain it away as "fixing the wiring." Meanwhile, he kept ordering more dynamite from various sources.
There are a few side tales. Kehoe's wife Nellie was chronically sick with breathing problems and was often in the hospital, giving Kehoe plenty of time alone. He also had at least two severe brain injuries, for which he never got proper treatment.
The day before the school year ended, Kehoe finally cracked. At 8:25 a.m. a clock triggered an electrical system that set off an enormous amount of dynamite hidden in the school's basement. The school heaved up and then its roof came crashing down. Children were trapped--alive and dead. Teachers tried to save them, if they weren't seriously injured themselves. Huyck helped the high school students jump from the roof to safety. Meanwhile, the Kehoe home burst into flames and dynamite roared there too.
Bernstein does a remarkable job of portraying what the confusion might have felt like by slowing down the time and writing small vignettes. One child wonders about his siblings as he is trapped in the rubble. A teacher instinctively reaches out and hugs two children to her chest. A child watches an inkwell shoot to the ceiling. Later, that's all he can remember. A woman plants melons, looks up after hearing a boom, and hears faint screams coming from down the road.
Amid all the chaos and confusion, the little stories like these are what we remember. The rest of the story ends in predictable horror. Kehoe drives up to the school, his car full of explosives, calls Huyck to his vehicle and blows the both of them sky high. The farm continues to burn. Only later do authorities find the charred remains of Nellie. Thirty-eight children and six adults die. The funerals go on for days.
Bernstein's book is instructive because it shows that psychosis can happen in any era. Kehoe was a 1920s monster, just as Columbine's Dylan Klebold was one for the modern era. There is no reason for the madness that the psychopath creates. Kehoe had no gripe against children; something just went off in his head. He left behind a sign that said, "Criminals are made, not born." Typical of psychopaths, he took the blame off of himself.
Today, you will find a memorial in Bath, Mich., on the grounds of the old school. It's a peaceful park now. The violence that marked its past seems to have been erased. But Bernstein makes sure that the significance of Bath never is forgotten.