In 1927, America was shocked and horrified over the deaths and injuries of dozens of children and adults in the Bath School disaster. Also known as the Bath School Massacre, as of today it remains the deadliest attack on a school in U.S. History.
About 10 miles northeast of Lansing, Bath Township, which contains the unincorporated village of Bath, was your typical Michigan agriculture community in the early 1920’s. Up till that time, there were many one room schools with students in various grades sharing the same teacher, but in 1922, the Township voted to create a consolidated school district, building a new school funded by an increase in property taxes. When the Bath Consolidate School opened in that November, there were 236 students. The endeavor was expensive in terms of a small community. The district purchased five acres for an athletic field in 1923, bought and paid for two lighting plants, and paid interest on eight thousand dollars on the principal, leaving the township bonded for $35,000 on the school. Resident’s school taxes started at $12.26 per thousand valuation, but had gone up to $19.80 per thousand by 1926.
Described as the “world’s worst demon“, Andrew P. Kehoe was born on a farm in Michigan near Tecumseh in 1872. Studying electrical engineering at Michigan State College in East Lansing, Kehoe set off on his new career in St. Louis, Missouri, but after a few years returned to his father’s farm. In September of 1911, his Stepmother was killed in a oil stove explosion. Kehoe had tried to extinguish flames on her with a bucket of water, which only spread the flames more rapidly over her body. Some neighbors at the time believed he had caused the explosion.
In 1912 he married Nellie Price, whom he had met while in college. Early on, there were examples of Kehoe’s ‘disgust’ at having to pay for something through taxes or assessments. He removed he and his wife from a Roman Catholic Church after a new one was built and he was assessed $400. When the priest asked why he no longer came to church, or made an effort to pay the assessment, Kehoe ordered him off his property.
In 1919 the couple moved to the farm outside of Bath, with 185 acres. At first he was social, doing favors and volunteer work for his neighbors, but many described him as always wanting his way and having nothing to do with others who didn’t agree. Some added that he was “severe” with his stock, especially horses. He didn’t farm like his neighbors, always trying new methods and tinkering so much with his tractor that he wasn’t very prosperous. Other troublesome behavior included shooting his neighbors dog because it was a “damn nuisance”, although the dog had never come onto Kehoe’s property.
In 1923, Kehoe was enraged over a raise in taxes for the consolidated school, which resulted in a $10,000 tax bill on his remaining 80 acres of land and buildings. That’s when he found his way onto the school board in July of 1924, and was appointed treasurer. Being insistent of getting his way, he often clashed with other board members and would make a motion to adjourn if they disagreed with him. He had a special disgust at the School Superintendent, Mr. E.E. Huyck, who at one time Kehoe told he would have to leave the board meetings, as he had no business to sit with them. It took some convincing from the others that Huyck was required to be there.
In 1925 Kehoe was appointed township clerk to fill the vacancy left by the death of the previous clerk. He ran for the position in the 1926 election, but was defeated due to his reputation on the school board. Around this same time he tried to convince the township to cut the valuation on his farm, and even tried to convince the mortgage holder he had paid too much, but no one would agree.
During the school summer vacation in 1926, Kehoe volunteered to do some electrical and repair work on the school, giving him free access to the entire building. It’s thought, by at least one resident, this is when his plan to exact vengeance on the community was set in motion. On May 5, 1927, Kehoe attended his last board meeting, seemingly amicable toward all the boards business, smiling with approval throughout.
One witness, Monty J. Ellsworth, a neighbor and friend of Kehoe, would later write that on Monday May 16, two days before the attack, fifth grade teacher Blanche Harte contacted Kehoe about having a school picnic on his property that Thursday. After agreeing, Kehoe called her back asking her to move it up to Tuesday, saying it may rain on Thursday. Ellsworth wrote “I suppose he wanted the children to have a little fun before he killed them“.
On the morning on May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe began his attack at his own farm. He began by putting all the railings and lumber around his buildings into his tool shed. He had cut the wire fences on the farm and put dynamite on his tractor in the shed. The only animals left on the farm, two horses, were tied in the barn, feet bound by wire, so that rescuing them would be impossible. At some point he killed his wife Ellen (also known as “Nellie”), who was chronically ill with what is thought to have been tuberculosis. Her medical bills may have been why he had ceased making mortgage and homeowner insurance payments months earlier. She was released from the hospital that Monday, so it is unclear when he actually killed her.