Mass Murder in Michigan (Part Two of Two)

Continued from  Part One

But who was Andrew Kehoe?   While newspapers often referred to him as a "demented farmer,"  his motivation for bombing  the Bath school, along with his other crimes, likely stemmed from a need for revenge against people he felt had wronged him.

What we do know  is that he was born in 1872 and had a fairly unremarkable upbringing as the youngest of thirteen children.   After his mother died  when he was five, his father subsequent remarried and Andrew apparently had frequent fights with his stepmother.    While the circumstances of his stepmother's death when he was fourteen took on new significance following the Bath disaster (there were suspicions at the time that the stove fire which killed her had been the result of tampering),  there was no real evidence of Andrew's involvement.    After going on to study electrical engineering, Andrew married Nellie in 1912 and settled down on the farm they purchased together.    Though the farm was mortgaged, their life seemed idyllic enough despite their lack of children.

People who knew Kehoe described him as "a man you'd never think would do such a thing" but they also recalled that he was meticulous and fastidious about his appearance.   He would often change his shirt more than once a day despite the often backbreaking work that went into farming.  There were also stories about his terrible temper,  and that he had  once beat a horse to death for not pulling a plow hard enough (he also once shot a neighbour's dog for being on his property).   After being elected as treasurer of the Bath school board, Andrew often clashed with other board members over his calls for lower school taxes.  Many of his suggestions for saving money made little sense and would only have led to the school losing its certification.   He even accused the school superintendent, Emory Huyck, of mismanaging school funds on several occasions (Huyck would later be killed in the same explosion that claimed Kehoe's life).   

At the same time, Kehoe served as Bath Township clerk though he was defeated in the 1926 election, something that may have triggered his revenge scheme against the Bath community.   That Nellie Kehoe was suffering from chronic tuberculosis and was unlikely ever to recover only added to his woes.    Her chronic illness, along with the impending foreclosure on his farm, may have been the last straw for Kehoe.   After months of planning, he stole the explosives he needed and his gruesome revenge scheme finally unfolded. 51vYwhzLLbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

 In the inquest that followed the Bath tragedy, numerous questions were asked about how Kehoe had been able to plant hundreds of pounds of explosives around the school without anyone becoming suspicious.   Staff admitted often seeing him in the days preceding the blast, but school administrators had assumed the frugal Kehoe was conducting repairs on the school building to save costs.  Participants of a PTA meeting that have been held in that same building on May 17 reported hearing someone walking around the building but had thought nothing of it though it was likely Kehoe putting the final touches on his revenge scheme.     Some speculated that the school administrators and others associated with the school that Kehoe had blamed for his financial woes had been the real targets for his rage.   

In spite of the devastation surrounding the deaths and destruction brought on by the explosions, the people of Bath township weren't down long.   Classes continued to be held in the same building that once housed the makeshift morgue and children were often seen playing not far from the wreckage of the school.   With generous donations from across the country, including money raised by the Michigan government, plans for a new school were drawn up with the cornerstone being laid by November of that same year.  In the dedication speech at the groundbreaking ceremony, Dean John Phelan of Michigan state college praised the community spirit that helped the community recover.  As for Kehoe's body, it was claimed by one of his sisters and later buried in an unmarked grave.   

Still, the notoriety over the Bath explosion was hard for the residents to accept.   A ghoulish tourist trade sprang up with people visiting to gawk at the site of the destroyed school and other reminders of what had happened.   Bath acquired the somber nickname of "the town of dead children", something that devastated survivors.   In a newspaper interview given in late 1927, town cobbler Felix Marseh described what it was like to deal with the ghoulish visitors:

"Sundays are days of horror,"  Marseh said.  "The automobiles come like swarms of beetles.  They park right up to the very doors fighting to get parking space nearest the house that lost the most children.  Then they start a dash to the door and begin asking their questions. -  How many children did you lose?  Were they badly mangled?  Did they live long after they were hit?    Then they trot down to the schoolhouse - what's left of it -  they've whittled it away and carried away bricks until there's hardly anything left to tear down.   They write their names down on the blackboards of the very rooms where those little kids were blown to pieces."   Marseh concluded by comparing the tourists to "a swarm of flies around carrion."

The ruins of the Kehoe farm, including the main house that had once been called one of the finest in the area, also became a tourist magnet.  The farm lay untouched for over ten years before being sold at auction to pay off the $4900 mortgage.    The land was completely plowed over, both to eliminate all traces of the farm and to ensure that Kehoe hadn't left behind any "surprises" in the form of hidden explosives for future owners of the property.    All reference to Andrew Kehoe were struck off the county records.   

Aside from lingering memories of the bombings, the most concrete legacy came in the form of the children who had spent months in hospital after the explosion.  Some were left permanently injured, having lost limbs or otherwise bearing the marks they would carry for the rest of their lives.   For Bath residents, it was often considered impolite to refer to their injuries or any other mention of "the Bath tragedy."    While it is still the worst mass murder of its kind in U.S. history, this is a legacy that the people of Bath would just as soon forget and some people even insisted on leaving the room whenever talk of Kehoe or the bombings started.

Still, later events such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma city bombing in 1995 had a way of  triggering these memories in many of the survivors.     In many ways, the Bath school bombing remains the most traumatic event in the lives of people who still remember.  As historian Glenn Wilkins,, a long-time member of the town points out,  "as horrible as the Oklahoma bombing was, it only touched a fraction of the people there whereas this (the bombing) touched just about everything in Bath township.  They either lost a child or had someone severely injured. "  


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