BATH TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The deadliest school massacre in U.S. history happened 94 years ago today at Bath Consolidated School in Bath Township.
The victims were 38 children and four adults, six if you include Andrew Kehoe, who bombed the school, and his wife, Nellie, who was later found dead on their property.
Andrew Kehoe was a school trustee, the treasurer of the school board, a master electrician and a handyman for the school. He went into town that day around 8:30 a.m. to mail a package.
“One of the other school trustees saw him and said, ‘Hey we’re having some problems with the boiler. Could you come and take a look?’ Because he was trustee, he volunteered his time at that school and he knew everything about that school, inside and out, which, as we later found out was part of why what happened, happened,” said Arnie Bernstein, author of the 2009 book “Bath Massacre."
“He went down there with him, and he was looking at the boiler – he seemed really agitated. He said, ‘I’ve got to go,’ and he just left.’ They thought that was a little odd,” Bernstein said
Around 8:45 a.m., a huge explosion happened at the north wing of the school.
“It sort of rose a few feet in the air and then pancaked down,” Bernstein said. “Nobody knew what was going on, but it was heard – it was heard in Lansing.”
The townspeople rushed to the school.
“Kids were climbing out of the debris, there was screams…little arms sticking out through the rubble, people clawing with bare hands to get through it.”
At the same time, there was an explosion at Kehoe’s farm just down the road from the school. The explosion started a fire that quickly spread.
“Some friends of his driving by had saw it…they saw somebody through this heavy, heavy cloud of smoke, and this smoke could be seen for miles. They saw somebody next to a tank on the farm. It was a truck, and it pulled out and when it emerged from the smoke, they saw it was Kehoe and he looked at them and said, ‘Boys, you’re my friends. You better get out of here. You better go down to the school,’ and he headed off to the school,” Bernstein said.
One man recalled seeing Kehoe smiling as he drove to the school, wide enough to see both rows of his gold teeth, Bernstein said.
Superintendent of the school Emory Huyck was leading the rescue operation at the school.
“Inside the school was just as awful as awful can be. There was one teacher whose head was wedged between two boards. She couldn’t move – just hoping to be rescued. There was a boy in front of her. They were almost face-to-face. The kid’s eyes were open, and she realized the kid was dead,” Bernstein said. “Some people were identifying their children by their shoes.”
Kehoe pulled up to the school. Huyck, who had a contentious relationship with Kehoe, asked for his help and if they could take his truck to get ropes, ladders and other equipment to help rescue the victims from the rubble.
“Kehoe said, ‘Okay. I’ll take you with me.’ Then Huyck had this look of horror on his face. He said, ‘You know something about this, don’t you?’”
Kehoe fired his gun at his truck that was loaded with dynamite, old nails, old screws and other shrapnel.
The oldest woman in Michigan, Irene Dunham, saw what happened next firsthand.
Dunham was a senior in high school. Because she had stayed home with a sore throat, she was not at school that day.
“She was at home with her mother, and they heard the explosion, and her mother – they jumped in the car and they drove into town and…to see what it was about…and that’s when they saw the school explosion and the carnage and all that. She talks about seeing body parts hanging from the telephone lines, and dead children and their mothers kneeling over them crying,” her son Bruce said, recounting the story as he's heard his mother tell it.
“All I remember was all the little kids that were killed. It was terrible." Irene Dunham said.
Dunham also said she knew Kehoe.
"He talked to all of us girls like we were…okay...just before he did what he did.”
Dunham recalled when Kehoe drove up to the school about 30 minutes after the bombs in the school detonated to detonate his truck. The explosion and shrapnel killed him, Huyck and others, including an 8-year-old child.
“We had a principal we loved of the school and he was walking down to see what this guy was up to, but just as he got to the car, well this guy turned a switch on and blew the poor Huyck and of course the car and everything. Part of the car was on a wire above, a part of him with it. It was horrid to have to look at. Mom and I, we saw that," Irene said.
Matt Martyn, co-owner and co-founder of Ahptic Film and Digital, is in the final stages of producing a four-part docuseries about the massacre that he has been working on for the past 16 years.
“After 16 years, what I know more than anything is that I’ll never understand the gravity of what happened, and I don’t really know if anybody outside the town of Bath – you know, the people who suffered through 9/11 or Oklahoma City, or a war – could understand the horrifying nature of what happened that day. Especially the fact that it involved children,” he said.
“They didn’t have words to describe what he had done,” Martyn said. “It was the world’s first suicide car-bombing. Ever, in the world.”
Rescue efforts went into the night.
“It changed the town forever,” Martyn said. “Obviously a lot – dozens of children were murdered, and a lot of adults as well, but then there were many that were disfigured. Then there’s the survivor’s guilt, the second-guessing. There’s – I can’t tell you how many parents were talking about, it was the last day of school so, ‘Oh, does our kid need to go to school today? Do they not?’ They were haunted by those decisions forever.”
According to some accounts, Kehoe blew up the school because he was upset about school taxes, said they were making him unable to pay the mortgage on his farm.
Bernstein said that's not quite right.
“No. No. He blew up the school because he was a psychopath,” Bernstein said.
“His aim was to destroy the town,” Martyn said. “Narcissist is thrown around a lot, but if you take it to the very, very extreme…he fits all those categories as well.”
The next day, a wooden plaque was found at the edge of his farm that read, “criminals are made, not born.”
“You made me do this, in other words,” Bernstein said.
They found his horses burned to death with their legs wired together so they could not escape the fire. The burnt remains of Kehoe’s wife Nellie were found in a cart at the back of the farm next to boxes of family silverware, the deed to the house, liberty bonds and money.
“It looked like she had been put there with ritual – ritualistic, almost” Bernstein said.
“It could have been much worse,” Martyn said. "Only some of the explosives went off...he had a lot of other things seemingly in the works.”
They found 600 lbs. of dynamite and pyrotol under the school that did not explode. Bernstein said it was clear that it had taken Kehoe months to plan this massacre, and his complete access to the school made it very easy for him.
A teacher had called him a few days before the bombing to ask if she and her students could have a picnic on his land that Thursday. Kehoe told her it would be best if they did it a few days beforehand.
The police later found the package that Kehoe was mailing out that day. Inside was a letter from Kehoe that said he made a mistake in the school’s books as treasurer. Bernstein said the mistake was only a few cents. Kehoe ended his note by resigning from the school board.
Bernstein said it is important to bear witness and remember these lives lost, and that is why he wrote his book, which will soon be re-released with updated information and additional survivors’ stories.
Martyn said the echoes of this tragedy are still felt today.
“The children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren are, in a sense, survivors in a way,” Martyn said. “It very much affects everything about the community even to this day.”
Martyn said the town of Bath serves as an example of how people in a community can overcome the “worst, worst imaginable circumstance.”
He has started a website with more information that you can find here.
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