Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Sadly, mass murders at American schools have been so common that it's all too easy for people to instantly name several that have happened in the last few decades alone.
One that's been largely forgotten, however, is the Bath School disaster, which took the lives of 38 children and six adults in 1927. It remains the deadliest mass murder in a school in American history.
In his new book “Maniac,” author Harold Schechter tells the horrifying story of the massacre, in which a farmer-politician bombed a school in Bath Township, Mich. It's not an easy book to read — the details of the terrorist act are, as you might expect, extremely horrifying — but it's a fascinating look at one of the most unspeakable events in American history.
The first part of Schechter's book is something of a biography of Andrew Philip Kehoe, the murderer who shook the nation with his bombing. Kehoe was a Michigan native who worked as an electrician in Missouri before returning to his home state to work on his father's farm after sustaining a head injury that left him incapacitated for two months.
Accounts differ on Kehoe's temperament. One former neighbor referred to his "distant and rather cool manner," while another recalled, "There couldn't be a better neighbor than him." He showed a violent streak early, killing his sister's beloved cat, and possibly murdering his stepmother by rigging a gasoline stove, Schechter writes. His violence continued into adulthood — he killed a neighbor's dog because it buried a bone near his property, and beat his own horse to death.
Kehoe would later buy his own land, but the 1920s farm crisis took its toll on him; he fell behind on his mortgage payments, and blamed his financial troubles on a school tax to which he was opposed. He served on the town's school board and later served as town clerk, and was embittered when he failed to be elected to the post after serving as an appointee for a few months.
It was likely his financial troubles and political humiliation that led him to undertake one of the most ghastly series of crimes in American history. Kehoe had rigged explosives in the basement of the town's school, and most of them went off on the morning of May 18, 1927. Schechter describes the heartbreaking aftermath of the bombing:
"[T]he entire north wing lay in ruins, its walls demolished, its roof collapsed. What had been the ground floor was now a mass of rubble. Buried in that tangle of brick, plaster, wood, and metal were dozens of the school's youngest children, along with their teachers. As the reverberations of the blast faded, a muffled chorus of moans, screams, and piteous cries for help began issuing from the debris."
At the same time, Kehoe set off firebombs on his property, burning the corpse of his wife, whom he had murdered sometime before. He then drove his truck to the school where he set off a suicide bomb, killing the school superintendent, two others and himself. Investigators would later find on his farm a sign that read, "CRIMINALS ARE MADE, NOT BORN."
The story of the Bath School massacre is a difficult one to tell, and not just because of the enormity of Kehoe's murders. Two days after the disaster, Charles Lindbergh made his famous transatlantic flight aboard the “Spirit of St. Louis,” and the publicity around the voyage pushed the Bath bombing out of the headlines. But Schechter has managed to do a wonderful job researching the subject, drawing from newspaper reports, books and public records, and he synthesizes them beautifully, creating a tight narrative that's hard to put down.
Schechter's writing is matter-of-fact and unshowy; while he includes the gruesome details of the bombing's aftermath, he does so with sensitivity — the book is never lurid or exploitative. And while the picture he paints of Kehoe is evocative, he's careful not to speculate about aspects of Kehoe that we don't, and can't know.
Modern-day Americans can't read “Maniac” in a vacuum; it's impossible not to think of more recent school massacres when considering the Bath School disaster. Schechter realizes this, and he offers an intelligent analysis of the bombing as it relates to the contemporary U.S.:
"[T]he evil visited upon the citizens of Bath was the realization of every nightmare that troubles the sleep of present-day Americans. ... Only now has its significance become clear as a catastrophe that foreshadowed the terrors of the current age: a horror ahead of its time."
“Maniac” is a fascinating book by an author who shows real mastery of the true-crime genre. The story Schechter recounts is a difficult one to read, but the author's intelligence and sensitivity make it one that's well worth your time.
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