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HomeMI HistoryMI HistoryAre School Attacks a New Phenomenon?

Are School Attacks a New Phenomenon?

I am 33 years old, and the first clear memory I have of a news event is the Columbine High School shooting. I remember sitting in my living room watching the students being evacuated on television. When I was old enough to begin going to school, we had to do active shooter drills at least once a year. When I was a senior in high school, I had to be sent home early because of a bomb threat.

Sadly, in today’s America mass school shootings and bomb threats are seemingly on our television every night. They happen so frequently that the shock value has worn off, leaving people feeling numb, uncertain, and filled with questions. Why did this happen to my community? Is there something we could have done differently to prevent this? How will our community ever recover? With all the media coverage of school tragedies over the last 20-plus years, it would be easy to believe that these school tragedies are a new phenomenon. I was surprised to learn that the first school bombing in the United States happened on May 18, 1927, in Bath, Michigan.

In the early 20th century, the township of Bath, Michigan was a small farming community. After years of discussion and debate, the residents of the township voted to consolidate all the local schools into one school district in 1922. The township had to increase their property taxes to pay for the newly created school district.

One of the town’s residents was a farmer named Andrew Kehoe. He was well educated, having studied electrical engineering at Michigan State College. After working as an electrician for a short period, he suffered an accident that caused a brain injury. He returned to Michigan and married Ellen (Nellie) Price and farmed 80 acres of land. Kehoe was “described as being notoriously impatient with any disagreement” but was well regarded by his neighbors, who found him to be a helpful and dependable neighbor. He was known as a man who was very frugal with his money. Kehoe was extremely opposed to the increase in his taxes that would result from building the consolidated school. His school taxes were appreciable at $198 in 1927, which is equivalent to about $3,471 today.

Kehoe’s reputation eventually allowed him to win an election as the treasurer on the school board of the new Bath Consolidated School District in 1925. Kehoe’s frugality carried over to his position as treasurer, where he scrutinized the books and started pinching every penny the school district spent. He relished his position of power and began withholding paychecks until the very last minute from people on the school board with whom he had disagreements. Kehoe did not like how members of the school board were hiring members of their families to hold jobs in the school. He also thought the superintendent was asking for too much money to run the school. 

Kehoe’s disagreements with the school board over the finances and management of the school funding eventually led to his defeat in the 1926 election for township clerk. In addition to his public defeat in the election, Kehoe had many personal and financial difficulties come to a head at the same time. Kehoe’s farm was threatened by foreclosure for nonpayment on the mortgage and insurance. His wife, Nellie, was ill with tuberculosis, and her health was failing, which accrued medical costs that placed more financial strain on Kehoe.  

In the years prior to the bombing, Kehoe was known for clearing his land of tree stumps with dynamite and pyrotol. “Pyrotol was an explosive available for a time after World War I. It was reprocessed from military surplus cordite and smokeless powder. Usually used in combination with dynamite, it created an incendiary blast. Since it was very inexpensive, it was often used by farmers to remove tree stumps and clear ditches.”

Kehoe was an experienced electrician, and the board employed him in November to make some repairs on the school lighting system. He had ample opportunity then to plant the explosives and lay the wires for starting them off.

Kehoe bought his explosives from numerous dealers in the surrounding area, ostensibly for use on his farm, but he was actually stockpiling them for use on his farmhouse and the school. Around this time, his wife disappeared, and he explained to his neighbors she was out of town visiting relatives. “There is no clear indication of when Kehoe had the idea of massacring the schoolchildren and townspeople, but Ellsworth, who was a neighbor, thought that he conceived his plan after being defeated in the 1926 clerk election.” 

504 pounds of explosives recovered from under the school. Photographer unknown.

On May 18, 1927, at 8:45 a.m. the Kehoe farmhouse and barn blew up and caught fire simultaneously with an explosion at the school. School went into session at 8:30 a.m., so the impact of the explosion was maximized to take out the children in their classrooms. A total of 37 children and two teachers were killed in the explosion. Even though Kehoe had wired the entire school to blow up, only half of the school was destroyed. Upon rescue and cleanup efforts, the wired explosives were discovered in the other half of the building. 

Kehoe had packed his truck with explosives and all sorts of metal to act as shrapnel and parked in front of the school 20 minutes after his home and school blew up. He detonated the vehicle along with himself, taking the lives of 5 more people. In total, 45 people, including the bomber, were killed at the school, but Kehoe’s wife Nellie was also dead. She was found in a wheelbarrow on the farm with a head wound, her body burnt. 

People nowadays may think that mass tragedies are unique to the present day, but the Bath School tragedy shows that people with bad intentions existed much earlier and did find a way to take their anger out against innocent lives. If you are interested in more details concerning this topic, check out “Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing” by Arnie Bernstein

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