As we follow the news there is often the temptation to think that the current state of the world is awful and – by extension – that things were so much better in the past. I suppose this is human nature: we tend to gloss over or willfully forget the bad times of the past and choose to remember the good times instead.
The spat of mass shootings in recent weeks across the country can lead one down this very path, but I ran across a story recently that gave me pause and reminded me that the “awful” has always been with us.
Andrew Kehoe was born in 1872. He married in 1912 and in 1919 moved with his wife, Ellen “Nellie” Kehoe to a farm they bought just outside the community of Bath, Michigan. Kehoe had a reputation as an intelligent and thrifty man but was considered a poor farmer by his neighbors. His reputation for thriftiness resulted in his election to the office of treasurer of the Bath Consolidated School Board where he battled ceaselessly for lower taxes. In particular, Kehoe blamed the previous property tax levy for his poor financial condition and accused Superintendent Emory Huyck of financial mismanagement.
In reality, Nellie Kehoe had become chronically ill with tuberculosis. The medical bills combined with Andrew Kehoe’s failures at farming were the most likely cause for their financial distress. Additionally, Kehoe had stopped making payments on both his mortgage and homeowner’s insurance resulting in his lender starting foreclosure proceedings.
In the spring of 1926, the school board authorized Kehoe to perform maintenance in the school building. Kehoe was known to be good with his hands and was considered particularly good with electrical work. This allowed Kehoe ready access to the building without anyone considering it odd. Later in the same year, Kehoe began purchasing quantities of pyrotol, an incendiary explosive that farmers commonly used to clear debris from their land. By the end of the year he had purchased over one ton of the explosive. In addition he purchased a significant quantity of dynamite and a .30-caliber Winchester bolt-action rifle. But because the purchases were made in smaller quantities over a period of time from different stores throughout the area no one noticed the stockpile Kehoe was accumulating.
On May 16, 1928, Nellie Kehoe was discharged from St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing, Michigan. At some point between her arrival home and the morning of May 18, Andrew Kehoe bludgeoned her to death. Her badly burned body was later discovered in a wheelbarrow behind a tool shed on the Kehoe property.
At approximately 8:30 am on the morning of the May 18, Andrew Kehoe detonated firebombs at his farm. Trying to inflict maximum damage to his property, Kehoe tied all his animals to their stalls to ensure they could not flee the flames. Neighbors noticed the flames and volunteer fire departments from throughout the area were soon on their way to the Kehoe farm.
Several firefighters who arrived at the fire crawled through a broken window to search for survivors. After determining that no one was in the building, they began passing furniture out of the window. In short order they discovered a pile of dynamite that Kehoe had left in one corner of the parlor and the explosives were removed before they could detonate.
At 8:45 am an alarm clock detonated a huge pile of explosives that Kehoe had stockpiled in the basement under the north wing of the Bath Consolidated School. The force of the explosion lifted the wing four feet into the air before it crashed back into the ground, causing the sides to splinter and the roof to collapse on to the top of the debris. One teacher who survived described children seated at their desks being lifted into the air as high as the ceiling. In all, 36 children and two teachers were killed when the north wing exploded.
In the days leading up to the explosion, Andrew Kehoe had packed his car with rusted farm equipment, nails, glass, and anything else he could find that would make effective shrapnel. Approximately 30 minutes after the north wing exploded, Kehoe pulled up in front of the school and, according to testimony, called Emory Huyck (the school superintendent) over to his car. With Huyck at his car window, Kehoe fired his Winchester rifle in the back seat detonating a large quantity of dynamite. The explosion killed Huyck, Kehoe, two other adults and one additional child.
Three months after the explosions, a ten-year-old girl died from complications caused by her injuries.
In all, 45 died (38 of them children ranging in ages from 7 to 14 years) – including Kehoe and his wife – and another 58 were wounded.
And as horrific as this outcome was, it could have been far worse. Investigators combing through the school wreckage on the day of the explosion found another 500 pounds of explosives in the basement under the south wing of the school set to go off at the same time as the explosion under the north wing. They posited that the two clocks were not perfectly synchronized so when the first explosion went off it disabled the second clock.
Nellie Kehoe’s body was found a day later, so badly burned that investigators at the farm had walked past it numerous times before making the discovery. All the animals in the barns had died in the fires and virtually every building on the property had been incinerated. They also made one other discovery: a sign attached to a fence that, apparently, was Andrew Kehoe’s intended last words. It read, in carefully stenciled letters: “CRIMINALS ARE MADE, NOT BORN.”
And if you are wondering why you have never heard of Andrew Kehoe or the Bath schoolhouse massacre it may be that – though it was national news for several days – on May 23, 1928, Charles Lindbergh landed in France.
My point in telling you this story is not to glorify Kehoe’s crime, nor to minimize in any way the horror of the recent shootings. Rather, I wanted to call attention to the fact that horrific acts by disturbed individuals have been with us for a very, very long time and that the “good ol’ days” were simply days – some better, some worse; some fabulous, and some horrific.