The Bath Terrorist Attack of 1927: A Powerful Lesson for Today
How a Long Ago Incident Still Haunts Us in 2018
In these days of seemingly endless (and mindless) random outbursts of violence, it is sometimes too easy to blame modern conditions and recent religious or political turmoil that infects individual minds. All too often, the search for scapegoats tends to cloud serious investigations into these matters. It may help to recall that although there are certainly more of them nowadays than in the past, they are really not so new. And while no amount of analysis can lessen the pain of each tragedy, putting it into some kind of historical perspective may help to explain the background context of these seemingly disconnected events. This is the strange story of an incident from May 1927 in the quiet town of Bath, Michigan where one man launched a virtual local war on his community. The descriptions of the carnage sound as if they could have been ripped from today's headlines, instead of nearly a century ago. Again, there are no easy answers offered here, merely a recounting of an all too familiar theme running through American culture today: that of the "lone wolf" psychopath on a day long rampage.
May 18, 1927: a Day of Terror
The day of May 18, 1927 dawned much like any other day. In Bath, the school year was drawing to a close and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. At the Bath Consolidated School, it was academic business as usual. A man named Andrew Kehoe was employed in the township government, and although he had a background in electrical engineering and explosives, he might have been regarded as a proverbial "pillar of the community." He had held elected offices in the local political organization, and seemed to be happily married and a resident of the area, although colleagues reported later that he was at times difficult and uncooperative. Nothing, in short, gave any hint of what was to come on that fateful day. Kehoe had been disappointed by his defeat in the election for a town office, and was also undergoing financial and personal stress. His wife had chronic illnesses, and this may have contributed to his outburst. He apparently killed her at home, then drove to the school. Previously, he had wired the north wing with dynamite and pyrotol, an incendiary substance. He had also planted these charges in the south wing, but they failed to detonate that day. He then pressed a remote control device which collapsed the entire north wing. After this, he returned home and killed himself as well as other victims, including the school superintendent, with still more dynamite and a Winchester rifle. When it was all over, 38 children were dead, as well as six adults at the school and at his home. In addition, 58 were injured but survived. This disaster still stands as the worst school related catastrophe in American history, easily surpassing the well-known Columbine and Newtown attacks of more recent memory.
Bath School Memorial Park
Fittingly after a tragedy such as this, the people of Bath constructed a small park to commemorate the disaster and honor those who had lost their lives. It was previously known as the James Couzens Agricultural School Memorial Park. Included inside are the cupola from the school's roof, as well as a boulder and signs with informative descriptions. Silent now, an eerie calm prevails over the site, which otherwise might be mistaken for just another shaded, leafy town park. The stillness belies the pandemonium of that time but also helps to provide a healing element.
The town of Bath is quiet today, with little lingering aftereffects of the disaster, except for the memories of older local residents and the memorial park. The entire tragedy might have slipped into the mists of time were it not for the endlessly repeated outbursts affecting schools in our time. Schools are certainly vulnerable targets, but not the only ones, as recent other outbursts demonstrate. The sobering fact remains that America is a large, somewhat mentally ill and anomic country and is heavily armed as well. Kehoe's rash acts that dark day were rare back then, but are much more prevalent now. Yet there is no simple answer that can explain or predict these random episodes. The only common denominator running through them all is obviously mental illness, sometimes aggravated by intense political or religious fervor, but Kehoe also fits the profile of an isolated case allowed to seep through the cracks of a flawed system. There is no known safeguard to prevent such an explosion of personal psychosis, and it is only a matter of time before it happens again. When it does happen--and it will-- the country shall again search for a rational explanation, but there will not be any. The only consolation is that it has roots back in American time, and Kehoe makes a good case study.