Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Survivor of 1927 Bath School Disaster dies at age 100

One of the last survivors of the Bath Consolidated School bombing, America's worst school-related mass murder, died July 18 at the age of 100.

Bath bombing survivor, 100, dies

Merrien Josephine Cushman wasn't at the school the morning of May 18, 1927, as her grades were high enough that she had earned time off from classes that day. However, her younger brother, Ralph, showed up as usual, and lost his life in the tragedy that killed 45 people (mostly children) and injured at least 58 others. The mass murder was the work of a deranged Bath resident, Andrew Kehoe, who bombed the school over slights he believed he had suffered at the hands of fellow community members.

Kehoe had moved to Bath, about ten miles north of Lansing, in 1919, and quickly became a thorn in the side of local leaders. He was an intelligent man, but impatient and frugal. One source of his ire was the Bath Consolidated School building, which the community built so that all the district's students could attend a single school, rather than divide themselves among the one-room schoolhouses they had previously attended. Kehoe railed against the higher taxes the consolidated school required, but construction proceeded regardless, and the school opened in 1922.

Bath Consolidated School
Kehoe eventually served as treasurer of the Consolidated School board, where his combative personality and penny-pinching ways made him a difficult person with whom to work. During this time, Kehoe suffered a series of financial and emotional setbacks; his wife was sick with tuberculosis, he couldn't pay his bills, and, in 1926, his mortgage company announced the start of foreclosure proceedings on his farm. Many students of the disaster believe Kehoe's "last straw" was the fact that he lost a race for town clerk in 1926; it was after this supposed slight that he developed his plans to bomb the school.

Kehoe began stockpiling explosives, which he planted in the school's basement under the guise that he was working on its lighting system. On May 18, 1927, a few days shy of graduation, Kehoe set his plan in motion. Sometime in the days before the bombing, he had killed his wife, Nellie. Around 8:45 a.m. on the 18th, Kehoe set off firebombs he had wired throughout his farm. (Nellie's body would later be found there, in the charred remains of a chicken coop.) At almost the same time, an alarm clock, set by Kehoe, detonated the explosives he had planted under the school. The school's north wing collapsed into a heap of rubble, taking its young occupants and their teachers with it.

View of the Bath Consolidated School, after the bombing

Kehoe's deadly work wasn't done. As volunteers rushed between his farm and the school, trying to save whoever they could, Kehoe drove his truck, loaded with explosives and metal shrapnel, into town, and parked it near the school. He called to Superintendent Emory Huyck, with whom Kehoe had a fractious relationship, and Huyck approached the truck. A witness later testified that he saw Kehoe and Huyck grapple over a gun that Kehoe had brought with him. Suddenly, the truck exploded, killing both Kehoe and Huyck, as well as three other people (including an eight-year-old boy). The blast injured several others.

By the time Kehoe was done wreaking his vengeance, 45 people (including Kehoe and his wife) had died, and 58 had been injured. More would surely have died save for the fact that the explosives Kehoe wired under the school's south wing did not detonate, possibly because of a short circuit caused by the first explosion.

While Bath struggled to recover, donations poured in from across the nation, including $75,000 from James J. Couzens, Michigan's U.S. Senator. In 1928, the new James Couzens Agricultural School opened on the site of the consolidated school building, and served students until its demolition in 1975. The site now contains a memorial park, the centerpiece of which is a cupola that survived the school bombing and that pays tribute to those who lost their lives on one of the deadliest days in Michigan history.

To read more:

Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing, by Arnie Bernstein

The Bath School Disaster, by M.J. Ellsworth

Mayday: History of a Village Holocaust, by Grant Parker

No comments:

Post a Comment