Justin Peters: 80 Years Later, Remembering the Deadliest School Massacre in U.S. History
Justin Peters is an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.
The recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., have led many people to characterize school violence as a modern affliction, a byproduct of our national obsession with guns and media violence. But the deadliest school-related massacre in American history happened in 1927, at an elementary school in Bath, Mich. A school board member named Andrew Kehoe, upset over a burdensome property tax, wired the building with dynamite and set it off in the morning of May 18. Kehoe’s actions killed 45 people, 38 of whom were children.
At the time, Bath was a small farm community with under 300 residents. The town had "an elevator, a little drugstore, and you knew everybody within 20 miles," as one survivor of the attack recalled in 2009. Perhaps its most modern feature was the Bath Consolidated School, which opened its doors in 1922 and brought all the region’s students under one roof. In The Bath School Disaster, published in 1927 and available online here, Kehoe’s neighbor, Monty J. Ellsworth, noted that the consolidated school was markedly superior to the "common country school" that preceded it. It was also more expensive, and the township raised property taxes in order to repay the school’s bonds.
This upset Andrew Kehoe. A local farmer with training as an electrical engineer, he was a severe, stubborn man fond of drastic solutions to small problems; Ellsworth writes that Kehoe once shot a noisy dog and killed his own horse because it was lazy. In an article from May 20, 1927, the New York Times noted that Kehoe "was known through the countryside as a ‘dynamite farmer’. Neighbors detailed how he was continually setting off blasts on his farm, blowing up stumps and rocks."
Kehoe really hated taxes, and joined the school board to argue against them. The Times reported that, as a board member, he "appeared to have a tax mania and fought the expenditure or money for the most necessary equipment." In 1926, he ran for town clerk, but his obstructionist reputation preceded him, and he was defeated. His loss in that race, coupled with the news that his farm was facing foreclosure, appears to have triggered his plan...
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