Adam Lanza’s Sandy Hook rampage, as shocking as it was, was not the deadliest in the history of gruesome attacks on American elementary schools. That distinction belongs to the 1927 firebombing of a brick schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan. Andrew Philip Kehoe, age 55, killed 38 children and six adults. Smart, meticulous, calm, he shared traits in common with Lanza, but their pathologies also diverged. Kehoe’s story points to complexities that defy behavioral simplification. In Kehoe’s time, as in ours, tragedy fed a search for context and some larger meaning, yet the searching quickly obscured the horror of random events.
The Bath disaster dawned warm and bright on a hopeful morning in a bucolic American town. On May 18, 1927, about 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, in the farm town of Bath, Michigan, Kehoe bashed his wife with a heavy object. Police found her body tied to a milk cart near a henhouse mined with explosives. Nearby at the two-story Bath Consolidated School more than 1,000 pounds of dynamite had been packed into rafters and under floorboards. At 8:30 the school bell rang about 260 children into the building. Upstairs the younger ones sang and marched to a phonograph record. Older students labored at their end-term exams. When the clock struck 9:45, a battery wired to sparkplugs sent the fatal electrical charge. Doors flew off and the north roof imploded. Timbers collapsed over children, their limbs and heads protruding. Flesh dangled from telephone wires.
“I saw the bodies of my children hurled against the walls or through the windows,” said the second-floor teacher. “Children [were] screaming and moaning,” said a next-door neighbor. “I began to feel as though the world was coming to an end,” a farmer told a reporter, having witnessed the explosion from two miles away.
Grieved parents were frantically digging when Kehoe arrived in a pickup. Smiling, perhaps gloating, he waved over the school’s superintendent. As the superintendent approached, the bomber produced a rifle and shot into the truck. A massive blast from a shrapnel bomb obliterated Kehoe and cut down the superintendent. “Leave me, boys, and run!” cried a man mortally wounded. A mile away a fragment of metal blinded a mother holding her baby. Cleo Clayton, age 8, who had wandered down the road, having survived the first explosion, was pierced by a bolt through the gut.
In total, on that bloodiest of American school days, 44 people died and 58 were seriously injured. Still it could have been worse. Police searching through the wreckage discovered a bomb unexploded. Sticks of dynamite had been packed with a WWI weapons grade incendiary explosive called pyrotol. More bombs with pyrotol were found among gasoline containers at Kehoe’s booby-trapped farm. A five-word suicide note, carefully stenciled and painted, had been wired to a chicken coop fence. “Criminals,” said the sign, “are made, not born.” Jewelry, silver and banknotes had been stashed among the explosives. The plan had been to leave nothing behind.
The message about “criminals” left police guessing at motives. Some said the killer wanted revenge for losing the election to retain his seat on the town’s school board. Some said the bombing was an anarchist’s protest against taxation. Kehoe, before killing his wife, had gone to the post office to mail a box that contained the financial records of the Bath school board. Appended to the document was a meticulous explanation of a 22-cent discrepancy in the Kehoe property tax.
“The Bath Horror” Clinton County Republican-News, May 19, 1927“What is the lesson?” the Clinton County Republican-News wanted to know before the first bodies were buried. “Is the Bath township tax situation serious enough to warrant despondency or insanity among its citizens? What are we going to do about it? What about Bath township with its one school in ruins?” Besides rebuilding the school, there were no simple answers because, said the paper, “the catastrophe… had no [historical] parallels.” Still there were those who found them. Michigan’s Ku Klux Klan said the sinister root of the rampage was that Kehoe was a Roman Catholic. For Sociologist Lowell Julliard Carr of the University of Michigan, writing in 1933, there were behavioral laws to be learned in the stealthy, calculative nature of Kehoe’s premeditation. Carr’s colleagues in the biology department wondered if violent men like Kehoe had “ridges” creased in their brains. Ridges, it was said, were a primitive evolutionary “throwback” and the caveman’s mark of “demonic cunning.” Kehoe’s sister denied the request to study the skull.
Looking down into the crater of death,” Clinton County Republican News, May 26, 1927
The search for patterns resumes in the wake of Lanza’s Connecticut rampage. Kehoe, like Lanza, was mechanically bright and socially awkward. Both began their murders at home with the killing of a family member. Kehoe and Lanza both, like 12 of the top 15 on an online list of schoolhouse rampage killers, among them Cho Seung-Hui of Virginia Tech and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris of Colorado’s Columbine High, ended the slaughter by taking their lives. Yet there is no single obvious factor that binds these 15 killers—not race, not guns, not a diagnosed mental illness. No obvious linkage except that all 15 killers were men. “Similar violence has been observed in male chimps,” writes Paul Farhi in the Washington Post, responding to Lanza’s shootings with the determinism that biologists used to explain Kehoe’s rampage eighty-five years before.
The problem is that Kehoe’s rampage and Lanza’s defy reductionist simplification. Extreme horror—unique and complexly nuanced—seems all the more horrific because the horror is hard to predict.