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Lev Raphael Headshot

America's Deadliest School Massacre Is the One You Never Heard Of

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Say "school massacre," and most people think of Columbine or Virginia Tech.

But America's worst school massacre took place May 18th, 1927, in bucolic Bath, Michigan, not far from the state capital of Lansing. It was also our country's first.

The toll was 44 killed, 58 wounded. The means were unprecedented. The target was the small farming town's new consolidated school building.

Arnie Bernstein relates the grim story in Bath Massacre, following the decades-old trail of suicide bomber Andrew Kehoe. In his forties, this slightly odd farmer worked his eighty-acre property dressed to the nines, disliked certain people for unknown reasons, and didn't keep up with his mortgage. Some of his interactions with neighbors were borderline creepy but there was nothing deeply, obviously weird about Kehoe.

In the end, he was that American cliché: the kind of man you'd never expect to go criminally berserk.

He was an expert with dynamite and pyrotol for blowing up tree stumps, the bane of any farm, and also enjoyed using explosives (rather than fireworks) to celebrate Independence Day. Because he'd been hired to do work on the Bath school's plumbing and electrical system, he had an intimate knowledge of the building which helped him place his dynamite, wiring, and dynamite caps.

On that May 18th morning, half of the solidly built new school was blown up with several hundred children inside. Kehoe had rigged the building with 600 pounds of dynamite, only 100 of which blew up, but that was more than enough to create horror and devastation out of a war zone.

At 8:45 AM, the explosion echoed for miles in every direction. He also blew up his entire property after apparently murdering his wife. And then he drove his shrapnel-filled truck to the bombed-out school and blew that up, too, killing several people, including the school superintendent whom he seemed to hate.

Nowadays, Kehoe's massive purchases of dynamite and blasting caps would have -- hopefully -- triggered alarms long before he could have used them. But back then, if anyone noticed, there was no history of lunatic bombings like his to make it seem suspicious.

Sadly, the author's knowledge of Kehoe is fragmentary, but it's particularly suggestive that he might have suffered a serious brain injury at some point in his life, and that he not only killed a neighbor's dog and one of his own horses, but might have rigged a stove to blow up his stepmother.

Despite the fact that Bath wasn't yet wired for electricity and seems to have been bypassed by the Jazz Age, the story feels painfully modern. You have the bodies dug out from rubble, frantic rescuers, the blood and dust, the stench of death, the grisly rain of body parts, the horribly injured bystanders, the freakish survival stories, the makeshift morgue, the "epic destruction and epic heartbreak."