Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Hell Comes to Bath

The Explosions

A beautiful spring day it was on May 18, 1927 in Bath, Michigan, so very much in contrast with what was about to happen. In the morning, Kehoe made a brief trip to the town post office where he mailed a rather large package containing the finance history of the school board. Also included in the papers was a long and detailed explanation concerning a twenty-two cent discrepancy in Kehoe's own books. Such was his manner. It was an indication of his insanity that Kehoe would debate a twenty-two cent shortage when he was minutes away from committing mass murder.

At about 8:00 AM, the children began to arrive at the consolidated school for the day's classes as they had for so many other mornings. They pushed and shoved their way through the hallways, calling to each other, dropping books and pencils onto the floors, hurrying to class, thinking of ways to explain why they couldn't do their homework or pass the end terms, their minds firmly fixed on the summer vacation that loomed just ahead. They had no way of knowing that just inches beneath their feet, over 1,000 pounds of dynamite waited patiently for a tiny electric current to begin an explosive chain reaction which would change their lives forever.

The Nickols sisters (New York Times)
The Nickols sisters
(New York Times)

At about 8:30 that morning, Mrs. Blanche Harte, a 6th grade teacher instructed her pupils in a second-floor classroom. Willa and George Hall, brother and sister sat in another class opening their books for the day's assignment. Robert Bromund, 12, sat in his fifth grade dreaming of baseball. His sister, Amelia, 11, was in Mrs. Harte's class. Robert Cochran, 9, was in the third grade and recently told his father he wanted to be a doctor. Willa Marie, 11 and her brother, George, 9, packed up their books as they prepared for the summer recess. All three of the Nickols sisters, Ruth, Ottelia and Emma were attending their final classes of the school term. Stanley Hart, 10, and his brothers and sisters, Robert, Percy, Iola and Vivian went about their duties in different classrooms. Miss Eva Gubbins, another 6th grade teacher was just sitting down to grade student papers. And Cleo Clayton, 8 years old, gazed out a first floor window, into the fields of grass and meadows where he played many times before, oblivious to a particularly cruel fate to which he would soon be victim.

Meanwhile, about two miles from the school, Kehoe had completed final preparations on his farm. At approximately 8:45 AM, he detonated the firebombs at his home. The entire place exploded into flames, sending debris far into the sky, some of which eventually landed on a farm across the road. The neighbors, hearing the explosion, ran to Kehoe's farm to render assistance. As they sprinted down his driveway, Kehoe was already behind the wheel of his pickup truck. "Boys," he said," you are my friends. You better get out of here. You better go down to the school." Within minutes, the Kehoe farm was fully engulfed in flames. Neighbors, not knowing what had actually happened, rushed to the scene to help. As Kehoe quickly drove away, another tremendous explosion, much bigger than the first, occurred in the distance. The sound was heard for at least ten miles. The Bath Consolidated School had been blown up. O.H. Buck, who responded to the Kehoe farm to render aid, heard the massive explosion at the school. "I began to feel as though the world was coming to an end," he later told reporters. In Lansing and East Lansing, the police and fire departments were notified immediately.

Bath School bombed
Bath School bombed

Before the dust from the school explosion had even hit the ground, townspeople were digging through the rubble. M.J. Ellsworth, Kehoe's next door neighbor, was one of the first rescuers to arrive: "we could hear the children screaming and moaning at the school. It seemed as if our car would hardly run. It was a ride that none of us will ever forget" (Ellsworth, p.6). When they arrived at the school, they were stunned by what they saw. Fully half the building, the northwest wing, was gone. The walls were destroyed and the roof lay on the ground. Under it, the bodies of children lay. Little arms and legs stuck out from the ruins. Faces, covered with blood and dust, peered through broken windows and debris. Miss Sterling, a teacher on the second floor, told the press: "Without warning this terrible explosion came. I saw the bodies of my children hurled against the walls or through the windows" (N.Y. Times, May 19, 1927). Frantic mothers ran screaming to the scene for almost every adult in town had at least one child enrolled at the school. The sobbing of trapped children could be heard as some mothers fought with rescuers to pull their children out from the wreckage. The magnitude of the blast was enormous; those who came to the school imagined and expected the worst. Men worked feverishly digging into the mountain of rubble where little children were screaming in terror.

Less than 30 minutes after the school explosion, Kehoe pulled up in his pickup truck. No one knew that he had loaded the back of his vehicle with dynamite and pieces of metal junk. He got out of his car and saw School Superintendent Emory Huyck in the distance. Kehoe called him over to his car. As he approached, Kehoe pulled a rifle from the front seat, aimed at the dynamite and fired. Another powerful explosion rocked the helpless village. A huge column of flame erupted into the sky and sideways down the street. Shrapnel shot out in all directions, through the trees, windows and homes striking down everything in its path. Emory Huyck and Postmaster Glen Smith were killed. Kehoe was almost obliterated. As Glen Smith lay dying on the ground, he told rescuers: "Leave me, boys, and run, these trees are full of it" (Ellsworth, p. 10). A few minutes later, he died in his wife's arms. And student Cleo Clayton, 8 years old, still dazed from the first blast and walking along the street a hundred yards away, was struck in the stomach by a large bolt from Kehoe's shrapnel. He died some hours later, twice a victim of Kehoe's madness.

The people working at the school were in a full panic. No one understood what had happened. Many imagined they were under some sort of military attack. Rumors swept through the crowd about more explosions to come. In the distance, Kehoe's farm continued to burn, sending pillars of thick black smoke hundreds of feet into the air. Periodic explosions could still be heard from the farm as Kehoe's stash of Pyrotol continued to detonate. In the village, rows of parked cars, as well as many of the trees along the road to the school, were on fire from the original blast. Pieces of bodies were strewn in the bushes and trees and many relatives of the children had fainted or became hysterical. Three of the Hart children, Iola, Vivian and Percy, were found dead in the rubble. So were Willa and George Hall, Robert and Amelia Bromund, and several dozen others. Over a hundred people were injured and more were being uncovered by the minute.

Very shortly after Kehoe's truck explosion, the Lansing Fire and Police Departments arrived from the city. The State Police came upon the scene and the Department of Public Safety also sent their people. But nothing could have prepared the police for what they saw. Wrecked and burning cars, downed trees, a collapsed building containing screaming children, fires everywhere. It resembled some battle scene from a world war. Near the school was "the front end of a Ford with parts of a human body hanging on it. Truck parts were found 125 feet in one direction from the machine and thirty feet in another. Flesh dangled from overhanging telephone wires...People were frantic, trying to dig the children out from beneath the ruins with bare hands" (Parker, p. 126).

A short distance away from where Kehoe's pick-up exploded, Mrs. Frank Smith stood in front of her home watching in horror the events that unfolded before her eyes. In the corner of her garden, amidst the flowers and grass she meticulously cared for, she noticed a crumpled mass of clothing. As she investigated, she saw that it was a large part of a human body, bloody and mangled almost beyond recognition. From a rear pocket of the clothing, she saw some papers and carefully removed them. When Mrs. Smith read the papers, she saw that part of it was a bankbook from the Lilley State Bank of Tecumseh belonging to Andrew Kehoe. The other part was Kehoe's Michigan driver's license. Mrs. Smith ran over to the local Sheriff who was directing rescue efforts at the school. The sheriff brought some of Kehoe's neighbors who viewed the human remains in Mrs. Smith's garden and a positive identification was made. Andrew Kehoe had been found.

The 504 pounds of dynamite
The 504 pounds of dynamite
(New York Times)

Back at the school, hundreds of rescuers were working the ruins. As they searched through the rubble, desperate to find signs of life, a chilling discovery was made. The State Police emerged from the basement of the school with a bushel of fresh dynamite and informed the crowd there were more explosives in the building. Minutes later police located a battery and clock. All rescue efforts came to a sudden halt. Working frantically in the twisted steel and concrete, not knowing if they would be blown to hell the next second, with a courage that speaks volumes of such men, police carefully dismantled the remainder of Kehoe's handiwork. Someone asked these men why they risked their lives, one of the cops replied "That is our duty" (Ellsworth, p.12). They removed a total of 504 pounds of dynamite, along with wires and detonating devices. The Pyrotol was divided up into eight different bombs, hidden in various spots on the south end of the school. Police theorized the first blast caused some type of a short circuit and caused a malfunction of the bomb. If this additional dynamite had gone off, the school would have been demolished and the death toll would surely have been in the hundreds.

Slowly, the bodies of the innocent victims were brought out from the ruins. They were placed in neat rows on the grass by the school where they were hastily covered up. Then one by one, the corpses were transported to City Hall, which acted as a temporary morgue. Dazed parents, wracked by grief and shock, were brought in to identify the remains of the children, some of who were horribly mangled. A short distance away, Mrs. Eugene Hart sat in the street, with her two little dead girls, one in each arm and her son, Percy, lying dead in her lap. "There were sights that I hope no one will ever have to look at again," said M. J. Ellsworth.

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