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What Fiendish Man Plans to Kill Children?

Crime historian offers disturbing account of America’s worst school slaughter.

K. Ramsland, with permission from H. Schechter.
Source: K. Ramsland, with permission from H. Schechter.

I’m familiar with the mass murder that happened in Bath, Michigan, in 1927. I discuss it in my course on extreme offenders. When I heard that Harold Schechter had just published a book on the incident, I knew I’d learn much more. I wasn’t wrong. He provides social context and victim background that few other accounts have included. He also makes us feel like eyewitnesses to the event.

I recently put Schechter on a list of my top picks for true crime authors. A professor emeritus, he taught American Literature and Culture at Queen's College, CUNY, and he’s one of the most meticulous researchers I know. Among his many books, he’s penned numerous single-case narratives of serial killers from H. H. Holmes to Belle Gunness, as well as compendiums like The Serial Killer Files and Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of.

In Maniac, Schechter starts with a brief history of the area in Michigan where this singular incident of domestic terror occurred. Then we learn about settlers (including the Kehoes), how our perpetrator Andrew Kehoe came to own a large farm in Bath, and how post-WWI conditions devastated farmers like him.

Although there’s scant biographical detail on Kehoe's early life in the records, there’s enough to know he was cruel, stingy, narcissistic, and punitive. Yet he was also reputed to be a neighbor you could count on. Like most white, male, middle-aged mass murderers, Kehoe was a wound collector, harboring grudges. When things were good, he was fine. When he didn’t like something he couldn’t control, he reacted badly. An overworked horse that wouldn’t pull a plow got beaten to death. A neighbor's dog that came on his property got shot.

It’s a wonder that Kehoe got married, but he eventually did. When his wife Nellie grew ill and required expensive care, this added to Kehoe’s increasing debt. More burdensome were taxes for a new school that the county touted as a model for the state. Then the bank foreclosed on his farm. With nothing to lose, the 55-year-old acted on a plan he’d spent months putting into place. He intended to hit the community where it hurt and do as much damage as possible.

For context, Schechter describes how the progressive movement for better education had gathered Michigan's scattered one-room schoolhouses into centralized buildings. The Bath Consolidated School opened in 1922. Taxes were raised, but the children received a superior education.

In his typical manner, Kehoe resisted. When he couldn't thwart the momentum, he planned his revenge.

He pretended to help with electrical work at the new school to cover for the fact that he was planting explosives. He did the same in his house and barns. On May 18, 1927, he set his horrific plan in motion, making sure everyone in town knew they were to blame before he ended his own life in a gruesome manner.

Schechter pulls details from every conceivable news account, using them to present the victims as dimensional human beings. Readers experience that terrible day as many townspeople did. The full effect presents a map of the mind of a paranoid man unable to deal with setbacks. It’s difficult to read about his outright cruelty, especially when you learn how much more he'd intended. The combined weight of the explosives that failed to detonate was over 500 pounds, “enough to have wrecked the entire village.” Certainly, he'd intended to slaughter all of the children.

Then, there was his farm, which he also blew up. There was no saving the buildings or the animals. He'd even hobbled his horses so they couldn't get out. I’d read in several sources that Kehoe had cut down some trees and placed them back on their stumps, and I’d always wondered how (and why). Schechter clarifies what Kehoe did: He killed a copse of trees by stripping off their bark in a manner that would ensure their deaths – apparently, a “scorched earth” mindset.

That day, there were 44 fatalities, including 37 children, and around 60 injured. One little girl died later. The small village made national headlines, only to be eclipsed two days later when aviator Charles Lindbergh made his historic nonstop flight to Paris. The worst atrocity in the U.S. involving the planned slaughter of children lost media ground at once, despite the long lines of tourists driving to Bath to see the collapsed school building. (One ghoulish collector even extracted a sample of Kehoe’s remains from the vehicle in which he’d blown himself up.)

Throughout Maniac, Schechter includes parallel historic events. He also provides the reactions to the stunning verdict that Kehoe had been sane. This "impossible" claim raised challenges, from those touting the fashionable theory of eugenics to those who still bought discredited notions about “born criminals.”

Although this incident happened 94 years ago this month, its theme of reactive anger and the need for a memorable reckoning fit right in with today’s shooters and bombers. Personal humiliation that feeds a distorted sense of righteous cause seems to emerge from a certain personality type we’ll likely see again and again. Maniac is both a comprehensive historical account of an American tragedy and a fitting reminder about the conditions that can create human time bombs.

References

Schechter, H. (2021). Maniac: The Bath school disaster and the birth of the modern mass killer. Little A.

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