Berenice Sterling was a first-grade teacher in Bath, Mich., in 1927 when she asked school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe for a favor. Sterling wanted to have some fun with her students on the final day of school, so she wondered if the class could picnic in a shady grove of trees on Kehoe’s farm that Wednesday, May 18.
Kehoe agreed, but he urged Sterling’s class not to wait till that date. Instead, he said, they should have their picnic “right away.”
Asked after May 18 why he thought Kehoe had made that suggestion, Bath resident Monty Ellsworth gave a stark reply:
“I suppose he wanted the children to have a little fun before he killed them.”
The full story of Kehoe — who went from first trying to control a school’s budget to finally just blowing the whole building up, killing 44 people in a fit of rage — is revealed in “Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer” (Little A), out now.
Andrew Philip Kehoe was born in Clinton County, Mich., in 1872, the first boy after six girls. Considered “special” and “enthroned as the long-sought male heir” to the family’s farm, writes author Harold Schechter, Kehoe treasured his exalted position in the family hierarchy, eventually coming to believe he could do no wrong. In later life, Kehoe’s egotism led to a “pathologically inflated sense of his own significance and a corresponding contempt” for anyone who dared to disagree, Schechter writes.
An intelligent youngster and “inveterate tinkerer” whose electrical inventions were frequently put to good use on the family farm, he was “at the head of his physics class” and later allegedly attended Michigan State Agricultural College in East Lansing, majoring in electrical engineering. Though no records exist for his university education, it is known that he worked in Iowa hanging power lines and as an electrician for a St. Louis park.
When he moved back to the family’s Michigan homestead in the early 1900s, Kehoe’s bona fides as an electrician were well-established.
But his mental health was shaky. He freely admitted, for example, to killing his stepsister’s cat, plus he nonchalantly confessed to gunning down a neighbor’s “nuisance” of a dog.
Neither did Kehoe show any mercy to his own livestock, becoming so enraged over one horse’s bad attitude — “he didn’t pull!” Kehoe said — that he beat the steed into a lifeless submission.
“When I got through with the animal,” Kehoe flatly told a fellow farmer, “he was dead.”
Meanwhile, in 1911, Kehoe’s stepmother died young in a fiery kitchen explosion. No one suspected her stepson for the deadly conflagration at the time, but later, after he became known as “The Mad Butcher of Bath,” some wondered if she had been his first human victim.
There were other red flags that suggested Kehoe’s sanity was slipping. Although he worked as a farmer, he dressed as a banker. While his neighbors tended their crops in dirty coveralls, the haughty Kehoe plowed and tilled his acres and rode his rumbling tractor through his dusty fields while sporting full business attire.
Plummeting crop prices meant many American farmers suffered in the 1920s, including and Kehoe was no exception. By mid-decade he was years behind on mortgage payments for his Bath farm, and his ailing wife’s hospital bills for the headaches, coughing fits and weight loss she believed were tuberculosis made the couple’s financial situation all theeven more untenable.
When talk in town began of constructing a new school — with its corresponding costs — the childless, fifty-something Kehoe strenuously objected.
“I’ll be taxed into the poor house!” he lamented to Monty Ellsworth.
Bath nonetheless voted to go forward with construction. So, in a bid to limit the spending, Kehoe ran for school board.
He was elected treasurer in 1924, but trying to control the school’s purse strings brought Kehoe into direct conflict with the man who would become his greatest enemy: superintendent Emory Huyck.
Huyck was a World War I veteran, a recent graduate of Michigan State and a man comfortable “asserting his authority.” Beloved by the local citizenry, Huyck helped the Bath Consolidated School earn state and federal accreditation and continually strove to improve its status and expand its offerings. That, however, led to a yearly tax assessment for Andrew Kehoe of $150 (or $2,300 per annum today).
The two men, Schechter writes, “openly loathed one another.”
Kehoe found Huyck a smug know-it-all and tried to ban him from board meetings. Lacking the votes to pull off that petty maneuver, he used his position as treasurer to cut the superintendent’s annual raise and reduce his vacation. Kehoe also “forgot” to give Huyck his paycheck nearly every week.
Meanwhile, Kehoe’s own life was fast falling apart. His wife’s hospital bills accrued and his missed mortgage payments continued to mount. In a “mortifying” blow, Kehoe suffered the twin indignities of losing local elections for town clerk and justice of the peace. When he was served a foreclosure notice on his property in 1926, he was losing everything — and he knew where to place the blame:
“If it hadn’t been for that school tax, I might have paid off the mortgage,” he said to the process server.
Facing bankruptcy, Kehoe spent his last years planning revenge on the town he believed had done him wrong.
First, he accumulated hundreds of pounds of dynamite and pyrotol (a surplus munition left over from World War I that was made available to American farmers for agricultural purposes). Then he used his status as board treasurer and unofficial handyman to creep around the bowels of the Bath Consolidated School every night, wrapping a thousand pounds of bombs in wire mesh and plastering them into the ceiling of the building’s basement.
He used electrical wires to link the explosives to hot-shot batteries and connected the whole device to a timing mechanism set to detonate on the morning of May 18, 1927.
That day, at his farm just a couple miles from the school, Kehoe first killed his sickly wife with a violent blow to the head. Afterwards, he lined the buildings on his property with “enough dynamite to blow up the county,” which he planned to set off right after the school went up. He even tied together the legs of his animals to ensure none could escape the impending inferno.
Then, at 9:45 a.m., exactly as Kehoe planned, the Bath Consolidated School blew up.
Fortunately, not all the explosives were triggered, and due to either faulty wiring or weak batteries, less than half of the bombs detonated. Though “only” half the building came down, 38 students and six adults were ultimately killed.
Kehoe’s explosion led to the “biggest murder of children on a US campus ever,” Schechter writes — a sick record that remains to this day.
Meanwhile, Kehoe wanted to ensure that his nemesis, superintendent Huyck, did not survive the day. He drove to the smoking rubble that was once the Bath Consolidated School and saw Huyck cradling the body of a dead child. Kehoe waved the superintendent over to his truck, and there, the men argued briefly before the “tax-crazed dynamite fiend” discharged the bombs he had jerry-rigged on to his vehicle, blasting both men to kingdom come.
Their bodies, bystanders said, were “virtually shredded.”
Even so, the residents of Bath didn’t immediately peg Kehoe as the bomber. No one had ever suspected the “best neighbor you could ask for” was capable of any such crime.
But, the next day, a deputy sheriff looking for Kehoe’s missing wife found the “blackened remains” of her body. A stack of unpaid hospital bills had been placed atop her corpse. And the charred skeletons of the farm’s two horses were discovered in the ashes of a barn, exactly where The Mad Butcher of Bath had bound them.
Suddenly, it was clear to all that Kehoe was a deranged murderer, though he left no suicide note or detailed letter giving the reasons for his evil deeds.
Instead, a painted sign nailed to a fencepost on the remains of his farm offered his final, chilling words.
It said: “Criminals are made, not born.”