Bath School Disaster

Duane's 1940 class

Here’s Duane’s 4th grade class in 1940. Can you find him? It’s important to note that Duane’s class was not involved in the Bath School Disaster, but 13 years earlier children this same age were. Can you imagine the horror?


Today we’re going to have a history lesson. Today is the 85th anniversary of the Bath School Disaster, and while this tragedy happened five years before Duane, our octogenarian, was even born, because it took place in our family’s general neighborhood, I thought it worthy of mention.

Bath Township was, and still is, a small community located just off what now is I-69. It’s about ten miles southwest of Laingsburg. According to Wikipedia, in 1922, the community voted to close its one-room schools and merge them into the Bath Consolidated School system. They built a big, new school building, which, of course, necessitated an increase in property taxes.

One man, Andrew Kehoe, was particularly disgruntled by these costs. As treasurer for the Bath Consolidated School board, he fought to lower the taxes and blamed them for the financial difficulties he was having on his farm.

On the morning of May 18, 1927, Kehoe killed his chronically ill wife and set his home and farm buildings on fire. As fire fighters responded to this emergency, Kehoe detonated hundreds of pounds of explosives he had previously planted in the Bath Consolidated School building. And then, if that wasn’t enough, as people rushed to respond to the school explosion, Kehoe drove up in his car and detonated that too. It killed him, the school superintendent and several others who were nearby.

According to sources, all totaled, Kehoe killed 45 people and injured at least 58. Most of his victims were children in the second thru seventh grades, whose classrooms were in the north wing of building. During the rescue efforts, searchers found an additional 500 pounds of undetonated explosives in the south wing of the building.

Can you imagine something so horrific happening in your community?

At the time, Gladys would have been 16. She may have been living with her father in the Williamston area or with her mother in Lansing. Can you imagine how shocking it was to hear of this news?

I ask the Amos Boys about it. I wonder if they talked about it as children? Did people memorialize the date the way we do our tragedies today?

“We heard about it as we were growing up, but not too much detail,” says Duane.

“It happened before we were born,” says Bruce. “All we knew is what we heard, and that wasn’t a whole lot.”

“I don’t remember ever discussing it,” says Jerry. “Not in my neighborhood, or with my grandparents, or in school. Not even in junior or senior high school. Some history teacher may have mentioned it, but I don’t remember.”

Basically, as Jerry says, it happened and then people put it aside. They moved on.

Let’s talk about this a bit (we can have a psychology lesson as well as our history lesson).

If we look at modern-day school tragedies, like the Columbine High School Massacre or the Virginia Tech Massacre (neither of which had a death toll as high as the Bath School Disaster), we see public reactions that are very different. Nowadays, the media exposes every detail and we discuss it to great lengths. We send counselors into the classroom to help students deal with what they’ve experienced. And we soothe our pain with proactive measures to ensure nothing so terrible will ever happen again.

How different from putting it aside and moving on.

What do you think?

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11 thoughts on “Bath School Disaster

  1. It is interesting and unbelievable to look back on such events but there are lessons to be learned by keeping the memory alive. Things which are extremely unlikely happen all the time. Some people can not handle stress or loss or the unknown, and their brains can’t handle it. They just cannot function normally and the kind of help they need is not always available. Keyhoe was one poor, sorry, victim also.

  2. This Andrew Kehoe was also the school janitor I believe, and was very upset with the superintendent.

    The other lesson is that highly unlikely events happen frequently, some very bad, but we try to learn from them and carry on like we can pretty much predict the future.

  3. “Here’s Duane’s 4th grade class in 1940. Can you find him?” – he was probably playing hooky the day the class photo was taken.

    Actually, I’m guessing Dad in the top row, the last on the right.

  4. My guess was that he was in the second row, last on the right. And I wondered if this was Bruce’s class too, but he’s not in the picture because he definitely was playing hooky! :-)

  5. I’m thinking Joel and Di are right,that he is in the second row, last on the right. I wondered about Bruce too, whether he went to school ther also…seems like he would have, but he would have been in the 3rd grade then. Did the boys actually go to school in Bath at some point?

  6. Good question, Shelley. Duane and Bruce mentioned living with a family in DeWitt for a while as young boys (without Roland or Gladys), but I never heard them say anything about Bath. We’ll have to ask them.

  7. Some really cute hair cuts in that picture!
    There are always useful lessons to learn from any incident such as the Bath School Disaster. But obsessing on them as we do now-a-days is not a good thing either (it only sells newspapers). A person just has to ‘let go’ or we are crushed by the burdens of the world.
    I agree… Dad is the trendsetter with the tie and suspenders.

  8. Bruce and Duane did not go to a Bath school. As young kids they probably never heard of Bath or about the disaster. I don’t remember hearing anything about it as a kid during the war years. People from the Bath area didn’t want to talk about it or be reminded of it. Later on those who were more removed from the event by age or distance are intrested in what actually happened and why. People living in Bath now are more comforable with the history and they seem to want the memory kept alive for any lessons that others might use. They have a memorial park in town and are presently debating on whether to build a pavillian. Every year there is a big spread in the Lansing State Journal on the anniversary and it has become just an other big event to sell papers.

  9. My name is Douglas R. Haney, and presently I am authoring a novel about the “Bath Consolidated School Disaster.” The title of this work is “The Angels of May.” I was born in Lansing’s St. Lawrence Hospital (October 1, 1948) as was my daughter Raeshell (January 13, 1971).. My earliest years were lived in Morrice Township, and by the age of seven, our family moved to Alma, where I graduated in June of 1967. In all of that time, I had never heard of the May 18, 1927 bombing of said school. I was drafted into the U.S. Army; served in Vietnam as a Sr. Combat Medic in the Vietnam War. I came home and soon thereafter, married and lived in Lansing while attending college. Again, not a word was ever uttered about the Bath tragedy. I moved my family to Hawaii, and then back to Los Angeles. Eventually I made my way onto the America’s Space Shuttle Program at Vandenberg AFB, California (1978-1986) attaining the position of Sr. Writer for Pre-Launch Testing Documentation/Protocol. Ten months after the “Challenger Disaster” (January 28, 1986 all operations shut down, and my position was terminated. Thereafter, I moved to Sacramento where I reentered my writing career while graduating from Chapman University with a Psychology Degree, and eventually retired as a Bio-Health Research Psychologist after teaching Addictions Sciences at the college level. In all that time; not until I retired and started writing my second book for publishing, “Blood & Valor” had I ever heard the story of Bath.

    One night, about a year ago, while searching the Internet, I came across this story quite by accident. I was literally in shock, and as I read the story behind it (that had many errors and omissions) as a former scientific investigative writer, I knew then I had to write a factual and true story of the horrific tragedy and its aftermath. That is what I am doing currently. What I have discovered historically about the townspeople; their history, fortitude, resilience, and long and silent internal hardships and anguish, even to this day is nothing short of incredible in its scope. Why do people continue to investigate and write about this sad, painful, and sadistic historical account of that horrific moment in time? It is because as humans we comprehend the enormity of it. We feel the pain with empathy when we see the faces; the burial sites, and read the accounts of each person who died or was injured. And when we interview the very few living victims who were there, we are compelled to help them find unresolved answers; provide some sort of justice; search for a sense of intrapersonal peace before they leave us, Today, there are less than a handful of books (mostly documentary in style) written about this terrible day, and virtually nothing is written about how the townspeople managed to, as has been pointed out, “move on” with their lives. We, as a caring and loving society need to hear of their plight. The novel I am writing is not about rewards or prestige. It is about early Americans and it is a valuable account of our heritage; a vital recollection of who we are as a society and where we came from. It is a story about the farmers, auto workers, school teachers, and others from all walks of life. It is a story about the quality of our faith and mutual respect for one another. It is a lesson in dignity, humility, and how we emerged from meager beginnings to become a Country that retains its ingrained virtues even under the most extreme conditions life forces upon us. Newspapers may use it for profits, but news writers still care as Americans with a conscience. No one can harm the soul of a person with a will to live; even upon death, yet our soul lives.

  10. Interesting read of Douglas Haney’s comments. I beg to differ with him though. I am a direct descendant of victims in the school explosion. There is a factual, all inclusive account of the disaster and how the people reacted to it over the years. It is called Bath Massacre by Arnie Bernstein. He researched in depth, went to disaster survivors for first hand accounts, spoke to descendants and most respectfully documented the whole story.
    There is no need for another story, fiction or factual. It is a part of history. It was documented first by Mr. Ellingsworth and then by Mr. Bernstein. It is in the past and does not need to be revisited.
    I would appreciate it if Mr. Haney would not pursue this project.
    Thank you.
    Michelle Burnett Allen
    Daughter of Harold B. Burnett, in classroom that far wall blew off, 2nd grade.
    Niece of Floyd Burnett, killed in explosion
    Niece of Aunt Gertie Burnett Case buried in the rubble, was dug out.
    Niece of Uncle Royal Burnett jumped from upper floor, damaging legs for life
    Niece of Aunt Winnie & Aunt Wannie, witnesses to Kehoe truck explosion.

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