Bath Township School Disaster 80 Year Anniversary

By: Lauren Zakalik Email
By: Lauren Zakalik Email

"On May 18th, 1927, Andrew Kehoe committed the worst school mass killing in US history, and one of the worst mass murders of US history," says local reference historian David Votta.

"The word terrorism was never used," he says. "Words that were used were maniac. Superkiller. Madman."

Eighty years ago this week, as students at Bath Consolidated School in Bath Township were taking their final exams, dynamite exploded, bringing their school to the ground.

And as the survivors ran from the rubble, a car full of exploding metal shrapnel met them in the schoolyard. In all, 45 people died-- the majority of them children.

"If all the dynamite had been exploded, the tragedy would have been much worse. There were nearly 300 students at the school, plus teachers there at the time," Votta says.

The killer was Andrew Kehoe, and Votta says it's a widely accepted fact that Kehoe bombed the school as revenge for high taxes placed on his farm.

For weeks, he concocted the intricate plan: a plan to murder his wife, plant dynamite all over the school and drive his expsive-filled car up to the crime scene to cause further tragedy.

"MSU wanted to examine his skull and see if he was some sort of primitive man that could perform these acts. They couldn't comprehend a man could do this," says Votta.

Ninety-five-year-old Willis Cressman was a tenth-grade student at Bath School in 1927. He recalls how his life was saved that day.

"I got to the doors to the library and the teacher wouldn't let me in," he says. "So I went back to my desk and right after that, it blew up, and the whole library went down."

He dodged death a second time that day as shrapnel from Kehoe's car flew by his face and hit a friend.

"We thought the fellow must have had someone working with him. We were worried about him blowing us up again," Cressman says.

Even after last month's Virginia Tech massacre, the Bath Township disaster remains the worst school killing in history. But many Americans-- let alone people in mid-Michigan-- know little if anything about it.

Votta explains why:

"Unfortunately it got a little bit of press, but two days later is when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, so it was really buried."

A tower-like structure is all that's physically left from the school; it sits in a park in Bath. For many, it serves as a memorial for the lives lost. For others, it's a reminder of how lucky they are.

I'm lucky because they wouldn't let me into the library," Cressman says. "I don't know why. Kind of a miracle it kept me from going in there."

Most of the people who died that day are buried just down the street at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Bath. Their headstones show lives cut short; Cressman still remembers a few.

"Dick Richardson, he was in a lower grade. He was killed."

Kehoe himself was killed in the explosions that day. He's buried in the pauper's section here at Mt. Rest Cemetery in St. Johns. His grave may be unmarked, but the mark he left on Bath Township still remains 80 years later.

"The repercussions are still going on," Votta says. "It's a very sore topic. There are still folks alive who remember this and don't want to talk about it. There were several families who lost two and three children that day."

Just yards away from the memorial park in the center of Bath, children play, likely unaware of what took place 80 years ago, a tragedy from another time that is so very close to home.

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  • by Shari Location: Nevada on May 24, 2007 at 08:45 AM
    I stumbled across the Bath School Disaster on the internet several months ago. The story touched me deeply. I had hoped the 80th anniversary would bring the story to the attention of the nation, but alas it appears to have stayed predominantly local. My heart goes out to the community of Bath and all the lives touched by this tragedy.
  • by Christopher Location: Vancouver on May 18, 2007 at 08:12 PM
    Excellent piece of history. The write has truly done his research!
  • by Barbara Location: Lansing on May 18, 2007 at 02:11 PM
    Why didn't Dave Votta or the CADL/History Librarian get any credit for this story in print. I thought his interview was great and he was so knowledgeable?
  • by CANDY on May 18, 2007 at 08:44 AM
    My moms brother Dick Richardson was in the bath explosion !! Martha survived the explosion along with her sister Virginia !! today they both are gone due to cancer !! I have the bath book which she told me about it when I was a child!! we would look at all the pictures and she would tell me who was who and how lucky she was to be here!! Her brother was his birthday on that day > my uncle Dick he just got a new bike and was so excited to ride it !! well i know this man was a crazy man and my mom told me he was very strange> She stay away from him. thanks for the tv article.
  • by Rae Location: Bath on May 18, 2007 at 07:38 AM
    When the school was rebuilt it was named after James Couzens. I believe he was a politician from the Detroit area. He gave Bath a large sum of money (at the time) to help with the rebuilding of the school. The "tower-like structure" is the cupola from the top of the school, you can see it in the pictures. My children attended Bath schools and the children of Bath are very aware or what took place there 80 years ago today. As I drove by the park this morning I couldn't help but slow to almost a halt. The sun shone on the cupola, the grass sparkled with dew, birds hunted for worms, and all was peaceful. Perhaps just as it was in the early morning of May 18th, 1927. It is hard to imagine the horror the people of Bath endured on that day.
  • by May Location: Lansing on May 18, 2007 at 04:12 AM
    Just wanted to let everyone affected by this disaster whether family or just lives in Bath that they are all remembered and are in our prayers. God Bless Everyone.
  • by cynthia Location: Lansing on May 17, 2007 at 07:15 PM
    My grandmother was suppose to go to school that day and she just didn't go. If she would of died then I would of not been born because she would of not had my mom. My grandmother is white and so is my mom but I am mixed and I was raised not to be predidicial so my heart and prayers go out to those who lost a love one and in my family they will be remembered. It i sad that 80 years ater another tragic accident has hapened but we still need to remember the bath residents that lost their lives and the family that still have scars. GOd bless you all
  • by RICHARD CULVER Location: LANISNG MI on May 17, 2007 at 02:31 PM
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