CHAPTER ONE. GUNZ, BOMBZ, ’N’ SCHOOLZ.
Andrew Kehoe was 55 years old on the morning of May 19, 1927 when he began carefully peeling away a thick strip of bark from the entire circumference of each healthy fruit and shade tree on his farm. It was the most foolproof way he knew of to kill them, short of going through the trouble of toppling them.
Mr. Kehoe had already killed his wife, bashing Nellie’s head with a shovel until it cracked. Then he’d tied her to a cart that he regularly used for wheeling milk buckets. He placed on the cart, right within Nellie’s reach, a tiny chest of silver keepsakes he knew she had liked.
The farm was in foreclosure. Nellie’s aunt had loaned the two of them a good deal of money, but then Mr. Kehoe had gotten swept up in anger about the school taxes that were keeping him from paying important bills. He was so riled—especially about a proposal for a new school–that he’d run for a school board seat and become the board treasurer. He’d worked more on trying to stop that school than on farming, and so the farm had gone to waste. And then that fool school was built anyway. Now Nellie’s aunt was intent on collecting the acreage that the mortgage papers said were due her. It was a fine piece of property. But if she expected a house and a working farm as part of the bargain, well, she had a surprise coming.
There wasn’t much livestock left. What remained Mr. Kehoe tied securely in the barn that would soon go up in flames. He a took a few minutes to run around the whole property, making sure all of the firebombs were where they were supposed to be, and that they were all wired together. Then, in his workshop, he took out a two foot by one foot piece of board and sanded it smooth. He even oiled it. Using a stencil, he traced letters into the wood, and then painted them nicely with a rich black ink. Walking to a fence at the perimeter of his property, far away from any firebombs, he hung it.
It was looking like May 19th would be a beautiful spring day. By about 8:00 am children began arriving at the new school. Mr. Kehoe sat on his porch in the morning sun, enjoying the sounds of children playing and of cars on the way to the schoolyard.
At about 8:45 is where the story gets tricky. Some witnesses reported that Mr. Kehoe detonated his own farm before the 1,000 pounds of dynamite he’d squirreled in the school’s basement and under its floorboards were triggered by a timer. Some said the school exploded first, and then the Kehoe farm went up in flames. Everyone agrees that townsfolk raced to the school. Nearly every family in town had a child enrolled.
As mothers and fathers tore frantically at the rubble in search of their children, Mr. Kehoe drove into town, up to the mayhem, and blew up his car, killing himself, the school superintendent, and a few rescuers. The death toll by the end of the week had climbed to 37 children and 7 adults. The numbers would have been about six times as high, but Mr. Kehoe wasn’t as good an electrician as he’d thought. A main switch had a gap, and as a result only one of the wings of the school exploded.
After the wounded and dead were pulled from the scene, some townsfolk made it over to the Kehoe farm to try to puzzle out what had happened. At the perimeter fence they found the sign that Mr. Kehoe had so carefully kept out of harm’s way. “Criminals,” it said, “are made, not born.”
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The school massacre in Bath Township, Michigan, was technically the first bloodbath at an American school or university. But America’s history of massacres at institutions of learning began even before our nation was officially born.
On July 26, 1764, as an act of war, four Native American warriors of the Lenape tribe attacked a schoolhouse in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania. They killed 10 students and a pregnant woman. After that raid, the Pennsylvania Assembly encouraged settlers to turn the tables on the enemy. The Assembly offered a bounty for the scalp of any Lenape above the age of ten.
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Multiple fatality school and university murders have continued ever since Mr. Kehoe’s time, but the pace picked up dramatically in 1989. It has held steady over the ensuing decades. Still, over the 85 years since 1927, Andrew Kehoe’s Bath Township massacre has retained pride of place as the single most lethal bloodletting in an educational setting in America.
After the 1927 massacre, for 39 years there were no more widely-reported school killings with a body count of more than one. Then, on August 1, 1966, Charles J. Whitman, a former altar boy, Eagle Scout, and Marine, and a student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed his wife and mother. A note he left said that he’d done so in order to spare them the embarrassment of what he was about to do. He drove to the university and rode an elevator to the top of the University Tower, lugging along a footlocker containing two high-powered rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, a .357 magnum pistol, a can of peaches, and some deodorant. Whitman was an expert sniper. He began firing on passersby. Because of the height of the tower and range of the weaponry, the crime scene spanned the length of five city blocks. Whitman killed 14 more people that day and wounded 31 others before being shot and killed by police. Upon autopsy, a brain tumor was discovered. Speculation about answers to the question “why?” ran to the tumor as a biological cause of unimaginable rage….