GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday marks 95 years since the deadliest school attack in United States history — the Bath school bombing — one largely forgotten in the annals of history.
The May 18, 1927, attack claimed 44 lives, including 39 children, and rocked an entire community.
Now, a documentary about that fateful day that has been years in the making is inching closer to the finish line. Matt Martyn, a producer on “Forgotten: America’s Worst School Massacre,” says the idea to tell the story was planted in 1999.
“We had purchased our first high-def camera in 2005 and we decided we would like to produce a show. So, we started to brainstorm a topic,” Martyn told News 8. “Six years before that, when Columbine happened, I had a co-worker who was much older, and she mentioned to me that some point a long time ago a (local) school had been blown up with the children inside… I had never heard of it. I had lived in the area for quite some time, as well.”
The Bath school bombing received national news coverage but was quickly overshadowed by Michigan native Charles Lindbergh’s famous nonstop trans-Atlantic flight. Martyn believes the Lindbergh story is one factor but thinks some Bath residents wanted the bombing to disappear from memory.
“There wasn’t the therapy and these other support networks. So really, a lot of the survivors wanted to be forgotten and tried to move on in a silent way,” Martyn said. “Fast forward to 2005, when we are at the beginning of this documentary, people were still very reluctant to speak and a lot of people never did, but there were some that wanted to speak. Then, there were others that were seeing that everybody’s in their 90s and there was a fear of this entire thing being forgotten.”
THE METHOD BEHIND THE MADNESS
“Forgotten” dives into the life of Andrew Kehoe, the man behind the bombing, and what led to that fateful day.
Born in Tecumseh, Michigan, Kehoe studied electrical engineering at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) and worked for several years as an electrician in St. Louis, Missouri. Little is known about his time there, but at some point, he suffered a serious head injury and was in a coma for several weeks. Some speculate Kehoe was dealing with an undiagnosed brain injury and that was a factor in his decision to bomb the school.
Kehoe served as the Bath school board’s treasurer and was a volunteer handyman for the school. He was outspoken and frustrated by the township’s decision to raise taxes to pay for the school building. That put him at odds with many of the school’s top officials, including superintendent Emory Huyck. While many people in the community thought he was a reliable, helpful neighbor, Kehoe was known for having a temper, including incidents where he beat one of his horses to death and shot a neighbor’s dog.
Given his expertise as an electrician, Kehoe was also known around town for being skilled with explosives. Dynamite and pyrotol were used regularly on farms to help clear land or remove tree stumps. Historians believe this is how Kehoe was able to accumulate such a large amount of explosives without raising suspicion.
In the weeks leading up to the explosion, Kehoe was able to systematically plant and hide the explosives throughout the school building, wiring them together along with a rigged clock set to detonate on the final day of the school year.
The blast decimated the north wing of the school building, with two stories collapsing in on themselves. However, not all the explosives went off. Investigators found that some of the wiring Kehoe used to connect the different batches of explosives was too thin and didn’t carry enough charge. More than 500 pounds of dynamite and pyrotol were recovered from the building.
Experts estimate if the entire batch had detonated, the entire building and several surrounding buildings would have been destroyed.
At the same time of the explosion, Kehoe’s farm went up in flames, also rigged with explosives. The body of his wife, Nellie, was eventually found tied to a cart inside a shed.
Seeing part of the school building still standing, Kehoe drove his truck to the scene, and hailed for Superintendent Huyck’s attention.
Huyck, a World War I veteran, quickly returned to military mode and organized the rescue effort on scene. Witnesses say he asked Kehoe to run and grab more supplies. That’s when Kehoe fired his gun at a set boxes in the back of his truck, full of explosives, nails, and anything else that could serve as shrapnel. The resulting explosion killed Kehoe, Huyck, a rescue worker and another student.
With that last act, Kehoe is considered the world’s first suicide car bomber.
TELLING THE STORY
In 2005, Martyn and his team started their first round of interviews with survivors and the descendants of people who encountered the blast. A final cut was finished in 2011 but never sold or aired.
“They used to have TV specials on the History Channel or Discovery or whatever,” Martyn said. “But by that time television had changed, it became all about reality TV. There really wasn’t a place for it.”
The team picked it up again in 2019 with a new round of interviews, including other historians that have researched the Bath school bombing. They also filmed several historical re-enactments to try and bring the story to life.
“One day in 2020, we were filming children, just smiling in the sunshine, and we all realized that people need to not just be looking at black and white photos,” Martyn said. “We, of course, share the photos of the actual children (who were killed), but to show that these were kids just like the same smiling kids that you might have in your house or that bring you light. They were no different back then. And to make that connection, it’s so much more powerful.”
Some of the reenactments center around Kehoe and other people in the town, right down to era-accurate costumes and some old Ford Model T automobiles.
“(People are just) really cool and helpful,” Martyn said. “The Model T of the killer is owned by a very nice, old man. He helped us film in (2008) and he’s still around helping us today… He’s really sweet. He is part of a collective. His friends, they share this passion for old cars. So, then we have other friends with other old cars, and they’ll bring them out and hang out for the day and drive home and let us film. It’s really cool.”
Martyn’s team is still putting the finishing touches on the three-part documentary. From there, they plan to shop it around to streaming platforms and other networks.
He said once it is ready to air, he hopes people can connect with the story and the tragedy that happened right here in Michigan. For him, he thinks back to a story that won’t make the final cut of the documentary.
“(One mother was so distraught), she just didn’t eat, wouldn’t drink, and eventually died,” Martyn shared. “And immediately after that, (the survivor) talks about what a kind woman she was. And she relates this memory that she has of the woman bringing these cupcakes with frosting an inch high. And then she’s just smiling and shaking her head saying, ‘I remember that.’ These people all were somehow able to balance the most horrific thing that anybody could ever imagine while holding onto the positive memories of those that were lost and those that suffered along with them.”
You can watch the trailer for “Forgotten” here.