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Book Review: Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing by Arnie Bernstein

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“He was a quiet man. Reclusive, really. But he didn’t seem capable of this.”
“Kept to himself.”
“Come to think of it, he was a little odd…but all this…”

The stories after horrific mass killings are nearly always the same. While circumstances and locations differed — students in Colorado or Virginia, federal workers in Oklahoma — all the victims were killed, targeted without mercy by loners no one would have noticed the day before.

Television and radio pundits have waxed eloquent discussing the recent slayings at Ft. Hood, Texas, by a heretofore unknown Major Nidal Malik Hasan. This signifies the topping off of unrelenting pressure in society, they shriek. We’re at a node in time where everything is going haywire, opines another. Millennial madness!

Arnie Bernstein of Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing (University of Michigan Press) knows better. He’s written an harrowing account of the first American school bombing, which took place in 1927. It was that long ago that a seldom-noticed, odd, but harmless-seeming man began planning the deaths of 38 of innocent children and nine adults in the town of Bath, Michigan.

There’s no modern explanation for that. No "end times" or Mayan prophecies. Maybe total havoc just pops up in American DNA from time to time.

Bath Massacre is almost like a look into the mind of total psychopath. While not quoting perpetrator Andrew Kehoe directly, Bernstein takes the reader on a journey of strange “accidents” in his family, minuscule slights from neighbors that he doesn’t forget, and an all-out hatred for the Bath School’s superintendent that has no rhyme or reason.

The reader watches as Kehoe orders large amounts of dynamite from Lansing, MI (perfectly legal — and normal for farmers who needed to blow up tree stumps). He learns the intricacies of electricity and wiring. When he becomes the school’s treasurer, he also becomes the handyman. People bumped into him at the oddest times And something was askew in the basement:

"Smith (the janitor) wasn’t sure, but in the fall of 1926, he had a feeling there was a leak in one of the basement pipes. While Superintendent Huyck shined a flashlight along the ceiling, Smith followed the length of pipe with his eye. Nothing. No leak, no rust, no loose joints. He didn’t notice something else in the ceiling that was out of place."

Compare this with 2009’s Major Hasan buying civilian guns (perfectly legal) even though he works in a job that rife with guns every day. He also paid for a six-month lease up-front. Not illegal, but not the usual way of renting.
Each man had plans, probably months in the works, that made such simple actions deadly.

Because the killers were methodical, for the best of what we know, they had no remorse. (Hasan is still in an Army hospital and the Army is not making him available for comment.) This draws many to the popular conclusion of psychopathy.

In the Bath Massacre, which took place when psychiatry was in its infancy, the general public had all sorts of fancy explanations for why a grown man who want to blow up a school full of children. However in today’s world, Dr. Robert Hare has created “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist,” which has become indispensable for psychologists. In his long list of traits a few stand out in many of the killings we have seen: the ability to lead a double life, lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility for actions, and lack of realistic long-term goals. Kehoe, the child killer had them. Maybe so does Harlan.

There even is a test, the fMRI, or the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging procedure that lawyers want to present in court to prove that their clients are psychopaths and have no emotional connection to the crimes they commit. Right now, defense attorneys for Brian Dugan, who admitted to raping and killing a young Illinois girl in 1983, are trying to get the DuPage County courtroom to accept Dugan’s unusual fMRI test results. The trouble is that juries don’t seem to care much if the defendant is mentally impaired. Mostly they vote for execution, if it’s a choice.

Test or no test, Bernstein’s grueling but personal Bath Massacre shows us that violence on the level of the Ft. Hood shooting is no sudden show of modern derangement. There probably have been wild-eyed killers back in the days of the Mayflower, only there was no CNN to record it all back then.

While not the most comforting book, it’s a fascinating look at how resilient Americans were in the face of tragedy then and now. It brought out the best in people. Then people were opening up their homes to be makeshift hospitals and morgues. Today, soldiers ripped up their uniforms to serve as makeshift bandages.

"It's the same as it ever was", as the old Talking Heads song goes. But somehow, it’s more interesting to go back in time to see how Americans handled such brutal violence just shy of 90 years ago. Bernstein does that with beautiful prose and deep reverence for his subject.

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About Lynn Voedisch

  • I have GOT to get this book!!! Wow, Lynn, you got me hooked. –bob e.

  • Jonesy

    Would it possibly be more appropriate to compare the subject of the book with a modern case that has already been fully examined? The Ft. Hood tragedy is still fresh enough that not all the information is in place.

  • Lynn Voedisch

    Thought I’d add that the Brian Dugan sentencing mentioned near the end of the review ended up as a death sentence. No surprise there.