The tragedy of the Bath school bombing lives on, 89 years later

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Photos courtesy of Bath School Museum

By Kenedi Robinson
Clinton County Chatter Staff Reporter

Eighty-nine years ago, the community of Bath was the victim of what is still known today as the “Bath Massacre.”

Andrew Kehoe was a local farmer and treasurer on the school board. He was upset about property taxes being used to pay for a new school.

No one saw it Kehoe’s way, so on May 18, 1927 he blew up half of Bath Middle School killing 45 people, 38 of which were children, and injuring 58.

Dean Sweet Jr., son of bombing survior Dean Sweet Sr., said there was more of a mental impact than anything with the survivors, and even the adults who lost their children.

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“Back then, there weren’t therapists or anything like that, so they kept to themselves about the incident,” said Sweet. “My dad wouldn’t even talk about it with me until just before he passed. He was never taught to deal with an event so traumatizing.”

Today, in place of where the school used to be, is a park with a piece of the building sat on top and a commemorative plaque for the incident itself.

“This park sits right next to an old church that survived the explosion. This church is why a lot of the senior students survived because they were there practicing for graduation when it happened,” said Susan Hagerman, daughter of survivor Raymond Eschtruth who was 9 yeas old and in the building when it exploded.

Hagerman is currently on the committee as chairman and has a part in maintaining the Bath School Museum.

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According to Dean Sweet Jr., following the incident, a man named Monty J. Ellsworth wrote a book on it including the accounts of survivors and of those who died.

“Back then, he was one of the guys who blew stumps, so nobody ever questioned why he bout all of the dynamite he did,” said Sweet, “but had all of the dynamite gone off, none of this would be standing today.

Shortly after, Kehoe drove his truck around to the front of the school and blew it up, killing himself, the super intendant, and three others, including a small child who had managed to escape the original explosion.

According to Sweet and Ellsworth, the entire school was rigged with dynamite to explode, but because Kehoe’s wiring was faulty, only half of the school exploded.

This tragedy hit home to the entire country, becoming a headline for about a month. It never leaves the mind and hearts of those involved in the community.

“I don’t want to see the memory of these children go away. If this museum goes away, so will the history of this school,” said Sweet.

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After the explosion, survivors, and members of survivors continued to show up with things they had from the explosion and didn’t know what to do with, so when a board member suggested a museum, everyone was on board.

The Bath Middle School and Museum is attached to the current Bath Middle School. Every picture and memory is laid out in a corridor for them to see whenever they have to pass through.

There is everything from items that survived the bombing, to things made to commemorate those that were lost.

The walls are lined with graduates, most of which were able to go on and graduate after facing such a tragedy, including their oldest living survivor who, according to Hagerman, is 108 years old.

According to Hagerman, there is a commemorative dinner every year for the bombing, and this year they’re expecting around 250 people, a lot of whom are relatives of survivors.

“It’s just as much a part of their history as it is ours,” said Hagerman, “Our families were involved. It’s part of our lives. Bath is a real close knit community. It’s a part of all of us.”

Arnie Bernstein, author of the book Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing, says that the way this brought the community together was nothing short of amazing.

“It’s been a scar on the community for 80-plus years. It’s definitely given a sense of sorrow, but also a sense of resilience,” said Bernsetin.

Almost immediately following the incident, the community got together to fix up the school and help heal the wounds of those who lost their loved ones.

The media coverage was massive, but did not last long. With out today’s advances in technology, their story was easily forgotten when Lindberg took off in his plane.

The community, however, has not forgotten. In fact, they’ve just gotten better at honoring their history.

“I think it’s become even more relevant over the years, because it was first. It set the model for how people respond. The same story repeats it’s self time and again…they feel it on a much deeper emotional level that we don’t even have,” said Bernstein.

According to James Allen Fox, Professor of Criminology Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a lot of what has changed between then and now is the media.

“Had this been today it wouldn’t have been nearly as similar of a reaction. Technology is so different, people can get this news in a matter of minutes,” said Fox.

According to Fox, the one thing that stays constant in these kinds of cases is the devastation of the community. People losing their loved one’s in such a senseless act will never be taken lightly.

According to historical news articles, this tragedy rocked the nation to it’s core. It was one of the first of this kind of massacre and they were not prepared for.

While these massacres are more common today, with cases such as Virginia Tech, and Columbine, there is no way to be prepared for the toll it takes on communities.