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6 october 2021

There was a school shooting just today in the Texas city where I live. It turned out to be a mundane fight that escalated thanks to guns being endemic here, rather than a mass-murder situation. A police official was quoted saying "This is not a random act of violence. This is not somebody attacking our school." Confused wording, but in the heat of the moment, Americans know what he was trying to say. The shooter knew the person he was aiming at (though innocent people were hurt as a result). He was not trying to kill multiple students and staff the way so many American shooters have done, a kind of mass murder that we often call "random" even if the shooter had an association with the school and specific victims in mind.

The first and arguably still most terrible school mass murder took place in 1927 in Bath, Michigan. Killer Andrew Kehoe had a long association with the school – he was treasurer of the school board – and he had a particular grudge against school superintendent Emory Huyck.

Kehoe was both crazy and quite sane, a contradiction that Harold Schechter explores in his new study of Bath, Maniac. Kehoe, a feckless farmer, was convinced that he could have become a captain of agriculture if he hadn't had to pay his school taxes. He got himself elected to the school board and then named treasurer so he could keep an eye on where his money was going. But that wasn't enough. Despite his lack of business skills, Kehoe was apparently a pretty good mechanic and fond of doing handyman work for free. So he also got himself appointed unofficial caretaker of the Bath school building. Which he proceeded to load with explosives, and wire to go off while the place was packed with students.

And he did not try to cover his tracks. As the chaos after the bombing was at its height, with rescuers and victims scattering across the school grounds, Kehoe drove back in his truck, which he had wired to explode and spread shrapnel into the crowd. When Emory Huyck rushed out to confront him, Kehoe detonated his truck bomb, killing himself, Huyck, and several others in the vicinity. Ultimately 44 people died and 58 were injured.

Hence the paradox. You have to be crazy to do something like that, but you have to be rational and calculating. All evidence suggests that Kehoe knew he was committing murder out of hatred; he wasn't a killer impelled by the idea that he was saving the world or the souls of his victims. There were no voices in his head. This really was somebody attacking his school.

Schechter tells the story of Kehoe's background and the path to the bombing very well. But as with his book Killer Colt (2010), I sense that there isn't quite enough material, even given the extraordinary scale of the event, to produce a full-length book on Bath and Kehoe. Schechter dwells at length on things like a sermon preached after the massacre, which seems to me a fairly standard if heartfelt item of rhetoric. He retells the story of murderer Ruth Snyder at some length, and at even greater length, the story of how Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic: always a great story, but one of the most frequently retold in American nonfiction. (Lindbergh is associated with Bath, or rather with the relative obscurity of Kehoe's crime, because the Spirit of St. Louis drove the Bath bombing off the front pages immediately and forever.)

Schechter does make the convincing argument that Bath, though less-known that some other tabloid crimes of its era, became a prototype for an unnervingly American scene: the wanton destruction of a school and its children's lives. The fear that wells up whenever we hear of someone at a school with a gun has its origins 94 years ago in Bath, Michigan.

Schechter, Harold. Maniac: The Bath School disaster and the birth of the modern mass killer. New York: Little A, 2021.