Saturday, January 16, 2016

Before They Blamed Guns, They Blamed Catholics

Another essay from the Lost Files, probably too long, but it is well-researched. It was written after the Sandy Hook school shootings. But is, unfortunately always topical. Last Sunday's homily was on gun control, and Sandy Hook was mentioned multiple times. The Bath Township school massacre remains the most deadly school attack in American history. And not one gun was used. A fascinating piece of America's forgotten past.

A mass murderer's meticulously lettered last statement.

"Andy Kehoe Was Smart"

Andrew Phillip Kehoe, typically well dressed.
"Andy Kehoe was smart," a neighbor told the Erie Daily Press reporter two days after May 18, 1927. Andrew P. Kehoe was later described as a poor farmer, but expert at anything mechanical. He had been the town clerk, then treasurer at the Bath Township School. His books were meticulous. Much like the sign he left behind at his burning farm on May 18, 1927, the day he became the nation's worst mass murderer of schoolchildren.

Kehoe had bought the 80 acre Bath, Michigan farm in 1919 at a post-war inflated price of $12,000. He paid half in cash -- a large amount in those days -- and mortgaged the rest with his wife's aunt, a wealthy widow in nearby Lansing. Apparently, he tried to make a go of it, but his neighbors thought he was unsuited to farming. He was always well-dressed, and fastidiously clean, which contributed to his reputation as a talker, not a doer. He was stubborn and querulous, but respectable enough for public office. Everyone knew his strong opposition to taxes for the new public school, so there must have been some similar sentiment in the community.. His penny-pinching ways on the school board were mistaken for thrift. He even acted as the school's handyman without charge, which would figure prominently into the tragedy to come.

Warning Signs

Kehoe was actually a crank who obsessed over money. He shot and killed a neighbor's little terrier on his property. He beat his own horse to death. After an argument with the priest, he stopped going to the Catholic church, nor would he allow his wife to go. The argument was over money. He lost interest in the Farm Bureau because he considered other farmers his "competitors." He told the county agent that until there was a national farmers strike and the country was starving, no one would pay attention to the problems farmers faced.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression were two years away, but there were worrisome trends before that. Kehoe's personal bubble burst early. In 1926, Kehoe did not even harvest his crops. He nursed a special grudge against the property taxes levied to pay for the new school, which became the symbol of a country he believed had ruined him.

When it became clear he was no longer farming the land, his wife's aunt foreclosed on the property. Apparently, he had made no payments. A week later, Kehoe coldly took revenge where he knew it would hurt his neighbors, indeed the country, the most. Everyone would feel his pain. According to one contemporary account, he still owed the $6000 original principal on the mortgage, another $2600 in interest, and $400 in taxes. Kehoe's debt on his property alone would be equivalent to approximately $100,000 today. The school taxes could have little real impact on his desperate financial situation.

Nothing Left Behind

His mechanical expertise gave him unfettered access to the basement workings of the new school as handyman.  As his his farm failed, Kehoe spent many months buying explosives at different stores. Farmers used explosives to blow up tree stumps, so there was nothing unusual except the amount he collected. By May 18, 1927, he had packed the school's basement with pyrotol and dynamite, which together would create a massive incendiary explosion. If everything went as planned, Kehoe expected to kill every child and adult in the school.

He bought a cheap alarm clock for the timer to detonate the explosives. He set it for 9:40 a.m. He knew the school would be filled with 250 children after the morning bell rang at 9:30.

Kehoe wanted to leave nothing behind. Perhaps it was practical spite to rob those he blamed for ruining him of anything valuable. Or maybe it was the extension of his suicidal intent to encompass everything that defined him in the world.

He girdled every fruit and shade tree on his land, stripping bark all the way around in a band, ensuring their deaths. He rigged the buildings on his property with incendiary bombs, having first tied up his animals to ensure they burned to death with everything else. He bludgeoned his wife to death and put her body behind the chicken coop in a wheel barrow. It would be so charred by the intense heat searchers did not even notice her at first.

There were only two things Kehoe intended to survive the holocaust.  One was a package of his meticulously maintained school board records, which he removed from the school and mailed to his bond agent. The other was the carefully stenciled sign which left no doubt where he fixed the blame: CRIMINALS ARE MADE, NOT BORN 

The incendiary bombs went off at his farm at 8:45 a.m. He drove off in a car packed with dynamite and shrapnel, leaving everything else in flames behind him.

The Bath School Murders, May 18, 1927

At 9:40 the north wing of the school was shattered by an explosion. Shocked and injured survivors and frantic rescuers stumbled through the carnage of body parts, and dead and injured children. Kehoe drove up thirty minutes after the explosion, grinning so broadly one witness said he could see "both rows of teeth." He called the superintendent, whom he particularly disliked, over to his car, then detonated his car bomb. The explosion blew Kehoe to bits and killed the superintendent. Shrapnel killed two bystanders and an eight year old boy who had survived the school blast and collapsed nearby. Thirty-six children, between the ages of seven and twelve, died at Bath Township School that spring morning. The final total, including adults, was 44. It remains the deadliest school massacre in American history.

Blaming the Catholics

People were no different from us in 1927 when it came to wanting to know why. Experts weighed in.  Kehoe's skull survived the car bomb blast, and scientists who examined it speculated that, "Kehoe was a strange throw-back to the primitive day, who may have been bewildered by being forced to live under civilization's laws."

Others used it as an excuse to grind political axes: Andrew Phillip Kehoe was a Roman Catholic. 
Parties coming to the scene viewed flesh, thumbs and limbs scattered upon the ground. Little bodies of children were carried from the wreckage,laid upon the playground and covered with blankets, where frantic mothers came to identify their loved ones, presenting such a heart rending scene as has never penetrated the minds of citizens since the [St. Bartholomew Day] Massacre of the 16th Century... The Protestant children murdered by this Catholic fiend were heretics according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.
The piece goes on to quote several published Catholic objections to public schools over Catholic schools, such as: "We don't want to be taxed for Protestant or godless schools.  Let the Public School system go to where it came from -- the Devil."

After quoting an unsourced "Catholic" who predicted another school bombing to follow, the piece reveals Kehoe's supposed plot to infiltrate the Bath School with Catholic teachers.

A local tragedy turns into a national drama, not without an element of morbid voyeurism, if we will admit it. As the people of Bath tried to bury their children, thousands of cars full of sightseers created a paralyzing traffic jam. Three thousand cars were counted passing one corner in a two-hour period with license plates from many states. This went on from early in the morning until late at night. An estimated 85,000 people viewed the desolated school. There were no satellite trucks to beam a constant stream of heartrending images into peoples' living rooms. You had to go see for yourself in 1927.


If you can persuade people you know the reason, you can sell your solution, and there is always that element of the story. The thing is, the Bear is pretty sure you don't know the reason.

Why did Kehoe slaughter the children of Bath Township? He may have been our first domestic terrorist, inventing the car bomb and using mass murder to spotlight economic injustice for farmers, as he saw it. He may have been such a bitter and hateful man he felt his own suicide was not enough, and needed to plunge a nation into grief.

He may have suffered from severe mental illness. We know as a child he watched his mother burn to death in an accident. Besides his economic problems, his tubercular wife had just gotten out of the hospital and was probably dying. Perhaps the scientists of the day were right, and his skull proved him a moral deficient (while remaining a whiz at accounting). Any or all of these might have been the reason, or something else entirely.

We don't know.

We do know people will see a violent act like this through the lens of their political beliefs, just like the Klansmen of 1927 were sure it was all about the Catholics. There is one thing people will not do, though, and that is accept that a very few have always found a way to do terrible things, and any given killer in his particular life setting has far too many x factors for us to neatly solve.

The Bear specialized in death penalty defense for many years. He got to spend hundreds of hours in confidential conversation with individuals who kill. Vast resources are expended for professional mitigators to examine every corner of their backgrounds, literally from before conception on.

Sometimes we have even used the latest experimental brain imaging techniques like fMRIs, and watched their brains actually process various stimuli, to see if different parts "light up" like they're supposed to. People v. Brian Dugan and People v. Nick Sheley are two Illinois cases the Bear knows about personally, and was involved in the second. They were both as bad as humans can get.

Brian Dugan was a serial killer who most famously raped and killed 10 year-old Jeanine Nicario. (Rolando Cruz was wrongfully convicted for the Nicario murder through the misconduct of Du Page County prosecutors. Cruz spent 12 years in prison before his release.) Dugan was sentenced to death, but Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011. Nick Sheley is a spree killer who left a trail of bodies across Illinois and Missouri. As a child he enjoyed setting hamsters on fire. He got a life sentence in the first Illinois trial, and was extradited to Missouri, which still has a death penalty.

The "bad brain" theory did not prove helpful, for sound philosophical reasons, the Bear thinks. He strongly argued that reducing a defendant to a brain in a jar dehumanized him at the very time you should be doing the exact opposite in front of a jury. And arguing that your client is a remorseless intraspecies predator, but doggone it, just can't help it, amounts to calling him a mad dog. After spending upwards of half a million dollars on a capital defense we know everything that can be known about any given murderer even to literally watching his brain think, but we still don't know one thing for sure:


They are men -- and occasionally women -- on the periphery. Yet, why, out of all those on the periphery do some kill? The Bear believes mental illness plays a role (although the vast majority of mentally ill are harmless) but so does sheer evil. Bitterness obviously consumed Andrew Kehoe, but do we detect a touch of madness in girdling every tree on his property?

The Bear wants to ferociously growl for everyone just to shut up. There is a time for everything. This is not the time.

It is an opportunity for quiet reflection, however, why "why" matters to us spiritually, even if there is no earthly answer.

"Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?" Matthew 27:46

The question "why?" is as old as Job. Even Jesus on the cross cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It is uniquely human to ask, and to keep asking whenever there is tragedy, even though we know God answered Job with a challenge, and remained silent as His own Son suffered.

Jesus was given an opportunity to answer why in the context of His days' headlines, as recorded in Luke 13:1-5 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition).
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Typically, Jesus turns the question back upon the questioners. Do not indulge in useless speculation about why things happen. Take to heart the brevity and uncertainty of life and make sure you do not meet your death unprepared. He did not take the bait to talk about Pilate as governor, or the Roman Empire in general. He did not demand tighter building codes for towers. These tragedies were the the talk of the day, considered important enough to raise with a famous and respected rabbi. But Jesus was there to talk about the eternal perspective, not passing things.

Catholics must remember to ask is not to be answered, but to ask is enough. It is to include our intellect in the suffering of our hearts. It is really suffering that is the ultimate mystery. The Catholic Church does have something to say about that, even while recognizing that it remains a mystery. We know that God suffers with us. We know that suffering allows us to participate in the mystery of Christ's Passion. We know from experience that suffering can bear good fruit in peoples' lives. We know that this world is fallen, and that wounded people will choose to enter Hell before they die. Some of those people will commit murder, even to Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents.

Anyone who chooses to write thoughtfully on fresh tragedy should recognize his inadequacy. Job's friends were at their best when they just sat with Job in silence for three days. This is the day of suffering, not comfort. Jeremiah 31:15: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more."


  1. Thanks for mentioning the Bath massacre. Kehoe did not have TV, video games, the Internet or a cell phone and he was evil anyway.

    1. Thank you for reading it. The Bear considers it his finest work, and perhaps one of the better articles on the tragedy online.

      Kehoe was an eccentric who felt pressured by the enormous debt he had undertaken. He considered his failure as caused by others. His wife was dying. He grew extremely bitter. For some reason he became fixated on the trifling school tax. That determined his target. Girdling every tree on his property and tying his animals in their stalls so they were incinerated are not the acts of a sane man. Clearly, he was suicidal. But it was not enough to kill himself. He wanted to erase every vestige of his life, and to take revenge on his imagined enemies. Most mass killers expect to end up dead. There is something that separates them from someone who hangs himself. They want to make a statement, or perhaps just gain notoriety. I think Kehoe was probably mad.

  2. This is an excellent post. I will share this on Facebook. Thank you.

  3. Beautifully written and researched.

    People who abuse animals for pleasure should be imprisoned indefinitely.

    1. I'm happy people are looking at past articles. Thanks.


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