Documentary about the ‘forgotten’ Michigan school massacre

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday marks the 95th anniversary of the deadliest school attack in U.S. history — the Bath school bombing — largely forgotten in the annals of history.

The attack of May 18, 1927 killed 44 people, including 39 children, and shook an entire community.

Now a documentary about that fateful day that took years to prepare is nearing the finish line. Matt Martyn, a producer on “Forgotten: America’s Worst School Massacre“, says the idea of ​​telling the story was planted in 1999.

“We bought our first high definition camera in 2005 and decided to produce a show. So we started thinking about a topic,” Martyn told News 8. “Six years before that, when columbine arrived, I had a colleague who was much older, and she told me that a long time ago a (local) school had exploded with the children inside… I had never heard of it. I had lived in the area for a while as well.

Residents of Bath Township, Michigan, flock to the consolidated school building after an explosion on May 18, 1927. A total of 44 people were killed, including 39 children. (Public domain)

The Bath school bombing received national media coverage, but was quickly overshadowed by Charles Lindbergh, originally from Michigan famous non-stop transatlantic flight. Martyn thinks Lindbergh’s story is a factor, but thinks some Bath residents wanted the bombing to fade from memory.

“There was no therapy and these other support networks. So really, a lot of survivors wanted to be forgotten and tried to quietly move on,” Martyn said. “Fast forward to 2005 when we’re at the start of this documentary, people were still very reluctant to talk and a lot of people never did, but there were some who wanted to talk. Then there were were others who saw that everyone was over 90 and there was a fear that it would all be forgotten.

THE METHOD BEHIND THE MADNESS

“Forgotten” delves into the life of Andrew Kehoe, the man behind the bombing, and what led up 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 believe Kehoe was dealing with an undiagnosed brain injury and that was a factor in his decision to bomb the school.

A 1920 photo of Andrew Kehoe, the man behind the Bath school bombing. (Public domain)

Kehoe was treasurer of the Bath School Board and a volunteer handyman for the school. He was outspoken and frustrated with the township’s decision to raise taxes to pay for the school building. This put him at odds with many senior school officials, including Superintendent Emory Huyck. While many in the community thought he was a reliable and helpful neighbor, Kehoe was known for his 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 regularly used 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 arousing suspicion.

In the weeks leading up to the explosion, Kehoe was able to systematically plant and hide the explosives throughout the school building, connecting them with a rigged clock set to detonate on the last day of the school year.

The explosion decimated the north wing of the school building, two floors collapsing in on themselves. However, not all explosives detonated. Investigators found that some of the wiring used by Kehoe to connect the various batches of explosives was too thin and did not carry enough charge. Over 500 pounds of dynamite and pyrotol were recovered from the building.

Experts believe that if the entire lot had exploded, the entire building and several surrounding buildings would have been destroyed.

At the same time of the explosion, Kehoe’s farmhouse caught fire, 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 Superintendent Huyck’s attention.

Huyck, a World War I veteran, quickly reverted to military mode and organized the rescue effort on the spot. Witnesses say he asked Kehoe to run and get more supplies. That’s when Kehoe fired his gun at boxes in the back of his truck full of explosives, nails and anything that could serve as shrapnel. The resulting explosion killed Kehoe, Huyck, a rescue worker and another student.

With this last act, Kehoe is considered the world’s first suicide bomber.

More than 500 pounds of unexploded dynamite and pyrotol were found throughout the Bath school building after the explosion. Investigators believe some of the wiring used to connect the devices failed, preventing further damage and casualties. (Public domain)

TELL A STORY

In 2005, Martyn and his team began their first series of interviews with survivors and descendants of people who encountered the explosion. A final cut was completed in 2011 but was never sold or released.

“They used to have specials on the History Channel or Discovery or whatever,” Martyn said. “But by then television had changed, everything had become reality television. There really was no place for that. »

The team picked it up in 2019 with a new series of interviews, including other historians who researched the Bath school bombing. They also filmed several pageants to try and bring the story to life.

“One day in 2020 we were filming kids, smiling in the sun, and we all realized that people shouldn’t just be looking at black and white photos,” Martyn said. “We are of course sharing the photos of the actual children (who were killed) but to show that they were children just like the same smiling children you might have in your home or bring light to you. They were no different back then. And to make that connection is so much more powerful.

Some of the re-enactments center around Kehoe and other townspeople, down to period costumes and some old Ford Model T cars.

“(People are just) really cool and helpful,” Martyn said. “The Killer Model T belongs to a very nice old man. He helped us film in (2008) and he’s still there to help us today… He’s really adorable. He is part of a collective. His friends, they share this passion for vintage cars. So, we have other friends with other old cars, and they take them out and hang around 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 make the rounds on streaming platforms and other networks.

He said once it’s 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 will not make the final cut of the documentary.

“(One mother was so upset) she just didn’t eat, didn’t want to drink and eventually died,” Martyn explained. “And immediately after that, (the survivor) talks about what a kind woman she was. And she shares that memory she has of the woman bringing those cupcakes with inch-tall frosting. And then she smiles and shakes her head, saying, “I remember that.” These people have all been able to balance the most horrific thing anyone could imagine while holding on to the positive memories of those who were lost and those who suffered with them.

You can look the trailer for “Forgotten” here.

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