Huge school bombing in 1927 puts Sandy Hook in context

The Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut has horrified Americans and in some cases, opened up wounds from a similar disaster in 1927 that have yet to heal.

Aftermath of the Bath disaster. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Friday, a deranged gunman killed himself and 26 other people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The dead included 20 students, and the act sparked mass mourning and outrage worldwide.

The debate over the Sandy Hook tragedy has also led to discussions about gun control, mental illness, and the media’s role in covering such a horrific story.

In particular, the debate over assault weapons and the Second Amendment will be brought to the forefront in 2013. President Barack Obama pretty much said so at a public memorial event on Sunday night.

But what if such a terrible even happened in a different time? How would people have reacted, and would there be such a public outrage or intense debate about constitutional issues?

On May 18, 1927, a part-time caretaker at a school in Bath, Michigan, killed 45 people, including 38 children, when he blew up a school and then killed himself, along with two first responders at the scene. Another 58 people were wounded.

The 38 children were in grades three through six.

The Bath School Bombing faded quickly from history. What media there was in 1927 left the town after about a week, since aviator Charles Lindbergh had started on his flight to Europe.

However, there are parallels between the Sandy Hook and Bath disasters that are worth discussing.

The killer in the Bath School Bombing, Andrew Kehoe, spent months placing explosives inside the school. He used his job as a handyman to wire together two types of explosives, in an elaborate plan to bring down the building while it was occupied with students and teachers.

Kehoe also rigged his car with explosives and shrapnel, as well as his house.

Once Kehoe blew up his own house, he used a detonator to blow up part of the school. School Superintendent Emory Huyck performed heroically, rescuing children and adults from the disaster scene. After about 30 minutes, Kehoe drove up to Huyck and motioned him over to his truck.

Kehoe then blew up the truck, killing himself, Hucyk, and several others, including a child who survived the first blast.

Investigators later found more than 500 pounds of unexploded dynamite under the school. Kehoe had intended to kill hundreds of people, mostly students, but his wiring was faulty.

Kehoe had financial problems and was upset about having to pay taxes. He had killed his own wife before blowing up his house.

But the parallels to Sandy Hook are not in the method and motivation behind Kehoe’s madness. They come from the stories of heroism and compassion.

Bath was a small town, so all pitched in to clear the rubble, find the victims, and offer assistance. Help streamed in from the neighboring town of Lansing.

Michigan’s governor arrived that afternoon and helped to cart away the rubble. During the rescue efforts, the Michigan State Police had to disarm the huge cache of explosives that never went off.

In the days that followed, contemporary accounts said more than 50,000 people descended on Bath, either to offer help or to see the disaster scene.

“Relief workers could not get in or out of the village unless accompanied by motorcycle policemen and even then they made slow time,” said one newspaper account.

In the end, the state set up a relief fund for the school, which received numerous public and private donations. One politician wrote a personal check for $75,000.

And the population of Bath, once the outsiders left, went back to farming and grieved. Unlike today, there were no 24-hour TV news cameras remaining on the scene or talk shows debating the merits of the Second Amendment.

But the wounds from the Bath School Bombing followed the survivors for generations. In recent years, people who were in the building were opening up about their experiences, as they reached their 90s.

In 2009, National Public Radio spoke with two survivors and the daughter of a third.

“You wouldn’t think a church member could do such a thing, would you?” said a 97-year-old man, Willis Cressman. “He was the caretaker of the school. In fact, I saw him that morning. He was working on a door, and he smiled at us as we walked in.”

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Huge school bombing in 1927 puts Sandy Hook in context

Cressman’s niece noted something that will also follow the Sandy Hook survivors throughout their lives.

“Years later, we still look at ourselves as survivors. So you look after one another differently, because you know that the absolute unthinkable can happen, even going to school,” said Johanna Cushman-Balzer.

The Bath disaster hadn’t been entirely forgotten in recent years.

In July, The Christian Science Monitor spoke with author Arnie Bernstein, who spoke extensively with Bath survivors when he wrote his book, Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing.

“When I came in, it had been eight decades, and nobody had talked about it. It was just this scar on the land,” Bernstein said. He also spoke with a 99-year-old woman who wanted to describe what happened to her young brother, who was killed in the explosion, so other generations could understand.

“Out of that horror, out of the one or two people who commit these kinds of crimes, comes the good, the tremendous good that you see in the wake of these things. Our humanity comes through in the face of evil and the inexplicable,” Bernstein told the Monitor.

According to a detailed website about the Bath disaster, only 13 survivors were alive as of October 2012.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.