May 5 2009 12:00 AM

Author driven to honor victims, survivors of Bath massacre


What began as an Internet search for “a forgotten story in history” ended up becoming a duty for Arnie Bernstein, author of “Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing.”

Bernstein, a composition instructor at several Chicago-area colleges, was trolling the Internet when he uncovered the grisly tale of the May 18, 1927, bombing of the Bath Consolidated School, in which 38 children and five adults were killed and scores of others were physically and mentally scarred. “It was a great story, a real tragedy with a real villain and heroes,” Bernstein said. “Then I went to Bath, and everything changed for me.”

The change came when the author walked through Bath’s Pleasant Hill Cemetery, where 17 of the children are buried. “It became my duty to write the story and my duty to do it right,” he said. “The children of Bath, both living and dead, motivated me more than the story.”

Bernstein kept a photograph of a memorial on his desk to motivate him while working on the book. He is donating a portion of the proceeds to the Bath School Museum.

Through interviews and the use of newspaper archives, the author pieced together the story of the deranged madman, heroic rescuers and victims behind the day that changed life in a small town forever. He said local history expert David Votta, of the Capital Area District Library, was invaluable when it came to research. The book contains nearly 20 photographs, many of them published for the first time.

While researching, Bernstein said he was surprised by the elaborate planning and execution by bomber Andrew Kehoe, a Bath-area farmer, school treasurer and ad-hoc maintenance man for the school, which gave him unlimited access to the building. Bernstein said Kehoe, who was the prototypical “strange neighbor,” was a whiz with explosives and electrical wiring. Over a period, Kehoe placed hundreds of pounds of dynamite and explosives in the school basement. Fortunately, some timing devices failed, and only one quarter of the dynamite exploded.

“Bath Massacre” is eerily written in the style of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which Bernstein said was calculated. Interspersing historical details, Bernstein sets the stage, showing Kehoe’s slow descent into madness and his plodding, but detailed planning and execution. The book is relatively perfunctory up until the explosion, and then the book races.

The author writes a lean account of the bombing and its graphic aftermath, often using news accounts to describe the horrible scene and the bravery of Bath residents to save those caught in the rubble. His recounting of the unselfish actions of one high school dropout is especially telling. Chester Sweet, a diminutive 14-year-old, was sent into cramped quarters beneath the school to defuse the remaining dynamite. He removed more than 500 pounds of dynamite that day. “What a remarkable kid,” Bernstein said. “He was selfless and did the right thing.”

At first, Bath residents were wary of Bernsteins writing a book on the massacre, but gradually he gained their trust, and he was able to interview four of the seven living survivors from the bombing. “It was a humbling experience,” he said. “I owe Bath a lot.”

One of those interviewed was Josephine Cushman Vail, whose brother was killed in the bombing. “She misses and loves him still,” Bernstein said. “Her eloquence in describing the experience is part of her duty to remember. The woman is my hero.”

After killing his wife and burning his farm, Kehoe drove to the bombing site and set off an explosive in his vehicle, killing himself and the school superintendent, who Kehoe saw as his arch enemy.

Readers of “Bath Massacre” will undoubtedly draw comparisons to two other mass killings: Columbine, which is recognizing its 10th anniversary this year, and the Oklahoma City bombing. As was with those atrocities, it is difficult to exactly determine what triggered the killer.

Bernstein will make several appearances in the Lansing area in May, including at the downtown brand of the Capital Area District Library (at 1 p.m. May 2) and at 3 p.m. May 16 at Schuler’s Books & Music in Eastwood Towne Center. At the end of the month, he will talk with middle and high school classes at Bath Schools.

Part of his message will be on the importance of bearing witness to those who lost their lives and to the survivors. It is likely he will make one more trip to the memorial site. “I am surprised how many Facebook ‘fans’ are current or recent graduates of Bath High School,” he said. “It speaks to the persistence of memory.”

Free Sedaris

Author David Sedaris sells out concert halls wherever he goes. Now Lansing area fans will get to see him for free. At least those fans lucky enough to get out to Schuler Books & Music at the Meridian Mall in Okemos and grab a ticket for his June 6 book signing and talk at the store.

Emily Gale, promotional manager for Schuler, said the first 100 fans will get tickets for seats and the next 200 to 300 will be able to hear him and maybe see him. From there on, numbered tickets will be given out for a place in line to get books signed. Tickets will be available at the store starting today.

There will be no limit on the number of books signed, but Sedaris will not sign skin, cigarette packs, posters or anything else. The noted humorist has a penchant for signing unusual items for fans. No photos will be allowed.

Sedaris is touring to promote the paperback release of “When You are Engulfed in Flames,” which was a New York Times best seller.