On an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon in late May 1927, more than 85,000 vehicles crowded the roads leading to Bath. They were drawn by a sense of morbid curiosity to see the remnants of a massive explosion, which on May 18 ripped into the Bath Consolidated School, killing 44 including 38 children.
In his new book, “Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer,” noted true crime writer and expert Harold Schechter writes about the what has become known as the worst mass killing at a school in United States history.
Grieving families were still burying their dead as the cars carrying the curious rolled through the small village. The cars’ passengers were talking about the madman Andrew Kehoe who had caused the devastation, but also about the young American pilot Charles Lindbergh, who on May 21 became the first aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean — flying from New York City to Paris in 33 and one-half hours.
Soon, except for the grieving survivors, the Bath School bombing would pass into oblivion in the passage of history until the horrific school shooting at Columbine in 1999.
“Maniac” is not the first book to be written about the Bath School bombing. Shortly after the bombing, an account, “The Bath School Disaster,” appeared in a locally produced pamphlet, and in 1979, author Grant Parker wrote “Mayday: The History of a Village Holocaust,” which would become the standard until 2007, when Chicagoan Arnie Bernstein wrote “Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing.”
Upper Peninsula author John Smolens wrote about the bombing in his remarkable piece of historical fiction, “Day of Days.” Locally, a historical docudrama is nearing completion by Ahptic, a film production house.
Still, tragedies such as the Bath School bombing have a way of passing from the public consciousness, according to Schechter, who has studied true crime incidents since his early days as a university professor. He recently retired.
For the book, Schechter traveled to Bath and walked the memorial across from the site of the bombing. The door to the school was locked, but by luck a teacher let him into the school to view the historical collection related to the bombing. Extensive research was also conducted at the Library of Michigan.
“It was totally heartbreaking,” Schechter said. “There is nothing like seeing physical objects to bring the story to life.”
In one portion of the book, Schechter focuses on the perpetrator Kehoe, whom he calls a “grievance collector.” The author said Kehoe closely fits the profile of mass killers who believe their life has come to a dead end.
“They come to believe in an unbearable feeling of humiliation and blame people around them,” he said.
In Kehoe’s case, his grievances are well documented. He was facing financial ruin. He had recently lost two political campaigns and his sense of superiority to those around him was diminished. He blamed school taxes for his problems.
“He lashed out at people who he believed were responsible for his own failures,” Schechter said.
When Schechter was doing his research, he became convinced that the “most heinous crime of the twentieth century” was wiped from the communal memory.
Schechter posits that during different eras of history there are signature crimes that define that era — ranging from poisonings, kidnappings and serial killers like Charles Manson.
He said the Bath School bombing was a “horror before its time.”
Schechter said his book on the Bath School bombing was typical of virtually every book he’s written.
“In addition to the thousands of people who descended on the scene, there were postcards created depicting the horrific bombing,” he said.
The author said that while growing up in the ’50s, he was attracted to “feature creatures” and misspent many Saturdays watching horror double features at the movies. That interest followed him into academia, where he taught American fiction for 42 years at Queen College in New York.
He said true crime writing can be traced back to at least Shakespearian times, but our obsession with true crime goes through phases.
“Our obsession with serial killers has totally faded to be replaced by mass murderers. Our interest isn’t based on just the amount of carnage, but is determined by cultural anxieties that give it resonance. Media alone can’t create a fascination with crime,” he said.
In his book, Schechter quotes philosopher William James and his observation that humans have a “carnivore within.”
Still, he writes: “Horrific violence isn’t enough to ensure a crime will become an ongoing media sensation, let alone a permanent part of our cultural mythology.” Schechter says something else is necessary. He cites factors like prominence of the perpetrator; a mysterious disappearance; a bizarre method of disposing of a corpse; a suspenseful trial or a melodramatic denouement as ingredients people look for.
In the instance of the Bath School bombing, the horrific headlines were almost overnight replaced by news of a young aviator crossing the Atlantic. Five years later, Lindbergh’s own family life would become one of the most compelling true crimes of the century, when his baby son was kidnapped and killed.