In 1927, Berenice Sterling was a first-grade teacher in Bath, Michigan, when she requested a favor from school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe. Sterling wanted to have some fun with her students on the last day of school, so she asked if they could have a picnic in a shady grove of trees on Kehoe’s farm on May 18th.
Although Kehoe accepted, he advised Sterling’s class not to wait until that time. Rather, he said, they should have their picnic “right away.”
Monty Ellsworth, a Bath resident, was blunt when asked why he thought Kehoe made that suggestion after May 18:
“I guess he wanted the kids to have a good time before he killed them.”
“Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer” (Little A), out now. tells the full story of Kehoe, who went from attempting to manage a school’s budget to finally blowing up the whole house, killing 44 people in a fit of rage.
Andrew Philip Kehoe, the first boy after six girls, was born in Clinton County, Michigan, in 1872. According to author Harold Schechter, Kehoe treasured his exalted status in the family hierarchy, believing he could do no wrong because he was considered “unique” and “enthroned as the long-sought male heir” to the family’s estate. According to Schechter, Kehoe’s egotism later in life contributed to a “pathologically distorted sense of his own importance” and a “corresponding disdain” towards those who dared to disagree.
He was “at the head of his physics class” and later allegedly attended Michigan State Agricultural College in East Lansing, majoring in electrical engineering. He was an intelligent youngster and “inveterate tinker” whose electrical inventions were frequently put to good use on the family farm. While no records of his university education exist, it is known that he worked as an electrician for a St. Louis park and in Iowa hanging power lines.
Kehoe’s credentials as an electrician were well-established when he returned to the family’s Michigan homestead in the early 1900s.
His mental health, on the other hand, was in jeopardy. He openly admitted to killing his stepsister’s pet, as well as casually confessing to shooting down a neighbor’s “nuisance” dog.
Kehoe did not show compassion to his own horses, getting angry at one horse’s poor attitude — “he didn’t pull!” he screamed. According to Kehoe, he thrashed the horse into submission.
Meanwhile, Kehoe’s stepmother died terribly young in a kitchen explosion in 1911. No one believed her stepson at the time of the deadly conflagration, but after he earned the moniker “The Mad Butcher of Bath,” some speculated that she was his first human victim.
There were other signs that Kehoe’s sanity was weakening. He dressed as a banker despite the fact that he worked as a farmer. While his neighbors tended to their crops in filthy coveralls, the haughty Kehoe plowed and tilled his acres and rumbled his tractor through his dusty fields in full business attire.
Crop prices plummeted in the 1920s, causing hardship for many American farmers, including Kehoe. He was years behind on his Bath farm mortgage payments by the mid-decade, and his ailing wife’s hospital bills for headaches, coughing fits, and weight loss she mistook for tuberculosis made the couple’s financial condition even worse.
When talk of building a new school — and the associated costs — started in town, the childless, fifty-something Kehoe objected vehemently.