Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: Maniac (Harold Schechter)

Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer

In 1927, a disgruntled and very pettily angry Andrew Kehoe detonated explosives he had planted under the Bath Consolidated School, killing 38 children and five adults (including himself). Kehoe had also set the buildings on his farm ablaze after killing his wife, as well as destroyed his equipment and tied his horses’ legs together so they were unable to escape the fire.

In the meticulously researched, quite detailed, and well-written Maniac, Harold Schechter provides the details leading to Kehoe’s destruction of the symbol on which he focused his rage and the man who ran it – in fact, the entire history of how the township of Bath came to be in the first place comprises the opening chapters.

Eventually, we get to Andrew Kehoe and his wife, Nellie, who move into Nellie’s family’s homestead after her parents die. By all accounts, Kehoe is quick to lend a hand when people need it, and asks nothing in particular in return. He is an upstanding member of the community, attends church, and in general never strikes anyone as anything other than what he is.

This changes, though, when the Bath Consolidated School is constructed and a tax is levied for its upkeep and the salaries of those employed there, from teachers to janitor. After a bad year on the farm, Kehoe’s rage is directed toward the school, the tax, and the head of the school. He manages to get himself elected to the Board, and immediately begins micromanaging what he can, attempting to torpedo the raise and vacation time of the head of the school, and instead of hiring someone to fix the issues that come up in the school – wiring, installing boilers, plumbing, and so forth – Kehoe, being a mechanically-minded man, does them instead. In his mind, he is saving the school money. In the process, he is also learning details he will use later in his nefarious plans.

When elections for the board come around again, to his shock, Kehoe is not supported by his party, having burned too may bridges with his aggressive and controlling ways. This fuels even more resentment.

By now months behind on his mortgage, Kehoe stockpiles 500 pounds of pyrotrol, an explosive used widely in WWI and manufactured in the millions of pounds by chemical companies in the US. He also purchases dynamite, which seems odd to us today, but both were considered normal ways to deal with things like boulders and tree stumps when clearing land for farming.

From this point, we get a ticking timeline of witness statements: from someone seeing Kehoe take crate after crate into the basement of the school, to movements of student and teachers in the school, to people who first notice Kehoe’s farm on fire.

As the clock ticks to 9:45AM, the destruction begins, with more details of where people were, inside and outside the school. Warning: there are some gruesome descriptions of injuries as the people of Bath start digging through the rubble. Included in this part of the narrative is how, after sufficient rubble had been cleared and the dead and injured counted, the men who went into the basement made the horrifying discovery that Kehoe had packed all of the pyrotel he’d purchased in various parts of the basements, all wired to the same ignition battery. The battery was apparently not strong enough to detonate all of the explosives – had it been, the school would likely have been just a crater in the ground, and much of Bath and many of its inhabitants would have been killed.

This takes about half the book. The second half is a discussion of mass (and not so mass) murders and how they are viewed by the public, including bringing up previous mass murders like Bath when subsequent mass murders make the news. It’s also a discussion about how atrocities like Bath can be readily forgotten because of other news – Schechter uses Lindbergh’s solo, nonstop flight from New York to Paris, for instance, as an example. But, he always returns to Bath. From Columbine to Whitman in the Tower to the Alfred Murrah bombing in Oklahoma to Virginia State to Parkland, he hammers on stories about those hearkening back to Bath, one of the earliest known intentional mass murders in our collective history.

The first half is definitely stronger than the second, and – and this is a point he makes – likely more interesting, because of human nature. The second half, however, is worth the time to read. While the book is geared toward US readers, it would likely be of interest to readers in other countries who take an interest in the history of mass killings (not serial killings; this is not the story of a serial killer).

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Little A and NetGalley for the review copy.