May 18th, 1927– The Story of little Ralphie Cushman’s Tulips, and how they Bloom Today..
Springtime in Mid-Michigan is a many-splendor’d thing.
My old neighbor, Mrs. Taylor (who died in 1987 at the age of 83) once told me her remembrance of hitching up the carriage and horses as a youngster to go to the high school baccalaureate. It was late May, and she passed the freshly-planted fields, the equipment still in the furrows… covered with a freshly fallen snow.
My remembrance, though, of May in Mid-Michigan is rather different: Hot and sweating in the aluminum stands in the unfiltered noon-time sun to watch the Special Olympics, which were played on our High School track field every May. The Special Olympics are a very heartwarming, and very engaging, event to watch. The year I was a Junior in 1980, the temperature was in the low 90’s, and there was a great deal of concern about the athletes, and dehydration.
Mid-Michigan in May: One year, there’s snow, the next there’s a heatwave. Sometimes one follows the other in the span of a day or two.
The Spring of 1927, though, was a fine one, as fine as Mid-Michigan has to offer. The lilacs were in full, glorious, odoriferous bloom. The currant blossoms were heady in the mild and comforting air. In those days, the school year often ended before “Decoration Day” (“Memorial Day”, as it became blandly known, here in these afteryears), and the children would soon be let out for the summer, to help around the farm.
Mid-Michigan was very largely rural back then. Lansing was the bustling urban center of State Government, and, of course, Fisher Body, Oldsmobile and Motor Wheel Corporation. But, the far flung hamlets, that today are bypassed by the sizzling, double-barreled Interstate Highways, were, in those years, a days’ journey by dray, or a 45-minute, 30-mile-per-hour odyssey by automobile. Towns that are now barely a spot on the map, like Wacousta, and Eagle, and Clinton are now a mere 12-minute drive into downtown Lansing. But, in 1927, they were a world apart.
One such village was Bath. Fewer than 10 miles from the State Capitol, mostly north and then a tad west, Bath would be called, in the modern era of commuting, a “bedroom community”: A place where the state bureaucrats, the Michigan State University professors, the autoworkers, would sleep, but their daytime hours were spent “in Town”. In 1927, though, Lansing was a journey you made only when you’d planned it in advance.
Like most of Mid-Michigan towns, Bath was quite prosperous in those years of Calvin Coolidge. Some of the roads had been graded, and some even paved. In the spring of 1927, Consumer’s Power Company was stringing the first electrical power-lines to the village, their crews hauling enormous wooden poles and spools of wires. And Bath, Michigan enjoyed it’s own newly-finished jewel, right near the confluence of Webster and Clark, the two main roads:
The Bath Consolidated School.
The “consolidated school” was a touchstone of the era: The improving roads, the advent of the school bus, and other modern bric-a-brac, made the large, centrally-heated, well-appointed rural school not only a possibility, but a reality . The days of having a one or two-room school every eight or ten miles were coming to a close as school districts formed, and they consolidated the little neighborhood farm schools into one big modern, up-to-date educational facility. And Bath was very proud of theirs.
Emory Huyek, the thirty-three year old Superintendent of the Bath Consolidated School was particularly proud, especially in the glorious early morning hours of that bright and delicious spring day. His staff was industriously working on the end-of-year pageant, field games, and a class picnic for some fifth graders. Most of the upperclassmen were absent, enjoying some time away in advance of Final Exams.
The town was resplendent that morning with all that bespoke small-town midwesternism at the late dawn of the 20th century. Most folks were farmers, some were businessmen and shopkeepers. There was a druggist, and a doctor or two. And all the names were familiar, and solidly Midwestern: Medcoffs and Zimmermans, Cochranes and Claytons. Strangely, there were Harts and Hartes .
And there was little Ralphie Cushman.
Ralphie was a third grader at Bath Consolidated, and he loved his teacher, Miss Weatherby, and he stopped at his mother’s flowerbeds that morning as they were walking to school. “Momma”, he said to her as they walked along, “Can I bring my teacher a tulip this morning?” No, she replied. They were running a bit late, and Ralphie’s mom wanted to enjoy the flowers for a day or two before she started picking them. “Ralphie,” she said, “You can bring her some tomorrow”.
Ralphie, at eight, was a tad young to be a third grader. He was an inquisitive, but quiet and shy boy, so his sister Josephine offered to sit with him that morning– he’d had a rough time the day before. But, it was springtime, and there was no better place to be a third grader than in Miss Weatherby’s class at the Bath Consolidated School in May of 1927. It was an American idyll. Ralphie told his sister that the other pupils would make fun of him if his older sister stayed at his side that morning, so Josephine left him alone with his classmates. His mother, Nellie Cushman, waved at him as he disappeared into the gaggle of other students jostling for entry into the building. Ralphie turned and looked at his mother. “Don’t worry momma,” he said, “I’ll be good”. He didn’t have his tulips, but Ralphie was ready for the day.
Nellie returned home, walking the same course alone, without her children. She began tending to the household chores.
There was a sudden, sharp, tremendous blast and explosion somewhere north of her house that actually cracked the windows in the kitchen. She ran outside to see where the explosion came from, and saw others running in the same direction. Almost immediately, another explosion rent the peaceful May morning air. There was a plume of dust and smoke coming from the direction she’d just left.
The Bath Consolidated School had exploded.
In what became known immediately that day as the “Bath School Disaster”, some 30 children, primarily in the second, third and fourth grades died during those first two quick and horrendous explosions. Miss Weatherby was crushed beneath the ceiling of the floor above her. Children were hurled from windows, blown like rag-dolls against cruel and unmoving brick walls, crushed beneath joists and rafters and shingles. Suddenly, the air of the mild spring morning was agog with the horror of screaming, injured and terrified children, and the plaintive wails of grief-stricken mothers who’d rushed to the school.
Within minutes, help was pouring in from the neighboring homes and farms. The men from Consumer’s Power line-stringing crew was already there, attempting to shore up the portions of the school that hadn’t caved in with the mammoth pine poles they brought that morning; Some were used as levers. Superintendent Huyek was moving about like a madman, directing here, ordering there, diving in over here to rescue the shocked and dying children.
What, in the Lord’s Name had happened? An earthquake? Piped natural gas was years away. It didn’t make sense: The sky was nearly a faultless blue. There couldn’t have been a tornado. Or lightning. As these thoughts fired rapidly in his mind, Huyek’s attention was grabbed by a waving man out near the road who had just driven up in his model “T”. It was one of the members of the School Board (the treasurer, in fact), 55-year old Andrew Kehoe, and clearly he’d driven up to help in the rescue.
Oddly, though, Kehoe didn’t immediately get out of his Ford; He was known in town as a smart and technically gifted man (-in fact, he performed much of the mechanical maintenance on the new Consolidated School), but he was odd, and a bit of a malcontent and a thorn in the side of the young Superintendent– as treasurer, Kehoe needled the Superintendent constantly about expenditures.
Kehoe and Huyek seemed to be arguing, if that was possible, at this most critical time, out by the road. A shotgun was seen briefly, brandished by Kehoe, and he turned and fired it into the rear of his Model T. There was a bright flash, and a third explosion tore through the schoolyard…
Kehoe’s truck blew five or ten feet straight into the air. His body was mangled into five or six gory chunks that rained down amongst the smoldering wreckage. Superintendent Huyek was also torn to bits. Several bystanders who witnessed the exchange were also hit and mortally wounded by the deadly shrapnel, including the town postmaster and one of the children who had survived the first blast. Kehoe had packed his Ford with dynamite and every bit of old iron and implements and nails and sawblades with every intention of firing it off, and killing anyone nearby. Especially Huyek.
Bath, Michigan, in less than fifteen minutes, had descended into the madness of waking nightmare, and all reality began to fall away, and became muted in the face of fragrant lilac, and the mutilated bodies of tender, innocent children. Pandemonium reigned.
Some three miles away, almost unnoticed, Andrew Kehoe’s farm and home had also exploded, and now were ablaze. When investigators began piecing together the grisly series of events, and poured through the charred remains of his property, they noticed a small sign that Kehoe had stenciled on a board, and attached to his wire fence: “Criminals are Made, Not Born”, it said.
Kehoe’s farm was left to burn. Back at the Bath Consolidated School, as soon as he’d self-detonated, and taken his supposed nemesis with him into eternity, it was clear to everybody that Kehoe was the diabolical culprit and lone mastermind of the incredible bloodshed and carnage that was unfolding.
But, the story only starts with Andrew Kehoe. It ends (if, indeed, it ever ends) on May 18th, 2009, when Josephine, at the age of 92, went to Bath’s Pleasant Hill Cemetery and placed the last tulips she took to her little brother Ralphie Cushman’s grave, as she had done nearly every May 18th since 1927.
The Bath School Disaster remains both the largest single, lone act of mass murder, and the deadliest attack on a school in American history. In all, 38 school children were murdered, along with 4 adults, including Miss Weatherby and Emory Huyek. 58 people were injured, some life-alteringly so. Oklahoma City had it’s conspirators, but Kehoe acted alone.
The events at Bath, Michigan remain largely forgotten today. On the day it happened, the Disaster was front page news in America’s dailies, including the New York Times. But, by the next day, the follow-on stories in Bath were “below the fold ” , being crowded out by the triumphant landing of Charles Lindbergh in Paris that day. But the mourning, the tireless rescues, the hour upon hour of selfless work continued apace in Bath.
In those days, there was no Federal Emergency Management Agency. The only real government presence was the Michigan State Police, and a few local volunteer fire departments. At the scene, the MSP later devolved to traffic control, as the tiny village was overrun by tens of thousands of people wanting to help, wanting to be part of history, or just wanting to gawk. Eventually, the State Police found hundreds of pounds of unexploded dynamite and pyrotol wired to the east and south wings of the school, which hadn’t exploded. If Kehoe’s long-planned and intricately executed mission had worked as he thought it would, the entire school would have blown up, and most of the children would have died.
I mentioned my neighbor, Mrs. Taylor. Her future husband was living that day in Lansing, and worked for the Lansing Arctic Dairy. He was instructed by his boss to take a truck-load of ice and refreshments up to the bombing scene to offer them to all the volunteers who worked without rest through the long first night under the glare of searchlights that Consumer’s Power had trucked in. A local bakery did the same things, as did a local brewer and several grocery stores.
Local hospitals, including Lansing’s Saint Lawrence Hospital sent entire squadrons of nurses and doctors and ambulance attendants, along with their Sisters of Mercy. Farmers sent their equipment and tractors. Local undertakes and ministers volunteered their time to conduct dozens of funerals, most of them in the family homes. Everybody, everywhere, wanted to help.
Including Michigan Governor Fred Greene, who drove out to Bath from his home in Lansing, and began hauling bricks and lifting timbers like everyone else. He stayed most of the day, as did his wife, who worked with the bereft parents, and helped to bind up wounds.
After the additional explosives were found in the crawl spaces and basement of the undamaged wings, several boys volunteered to retrieve it, no questions asked. Kehoe had evidently installed lengths of wire and dynamite inside long lengths of eavestrough, and slid them under the floor in several locations, where only smaller, wiry boys could retrieve it. And thus they did.
There were many other small stories of great heroics that day: Hazel Weatherby, for example, clung to life for hours, shielding the great weight of the floors above her from the two small children she held, until she was discovered, and was able to release them– at which point she finally gave up her own life. Bath’s only doctor toiled without sleep for nearly three days.
On the anniversary of the disaster, let us remember: Bath, Michigan was in the pit of despond that May day, all those years ago. But, as befit a solid, strong, faithful mid-western American town, it got to work.
What is the significance of this story? Why am I telling it today?
Modern life tends to pore much significance onto the Events of the Day. Last week it was bin Laden. The week before, it was the Royal Wedding. Before that, Trump. Before that, Gadahfi. The week before that it Egypt. And so forth. The headlines change, the passions swell, and we move on. Very quickly. Yes, time has always moved for mortals at a break-neck speed. As Solomon taught: There is nothing new under the sun.
In 1927, though, there was a crucial difference. The lack of federal, or Presidential, response.
Calvin Coolidge is not mentioned in any account of the events in Bath, even as a passing reference point. There was no general castigation that Coolidge sat in Washington, and didn’t wring his hands in public, or take the first train to Bath to hog up the atmosphere, and the searchlights, and add to the bewilderment of the grieving town. He didn’t go on the Radio and blame anybody for anything, in the uber-vain hope of taking some sort of weird political advantage.
There was no call to have the Federal Government ban dynamite, or pyrotol, or Model T’s. There was no federal legislation creating “Bomb Free School Zones”. There was no immediate reportage on how this public policy or that public policy might have created Andrew Kehoe. No one wondered if it was a political gain for the Republicans, or a diminishment for Democrats.
No, neighbors simply dived in, hugged their loved ones in loss and sorrow, and even in the joy of life continuing. They mopped up, they sorted the bricks. They provided succor in the knowledge that evil exists in the world, and that the government wasn’t there to make it go away; God and Church? Maybe. Not Government. Government, if it was there at all, was to provide traffic control, and deliver justice. Not much else was needed from them. Certainly not more regulation, or more overseeing. Looking to Washington for surcease from the devastation wrought in the anguish of a madman’s diseased mind was as foreign to Bath in 1927 as looking to the Moon for cheese.
The government, generally speaking in 1927, was inobtrusive, in the background. A fund was started by Governor Green to help rebuild the school, but it was soon discontinued after the Chairman of Ford Motor Company, James J. Couzens, wrote a check for $75,000 to cover it.
Couzens, in fact, is the unsung hero of Bath. He made millions as an original investor of Henry Ford’s last, and successful, attempt to build an automobile manufacturing company. He eventually sold his stock back to Ford for some $20 million dollars. He and his wife donated millions and millions of dollars to good works all over Michigan from endowed schools to hospitals, and yet he remains today as unknown as the Disaster in Bath. Government didn’t rebuild the Bath School; James Couzens did.There was no millage vote, no campaign to raise taxes “for the Children”. Private, selfless, honest, hardworking, charitable folks queued up and took care of things..
But other, less wealthy benefactors took it upon themselves to provide relief, as well, without taxation, without Federal Disaster Relief. The Red Cross was a truly efficient and magnificent organization then, and they moved into the breech on the day of the explosion. They remained in Bath for many weeks. Lastly, children from across the country donated pennies to create a Monument to those killed, who were innocently endeavoring to learn that bright, mild May morning. Some months later, a sculpture, entitled, “Girl With a Cat” was dedicated to the victims, and the sculpture remains in Bath to this day.
The Good Old Days weren’t always good. Evil,–pure, unbridled evil — lurked in the shadows as it does today, eager to snuff out innocence and life, goodness and joy. That’s nothing new– as it was in 1927, so it is today. How we respond, though, has changed.
As the lilac blooms, and the sway of Ralphie Cushman’s tulips dance in the mild May breeze, I will leave to those reading this to determine how it’s changed, and if it’s for the better.