America's deadliest school violence? Not Columbine, but Bath, Mich., in 1927

The Bath School disaster of 1927 remains the deadliest killing spree at a school in America.

James Daggy/Michigan State University
The cupola from the school in Bath Township, Michigan, which was bombed in 1927, now sits in a memorial park.

Sometimes it feels like the mass violence of our modern age is something devastatingly new for America. History shows that's not the case.

In 1927, a single man's outbreak of violence in a small Michigan town took the lives of 45 people, including 38 children. The Bath School Disaster became the nation's deadliest killing spree at a school, and it still holds that distinction today.

A few years ago, Chicago author Arnie Bernstein went to Bath Township, Mich., near Lansing, to tell the story of the day that a local farmer and school board member – for reasons that are still unclear – used dynamite to destroy the town's school and kill many of its inhabitants. While the rest of the country promptly forgot about the tragedy – one of the century's biggest news events distracted the nation shortly after it happened – he discovered that the scars remain.

But there was more to find than heartache.

In an interview this week, Bernstein, author of 2009's "Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing," describes a community's strength and the silent generation that finally spoke out when he came calling.

As another city goes through a familiar cycle of shock and grief, Bernstein's words offer a glimpse of the humanity that the worst kinds of horror cannot destroy.

Q: How was the reaction to this tragedy different than what we're seeing in Aurora?
 
A: While the people of Bath weren't any different than the people of our times, it was a different time, a different era. These days, we have better coping mechanisms. We have counselors and all kinds of different support systems.

Back then, they didn't talk about it, period. They were farmers, and they had to go back to work. Your cow couldn't take a day off for a tragedy.

And there wasn't a media frenzy like today. The media came in and left. Three days after it happened, Lindbergh took off and flew to Paris, and that part of it was over.

When I came in, it had been eight decades, and nobody had talked about it. It was just this scar on the land.

Q: Amazingly, you talked to survivors of the school bombing who are now in their 90s and 100s. What did they say?

A: One woman who's 99 now was telling me the most graphic details about how her seven-year-old brother was killed. I was worried about upsetting her and told her she didn't have to talk about all this. She said, "No, people have to know. I'm not going to be around forever. I want people to know what happened."

Q: What can we learn from Bath Township?

A: One lesson is that you cannot stop someone who's determined to do something like this, who doesn't have that switch in their head that says to not do it. You cannot stop them any more than you can stop an iceberg.

But out of that horror, out of the one or two people who commit these kinds of crimes, comes the good, the tremendous good that you see in the wake of these things. Our humanity comes through in the face of evil and the inexplicable.

The survivors and their children are some of the most decent people I've ever known in my life, and they grew out of this.

Q: Will this part of Bath's history ever fade?

A: This cannot go away and never will, even after these people die. It's always part of who they are in Bath. But they remain a quintessential small Midwest town America: nice, kind, and good Christians in the absolute greatest sense.

Q: What has writing the story of this town meant for you?

A: One day when I was walking through the town cemetery, I realized I knew everybody: This guy was a rescuer, this child was killed, here was someone's wife who made sandwiches for the men.

I saw many names on the headstones with no death dates. These people are still alive. Bath was where they were born and raised, and it's where they'll die.

When my life is over, I think this will probably the best thing I've done in my life, bringing this town some healing, helping people talk about it and bringing the community together.

It's been 80 years, but it's still fresh in mind. It's yesterday. But out of this came good and decency – people caring for strangers and looking out for one another.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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