I can see him clearly, as if he was standing next to me at this moment. And yet his image remains hazy. According to his drivers' license, he was five feet, nine inches tall, weighed 150 pounds and had gray hair. He was also described as “ ...a slight hollow-chested man”, of 46, with thin lips. And yet he remains an enigma. A neighbor, when shown several photographs of him, said, “ "I knew him well and he never looked like that.” And he was not just a physical enigma. Howard Kittle, the Clinton County agent and Farm Bureau manager, received a letter from him, and admitted that if anyone else had written it “I would have thought sure he was insane.'” But that was before - when he was an elected community leader, a trusted guardian of the communities' wealth and its future. After - the Clinton County Republican-News was forced to wonder, “Is the building of a modern institution which equips children to meet the problems of the world a burden - or is it a privilege?” You see, the man at issue was a anti-tax warrior and an American narcissist.
Bath in 1927 was a little farm town of about 300 people 10 miles northeast of Lansing, Michigan. “(It) had a ( grain) elevator, a little drugstore, and you knew everybody within 20 miles” said a life long resident. In 1922 rural Clinton County closed its scattered one room school houses. They used $8,000 of their own hard earned money to buy five acres of ground just south of Bath. They borrowed $35,000 to build a two story Consolidated School building. Here, classes would be divided by ages, to protect the younger children from bullies. With fewer teachers, higher standards could be required, even a college teaching degree. And amenities such as a library, lunch programs, athletics, music and art were added. And buses picked children up at their front doors and returned them safely home each night. It was the foundation for the secure world we grew up in. And it was not cheap.
The future always costs. You either invest in it, or if you refuse, it is much more expensive. In 1922 property taxes in Clinton county were $12.26 per thousand dollars of valuation ($160 today, or over $16%). In 1923 those taxes had gone up by half to $18.80 ($235 today). This was not the decision of a few liberals. This was debated for years within the community. And over time the decision was to invest in the future of Clinton County (in us), and spend the money. Three years later, eager to eliminate the debt quickly, the elected leaders of Clinton County paid off $7,200 of their obligation, and taxes topped out at one dollar higher (to $240 per thousand in today's dollars). It was expected taxes would now start to drop, but that did not take into account the rising inflation of the late 1920's, and the selfishness of one egomaniac who chose not to have a future.
I shall not use his name because of something Neil Kaye, forensic psychiatrist at Jefferson Medical College told Time Magazine in April of 2007. He said, “We glorify and revere these seemingly powerful people who take life. Meanwhile, I bet you couldn't tell me the name of even one of (serial killer) Ted Bundy's victims.” So let me just share headlines from the New York Times, dated Wednesday, May 18th, 1927, to explain what this man did. “Maniac blows up school, kills 42, mostly children; Had protested high taxes...He then kills himself and 3 others by Dynamiting Auto...Children Pinned in Debris. Others hurled against walls or out windows – Searchers still hunt for missing. Agonizing scenes in yard. Distraught parents find little ones dead beneath blankets...”. The early numbers were wrong, of course. The maniac killed eight adults and 34 children at the school, that day. The last little victim, nine year old Richard Fitz, would die of infection caused by his injuries, a week short of a year after the Bath School Disaster, and that was the name of one of his victims.
Just before he murdered the children, the maniac had bludgeoned his wife to death, restrained all his animals in a burning barn, killed every fruit tree on his farm, and burned all his expensive farm equipment. Interestingly, it was figured by the cleanup crews, that he could have paid off his mortgage and his property taxes by selling most of his well maintained farm equipment, which, according to his neighbors, he rarely used. Neighbor M.J. “Monty” Ellsworth wrote later, “He was at the height of his glory when fixing machinery or tinkering...He spent so much time tinkering that he didn't prosper.” The maniac also stood out, as a farmer, for his meticulous appearance. He changed his shirt quickly should a spot of dirt appear on it and was often seen sitting on his front porch, in a smoking jacket, puffing on a cigar. But his primary interest, his obsession, was in cutting taxes.
The maniac had been elected to the school board in 1924, two years after the new school had opened and the first election after the new higher tax rate had been announced. In 1925, after the death of Maude Detluff, the board's treasure, he had been appointed to fill that position. His book keeping was, like his appearance, meticulous. After his suicide, his books showed “a long and detailed explination” of a 22 cent discrepancy. But in the spring of 1926, when he ran for election to the job, the voters had rejected him. Once again, the majority approved investment in the future About this time the maniac stopped paying the mortgage or insurance on his farm.The previous owner, his wife's relatives, eventually began foreclosure proceedings His crops began to rot in the fields.
There is a story that decades earlier, a promising career as an electrician in St. Louis had been cut short by a fall and a serious head injury. So farming was the maniac's second choice. He married and moved to Clinton county right after the First World War. He might have over paid for his farm, because land prices were inflated at time. And his wife was afflicted with tuberculosis, a wasting disease. The Klu Klux Klan would even alleged his Catholicism encouraged him to destroy the school because it was not a Catholic school. But even if all of that were true, none of it would justify the cold blooded murder of 36 innocent children, and eight adults. And all the maniac was focused on was his high taxes.
Before the school was built, he had opposed it. Once it was decided to build it, he insisted it should be a 10 grade institution, instead of 12. He opposed the inclusion of a library, or athletics or music. And he lost each argument. Once the building was constructed, he had enough supporters to win election to the school board, where his obstinacy continued. He even opposed giving the superintendent a paid vacation each year, and then argued it should only be one week, not two. And as he lost each of these arguments, his obsession grew, day by day. Words used to describe him during this time were “surly”, “obstinate”, “impatient” “arrogant” “closed mouth”. Eventually he began to invest his money not on his farm, or his wife, but on explosives, and to sneak them into the basement of the school house, rig them with a timer and set them to explode early on a Wednesday morning, just after classes had begun.
The day after the bombing while still in shock and grief, the Clinton Country Republican ran an editorial, which explains, far better than I ever could, the connection between the maniac's crime and his anti-tax fever. “That he was insane there is little doubt. But he was not always insane. To start with he was merely antagonistic. Then he became radical.. He was the victim of the progress of his own lack of balance...What a terrible price to pay for narrow-mindedness. What an awful calamity for one peaceful little community to bear for one man's lack of ordinary American ideals...Never before have we known of aversion of the cost of education taking such terrible form. There are, however, many people who unthinkingly hamper and discourage the progress of good schools and other institutions for the welfare and happiness of the public. What are we going to do about it?”
It is almost a century later, and the question begs to be asked of the Tea Party and the radicals who have taken over the Republican Party - those who object to investing in the future because they do not believe they have one. What are we going to do about it?
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