Friday, May 18, 2007

May 18

Four days after Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov was coronated Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, a massive festival in his honor turned into a deadly stampede. Drawn by promises of free beer and gifts, as many as half a million people gathered at Khodynka Field, just northwest of Moscow, in the early morning hours of 18 May 1896 (by the Julian calendar, which Russia still used). Amazingly, officials assigned a little more than a dozen men to keep the crowd orderly. When rumors spread that insufficient quantities of beer were available, the crowd began to surge forward in the direction of the 150 buffet tables and 20 pubs that had been constructed for the occasion. In the panic that ensued, more than 1300 people were crushed and suffocated.

The Khodynka tragedy cast a call over the entire reign of Russia’s last tsar. Vladimir Lenin among other revolutionaries and opponents of Nicholas II referred to him as the “Khodynka Tsar” and “Bloody Nicholas,” a nickname that applied especially well in July 1917, when Bolshevik revolutionaries executed him and his entire family.


More than 30 years after the Khodynka stampede, a disgruntled Michigan farmer named Andrew Kehoe beat his wife to death, set his house alight, then blew up the north wing of the Bath Consolidated School, instantly killing 36 children and two teachers. Kehoe, a member of the Bath County school board, was disgruntled over the property taxes levied to pay for the facilities, which he blamed for the impending foreclosure of his farm. His efforts to reduce the property taxes were not successful, however. Determined to avenge his largely self-inflicted economic misfortunes, Kehoe began in the summer of 1926 to stockpile more than a ton of pyrotol, an explosive introduced during World War I. He also bought several boxes of dynamite. As a school board member and school handyman, Kehoe had complete access to the school and packed the explosives into the basement sometime during the months leading up to the event.

On the morning of May 18, Kehoe destroyed his own barn with firebombs, killing all of the livestock who were trapped inside. As firefighters rushed to the scene, half of the explosives in the schoolhouse detonated. One of Kehoe’s neighbors, M.J. Ellsworth, wrote a book about the bombing and described the morning’s horrors
There were sights that I hope no one will ever have to look at again. Children would be brought out, some with legs dropping, some with arms broken and hanging, some would be moaning, and others would be still. When carrying them, you would know they would never answer their mother's call again. They were all hard to recognize when they were first brought out because they were covered with plaster and cement -- and nearly all bleeding to a certain extent.

I saw one mother, Mrs. Eugene Hart, sitting on the bank a short distance from the school with a little dead girl on each side of her and holding a little boy, Percy, who died a short time after they got him to the hospital.
As more than a hundred townspeople combed the wreckage for survivors and the dead, Kehoe arrived on the scene in his car, which he had packed with dynamite, dismantled farm equipment, tools and scrap metal. Using a shotgun to detonate the explosives, Kehoe blew himself and four other people to smithereens.

Kehoe’s body landed a short distance from the wrecked car and was later buried in an unmarked grave. The funerals of his victims drew thousands of mourners from across the state.

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