Decades before a Florida man was charged with mailing explosive devices to 13 critics of President Trump, three members of New York City’s bomb squad went to see a psychiatrist.
They weren’t patients, but they were desperate.
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It was 1956, and for 16 years, a man dubbed the Mad Bomber had been detonating pipe bombs around the city — in movie theaters, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library. More than a dozen people were severely injured.
Investigators were stumped. The entire country was shaken.
“The nearly three dozen homemade explosives he set off in public places brought into being a culture of fear more than four decades before terrorism became an American fixation,” historian Michael Cannell wrote in “Incendiary,” a book about the attacks. “He was like a dream distortion of postwar disquiet — unhinged, unrelenting, perpetually hidden in the city shadows.”
Without any place to really look, the detectives went to see the shrink — an unheard-of investigatory tactic back then, but now known as criminal profiling. “If physical evidence could not lead the police” to the bomber, Cannell wrote, “maybe emotional insights could.”
And so, at the desk of James A. Brussel, the deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, Capt. Howard Finney laid out what little evidence investigators had to go on.
Photographs of bombs that didn’t detonate.
Crime scene reports.
And most important, letters the bomber had sent to newspapers — signed as F.P. — that railed against the world but mostly the electric company Con Ed.
Brussel studied the evidence for more than two hours. Then he stood up to look out a window.
“For a long moment, Dr. Brussel looked as if he had slipped into a trance,” Cannell wrote, “as if he were straining to hear a signal in the white noise of the city — a psychic tap tap tap — that would lead him to the bomber.”
The investigators waited. Then, as Cannell described it, “he turned to Captain Finney and described his fugitive, right down to the cut of his jacket.”
He was right.
The bomber, Brussel said, was a paranoid schizophrenic and probably believed someone and some entity was controlling or plotting against him. He probably had a lot of workplace grudges.
The bomber was not fat or skinny — he was “symmetrically built.”
Finney was skeptical.
Brussel cited studies showing 17 of 20 “paranoids” had athletic builds.
The handwriting in his letters was perfect, Brussel said, so he was a perfectionist and probably a very good employee wherever he worked. Also, he was neatly groomed and cared about his appearance.
Then Brussel went even deeper.
In his letters, the Mad Bomber used a stilted tone and words such as “treachery” or “dastardly deeds” — words not really colloquial at the time.
“He’s a Slav,” Brussel concluded.
“Mind giving the reasoning behind that?” the captain asked.
Brussel’s answer: Bombs and knives were tools of Middle Europe. The bomber, of course, used bombs. But he also used knives to cut holes into places were he planted his devices. “When one man uses both, that suggests he could be Slav,” Brussel explained.
There was a sexual frustration component to Brussel’s analysis that boiled down to the Mad Bomber’s probably being unmarried with little to no romance in his life. And because Slavs prized family ties, he most likely lived with someone not unlike his mother.
Oh, and something else: The letters were mailed from Westchester County, about halfway between New York and Connecticut, where many Slavs lived. So the Mad Bomber probably lived in Connecticut and mailed his letters from Westchester as a cover.
But the shrink wasn’t finished, Cannell wrote.
“When you catch him,” Brussel said, “and I have no doubt you will, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.”
The investigators left. In a matter of weeks, they acted on a key piece of advice from Brussel — leak the doctor’s psychological hunches. This might draw out the Mad Bomber, who probably yearned for acknowledgment.
After the New York Times printed some of Brussel’s theories, the New York Journal-American, feeling scooped, decided to up the ante by printing an open letter to the bomber imploring him to give himself up.
Incredibly, the Mad Bomber wrote back, over and over, each time revealing more details about himself. He was injured at Con Ed, it turned out. He had filed claims that went nowhere. At one point, he even revealed the date of his injury: Sept. 5, 1931.
Detectives and Con Ed employees combed through employee records. In red ink in one of the files, these words were written: “injustice” and “permanent disability.” They went deeper into the file. The employee was injured in a boiler explosion. The date of injury: Sept. 5, 1931. In his complaints, he used the phrase “dastardly deeds.”
The police had their suspect: George Metesky.
He lived in Waterbury, Conn., in a working-class neighborhood of European immigrants. Detectives went there to quietly investigate. Metesky was Slavic. He had a medium build. He lived with his sisters.
And when they awakened him in the middle of the night, asking him to get dressed, Metesky emerged from his bedroom, Cannell wrote, “wearing sensible brown rubber-soled shoes, red-dotted necktie, brown cardigan sweater, and double-breasted suit.”
The detectives asked why Metesky thought they were standing in his home in the middle of the night.
“I guess it’s because you suspect I’m the Mad Bomber,” he said.
Metesky denied it at first. Then detectives asked what F.P. stood for.
“Fair play,” the Mad Bomber said.
The arrest, like the bombings, was sensational news.
Metesky was a quiet guy who kept to himself, the newspapers said. Lately, he had begun to act erratically. But before that, he was a wonderful, honorable man — a former Marine. He even stopped the bombings during World War II.
He was patriotic, he told police. Bombing during the war would have been wrong.
The Mad Bomber was also very religious.
“But he never confessed his bomb-planting to a priest,” Meyer Berger, the legendary New York Times columnist wrote in the days after his arrest. “He told the policemen he stayed away from the confessional booth, but always with a tortured sense of sin.”
That seemed perfectly logical to the Mad Bomber.
“I just couldn’t go in and confess,” he told police, “knowing that I had to go on with what I was doing. I just couldn’t do that.”
Metesky was deemed insane and sent to a state mental hospital. In 1973, after doctors declared he was no longer dangerous, he was released. He died in 1994.
“I have no intention whatever of resorting to any form of violence,” he told the Times before his release. “I’ve found out that at this particular time the pen is mightier than the sword.”
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