THE MAD BOMBER
On this date in 1957, suspected “Mad Bomber” George Metesky, accused of planting more than 30 explosive devices in the New York City area since 1940, was arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut. The arrest ended a 16-year campaign of terror with bombs being left in train stations, libraries, offices, phone booths, storage lockers, public restrooms and even the New York City subway. Most notably, Metesky bomber theaters, where he cut into seat upholstery and left explosive devices inside. Angry and resentful after a workplace injury that he’s suffered years earlier, the strange little man began making bombs that ended up injuring 15 people – and terrorizing the city. What drove him to his bizarre and bitter acts? And why did he end up in an insane asylum when it was all over?
"Mad Bomber" George Metesky
Shortly after World War I, Metesky joined the U.S. Marines, serving as a specialist electrician at the United States Consulate in Shanghai. Returning home, he went to work as a mechanic for Consolidated Edison utility company and lived in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his two unmarried sisters. In 1931, a boiler backfired and produced a blast of hot gases. Metesky was knocked down and fumes filled his lungs. The accident left him disabled and, after collecting 26 weeks of sick pay, he lost his job. The fumes caused him to contract pneumonia, which developed into tuberculosis. A claim for workers' compensation was denied because he waited too long to file it. Three appeals of the denial were also rejected, the last in 1936. He developed a hatred for the company's attorneys and for the three co-workers whose testimony in his compensation case he believed was perjured in favor of the company. Out of revenge, he planted his first bomb on November 16, 1940, leaving it on a window sill at the Consolidated Edison power plant on West 64th Street in Manhattan.
Metesky's first bomb was crude, a short length of brass pipe filled with gunpowder, with an ignition mechanism made of sugar and flashlight batteries. Enclosed in a wooden toolbox and left on the window sill, it was found before it could go off. It was wrapped in a note written in distinctive block letters and signed "F.P.", stating CON EDISON CROOKS – THIS IS FOR YOU.
In September 1941, a bomb with a similar ignition mechanism was found lying in the street about five blocks away from the Consolidated Edison headquarters building at 4 Irving Place. This one had no note, and was also a dud. Police theorized that the bomber might have spotted a police officer and dropped the bomb without setting its fuse.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the police received a letter in block capital letters:
I WILL MAKE NO MORE BOMB UNITS FOR THE DURATION OF THE WAR – MY PATRIOTIC FEELINGS HAVE MADE ME DECIDE THIS – LATER I WILL BRING THE CON EDISON TO JUSTICE – THEY WILL PAY FOR THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS... F.P.
True to his word, Metesky planted no bombs between 1941 and 1951, choosing instead to send crank letters and postcards to police stations, newspapers, private citizens and Con Edison. Investigators studying the penciled, block-lettered messages noted that the letters G and Y had an odd shape, possibly indicating a European education. The long hiatus since the last bomb and the improved construction techniques of the first new bomb led investigators to believe that the bomber had served in the military.
The first two bombs had drawn little attention, but the string of random bombings that began in 1951 frayed the city's nerves and taxed the resources of the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Metesky often placed warning calls to the buildings where he had planted bombs, but would not specify the bomb's exact location; he wrote to newspapers warning that he planned to plant more. Some bombs came with notes, but the note never revealed a motive, or a reason for choosing that particular location. Metesky's bombs were gunpowder-filled pipe bombs, ranging in size from four to ten inches long and from one-half inch to two inches in diameter. Most used timers constructed from flashlight batteries and cheap pocket watches. Investigators at bomb sites learned to look for a wool sock – Metesky used these to transport the bombs and sometimes to hang them from a rail or projection.
For his new wave of bombings, Metesky mainly chose public buildings as targets, bombing several of them multiple times. Bombs were left in phone booths, storage lockers and restrooms in public buildings including Grand Central Terminal (five times), Pennsylvania Station (five times), Radio City Music Hall (three times), the New York Public Library (twice), the Port Authority Bus Terminal (twice) and the RCA Building, as well as in the New York City Subway. Perhaps most notably, Metesky bombed movie theaters, where he cut into seat upholstery and slipped his explosive devices inside.
On March 29, 1951 was the first Metesky bomb of the new wave, and also the first Metesky bomb to explode, startling commuters in Grand Central Terminal but injuring no one. It had been dropped into a sand urn near the Oyster Bar on the terminal's lower level. In April, Metesky's next bomb exploded without injury in a telephone booth in the New York Public Library; in August a phone-booth bomb exploded without injury at Grand Central. Metesky next planted a bomb that exploded without injury in a phone booth at the Consolidated Edison headquarters building at 4 Irving Place. He also mailed one bomb, which did not explode, to Consolidated Edison from White Plains, New York.
On October 22, the New York Herald Tribune received a letter in penciled block letters, stating
BOMBS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE CONSOLIDATED EDISON COMPANY IS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE FOR THEIR DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME. I HAVE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER MEANS. I INTEND WITH BOMBS TO CAUSE OTHERS TO CRY OUT FOR JUSTICE FOR ME.
The letter directed police to the Paramount Theater in Times Square, where a bomb was discovered and disabled, and to a telephone booth at Pennsylvania Station where nothing was found.
On November 28, a coin-operated locker at the IRT 14th Street subway station was bombed, without injury. Near the end of the year, the Herald Tribune received another letter, warning:
HAVE YOU NOTICED THE BOMBS IN YOUR CITY – IF YOU ARE WORRIED, I AM SORRY – AND ALSO IF ANYONE IS INJURED. BUT IT CANNOT BE HELPED – FOR JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED. I AM NOT WELL, AND FOR THIS I WILL MAKE THE CON EDISON SORRY – YES, THEY WILL REGRET THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS – I WILL BRING THEM BEFORE THE BAR OF JUSTICE – PUBLIC OPINION WILL CONDEMN THEM – FOR BEWARE, I WILL PLACE MORE UNITS UNDER THEATER SEATS IN THE NEAR FUTURE. F.P.
On March 1952, a bomb exploded in a phone booth at the Port Authority Bus Terminal without causing injury. In June and again in December bombs exploded in seats at the Lexington Avenue Loew's theater. The December bombing injured one person, and was the first Metesky bomb to cause injury. Police had asked the newspapers not to print any of the bomber's letters and to play down earlier bombings, but by now the public was becoming aware that a "Mad Bomber" was on the loose.
In 1953, Bombs exploded in seats at Radio City Music Hall and at the Capitol Theater, with no injuries. A bomb again exploded near the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, this time in a coin-operated rental locker, again with no injuries. Police described this bomb as the homemade product of a "publicity-seeking jerk.” An unexploded bomb was found in a rental locker at Pennsylvania Station.
A bomb wedged behind a sink in a Grand Central Terminal men's room exploded in March 1954, slightly injuring three men. A bomb planted in a phone booth at the Port Authority Bus Terminal exploded with no injuries. Another bomb was discovered in a phone booth that was removed from Pennsylvania Station for repair. As a capacity Radio City Music Hall audience of 6,200 watched Bing Crosby's White Christmas on November 7, a bomb stuffed into the bottom cushion of a seat in the 15th row exploded, injuring four patrons. The explosion was muffled by the heavy upholstery, and only those nearby heard it. While the film continued, the injured were escorted to the facility's first-aid room and about 50 people in the immediate area were moved to the back of the theater. After the film and the following stage show concluded an hour-and-a-half later, the police roped off 150 seats in the area of the explosion and began the search for evidence.
In 1955, a bomb exploded without injuries on the platform at the IRT Sutter Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. A bomb hung beneath a phone booth shelf exploded on the main floor of Macy's department store, with no injuries. Two bombs exploded without injuries at Pennsylvania Station, one in a rental locker and one in a phone booth. A bomb was found at Radio City Music Hall after a warning phone call.
At the Roxy Theater, a bomb dropped out of a slashed seat onto an upholsterer's workbench without exploding. A seat bomb exploded at the Paramount Theater; one patron was struck on the shoe by bomb fragments but disclaimed injury. Investigators discovered a small penknife pushed inside the seat, one of several found at theater seat bombings. They theorized that the bomber left his knives behind in case he was stopped and questioned. In December, a bomb exploded without injuries in a Grand Central men's-room stall.
The bombings continued in 1956. A 74-year-old men's-room attendant at Pennsylvania Station was seriously injured when a bomb in a toilet bowl exploded. A young man had reported an obstruction and the attendant tried to clear it using a plunger. Among the porcelain fragments, investigators found a watch frame and a wool sock. A guard at the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center discovered a piece of pipe about five inches long in a telephone booth. A second guard thought it might be useful in a plumbing project and took it home on the bus to New Jersey, where it exploded on his kitchen table early the next morning. No one was injured. A December 2 bombing at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn left six of the theater's 1,500 occupants injured, one seriously, and drew tremendous news coverage and editorial attention. The next day, Police Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy ordered what he called the "greatest manhunt in the history of the Police Department."
On December 24, a clerk at the New York Public Library discovered a maroon-colored sock held to the underside of the shelf by a magnet. The sock contained an iron pipe with a threaded cap on each end. After consulting with other employees, he threw the device out a window into Bryant Park, bringing the bomb squad and more than 60 NYPD police officers and detectives to the scene. In a letter to the New York Journal American the next month, Metesky said that the Public Library bomb, as well as one discovered later the same week inside a seat at the Times Square Paramount, had been planted months before
Metesky was arrested in January 1957, but his bombs continued to be found. Eight months later, a explosive device was discovered at the Lexington Avenue Loew's Theater by an upholsterer repairing a recently vandalized seat. It was the last of the three bombs Metesky said he had planted there. The first two had exploded, one in June 1952 and one in December 1952, with the December explosion resulting in one injury.
Tracking down Metesky had required some pretty amazing police work. Throughout the investigation, detectives were convinced that the bomber was a former Con Edison employee with a grudge against the company. Con Edison employment records were reviewed, but there were hundreds of other leads, tips and crank letters to be followed up on. Detectives ranged far and wide, checking lawsuit records, mental hospital admissions, vocational schools where bomb parts might be made. Citizens turned in neighbors who behaved oddly, and co-workers who seemed to know too much about bombs. Everything had to be checked. A new group, the Bomb Investigation Unit, was formed to work on nothing but bomber leads.
It was one of the first American cases that leaned heavily on a criminal profile. Fingerprint experts, handwriting experts, the bomb investigation unit and other NYPD groups worked with dedication but made little progress. With traditional police methods seemingly useless against Metesky's erratic bombing campaign, police captain John Cronin approached his friend Dr. James Brussel, a criminologist, psychiatrist, and assistant commissioner of the New York State Commission for Mental Hygiene. Captain Cronin asked Brussel to meet with Inspector Howard E. Finney, head of the NYPD's Crime Laboratory.
In his office with Finney and two detectives, Brussel examined the crime-scene photos and letters and discussed the bomber's metal-working and electrical skills. As he talked with the police, Brussel developed what he called a kind of "portrait" of the bomber, what would now be called an offender profile. The bomber's belief that he had been wronged by Consolidated Edison and by others acting in concert with Consolidated Edison seemed to dominate his thoughts, leading Brussel to conclude that the bomber was suffering from paranoia, a condition he describes as "a chronic disorder of insidious development, characterized by persistent, unalterable, systematized, logically constructed delusions." Based on the evidence and his own experience dealing with psychotic criminals, Brussel put forth a number of theories beyond the obvious grudge against Consolidated Edison:
1. The bomber was male (fit historically)
2. Well-proportioned and average build (based on studies of hospitalized mental patients)
3. 40-50 years old (paranoia develops slowly)
4. Precise, neat and tidy (based on handwriting and bomb building)
5. Good employee, on time and well-behaved
6. A Slav, since bombs were favored in Middle Europe and also Catholic
7. Well-educated, but no college
8. Foreign-born or living in ethnic community (phrasing of letters)
9. Sex issues (likely with older female relative)
10. Loner, no friends, little interest in women, likely a virgin
11. Because of where letters were posted, lived between New York City and Connecticut
Brussel additionally predicted to his visitors that when the bomber was caught, he would be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned.
Although the police policy had been to keep the bomber investigation low-key, Brussel convinced them to heavily publicize the profile, predicting that any wrong assumption made in it would prod the bomber to respond. Under the headline "16-Year Search for a Madman", the New York Times version of the profile summarized the major predictions:
Single man, between 40 and 50 years old, introvert. Unsocial but not anti-social. Skilled mechanic. Cunning. Neat with tools. Egotistical of mechanical skill. Contemptuous of other people. Resentful of criticism of his work but probably conceals resentment. Moral. Honest. Not interested in women. High school graduate. Expert in civil or military ordnance. Religious. Might flare up violently at work when criticized. Possible motive: discharge or reprimand. Feels superior to critics. Resentment keeps growing. Present or former Consolidated Edison worker. Probably case of progressive paranoia.
Newspapers published the profile on December 25, 1956, alongside the story of the so-called "Christmas Eve" bomb discovered in the Public Library. By the end of the month, bomb hoaxes and false confessions had risen to epidemic proportions. At the peak of the hysteria on December 28, police received over 50 false bomb alarms, over 20 the next day.
The day after the profile was published, the New York Journal American published an open letter, prepared in cooperation with the police, urging the bomber to give himself up. The newspaper promised a "fair trial" and offered to publish his grievances. Metesky wrote back the next day, signing his letter "F.P.". He said that he would not be giving himself up, and revealed a wish to "bring the Con. Edison to justice". He listed all the locations where he had placed bombs that year, and seemed concerned that perhaps not all had been discovered. Later in the letter he said that his days were numbered, but that he would continue to strike “even from my grave.”
After some editing by the police, the newspaper published Metesky's letter on January 10, along with another open letter asking him for more information about his grievances. Metesky's second letter provided some details about the materials used in the bombs (he favored pistol powder, as "shotgun powder has very little power"), promised a bombing "truce" until at least March 1, and wrote "I was injured on job at Consolidated Edison plant – as a result I am adjudged – totally and permanently disabled", going on to say that he had had to pay his own medical bills and that Consolidated Edison had blocked his workers' compensation case. After police editing, the newspaper published his letter on January 15 and asked the bomber for "further details and dates" about his compensation case so that a new and fair hearing could be held.
Metesky's third letter was received by the newspaper on Saturday, January 19. The letter complained of lying unnoticed for hours on "cold concrete" after his injury without any first aid being rendered, then developing pneumonia and later tuberculosis. The letter added details about his lost compensation case and the "perjury" of his co-workers, and gave the date of his injury, September 5, 1931. The letter suggested that if he did not have a family that would be "branded" by his giving himself up, he might consider doing so to get his compensation case reopened.
Con Edison clerk Alice Kelly had read the Christmas Day profile and for days had been scouring company workers' compensation files for employees with a serious health problem. On Friday, January 18, 1957, while searching the final batch of "troublesome" worker's compensation case files – those where threats were made or implied – she found a file marked in red with the words "injustice" and "permanent disability", words that had been printed in the Journal American. The file indicated that one George Metesky, an employee from 1929 to 1931, had been injured in a plant accident on September 5, 1931. Several letters from Metesky in the file used wording similar to the letters in the Journal American, including the phrase "dastardly deeds".
The police were notified that evening, but initially, it was treated as just “one of a number” of leads. But the Waterbury police were asked to do a discreet check of Metesky’s house. Further investigation was carried out with the Con Edison files and when the injury date given in the bomber's third letter matched George Metesky's accident date, police knew they had their man. Accompanied by Waterbury police, four NYPD detectives arrived at Metesky's home with a search warrant shortly before midnight on Monday, January 21, 1957. They asked him for a handwriting sample, and to make a letter G. He made the G, looked up and said, "I know why you fellows are here. You think I'm the Mad Bomber." The detectives asked what "F.P." stood for, and he responded, "F.P. stands for Fair Play."
He led them to the garage workshop, where they found his lathe. Back in the house they found pipes and connectors suitable for bombs hidden in the pantry, as well as three cheap pocket watches, flashlight batteries, brass terminal knobs, and unmatched wool socks of the type used to transport the bombs. Metesky had answered the door in pajamas; after he was ordered to get dressed for the trip to Waterbury Police Headquarters, he reappeared wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned – just as Dr. Brussel had predicted.
During his interrogation, Metesky admitted to everything. He told detectives that he had placed 32 bombs. He was indicted by a grand jury on 47 charges – of attempted murder, damaging a building by explosion, maliciously endangering life, and violation of New York State's Sullivan Law by carrying concealed weapons, the bombs. Seven counts of attempted murder were charged, based on the seven persons injured in the preceding five years, the statute of limitations in the case. Metesky was brought to the courtroom to hear the charges from Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital, where he had been undergoing psychiatric examination.
After hearing from psychiatric experts, Judge Samuel S. Liebowitz declared Metesky a paranoid schizophrenic, "hopeless and incurable both mentally and physically," and found him legally insane and incompetent to stand trial. On April 18, 1957, Judge Liebowitz committed Metesky to the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Beacon, New York.
Expected to live only a few weeks due to his advanced tuberculosis, Metesky had to be carried into the hospital. After a year and a half of treatment, his health had improved, and a newspaper article written fourteen years later described the 68-year-old Metesky as "vigorous and healthy looking.”
While he was at Matteawan, the Journal American hired a leading workers' compensation attorney to appeal his disallowed claim for the 1931 injury, on the grounds that Metesky was mentally incompetent at the time and did not know his rights. The appeal was denied.
Metesky was unresponsive to psychiatric therapy, but was a model inmate and caused no trouble. He was visited regularly by his sisters and occasionally by Dr. Brussel, to whom he would point out that he had deliberately built his bombs not to kill anyone.
In 1973, the “Mad Bomber” case took a strange turn when the United States Supreme Court ruled that a mentally ill defendant cannot be committed to a hospital operated by the New York State Department of Correctional Services unless a jury finds him dangerous. Since Metesky had been committed to Matteawan without a jury trial, he was transferred to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, a state hospital outside the correctional system. Doctors determined that he was harmless, and because he had already served two-thirds of the 25-year maximum sentence he would have received at trial, Metesky was released on December 13, 1973. The single condition was that he make regular visits to a Connecticut Department of Mental Hygiene clinic near his home.
Interviewed by a reporter upon his release, he said that he had forsworn violence, but reaffirmed his anger and resentment toward Consolidated Edison. He also stated that before he began planting his bombs, “I wrote 900 letters to the Mayor, to the Police Commissioner, to the newspapers, and I never even got a penny postcard back. Then I went to the newspapers to try to buy advertising space, but all of them turned me down. I was compelled to bring my story to the public.”
And he certainly did that…
Metesky returned to his home in Waterbury, where he died 20 years later at the age of 90.