George Metesky, better known as the Mad Bomber, terrorised New York City for 16 years in the 1940s and 1950s with explosives that he planted in theatres, terminals, libraries, and offices. Bombs were left in phone booths, storage lockers, and restrooms in public buildings, including Grand Central Terminal, Pennsylvania Station, Radio City Music Hall, the New York Public Library, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the RCA Building, and in the New York City Subway. Metesky also bombed movie theatres, where he cut into seat upholstery and slipped his explosive devices inside.
Angry and resentful about events surrounding a workplace injury suffered years earlier, Metesky planted at least 33 bombs, of which 22 exploded, injuring 15 people. He was apprehended based on an early use of offender profiling and clues given in letters he wrote to a newspaper. He was found legally insane and committed to a state mental hospital.
Following 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 a subsidiary of the Consolidated Edison utility company and lived in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his two unmarried sisters. In 1931, Metesky was working as a generator wiper at the company’s Hell Gate generating plant when a boiler backfire produced a blast of hot gases. The blast knocked Metesky down and the fumes filled his lungs, choking him. The accident left him disabled and, after collecting 26 weeks of sick pay, he lost his job. According to claims disputed by Consolidated Edison, the accident led to pneumonia that in turn 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 favour of the company.
He planted his first bomb on November 16, 1940, leaving it on a window sill at the Consolidated Edison power plant at 170 West 64th Street in Manhattan.
His first two bombs drew 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 4–10 inches (10–25 cm) long and from 0.5–2 inches (1–5 cm) 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.
Between 1940 and 1956, Metesky planted at least 33 bombs, of which 22 exploded, injuring 15 people.
Throughout the investigation, the prevailing theory was 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 neighbours who behaved oddly, and co-workers who seemed to know too much about bombs. A new group, the Bomb Investigation Unit, was formed to work on nothing but bomber leads.
In April 1956, the department issued a multi-state alert for a person described as a skilled mechanic, with access to a drill press or lathe (for its ability to thread pipe), who posted mail from White Plains, was over 40, and had a “deep-seated hatred of the Consolidated Edison Company”. A warning circular picturing a homemade pipe bomb similar to the bomber’s was distributed. Police distributed samples of the bomber’s distinctive printing and asked anyone who might recognise it to notify them. A review of drivers’ license applications in White Plains, the city favoured by the bomber for posting his mail, found similarities in 500 of them to the bomber’s printing; the names were forwarded to the NYPD for investigation.
The December 2, 1956 bombing of the Brooklyn Paramount drew tremendous news coverage and editorial attention. The following day, Police Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy met with commanders of every NYPD division and ordered what he called the “greatest manhunt in the history of the Police Department.” Calling the bomber’s activities “an outrage that cannot be tolerated”, he promised “an immediate good promotion” to whoever arrested the bomber, and directed commanders to alert every member of the force to the absolute necessity of a capture.
On December 27, 1956, the New York City Board of Estimate and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association posted $26,000 in rewards for the bomber’s apprehension.
Throughout the search, simulated bombs and false bomb reports wasted police resources and frightened an already nervous public.
Around 1951 Frederick Eberhardt, 56 years old and like Metesky a former Con Edison employee with a grudge, sent a simulated pipe bomb filled with sugar to the company’s personnel director at 4 Irving Place. Eberhardt was charged with sending threatening material through the mails. At his arraignment in November, an assistant district attorney told the judge, “This defendant is a particular source of annoyance to the New York City police. We are firmly convinced that he is not of sound mind. He has been sending simulated bombs around the city the past few months. Hundreds of police have been called out at all hours of the day and night to investigate because of his actions.” Eberhardt was sent to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric examination. Several months later the case was dismissed after Eberhardt’s lawyer argued successfully that the package contained no “written threats”, as the law required.
In October 1951, the main waiting room at Grand Central Terminal was emptied and 3,000 lockers were searched after a telephoned bomb warning. The search involved more than 35 NYPD personnel, and took three hours because 1,500 of the lockers were in use and only one master-key was available. As each locker was opened, the head of the bomb squad examined its contents, keeping a portable fluoroscope at the ready.
On December 29, 1956, at the height of false bomb reports from theatres, department stores, schools and offices, a note left in a phone booth at Grand Central Terminal reported that a bomb had been placed at the Empire State Building, requiring a search of all 102 floors of the landmark. A 63-year-old railroad worker picked up at Grand Central as a suspect died of a heart attack while being questioned at the East 35th Street station house. Later investigation eliminated him as a suspect.
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 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:
Male, as historically most bombers were male. Well proportioned and of average build, based on studies of hospitalized mental patients. Forty to fifty years old, as paranoia develops slowly. Precise, neat and tidy, based on his letters and the workmanship of his bombs. An exemplary employee, on time and well-behaved. A Slav, because bombs were favored in Middle Europe. A Catholic, because most Slavs were Catholic. Courteous but not friendly.
Has a good education but probably not college. Foreign-born or living in a community of the foreign-born – the formal tone and old-fashioned phrasing of the letters sounded to Brussel as if they had been written or thought out in a foreign language and then translated into English. Based on the rounded letter “w’s” of the handwriting, believed to represent breasts, and the slashing and stuffing of theater seats, Brussel thought something about sex was troubling the bomber, possible an oedipus complex – loving his mother and hating his father and other authority figures.
A loner, no friends, little interest in women, possibly a virgin. Unmarried, perhaps living with an older female relative. Probably lives in Connecticut, as Connecticut has high concentrations of Slavs, and many of the bomber’s letters were posted in Westchester County, midway between Connecticut and New York City.
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 publicise 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 summarised 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
My days on earth are numbered – most of my adult life has been spent in bed – my one consolation is – that I can strike back – even from my grave – for the dastardly acts against me.
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 to pay his own medical bills and that Consolidated Edison had blocked his workers’ compensation case. He also said
When a motorist injures a dog – he must report it – not so with an injured workman – he rates less than a dog – I tried to get my story to the press – I tried hundreds of others – I typed tens of thousands of words (about 800,000) – nobody cared – […] – I determined to make these dastardly acts known – I have had plenty of time to think – I decided on bombs.
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. He thanked the Journal-American for publicizing his case and said “the bombings will never be resumed.” This letter was published Tuesday, the day after Metesky was arrested.
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 shortly before 5:00 that evening. They initially treated the notification as just “one of a number” of leads they were working on, but asked Waterbury police to do a “discreet check” on George Metesky and the house at 17 Fourth Street.
After Metesky’s arrest, early police statements credited the finding of his file to an NYPD detective. Later, a report developed in a reward investigation conceded that Alice Kelly had found the file, and explained the misplaced credit as due to a misunderstanding of the file being “picked up” by the detective (at the Con Edison offices on Monday morning) as meaning that the file was “picked out” (of many). Although the NYPD did officially credit Kelly with turning up the clue that led to Metesky’s arrest, she declined to claim the $26,000 in rewards, saying she had merely been doing her job. Consolidated Edison’s board of directors also declined to file for the reward, prompting a group of shareholders to file as representatives of Kelly and the company.
Police investigators who later reviewed the path that led them to Metesky said that Con Edison had impeded the investigation for almost two years by repeatedly telling them that the records of employees whose services were terminated prior to 1940, the group Metesky was in, had been destroyed. The investigators said that they had learned of the records’ existence only on January 14, through a confidential tip, and that even in the face of police demands and formal requests Con Edison stalled, declaring that the papers were legal documents and that the company’s legal department would have to be consulted before granting access. A statement by the president of Consolidated Edison said this was due to a “misunderstanding”.
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.
Metesky told the arresting officers that he had been “gassed” in the Con Edison accident, had contracted tuberculosis as a result, and started planting bombs because he “got a bum deal”. Going over a police list of 32 bomb locations, but never using the word “bomb”, he remembered the exact date where each “unit” had been placed, and its size. He then added to the police list the size, date and location of 15 early bombs the police had not known about – all left at Con Edison locations, and apparently never reported. When his Con Edison bombs were not mentioned in the newspapers, he started planting bombs in public places to gain publicity for what he termed the “injustices” done him. He also confirmed the reason no bombs were planted during the United States’ involvement in World War II – the former Marine had abstained “for patriotic reasons”.
In their search, police found parts for a bomb that would have been larger than any of the others. Metesky explained that it was intended for the New York Coliseum.
Metesky admitted to placing 32 bombs. After a grand jury heard testimony from 35 witnesses including police experts and those injured, he was indicted 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.
Commitment to Matteawan
After hearing from psychiatric experts, Judge Samuel S. Liebowitz declared the tubercular 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 Bartholomew James O’Rourke 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 Brussel, to whom he would point out that he had deliberately built his bombs not to kill anyone.
In 1973, 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.
Metesky returned to his home in Waterbury, where he died 20 years later at the age of 90.