“Incendiary”: Michael Cannell’s Mad Bomber Bungle
June 19, 2017 § 1 Comment
George Peter Mestesky was arrested as “The Mad Bomber” at his home in the working-class Brooklyn section of Waterbury, CT, on January 21, 1957. He had secreted small pipe bombs throughout New York City, in phone booths, train stations, movie theaters, and many Manhattan landmarks, on and off for sixteen years, baffling police with his untraceable homemade components and his angry, cryptic, anonymous notes.
Fantasies of revenge helped fuel his private war against the Consolidated Edison Company, but his goal was to expose his former employer for cheating him out of Workmen’s Compensation benefits after he had suffered a serious lung injury while working in the Bronx at the Hell Gate Generating Station in 1931. Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell is the second book devoted entirely to this oddly enduring shard of history, the first was The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael Greenburg.
Declaring a war of his own, Cannell attacks the New York City Police, claiming they opposed the scientific evaluation of evidence, preferring instead to rough suspects up, and this attitude prevented them from capturing the bomber: “…The NYPD’s corrupt precinct captains and stubborn commanders resisted new methods promoted by college-educated criminologists—until the serial bomber forced them to adapt…”
Police Laboratory Commander Howard E. Finney, was “a new breed of cop, a science-minded criminologist with three graduate degrees…Forensic science was still struggling to assert itself when Captain Finney assumed control of the NYPD crime lab in 1950… he struggled to win over the hidebound police culture of the nightstick and arm twisting. The police brass on Centre Street, had, to a man, come up through the ranks as patrolmen on a beat…”
We are offered no documentation to back up this notion that police en masse resisted scientific methods. The author appears unaware that the lab, founded in 1934, was well established long before 1950, and that it became part of The Bureau of Technical Services in 1954, headed by (then) Deputy Inspector Edward F. Fagan. The BTS also included the Ballistics Squad, the Bureau of Criminal Identification, the Missing Persons Bureau and the Photographic Bureau among others (Fagan had been trained as an architectural draftsman and designed the lab’s quarters as well as the mobile crime lab).
The Cannell argument is contradicted by Police commissioner William F. O’Brien, (New York Times 03.02.50) who proudly cited near the top of his list of accomplishments that “the department had bought $40,000 worth of new equipment to be used in the Technical Research Laboratory when it is moved from the Police Headquarters Annex at 400 Broome Street to the Poplar Street station in Brooklyn.”
The author persists: “The rank and file resisted the authority of … the crime lab manned by cops with college degrees—and in some cases graduate degrees…Who had ever heard of a crime cracked with a microscope? What did chemists know about battery and burglary?”
Because of a burgeoning drug problem in New York City, the laboratory, in 1951, hired additional personnel to do chemical analysis. This was in response to demand from the “the rank and file,” who often confiscated suspected illegal drugs. Articles in the monthly New York City Police Department magazine Spring 3100, and books like Fighting Crime, the New York City Police Department in Action by Captain Burr W. Leyson or Headquarters by Quentin Reynolds and interviews with detectives who worked in the 1950’s, make it plain that investigators routinely relied on the forensic expertise they required whether from the lab, or the other technical bureaus and squads.
Scientific evidence was, then as now, crucial to obtaining a conviction in court. So, why would rank-and-file policemen and detectives jeopardize their own jobs through willful blindness?
Incendiary contains other assertions that require correction. I’ll cite only a few examples:
-Metesky was hurt “in a boiler explosion.”
Boiler explosions are catastrophic events, and the two new boilers installed at Hell Gate Station in December 1930 were mammoth, capable of producing 800,000 pounds of steam per hour at a temperature of 725 degrees Fahrenheit. An explosion of one or both would likely have killed many people.
-The bomb Metesky put in a toilet of the Penn Station men’s room, was placed to kill people by creating porcelain shrapnel.
In his frank and detailed answers to questions during the 4:40 AM, January 22nd interrogation at Waterbury Police Headquarters, Metesky explained he had expected the bomb to go down the toilet, and severely disrupt the plumbing system. The bomb did not go down and Lloyd B. Hill, a bathroom attendant, sustained serious foot and ankle injuries.
An entertaining passage about police reporter Patrick Doyle of the New York Daily News tells us that he had “sly way of gathering information by impersonating a detective.” I am sure that is true, but this was a method commonly used by police reporters of that era, or so I was told by Doug Hearle who had worked for the New York Journal-Amercan. And, as far as I can tell, Doyle had little to do with the Mad Bomber case, although perhaps he worked on it. Tony Marino of the Daily News went to Waterbury to cover the arrest and Eddie Kirkman, also of the News, had chased down a lot of leads. The periodical, Editor & Publisher, gave Kirkman credit for first using the phrase “Mad Bomber,” although Jess Stearn had the byline on the article that first used it.
The “psychiatrist” of the book’s subtitle, James A. Brussel, was an assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, who lived in New York City and also practiced privately. His outsize reputation as a pioneer of criminal profiling was engendered by the publicity surrounding his partially accurate prediction of some of Metesky’s characteristics. Brussel’s self-aggrandizing memoir, Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist, provides the beating heart of Incendiary.
In the prologue, and again, with greater detail a hundred pages later, Cannell describes the first meeting between Brussel and Howard Finney :
It was a tense Mid-December afternoon in 1956, with the public mood clouded by fear of the bomber and “cold war anxiety,” less than two weeks after one of Metesky’s bombs exploded in the Brooklyn Paramount Theater during a showing of War and Peace. The police were more desperate than ever to find the mysterious bomber.
Enter “the shy and brilliant” John J. Cronin, commander of the Missing Person’s Bureau, a man whose job “had driven him to accept the unconventional” and who “advocated the use of extrasensory perception in investigative work and petitioned police brass to staff a psychic in every precinct.” (No doubt the science-hating hooligans turned down him down.) Cronin called Dr. Brussel to ask if he would help Captain Finney solve the case. Brussel, at first, demurred.
“Captain Finney accompanied by two bomb squad detectives, arrived at Dr. Brussel’s office…with a satchel full of photos documenting the bomb wreckage, copies of the bomber’s letters and other evidence…” Brussel could tell that Finney, “a deep-thinking type, was prepared to listen.” But the bomb squad detectives were skeptical. “They looked like caricatures of hardened cops—square shouldered and thick chested with hard-set jaws clouded by five o’clock shadow. They rolled their eyes and smirked sideways at each other like ill-behaved boys dragged to evening prayer…”
“…Captain Finney took a seat facing Dr. Brussel’s desk. ‘We’d appreciate any ideas you might have on this case, Doctor….We’re stumped. Here’s a bundle of letters and photographs. Solve it.’ ”
Finney and his men spend four hours with Brussel during which he slips into a trance of contemplation. The psychiatrist eventually concludes…drum roll…the bomber suffers from an Oedipus Complex! And this has caused him to “become a full-blown Paranoid.”
“Might the W’s resemble breasts?” Dr. Brussel wonders about the Bomber’s handwriting, “Or maybe a scrotum? If so, had F.P. [the bomber] also unconsciously fashioned bombs shaped like Penises?” Brussel decides not to explain this to police, who do not share his scientific background, so he gives them “a short-hand version,” saying the Bomber was in love with his mother.
Unfortunately for Cannell’s readers, the meeting in December 1956, as described above, never took place.
A police department memo from Acting Captain John J. Cronin to Inspector Edward Fagan, commander of the Bureau of Technical Services, shows that Cronin first visited Brussel in his office at 270 Broadway on Feb. 24th, 1955, and gave him “Photostatic copies of letters, cards and notes sent by an anonymous person responsible for bombings…Resume of facts were also imparted.” Cronin, “again called on Dr. Brussel this date [Feb. 25] at his request and he [Brussel] volunteered the following information orally. He did not desire to submit written opinion. Dr. Brussel’s findings might be divided into three categories: positive findings, probable opinions, and possible opinions…”
Brussel did not want to be held accountable for his own words, but he was able to “orally” describe various possibilities under a variety of category headings. He refined these predictions over a period of nearly two years, but wrote in Casebook that he produced them in December, 1956, a month or so before the bomber’s arrest.
Now, back to the Incendiary narrative. After pregnant pauses, Brussel produces the key points of his Mad Bomber profile : “a fastidious middle-aged loner of Slavic descent with a history of run-ins with neighbors and colleagues. He lived in a Northern suburb, probably in Connecticut with an elderly female relative and secretly nurtured a grudge against Con Edison and other powerful institutions.”
But neither in Brussel’s profiles as described in police memos, nor in any of the newspaper accounts—including a front-page piece in the New York Herald-Tribune, December 27, 1956—is Connecticut mentioned, nor an elderly female relative, nor Slavic heritage. Brussel changed his profile retroactively to fit the facts.
More than once Cannell repeats Brussel’s description of Metesky as “a slav,” despite the fact Metesky was born in the United States, and that the country of his parents’ birth—Lithuania—is not a Slavic country.
Don Foster’s book, Author Unknown, shows that Brussel laid quite a few eggs, predicting the bomber would be of German background, have a “facial Scar” and live in White Plains, NY. In fact, the four detectives dispatched to Waterbury, CT when word came down on January 21, of a likely suspect—Eddie Lehane, Mike Lynch, Richard Rowan, and Jimmy Martin—drove from White Plains where they had been searching motor vehicle and other records.
Brussel envisioned an “expert in civil or military ordnance,” but Metesky had no such training. During his China stint in the U.S. Marine Corps he worked in a power plant. The bomber was between “40 and 50” years old, or between “50 and 60,” was “interested in women,” or “not interested in women,” he was “religious,” having a pact with God or thought of himself as God, thus allowing enough wiggle room for him to claim credit for any prediction that hit the mark.
In Casebook, Brussel tells the breathtaking lie that he had encouraged the New York City Police Department to reverse its longstanding policy of imposing a news blackout on the Mad Bomber investigation, when in fact he advised the police to maintain it.
Michael Cannell swallows Brussel’s concoction: “I think” his Brussel character tells police, “you ought to publicize the description I’ve given you. Spread it in the newspapers, on radio and television.”
Brussel writes in Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist, ““I think you ought to publicize the description I’ve given you. Publicize the whole bomber investigation, in fact. Spread it in the newspapers, on radio and television.”
But, in a memo dated Feb 27, 1956, Captain Finney wrote to the Chief of Detectives:
“Dr. Brussell (sic)…who has been consulted on a prior occasion regarding this case, was again consulted on October 18, 1955 at his office, 270 Broadway, New York, N.Y., as to the relative merits of:
- Releasing to the press all available data regarding this case; or
- Appealing to the perpetrator through the media of “personal or display ads” in New York City newspapers. Dr. Brussel stated that in his opinion, if this department were to adopt any of these measures, it would encourage the perpetrator to make and place a bomb, larger than any we have yet experienced. (italics mine)….”
What ultimately caught Metesky was an “Open Letter to the Mad Bomber” that ran in the New York Journal-American and began a chain of correspondence that led Metesky to reveal details about his life. (Cannell covers this in a chapter about Seymour Berkson, the Journal-American’s publisher).
Walter Arm, a former newspaper reporter and the Deputy Commissioner of Police for Community Relations, was the person who persuaded Chief of Detectives Leggett to publicize the investigation according to the New York Herald Tribune (“Police Now Put Blame on Con Ed,” Dec 25, 1957):
“Arm, according to Chief Leggett, insisted that the time had come to reverse department policy and put the brilliant spotlight of publicity on he hunt for the ‘Mad Bomber.’… ”
“ ‘The psychiatrists—and they were among the best in the city said that if we give publicity to the ‘Mad Bomber,’ it will feed his ego and cause him to make bigger and better bombs.’ Chief Leggett recounted yesterday. ‘They advised against it. They reasoned that if the bomber got no recognition perhaps he would fold up and just go away.’ ”
Clearly, Leggett was referring to Dr. Brussel. The New York Journal-American on the same date (“Hunt for all Data on Bomber Case”), also quoted Leggett crediting Walter Arm. And, in his unpublished memoir, A Reporter’s Life for You and Me, Arm confirms that he was the person responsible for the change in policy.
Why does this matter? It matters because Dr. Brussel’s Big Lie destroys the central premise of Incendiary:The Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, that Brussel, “had decisively changed the course of the investigation by convincing the police to publicize his profile.”
Cannell also claims that the Brussel “profile”—actually a series of profile possibilities– “allowed detectives to narrow their search frame ad concentrate their efforts on a specific type…His profile helped lead detectives to F.P.’s door…” There is no evidence for either of these assertions.
The investigation centered largely on the anonymous notes and letters, and the unique construction of the bombs. Joe McNally and Hugh Sang of the Handwriting Section of the lab, and many other investigators came to the conclusion (without any help from Dr. Brussel) that the bomber was a man possessed of technical skill, a current or former employee of Con Edison who most likely lived outside of New York City. These are also points Brussel listed often in his profiles.
I should also mention that it was Deputy Chief Inspector Edward Byrnes of Manhattan West Detectives who ran the overall hunt for the bomber, not Edward Fagan or Howard Finney.
The bomber was not caught sooner, because of the unwillingness of Consolidated Edison’s Manager of Property Protection, John J. Holland, to share records with investigators. A glad-handing man with a booming voice and an impressively large office, Holland held many meetings that included Finney, Pete Dale of the Bomb Squad, and others. He consistently suggested the bomber was likely targeting companies (or government entities) other than Con Ed.
Holland made sure detectives examining employee records never received files dated earlier than 1938. Whether he acted on his own or on orders from higher authority within the company is a mystery.
Metesky’s massive employee file was transferred from Con Ed’s Hester Street warehouse—the normal place for such files—to a secure place within Con Ed’s headquarters on December 1, 1955, after a significant increase in the bomber’s activity that year over the previous three years.
In January 1957 some detectives of the Bomb Investigation Unit, were working in the Hester Street Warehouse. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but just as the police were very close to discovering the bomber’s identity, Alice Kelly of Consolidated Edison suddenly came up with Metesky’s employee file.
“It was a simple case at the end,” Bomb Squad Detective Bill Schmitt told me, “if you would have gotten the notes that he sent to Con Edison, if they were in the position or in the place that they should have been we would have licked that case in fifteen minutes.”
There is a subtle form of class condescension that pervades Incendiary’s narrative, as it tends to follow those of higher rank or position, and this path sometimes leads to stereotypes. Policemen are thugs, journalists are drunks, people in New York City creep about filled with fear of crime and cold war angst, and Metesky’s house in a working class section of Waterbury “was like a vagrant trying to look presentable.” Metesky himself is a shadow.
This attitude might help explain Cannell’s willingness to echo some of Brussel’s dubious stories about George Metesky, his “poorest” of neighborhoods, and the two sisters with whom he lived. Thus neighborhood children called Metesky “Mr. Think,” and tried to peer into the windows “hoping to glimpse satanic masses and other sinister doings.” The Metesky house was widely known as ‘the crazy house.”
But, none of this is true.
Brussel claims in Casebook that the neighbors sat on creaky porches on Sunday afternoons pondering various theories: Metesky was a polygamist married to “both women,” or that Metesky was the “illegitimate son of one of them,” or that they were “witches.” Some of these neighbors were “first-generation Middle Europeans steeped in Gypsy lore…”
Cannell chooses to overlook this sort of rubbish (none of which was discovered by reporters, former tenants in the Metesky house, or police), using a few of Brussel’s fictional details about the neighborhood children to add color to his narrative.
That the Metesky’s were odd and very private comes through in newspaper stories made use of by Brussel without attribution. Fact and fiction merge in Brussel’s account as they do in this new book.
The most amusing passage offered by Incendiary is its profile of Dr. Brussel. His stepson said the psychiatrist “was not happy unless he was the center of attention. He dominated the room. He dominated conversation.”
“Dr. Brussel’s was always the most assured voice in the room” Cannell elaborates, “and possibly the craziest. A new acquaintance might be forgiven for confusing him with a mental patient…While seated with guests at the dining table he fed a pair of squawking parakeets by clenching food scraps between his teeth for them to pluck with thrusting beaks….He dictated his wife’s hairstyle, her taste in clothing, and her choice of friends.” He was also addicted to Demerol “which he injected in his thigh with a startling disregard for privacy.” And he carried “a loaded snub-nosed revolver at all times.”
Now, who wouldn’t trust the word of a man like that?