Current Affairs

The Mad Bomber

On November 16, 1940, a crude pipe bomb was found by police in Consolidated Edison's office building in Manhattan.  Although the bomb hadn't exploded, a note attached to the bomb threatened further attacks against the company.  The second pipe bomb was found nearly a year later.   Police received a note signed "F.P" (meaning "Fair Play") announcing that the bomber was planning to suspend the bombing campaign due to "patriotic feelings" for the "duration of the war."   Sure enough, the next bomb wasn't found until March 29, 1950, at Grand Central Station.  Between 1940 and 1956, a total of 33 bombs were planted in different sites across New York City, although no actual injuries would occur until 1953. 

The most devastating explosion was on December 2, 1956, when a bomb went off in a movie theatre in Brooklyn, injuring six people.  The bomb had apparently been planted inside one of the seats after the bomber cut open the upholstery.  With the escalating violence of the blasts and the taunting letters sent by "the Mad  Bomber" (the name that the media had for him), police were desperate to solve the case.  Inspector Howard Finney of the New York crime then decided to follow the advice of a fellow police officer and consulted Dr. James Brussel.

As New York state's assistant commissioner of mental hygiene and a prominent forensic psychiatrist, Brussel had modest success in solving previous cases but had never been consulted in a major case before.  Forensic profiling was still a largely experimental approach to solving crimes, and police were reluctant to consider it.  Brussel examined photographs of the various crime scenes and the bomber's notes.  In one of the first uses of offender profiling,  he concluded that they were seeking a "rather ordinary-looking man, quiet, polite, proper, and well-dressed." He added that the bomber would be "between 40 and 50 years old, foreign born—probably central European (possibly Slavic)—a Roman Catholic, and fairly well educated, sexually abnormal, probably single, living with his mother or maiden sister in Westchester County or Connecticut and, when police found him, he would be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned".   Brussel persuaded the police to release the profile to the media in the hope that it would draw the bomber's attention.

The rationale behind the profile that Dr. Brussel developed on the Mad Bomber was straightforward enough.  He diagnosed the unknown offender based on his own clinical experience with similar offenders and also on prevailing theories relating to mental illness and physical build.  Since the bomber was likely suffering from paranoia, Brussel estimated that he would be around age 50 based on the year of the first bombing and the lifetime incidence of paranoid symptoms.  Brussel also stressed the "phallic" nature of the bombs and the likelihood that the bomber was suffering from an Oedipal Complex (the police were not too impressed with this conclusion).  His idea of publicizing the profile came from the bomber's eagerness for publicity, but police knew that most of the leads that the profile turned up would be false (still a common problem with profiling).

In an unanticipated development, the bomber phoned Dr. Brussel directly and warned him to "keep out of this, or you'll be sorry."  He then hung up before the call could be traced.  After numerous false confessions and poor leads, Consolidated Edison searched its own records and turned up a name that appeared to fit the profile.   George Metesky was a 52-year-old bachelor who had worked for Consolidated Edison for several years before developing tuberculosis.  Metesky had apparently blamed his health problems on the company and had written several threatening letters after being denied a disability pension.  Those letters were still on file, and they were quickly matched to the notes by "F.P."  When the police came to his Waterbury, Connecticut home, he confessed immediately (while he was wearing a bathrobe at the time, he did change into a double-breasted jacket before going to the police station)  

After Metesky's arrest, neighbors reported that he was a quiet man who lived with his sisters and had no visible means of support.  They noticed that he became friendlier and more animated after the Brussels profile came out, but nobody suspected him of being The Mad Bomber.  Police found a complete workshop in his garage where he had built his bombs, and he talked about his plans for an even bigger bomb that he would detonate in the New York Coliseum.   He would later claim that he had deliberately planned the blasts to avoid any fatalities.

Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Metesky was declared legally insane and committed to Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Beacon, New York.  He would never respond to treatment but was a model patient otherwise.  After being released in 1973, he lived quietly in his family home until his death in 1994. 

James Brussel's role in capturing the "Mad Bomber" propelled him to national fame and gave offender profiling new respect that it never had before.  Brussel was frequently consulted in later cases but was best known for his role in the Boston Strangler investigation.  While he is still viewed as the "father of psychological profiling," his inferential approach to offender profiling has not held up over time.  Later critics have pointed out that only one of his profiles was ever validated and largely relied on his clinical experience and assumptions that were frequently incorrect.  His success in the Metesky case (and his presumed success with the Boston Strangler case) represents his most notable achievements despite being consulted in numerous other cases. 

Modern offender profiling, as practiced by most law enforcement agencies, has a multi-disciplinary focus combining medico-legal death investigation, criminalistics, and psychology.  While commonly accepted standards have been adopted, changing demographics and increased publicity surrounding police procedures (including popular television shows) have made the profiler's task more difficult.  To this day, it remains an open question whether profiling is more of an art than a science.

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