For nearly 17 years, George Metesky terrorized New York City in a series of bombings as a way to get revenge on his former employer. Metesky’s reign of terror left investigators exploring every possible path to put a stop to the bombings. It would take Captain Howard Finney, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s bomb squad, looking tapping a psychiatrist and his then-unconventional investigative technique to hone in on Metesky. In doing so, the bomber was brought to justice, and investigators began considering what we now know as criminal profiling as a worthwhile tool to solve crimes.
The Start of the Turmoil
A city in peril.
A terrorist on the loose.
A desperate police department.
A country on the brink of nuclear war during the “Age of Anxiety.”
This may sound like the plot of a Batman comic book from the early days of D.C., but it is in fact what the citizens of New York City faced from November 1940 to January 1957, as the criminal known as “The Mad Bomber” planted explosives at major venues like Grand Central Station, Radio City Music Hall and Macy’s.
During his reign of terror, he planted over 35 bombs. Twenty-two of his bombs exploded and 15 people were injured. Miraculously, no one was killed.
The act of terror happened as the country was on the brink of nuclear catastrophe as the Cold War raged between America and USSR following World War II. And it would be an unlikely source who helped take down person responsible and gave way to a whole new way of doing detective work.
The Mad Bomber Earns His Moniker
In November 1940, a person who would become known as “The Mad Bomber” began his spree.
A pipe bomb was discovered by a ConEd employee at their power plant on 64th Street in Manhattan with a note that read, in all capital letters, “Con Edison Crooks – This Is For You.” The note was signed “F.P.”
Michael Cannell, author of “Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling,” said that the two letters, “F.P.,” stood for “Fair Play.”
“I think ‘fair play’ represents what he considered to be fair from a compensation point of view. But more generally represents his kind of grasp of what was proper in the world. He believed that, as a paranoid person would, that he had been cheated and conspired against, and ‘fair play’ was an expression of his sense of his rightful place,” Cannell told Digital.
In September 1941, another pipe bomb was found in Irving Place in Manhattan near ConEd’s corporate office with another note signed by the elusive “F.P.” This time, the note said that for as long as the United States was involved in World War II, he would not plant anymore bombs, said Michael Greenburg, author of “The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City.”
Both of the bombs were found but never went off. The discoveries also left police, ConEd staff and the media on edge.
During the time in which these bombs were found, explosives were often the weapon of choice by both the mafia and radical political groups, both Cannell and Greenburg wrote.
“It was that postwar period when America was at high tide, and within America, New York was the center of prosperity, the center of everything, the center of economic power. And so, in a way, New York was kind of the center of the world in that sense. But what seems significant for this story is that it was the beginning of the Cold War,” Cannell said. “I got a real visceral sense that the city’s anxiety about a serial bomber was kind of co-mingling with its anxiety about the Cold War and somebody called it ‘the age of anxiety.’”
“F.P.” kept his word and didn’t plant bombs while America was involved in World War II. Instead, he opted to taunt police and the media in a letter writing campaign. But it seemed no one paid attention.
And so, in 1951, he planted a bomb that exploded inside Grand Central Station. “The only way that he could in his mind, was to attack that very essence of New York, of Manhattan,” Greenburg told Digital. “He was writing to these places and it gave him that sense of power that he needed to satisfy his warped urges.”
The following month, F.P. planted explosives in the New York Public Library. They too were successfully detonated. He also went back to Grand Central and planted another bomb later in the year, which also exploded. By the summer, he also mailed a bomb to ConEd’s office, but it never exploded.
The series of bombings finally caught the media’s attention, which at that point, categorized them as pranks.
He also continued his letter-writing campaign to the media, alerting them that he would attack. A bomb was found in the Paramount Theater in Times Square and one exploded on a subway car.
“One of the hallmarks of an aggressively paranoid mental illness is the narcissistic quality to it, but in his mind, he was smarter than the police, smarter than everybody,” Greenburg said. “That he could outsmart them, that he could taunt them and that’s what he was doing. Those constant letters was his attempt to link the bombings to his quest against Consolidated Edison.”
Authorities appeared confused as they investigated, and all the while the bomber continued writing and planting bombs. In the early ’50s, explosions occurred in the Port Authority Bus terminal, inside Radio City Music Hall, the Capitol Theater and Grand Central. Bombs were discovered in the Lowe’s Theater and inside Penn Station.
In 1954, he attacked Grand Central Station, Radio City and the Port Authority again.
The following year, bombs were found inside Radio City, Macy’s and Penn Station, as well as in the subway, Roxy Theater and Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. Though not all of the bombs went off, New Yorkers were gripped by fear.
“It would’ve been hard for somebody at this moment to have distinguished, perhaps, between the anxiety of the Cold War and the anxiety of this shadowy kind of bogeyman, who was mentally ill, but had a kind of genius,” Cannell said. “He had a kind of genius for terror. I mean, long before terror terrorism became part of our vernacular, the mad bomber had kind of mastered a form of terrorism.”
By 1956, bombs were found in Rockefeller Center, the New York Public Library and the Paramount Theater in Times Square. Explosions took place again inside Penn Station and the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn.
“I was not born yet when this occurred, but my older siblings were, and my own mother told me that during this period, when the bomber was at the height of his bombing spree, she was scared to let her kids out of the house,” Cannell said. “People were staying home. Traffic in department stores, restaurants, et cetera, dropped markedly.”
Eventually, the media gave the suspect a nickname: the Mad Bomber.
The Manhunt for the Mad Bomber Intensifies
The search for the Mad Bomber was, at the time, considered “the greatest manhunt in the history of the police department,” NYPD Commissioner Steven Patrick Kennedy said in 1956.
The police did everything they could to try and find their culprit, who seemed to have some sort of vendetta against the energy company Consolidated Edison, or ConEd.
Police had reportedly asked ConEd to check their files but Greenburg said that some in the department did not have much faith in the power company. Tensions between the two agencies did not make things any easier.
With just pieces of shrapnel, the letters sent to police and media and a pocket knife found at one of the Radio City Music Hall blasts, the NYPD were at a loss as to what to do, Cannell said.
Authorities announced a $26,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Mad Bomber. At the same time, New Yorkers were turning on each other and some were taking the opportunity to call in pranks to the police department, Cannell said.
Then, one of the major media players at the time stepped in.
Much like what Jimmy Breslin and the New York Daily News would famously do decades later to help catch the “Son of Sam” serial killer, The New York Journal-American newspaper put out an open letter to the “Mad Bomber.” In the letter, they called for the bombings to cease and for the suspect to turn themselves in.
“This editor of the Hearst Publication, the New York Journal-American, Seymour Berkson was trying to think, ‘Well how can I get an edge up on the competition, the journalist competition.’ And he decided he was going to print an open letter to the Mad Bomber in his newspaper. It was really quite interesting, the article and there was just a headline of the newspaper and they printed their plea to the bomber, to give himself up and in return, they pledged the newspapers legal and journalistic support,” Greenburg said.
The published letter by the Journal-American seemed to have done something to the “The Mad Bomber,” as he replied weeks later saying they had done more than the police. But in his dialogue with the Journal-American, the bomber revealed something new. “He reveals the date of his injury at ConEd,” Greenburg said.
Enter a new way of investigating that would help turn the tides in the search for the mad bomber.
The Mind Hunter
Captain Howard Finney, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s bomb squad, sought the help of psychiatrist Dr. James A. Brussel.
Brussel “came of age in the profession at a time when psychiatrists cut a very glamorous figure. It was a time when it was fashionable for people to lie down on the couch for Freudian psychoanalysis,” Cannell said.
But Brussel, whose office was in downtown Manhattan, was the opposite of his contemporaries. Brussel was one of the people in charge of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. “[He] had a kind of unglamorous assignment, which was that he ran the mental asylums in and around New York City,” Cannell said.
“He was kind of an administrator as much as he was a medical person,” he added.
Brussel’s stepson, Professor John Israel, told Digital that the psychologist liked to be the center of attention and he was “an alpha male,” as well as “a man of great curiosity,” who “was a tough, sassy, talkative, New Yorker.”
Brussel was also not “immune to moderate level drug abuse,” Israel said. And known to carry a gun around his patients, Brussel would not be afraid to use it if needed, Cannell said.
And Brussel was exactly what Finney was looking for. “What he wanted to do was really, just to have a fresh set of eyes. Take a look at the file. And what he got was the first criminal profile in an active police investigation in the United States,” Cannell said.
When the FBI and NYPD arrived at Brussel’s office to discuss the case, a member of FBI offered to pay his hourly rate. “Brussel said, ‘The FBI can’t afford my hourly rate. So, I’ll just do it for free,’” Cannell said. “Brussel really believed that profiling was maybe partially a science, but also kind of verging on a mystical process. Brussel believed that the profiler could only acquire all of the information and evidence.”
Brussel looked at the information known, which in this case, was the behavior underway.
Finney didn’t “necessarily know that it was this groundbreaking that would ultimately be used routinely in the future,” Greenburg said. “But at least he was open to it. And I think it took a progressive-minded person like Howard Finney to introduce it. But make no mistake, it was born out of a frustration that almost 15, 16 years and this guy is still on the street. So they had to do something and as the bombings intensified and people and the injuries started occurring, this pressure really ramped up because the public became involved.”
Brussel looked at the hand written letters, the pocket knife and other materials to conclude that the “mad bomber” or “F.P.” was of Eastern European descent, lived outside of the five boroughs, was a single middle-aged man and would be found in a double breasted suit.
“[Brussel] suggested that he had some problem, perhaps with his father…but the fact that he put it under the seat suggested that he wanted to emasculate people,” Isreal said, noting his stepfather employed a Freudian technique to craft a profile of bomber.
While authorities consulted with Brussel, a ConEd employee named Alice Kelly had been reading the newspapers and saw the information exchanged between the “Mad Bomber” and the New York Journal-American and went looking through the files of past employees of her company.
In doing so, Kelly came across the file of a man named George Metesky who lived in Waterbury, Connecticut.
“Alice was doing her job and was reviewing a set of files, the troubled files, the so-called troubled employees. She came across one file for George Metesky and it had all these letters in the file that and she was able to identify certain words that seemed familiar to her, ghoulish acts, dastardly deeds,” Greenburg said.
Greenburg wrote that Kelly refused the police’s monetary reward after coming forward.
Police arrived at Metesky’s home in the middle of the night in late January 1957. The 54-year-old answered the door in pajamas and when police questioned him, he all but confessed.
“One of the detectives asked him, ‘What does ‘F.P.’ stand for?’ And he said, ‘Fair Play,’ which was, I think as much as anything, it was the moment in which he confessed. And identified himself as the bomber,” Cannell said.
Who Was George Metesky?
The son of Lithuanian immigrants, George Metesky was born in 1903 and was a loner for all of his life. He was close with his mother, who died when he was young, but he and his father reportedly had a tumultuous relationship.
Metesky was meticulous. He was a specialist electrician in the military and when he returned home from service, he got a job working in Manhattan at ConEd. ConEd then, as it does today, powers all five boroughs of New York City.
Metesky would commute to Manhattan from his home in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he lived with his two unmarried sisters. In 1931, while inside one of ConEd’s power plants, Metesky was injured in a boiler accident that filled his lungs with hot gas and knocked him off his feet, Greenburg wrote.
Following the accident, Metesky got sick and developed tuberculosis, Greenburg wrote. There is no conclusive proof that Metesky’s condition was a result of the accident at ConEd.
“It was never proven that there was any causal link between his physical illness and the accident. But in his mind, he knew without question that it was caused by this boiler and he blamed ConEd and he filed workman compensation claims,” Greenburg told Digital.
Metesky received 26 weeks of sick pay and then filed what would be considered now a workers compensation claim, but he received no payout because it took him too long to submit it, according to Greenburg.
“When they cut him off, he still in his mind, he wasn’t physically able to work. This kind of built up in his mind over a period of time, and he started writing letters and making claims and filing appeals against ConEd,” Greenburg added. “It became an obsession in his life where he was doing nothing but writing claim letters and accusing people of wrongdoing and it was escalating over a period of months and years.
“Ultimately, because of his growing paranoia and mental illness, it became the dominant force of his life,” Greenburg continued. “It became his crusade and anybody who didn’t respond to him or who didn’t accept his arguments, became part, in his mind, became part of this conspiracy against him and the crusade became delusional and ultimately became violent.”
Metesky would retreat into the annexed garage on his family property, where he tinkered with electronics and worked on finding ways to make a weapons of destruction. He would later be known as the mad bomber.
The Mad Bomber Is Brought to Justice
New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief that the man known as the mad bomber was caught.
Metesky’s arrested made the cover of every newspaper. So too did his beaming smile.
“Those images of him beaming at the cameras and walking into the old downtown police headquarters as if he’s walking on the red carpet at the Academy Awards are really striking, because he seems just completely bats*** crazy. He is,” Cannell said. “I think that his logic was he was waging a crusade for the forces of good. His bombing spree was a godly pursuit. There was a sort of religious aspect to it. He believed that he was engaged in this godly battle for the forces of good. And so, it would’ve made sense to him that the world recognized his role in this righteous battle.”
And at the time of his arrest, Greenburg said, “he’s satisfied and he doesn’t realize the import. He doesn’t realize how much trouble’s he’s in.”
Metesky was sent to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan for psychiatric evaluation. There, psychiatrists ruled him insane and unfit to stand trial. Doctors said he was an incurable paranoid schizophrenic with a strong impulse to martyrdom, according to The New York Times.
He was also still ill with tuberculosis; Metesky was sentenced without trial to 25 years in the Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane. Metesky was held at Matteawan for 17 year before being released in 1973 after the State Department of Mental Hygiene determined he was harmless.
Upon his release from Matteawan, he spoke to The New York Times. He admitted to planting more than 37 bombs in New York City during his reign of terror. “Actually there were more than 37, but not all of them went off,” he said. He added that he “ceased all operations during the war years because of patriotism.”
Metesky said he wrote 900 letters to the mayor, police commissioner and newspapers about his issues with ConEd, but “I never even got a penny postcard back.”
After being denied the option of buying advertising space in newspapers, “I was compelled to bring my story to the public. I was sick and didn’t expect to live. If I caused enough trouble, they’d have to be careful about the way they treat other people,” he told the Times.
Following Metesky’s capture, authorities reexamined the work of Brussel, which is known today as criminal profiling. Though it seemed the work of fiction, the technique would eventually become accepted as an investigative tool.
“Sherlock Holmes was essentially a profiler. Agatha Christie was kind of a profiler. So, it’s interesting that it existed in fiction, but didn’t exist in real life,” Cannell said.
Brussel was later called upon to aide in the investigation into the killings of 13 women who were strangled in Boston during the 1960s. His work was instrumental in capturing the suspect who was known as the Boston Strangler.
“It’s not hard to imagine that detectives, police chiefs, or even municipal leaders across the country would want to call him after this case, and the Boston Strangler case, not just because of his extraordinary problem solving abilities, but because he was sort of a showman,” Cannell added.
Brussel would later be known as “The Sherlock Holmes of Greenwich Village.” He died in 1982 at the age of 77.
“I think that he was very proud of using his psychological training and insights to help police solve cases,” Israel said of his stepfather. “He may have seen himself simply as a solitary genius who helped police solve cases. I don’t know whether he saw the larger implications or not.”
Metesky died at his home in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1994. He was 90. He outlived all of the people who spent nearly two decades trying to catch him. But it came as great comfort to those looking to bring him to justice, especially Finney, that Metesky was caught before he could claim the lives of any innocent New Yorkers.
“He managed to pull this off before anybody was killed,” Cannell said of Finney’s dedication to solving the case, and bringing in Brussel to help. “And I think we can all agree that somebody was going to get killed.”