Decades before the 9/11 attacks rattled America and "radical Islamic terrorism" entered the national lexicon, a serial bomber stalked the streets of New York. For more than 16 years, the terrorist known as "FP" deposited bombs on city streets and in phone booths, storage lockers, and even movie theaters. He never succeeded in taking any lives, but with no answers and a city reaching peak hysteria by the 1950s, police called in a psychiatrist who claimed to know how to map the criminal mind. Dr. James Brussel used the bomber's letters and other evidence to work up one of the earliest successful criminal profiles, an investigative tactic that has since become standard in policing across the world.
Extensively developed by the FBI in the years since, profiling has evolved into an at least somewhat scientific approach that seeks to identify character traits of offenders to help police narrow down their searches. In the case of the "Mad Bomber," however, Dr. Brussel was basically leaning on Sherlock Holmes–style hunches about an immigrant who fell hard for the American dream and yet never quite assimilated into society.
In his new book Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, out Tuesday, Michael Cannell looks at how this episode changed the face of American law enforcement. Many of us take criminal profiling for granted now thanks in part to its ubiquity on television, but at one time, cops viewed the practice with immense skepticism. We talked to Cannell by phone to broach just how impactful Brussel's technique actually was, how he tried to get into the mind of a serial bomber, and whether these bombings presaged the era of modern terrorism and constant fear.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
VICE: One of my first thoughts was how hard it is to imagine policing before criminal profiling—it's just that mainstream and sort of inescapable in how many of us think about police work.
Michael Cannell: Criminal profiling is amazingly prevalent in our culture today. It's almost impossible to turn the TV on and flip through the channels without running into a show—a CSI or Blacklist—that centers on profiling. For some reason, profiling has really triggered something in the public's imagination. What people are not aware of is it all dates back to this one case in the late 1950s when the NYPD was trying to catch a serial bomber and they really couldn't catch him. Sixteen years went by, and in desperation, they showed all their evidence to Dr. James Brussel.
On the spot, he gave them what we now call a profile, which was unbelievably and startling accurate. The police never intended to consult this psychiatrist, but after his work got a lot of attention, police around the country began to consult Dr. Brussel about cases that they couldn't solve. He helped solve the Boston Strangler case. Then the FBI came to Dr. Brussel and asked him if he would share his techniques with them, and he did.
Why was there so much initial skepticism among law enforcement officials about using criminal profiling techniques to solve cases?
When you think about the 1950s, it was a time when science was changing the way Americans lived. The polio vaccine was created. The space program was starting. But one area that did not adopt scientific techniques was police work, and I think it's just because police were so old-fashioned. They didn't believe somebody with a college education or white lab coat could help them. They really relied on roughing up suspects.
There was a police commissioner named [Lewis Joseph] Valentine who said he never wanted a suspect to come into a police precinct without his hair messed up—that was his way of saying: If we're going to get information from people, we've got to rough them up. When the police went to Dr. Brussel in 1956, they really didn't believe he could help them. They didn't understand what he was saying; he spoke in this kind of jargon, but they humored their bosses and went and consulted him.
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Did the media refer to the Mad Bomber as a "terrorist" in their news reports back in the 1950s? Was that the term for someone like this in the Eisenhower era?
I don't remember seeing that term in the coverage of the bomber. When the police went to Dr. Brussel and showed him all of the evidence, one of the first things he said is that the bomber you're looking for is Slavic—he's from Eastern Europe. Part of the reason Dr. Brussel said that was that bombing was a common technique among political radicals in Eastern Europe. But the Mad Bomber had a particular genius for creating terror, and in his mind, terror wasn't the size of the bomb—it wasn't about the number of people it injured or killed. It was really more of a psychological effect on the public. He really believed that he didn't need to create big bombs—he just had to set bombs off in public places in a kind of random way, and the public fear would be disproportionate to the size of the attack. If you think about it, that's how the terrorists in our life today also operates. It's the haphazardness—the randomness of the violence that creates the emotions behind it.
How did you get into the mind of the serial bomber for the book? You've taken some flack for what critics say are essentially projected thoughts on his part.
There are parts in the book where I describe his thoughts. I had to think very carefully whether I wanted to do that or not, because I'd never veer from nonfiction. I would never fictionalize what I was writing, but in this case, I felt it was OK to say what the bomber was thinking in very general terms. Because having read interviews with him after he was arrested, having read the police interrogation, and his interviews with the press, I felt that I had a fair and legitimate sense of what his feelings were. People use the term "internal monologue"—that's what I was trying to do there. I tried to represent his thoughts as he had later stated them as fairly and accurately as I could.
Did Brussel or anyone else find a motive for the guy that convinced you?
Dr. Brussel told police: The man you're looking for has never had a girlfriend. He lives with an older female relative. He lives in the suburbs north of the city, He has a history of workplace disputes, and when you catch him, he'll be wearing a double-breasted jacket. On a January night in 1957, at midnight, police knocked on the door of a house in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the man who answered the door fit all of those descriptions. His name was George Metesky.
It just so happened that he was caught at the moment lawyers and psychiatrists were fighting over what the definition of "insane" was. The judge who presided over the case wanted George Metesky to go to trial. The psychiatrists deemed him a paranoid schizophrenic—they didn't think he was fit to go to trial. He became physically sick because of his tuberculosis, and it was believed that a trial would kill him. He was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane and lived there for a couple of decades before he was released in the 1970s.
Unlike what most of us think of when we think about terrorism now, I was struck by the Mad Bomber's lack of a body count.
The Mad Bomber never killed anybody, but he surely would have if the police didn't catch him. He was working his way up to it. In the early part of his campaign, he really never intended to kill anybody. He was setting off these homemade bombs, which are about as powerful as a hand grenade. He was setting them off in public places, like Grand Central Station, but he was setting them off in specific spots [like storage lockers] where he knew he wouldn't hurt anybody.
He was expecting to get a lot more news coverage then he did, and it infuriated him that the stories about his bombs were tucked back in the back of the newspapers. Around 1955, he set out to really hurt and kill people and began to put the bombs in the movie theaters. That was part of why his bombing campaign put the city into a panic, because it was clear to the public and to the police that the manhunt had to accelerate in order to catch him before he killed anybody.
Is it really fair to draw a line between the alienation of this (mentally ill) immigrant and modern terrorists in the West, given the intervening decades and disparate issues at play?
George Metesky was really like the Grandfather of Terrorism in this country. He was was born in the United States, but his parents were from Eastern Europe. They were Lithuanian, and he grew up as a first-generation immigrant, but he was the kind of immigrant who never succeeded in this country—he never got a toehold in his new home. His family was never going to assimilate. Just like today, where we're so preoccupied with the role of immigrants in this country, how we welcome them and the degree to which they should or would assimilate into our middle class.
I can't help to feel like this story about the bomber is particularly relevant now because it's a story of an immigrant who was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed all of the powerful forces in the government, media, and corporate world were conspiring against him. The bombing campaign was his way of striking back at what he believed was a dark allied force attempting to crush ordinary working men like him.
Learn more about Michael Cannell's new book, out April 25, here.
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