For 16 years, the “Mad Bomber” terrorized New York City, planting pipe bombs in phone booths, movie houses, train stations, and other public places. No one knew his identity. He made 33 bombs. Twenty-two exploded, injuring 15 people. With his arrest in 1957, tabloid readers learned that the mysterious bomber was a fastidious, middle-aged man with a grudge and a goofy grin. His name was George Metesky. He blamed Con Edison, the city’s power company, for a job injury that he believed had led to his developing tuberculosis. Now, Boston attorney Michael M. Greenburg offers The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City. His book chronicles a massive police investigation that involved the first use of a psychiatrist to construct a criminal profile. Greenburg is a graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law. He is also the author of Peaches & Daddy, a nonfiction book about a romance between a flamboyant 51-year-old millionaire and a 15-year-old girl that captivated 1920s America.
RWR: How did you first get interested in the Mad Bomber’s story?
Greenburg: The truth is I don’t exactly remember how I found the topic. I’m pretty sure that I stumbled upon the story in a newspaper archive while doing research for my first book, Peaches & Daddy, but there was no moment when I knew that “this is it.” I was intrigued enough that the topic stayed in my mind. Later, I took a closer look.
The first thing I noticed was that the Mad Bomber story was big when it happened. By the mid 1950s the bombings had steadily risen to a crescendo and grabbed headlines in New York and across the country. It was a precarious time in history with the ever-present reality of nuclear warfare, and this rising homegrown threat further frayed already heightened nerves. The second thing that struck me was how few people know about the Mad Bomber story today. Most people who lived in New York during that time recall the climate of fear that gripped the city, but by and large, after the passage of time, the story has been largely forgotten. These two elements, combined with the obvious legal ramifications of the story, convinced me that this was a good book idea.
RWR: What was your biggest surprise in writing the book?
Greenburg: That I never received an angry rap at the door with the order, “FBI–open up!!” One of the problems in writing a bomb-related book is the need to acquire at least a modicum of understanding as to the technical nature of the subject matter. I found myself trolling a variety of sinister websites describing bombs and bomb-making. All of a sudden it hit me that maybe this was a good way to get into trouble. So I decided that it would be a good idea to preempt that FBI visit with a call of my own. I contacted my local police department as well as the Boston office of the FBI just to inform them that I was doing research for a book and to make sure that I wouldn’t be placed on a terrorist “watch list.” I have to tell you, those were strange phone calls. The long and short of it was that, in each case, I was informed, “Sir you have a first amendment right to view any legal website that you wish.” I really wasn’t particularly comforted by that response, but I never got the rap at the door, so I guess they were okay with what I was doing.
RWR: What was the greatest challenge? The most fun?
Greenburg: The challenge was to take this mountain of documents and turn it into compelling history. By far the most fun I had in writing the book was speaking to several individuals with firsthand knowledge of the case. I was delighted by how many people were still alive and willing to assist. One afternoon an old New York City bomb squad detective telephoned me and said, “My name is William Schmitt, and you want to talk with me. I was on the team that arrested the Mad Bomber.” It was like having a treasure dropped into my lap. It showed that if you poke around a topic long enough, people begin to take notice. I had been in contact with the Detectives Endowment Association and they apparently put out the word among their membership that I was writing this book. Needless to say Detective Schmitt, who was a wonderful and entertaining gentleman – and a genuine New York City hero – provided a great deal of fascinating insight into the Mad Bomber and the methods used to track him.
RWR: How do you explain the fact that Metesky never went “postal”–never went into Con Ed with a gun blazing–but instead planted his explosives in places where innocent people might be hurt?
Greenburg: I would call 16 years of bomb planting as pretty close to “postal” but I get your point. Metesky never had the objective of indiscriminate injury. His philosophy was simply to draw attention to his cause against Con-Ed. If people were hurt in the pursuit of that objective, he accepted that. But he later insisted that he worried greatly about hurting innocent people. He purposefully constructed his devices to be small in size though he was capable of creating much larger destructive bombs. He once said that “a man with a hammer can wreck a sixteen-inch naval gun, just by hitting it until it shatters. It takes a while. It’s the same way with bombs. Individually, they couldn’t knock a telephone off the wall. Collectively, they had an effect.”
Michael M. Greenburg
RWR: How did Metesky keep his sisters from finding out what he was up to? After all, he was making his pipe bombs in the garage of their home.
Greenburg: The garage was not attached to the house and was locked at all times. His sisters worked full time and they just thought he was busy working and inventing things in his little shop. There wasn’t a lot of communication going on in the house. Metesky slept most of the time when his sisters were home and he always kept to himself. They never suspected their brother for a second.
RWR: Malcolm Gladwell has characterized Dr. James A. Brussel’s profiling of Metesky as a “party trick.” Is it your sense that Brussel’s role was critical to the apprehension of Metesky?
Greenburg: In some respects Gladwell is right. I was careful in the book to include the criticism of Dr. Brussel as well as the acolades. Many of his methods, such as his emphasis on Freudian principles and ethnic preferences, have been abandoned by modern profilers, and Brussel himself noted that much of his approach was based on intuition and hope. The technique of criminal profiling continues to be a controversial subject even today. Brussel’s profile of the Mad Bomber played little if any role in the capture of Metesky. His contribution to the field of profiling and criminology, however, cannot be ignored. Whether by skill or sheer luck Brussel’s Mad Bomber profile was widely accepted as accurate and, accordingly, had the effect of shining the light of awareness on this new crime-fighting tool. Other profilers followed Dr. Brussel, and eventually the technique evolved into what it is today. Brussel is credited by some as the “father of modern criminal profiling.”
RWR: Metesky signed his notes FP, which we later learn meant Fair Play. Even given his illness, does his use of the mysterious initials strike you as odd?
Greenburg: Not given what we know about Metesky. Along with the characteristic delusions of persecution associated with his paranoia, Metesky also developed an air of narcissistic and intellectual arrogance. He believed himself to be smarter and wittier than the police investigators, and he often snickered at what he viewed as foolish and futile police tactics. And the length of time that he went undetected only served to fuel his feelings of superiority. I believe that Metesky’s use of “FP” was his way of taunting the authorities. It was exactly what you would expect given his personality disorder.
RWR: What are your own thoughts on Metesky’s competency to stand trial?
Greenburg: The inquiry into Metesky’s competency to stand trial was really quite extraordinary. His crimes occurred in the two separate counties of New York and Kings, and each conducted its own proceedings into competency. Amazingly, the New York County judge concluded that Metesky was competent and ordered him to stand trial, but the Kings County judge ruled otherwise, and because of a reversal in Metesky’s health at the time, the Kings County ruling prevailed. Competency to stand trial is a different psychological and legal threshold than a plea of insanity at trial. To be found competent to stand trial Metesky needed to prove only his ability to understand the nature of the charges against him and to assist his counsel in his defense. I think Kings County got it right. For years to come, Metesky sought to prove his competency–not to gain a trial to prove his innocence, but to obtain a forum to focus the world’s attention on the evils of his nemesis Consolidated Edison Company.
RWR: How did George Metesky and his story affect the 1960s counterculture?
Greenburg: With the advent of groups such as Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies and the Diggers of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, a cultural divide between young and old, left and right, split the country as never before. As these groups searched for identity the idea of George Metesky–one man against the corporate Goliath–filled a curious social affiliation. Metesky’s story began to take on legendary status among some within these groups and many adopted Metesky as the symbolic champion of their cause. “He epitomizes the futility of joining or fighting the system,” observed one member of the Diggers. “We’re all Meteskys. We’re a generation of schizophrenic mutants.” On several occasions members of the group, upon being confronted by authorities, gave their names as “George Metesky.” Abbie Hoffman even authored a book under the pen name “George Metesky.” Hoffman reached out to the institutionalized Metesky in the 1960s, but the socially and politically conservative Mad Bomber had no interest in any such meeting. Metesky’s only cause was his quest to bring Con Ed to justice.
RWR: What, if any, interaction did you have with present-day Con Ed in writing the book?
Greenburg: Early on I attempted to make contact with Con Ed. They refused to provide any assistance. Perhaps they are still embarrassed by the whole affair. Anyway, some, if not all, of Metesky’s Con Ed employment records are included in the district attorney’s files, which I had access to in writing the book.
RWR: What are you working on now?
Greenburg: I’ve begun initial research on a very different topic. In 1779 Paul Revere faced a court-martial as a result of his role in the “Penobscot Expedition,” which was a failed attempt by Massachusetts to dislodge the British from the Penobscot peninsula of Maine. He requested the proceedings to clear his name, and was ultimately acquitted. It’s an intriguing yet forgotten moment in the life of an American icon and needs to be written about.