George Metesky was just your average working joe with a unique and understandable beef against his former employer Con Edison. He was injured on the job, eventually fired and denied workers compensation for what appear to be purely bureaucratic reasons.
But any sympathies one might find for Metesky, however, are quickly abandoned.
In retaliation, he began a meticulously sustained crime spree in New York City within its most famous and most bustling landmarks.
For sixteen years (from 1940 until his arrest in January 1957), this disturbed man placed explosive devices throughout the city, a chilling swath of discord meant to send a message while endangering the lives of thousands of New Yorkers. Grand Central, Penn Station, the New York Public Library and a variety of theaters (including Radio City Music Hall) were all targeted by the man who the press would eventually label ‘the Mad Bomber’.
The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
By Michael Cannell Minotaur Books/Macmillan Publishers
In Incendiary, the brisk new page-turner by Michael Cannell, these disturbing events and the race to capture Metesky are given a bold, true-crime retelling, an immersive non-fiction thriller with cinematic pacing.
Metesky operated a bit like a comic-book villain, sending letters to the New York Journal-American, taunting the police, all the while setting devices in places where they would receive the most attention. But, strangely enough, the ‘Mad Bomber’ never meant to seriously take lives; indeed, of the dozens of explosive devices set off over the city, nobody was actually killed. (But there were a number of serious injuries.)
Given the nature of Metesky’s crime spree, investigators were able to use ground-breaking criminal profiling methods. A disturbed individual like Metesky almost demanded such an investigation, his psyche on full display in his newspaper letters.
Key to his eventual capture was psychiatrist James Brussel who worked closely with the police in constructing a profile of Metesky that was extraordinarily detailed — and mostly accurate.
Even down to outfit he wore when he eventually confronted the police on a cold evening in January of 1957.
“I know why you fellows are here. You think I’m the Mad Bomber.”
Metesky conducted his frightening crimes with an alarming theatricality — indeed, Brussel’s criminal profiling methods would inspire millions of hours of evening television — which is why Cannell’s gripping procedural feels immediate and particularly terrifying. This is the stuff of modern nightmares.
At top: A portion of one of Metesky’s letter. Below: the Mad Bomber in jail
Lunchtime down on Wall Street today is chaotic mess of brokers and bankers on cell phones, tour groups, messengers on bikes, police, construction workers, people delivering lunch and the stray old lady walking her dog.
Ninety-five years ago today, in 1920, it would have practically been the same, sans the cell phones. So it’s particularly disturbing how easy it is to imagine the noontime scene on September 16, 1920. In fact, most of the surroundings — the Stock Exchange, the Sub-Treasury building (today’s Federal Hall), and most importantly J.P. Morgan’s headquarters on 23 Wall Street — are still very much active.
An unidentified man led a horse and carriage down the congested street, fighting to get past crowds, until it rested at the corner about 100 feet east of Broad. As the Trinity Church bells rang, the man dropped the reins and fled, never to be seen again.
One minute later, the wagon exploded with 100 pounds of dynamite, eradicating everything in its sphere, then sending dozens of iron slugs through the air to create a horrific scene of carnage.
The best way to really tell this story is to quote a few contemporary accounts from the New York newspapers. NOTE: Some of the accounts are quite graphic.
A 22-year-old woman named Ella Parry survived and was interviewed by the Evening World:
“The glass of our windows fell into the office and the ceiling fell all about us. Where I had just been sitting was covered with heavy plaster. I did not wait to get my hat, but with others rushed into the street.
There were not less than a dozen dead persons on the sidewalk in front of tour building and the Sub-Treasury. Some of them had their faces almost completely blown off and their clothing had either been blown from their bodies or burned off. The police threw sheets over the bodies as fast as they could get them.”
“I was just about to enter the Morgan Building when the concussion knocked me down on the sidewalk. I arose after I had collected my thoughts and saw broken glass covering the street. All about me men and women were lying bleeding. Above fifty feet down Wall Street there was an auto in a mass of flames. Across the street from it there was a shattered wagon and a horse lying dead. I saw several men cut almost in half from the large plate glass which fell from the building.”
“Not a sound pane of glass remained in the Morgan Building. Screens of copper mesh which were set inside the windows were bent and twisted but had fulfilled their mission of protecting those within. Fragments of the glass dome above the main office lay on the floor, and one of these, or some similar bit of falling debris, is beloved to be responsible for the single death that occurred there. The streets were covered with broken glass, some of it finely powdered, like sugar.
The heroic statue of Washington on the steps of the Sub-Treasury was not so much as scratched by the explosion, and stood firmly, with hand outstretched in a quelling gesture.”
One unusual story of bravery emerged the following day. A teenage office boy named James Saul grabbed a random automobile and began driving injured victims to the local hospital. Fearing the owner of the automobile was among the injured, he then drove the car to a police station.
By the end of the day, 38 people would be dead from the attack, many while sitting at their desks. And over 400 more would be injured.
Below: The late edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “A mysterious explosion, disastrous in its effect, occurred at noon today on Wall Street, killing more than a score of persons and injuring hundreds.”
Following the attack, the Madison Avenue mansion of J.P. Morgan (site of the Morgan Library and Museum) was heavily guarded. Morgan himself was actually in England, enjoying a relaxing vacation.
Believe it or not, evidence of this attack can easily be seen from the street today. The banking mogul famously rejected repairs of his bank, preferringto leave the dents and pockmarks on the side of his building in a sign of defiance. With a little morbid imagination and some amateur CSI work, one can probably trace the trajectory of wall’s injuries to the very spot where the poor horse and wagon exploded.
Below: Crowds gather to witness the destruction.
Despite a federal investigation which led to dozens of arrests, in fact the culprits were never caught. Largely assumed to be Italian anarchists, any evidence was unfortunately lost when, in an effort to appear unfazed, the city cleaned the street and kept Wall Street open for business the next day, even seeing a rally of thousands pour into the street that Friday.
In the early days of July 1915, the United States was preparing for a subdued celebration of America’s 139th Independence Day. It was hardly a festive time. War was still raging in Europe, and America was debating its entry on the side of Britain, Italy and France.
The deaths of 128 Americans aboard the RMS Lusitania on May 7 had forced the U.S.’s hand, some thought. President Woodrow Wilson pressed Germany for an apology while not yet calling for war. His Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan thought even that too harsh; he resigned in protest from Wilson’s cabinet in June.
The headlines were dire as it seemed the entire world would soon be caught in the maelstrom of the Great War.
And then, right before midnight, July 2, 1915, a bomb went off at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
It exploded in an empty reception area. “The explosion was a loud one and shook the entire building, breaking transoms and shattering plastering, ” said the Sun. Windows and mirrors were smashed, but the only bodily harm it caused was throwing a watchman from his chair.
The Sun: “Some persons in the crowd which had gathered around the Capitol were inclined to believe that the bomb had been placed by some war fanatic as an act of resentment against the United States government.”
Below: The Capitol reception room after the explosion
They were right. And Eric Muenter wasn’t done.
Before newspaper readers in New York City would find out about the bombing, its instigator would have already arrived in their city, with a roster of further crimes on his mind.
Muenter (pictured below), a former professor at Harvard University*, was a German sympathizer angered at American intervention in the war. He spread his vitriol wide, preparing to target private businessmen personally funding war efforts. In fact targeting one of America’s most wealthy financiers — JP Morgan Jr.
Below: Muenter after he was captured
Following his sabotage at the Capitol, Muenter fled to New York on the morning of July 3 to wreak further chaos. He had a makeshift headquarters at the Mills Hotel (Seventh Avenue and 36th Street) where he had stored dozens of sticks of dynamite and fuses. At the port of New York, he managed to sneak aboard the SS Minnehana, an ocean liner filled with explosives destined for England, and install a time bomb to detonate once the ship was at sea.
It’s at this time that a similar time bomb was placed at New York Police Headquarters at 240 Centre Street. The device here was later believed to be from the same batch of dynamite as Muenter’s. If he was involved, you have to admit he was incredibly efficient with his time, for by 8 am, he had boarded a train, headed to Glen Cove, Long Island.
Below: New York’s Inspector of Combustibles with Muenter’s steamer trunk filled with dynamite. (Courtesy Glen Cove Heritage)
JP Morgan Jr. had been in control of his father’s banking empire since the elder’s death in 1913. The son embodied America’s involvement in the Great War in the years before the U.S.’s official entry. He facilitatedan unprecedented loan of 500 million dollars to the Allied countries, backed by a consortium of over 2,000 American banks. The loans would soon grow to almost 3 billion dollars.
This made the financier both a symbol of American beneficence for some and a target of unwanted intervention for others. New York was a great stew of European diversity in the 1910s, and the far-away war often played out in the streets of New York, especially in German communities.
Morgan Jr had his recently-built summer home in Glen Cove, a palatial manor called Matinecock Point (pictured below). This was Muenter’s destination.
The assailant arrived, armed with two revolvers and a set of dynamite in his pocket, during an opportune breakfast meeting; the Morgans just happened to be entertaining the British ambassador Sir Cecil Spring-Rice.
At the door, Muenter pulled a gun on Morgan’s butler who, quickly thinking, directed the intruder down an opposite hall then shouted in the other direction for the Morgans to hide. The family scattered throughout the house.
Eventually, for the safety of their children, the Morgans did appear at the second floor landing and lured Muenter to them.
“Now Mr. Morgan I have got you.” he said reportedly.
His wife Jane attempted to leap in front of the gunman but was harshly shoved out of the way. Muenter then shot Morgan twice and prepared to fire again from the second pistol.
Fortunately Morgan had actually fallen into the gunman, pinning him to the floor. This allowed time for Mrs. Morgan and the children’s elderly nurse to finally apprehend the shooter. The fact that Spring-Rice, the British ambassador, also personally assisted in the capture of the shooter seems especially notable.
His plan thwarted, Muenter reportedly exclaimed, “Kill me! Kill me now! I don’t want to live any more. I have been in a perfect hell for the last six months on account of the European war.”
Originally giving his names as Frank Holt, it was soon discovered that the assailant was in fact Muenter, the former Harvard professor. In 1906, he was accused of poisoning his pregnant wife. Most likely, he did indeed kill her, for he disappeared from campus, changing his name to avoid arrest and had apparently spent years cultivating this new identity.
Once in custody on Long Island, Muenter spilled the beans. “I wanted to attract the attentions of the country to the outrages being committed by those who are sending the munitions of war to the Allies.” [source]
Below is a fragment of a letter Muenter wrote to his father-in-law while in custody. “I learned to my sorrow that Mrs. M[organ] was hurt,” it begins.
On July 5th the explosion at New York Police Headquarterswent off, following another explosion at the home of Andrew Carnegie. Nobody was hurt in these blasts. These similar explosions were later declared unrelated to the Muenter incident itself, but it grimly reinforces the danger New Yorkers faced during wartime, even so far away from the battlefields.
Morgan quickly recovered from his injuries although the attack had a chilling effect among the residents of Long Island’s Gold Coast. Security was quickly beefed up at Matinecock Point and at the estates of other wealthy financiers associated with the Morgan bank loan.
Below: Muenter in custody
On the evening of July 6, Muenter leaped to his death from his cell at Nassau County jail in Mineola. While it was but a short drop, he had jumped head first, crushing his skull. The death was so bizarre and sudden — it actually made a loud, deafening thud — that investigators initially believed that he had placed a blasting cap in his teeth to hasten his demise.
But the reign of terror wasn’t over. The time bomb that Muenter had placed aboard the SS Minnehaha did eventually explode while the ship was in the Atlantic. While it caught the ship ablaze, fortunately the ship was able to reroute to Halifax, and the fire was safely put out.
Right before noon on March 6, 1970, an explosion tore open a lovely Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street and awoke New York City to a violent new threat.
The remains of three bodies were discovered in the smoking debris but they weren’t residents of this quiet neighborhood. They were members of The Weather Underground, a radical underground unit absorbing the counter-culture spirit of the 1960s and unleashing it — oftentimes randomly and irrationally — onto a new decade.
Below: Oddly enough, the townhouse explosion occurred next door to the home of Dustin Hoffman and his wife.
Less than two years later, two New York police officers were brutally assassinated in the East Village, among the most brutal and shocking crimes against the NYPD in its history. This wasn’t a random crime but a hit placed upon the officers by members of the Black Liberation Army, wielding some of the philosophies of the Black Panthers to dangerous ends.
Almost three years later, a bomb exploded inside the historic Fraunces Tavern during in the middle of a busy weekday lunch. Four men were killed in the sudden attack, made by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (or FALN).
Below: Aftermath of the explosion at Fraunces Tavern (courtesy New York Daily News)
In between these terrible disasters were several other bombings of other significant buildings, here in New York and in other cities through the United States. All of them indicative of a violent (and ultimately failed) form of protest, as turbulently described by Bryan Burrough in his new book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.
This is probably one of the most frightening non-fiction books I’ve read in recent memory, a broad and exquisitely told tale that loosely links together a variety of American revolutionary action groups from the 1970s.
Some of the principal players of these groups are recognizable (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, Patty Hearst), but the breadths of their actions has been seldom studied. Through interviews with members who’ve never spoken, Burroughs patches together connections among these disparate groups — even if those connections are more philosophical than physical.
Below: The mugshot of Bernadine Dohrn, 1970
Most shared the belief that violence, disruption and chaos would lead America to a new revolutionary age. As Burrough points out, most were inspired by civil rights movement and the plight of black Americans, taking their anger and frustration into far more radical directions than the mainstream leaders who advocated non-violence and change through the law.
While the vulgar and gut-wrenching violence was often doused with machismo, many of these groups were led or operated by women.
The title comes from a series of demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in the fall of 1969, seen as a sort of kick off to this festering revolutionary movement. Much of the book details the ‘underground’ hideouts and escape routes of these organization, whether holed up in Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco (as the Weathermen were, often dressed in silly disguises) or running from capture through rural Georgia.
Burrough does not flinch from the horror, graphically describing the aftermath of many of the more loathsome crimes. The 1972 deaths of two NYPD officers in the East Village is especially grim. (You can read news of the original account here.)
In particular, I found the tale of the Symbionese Liberation Army especially gripping, notable less for their violent actions (although there certainly was some) than for the somewhat random notion to kidnap the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. Many of these stories will replay in your memory as a reel of black-and-white news footage or a set of iconic photographs (such as the one above of Hearst). Days of Rage offers a vivid and refreshing new context.
Burrough — a Vanity Fair writer perhaps best known for Barbarians At The Gate — is a thorough story-teller, conjuring fully blown narratives from the sometimes untrustworthy recollections of the surviving participants. He’s often too thorough, sometimes including superfluous details because they’ve “never before been told.”
Chaos was an organizing principal for these groups which is partially way they were ultimately unsuccessful. As shocking as some of these horrifying attacks seem today, it’s a wonder many of them were successful orchestrated at all, given the tentative organizational structure and often incompetent leadership of these groups.