Tag Archives: true crime

‘Incendiary’: The Mad Bomber Terrorizes 1950s New York

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

Judd Mehlman/New York Daily News via Getty Images

1981 was indeed “A Most Violent Year” in New York City

In 1981, there were more reported robberies in New York City (over 120,000) than in any year in its history.  There were over 2,100 murders that year (slightly down from the previous year) including such infamous crimes as the mob-related Shamrock Bar murders in Queens. After years of steadily increasing crime rates, it seemed unlikely in 1981 that New York would ever reverse course.

This should make a very intriguing backdrop for the new film A Most Violent Year by J.C. Chandor, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.

We last saw Isaac in another New York flashback — Inside Llewyn Davis — which gave us a spectacular view of 1960s Greenwich Village.  And Chandor himself dabbled in some recent history with his debut film Margin Call, about the 2007 financial crash.

The film is set for an end-of-the-year release. So far the production design looks very promising:


And here’s a few images of New York City in 1981 for comparison:

Top pic courtesy New York Daily News/Getty Images. Middle picture courtesy Luper/Panoramio.  Meryl Streep courtesy Life Magazine!

PBS’s ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’: Jazz Age murder mysteries and the beleaguered forensics team who solved them

Charles Norris and the toxicology laboratory at Bellevue Hospital [source]

The Poisoner’s Handbook
PBS: American Experience
Premieres January 7, 2014
8pm EST / 7pm CST

“In 1922 101 New Yorkers hanged themselves.  Four hundred forty-four died in car accidents.  Twenty were crushed in elevators.  There were 237 fatal shootings and 34 stabbings.  And that year, nine hundred and ninety-seven New Yorkers died of poisoning.”

The ominous statistic above — which opens The Poisoner’s Handbook on PBS’s American Experience — reveals one of the ugly side effects of modernity.  Industry often used chemicals without fully understanding their deadly effects.  Children routinely played in areas heavily coated in rodenticides like Cyanogas.  Meanwhile, diabolical individuals, more knowledgable of poison’s profound powers, employed them in criminal ways, confident of the difficulty by early coroners and law enforcement to accurately trace them.

Some deaths by a certain poison could be identified by early forensics, but intent was frequently unclear.  Did a drunken man kill his neighbor or was it death by carbon monoxide?  Did a father kill off his family with thallium, or was it a dreadful accident?  What was causing the gruesome deformities and deaths of women at a local watch factory in New Jersey?

Not helping matters was the corrupt nature of New York’s early investigative teams, a carnival of unqualified men often placed into office by Tammany Hall and paid by the number of bodies they processed.  Deaths by poison were frequently overlooked and misidentified, thus turning it into an attractive weapon of murder.

Into this chaotic, frightening world steps the innovator Charles Norris (above), New York’s first chief medical examiner, and his leading toxicologist Alexander Gettler, who set up their laboratories at the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital.  From here, their team delved into a completely new world of crime detection, attempting to locate killer toxins within the body tissue of the dead.  Unbelievably, their jobs are made more difficult by New York mayors, from John Hylan, who objected to Norris’ use of autopsies in solving crimes, to even Fiorello LaGuardia, who accused Norris of embezzlement.  (Quite the opposite; Norris paid his toxicologists out of his own pocket. )

One event brought poison into a more sinister spotlight — Prohibition.  With the elimination of liquor sales, people ran to the speakeasies, where a lesser quality, more toxic brew was being served. In some cases, it was the government itself who was selling poisonous potions, as with the failed experiment called the Bridge Whist Club.  “Realizing that many bootleggers stole industrial alcohol to make their product, enforcers directed that the industrial stuff be polluted with Methanol, hoping the foul taste and physical illnesses would deter consumption.” [source]

Norris, Gettler and their team at Bellevue, innovating forensics techniques that identified the effects of poisons upon the human body, were responsible for greatly decreasing crimes by poison and for improving worker’s safety in plants which used chemicals and fuels in their daily routine.

At right: Radium made watches glow in the dark and became a devastating killer at a New Jersey factory

This truly dark PBS documentary, a terrific realization of the book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in the Jazz Age by Deborah Blum, plays out like a condensed anthology of Jazz Age mysteries, arranged by poison type within a macabre medicine cabinet.  Illustrating the narrative are a collection of dazzling photographs (many from New York’s Department of Records) and better-than-normal live action set pieces.

This is a nail-biting film, shamefully fun actually — a blueprint for the modern television procedural, so much so that I’m rather surprised that somebody hasn’t developed The Poisoner’s Handbook into a regular television series.  Some of the poison deaths here seem so outlandish that they make a typical episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation seem rather pallid in comparison.

There’s even a recurring villain of sorts, a woman named Fanny Creighton who the media grimly nicknamed Borgia (for Lucrezia Borgia).  I won’t tell you what various crimes she’s guilty of, but I will say, do not ever go out and have a cocktail with her.

Tough Enough: Teen Criminal Mugshots from 100 Years Ago

Okay, maybe it’s just me that does this, but occasionally I love perusing the document archives of the New York Department of Records, a treasure trove of municipal maps and photography from the past.

Buried amid the grisly crime photographs and disaster images are an interesting array of mugshots.  With little information attached, we can only try to figure out the lives of these people through their clothing and expressions.

Below I present to you a few of the junior mugshots from the Department of Records, those teenagers and young adults who commits a host of unknown crimes between 1910 and 1920. Try and imagine what their lives might have been like, what might have driven them to commit the crimes in which they were captured, or whether were even guilty at all. Whatever happened to these young men? If I can find more information on them, I’ll update this post.

I’m linking directly from the Department of Records, so you can click into each entry and drag the images around. Please give it a few seconds to load. Their website is a bit tricky.

Name: L. Rose
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Louis Cohen
 Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Benny Stern
Taken: August 13, 1913

 Name: “Wolf”
 Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Unknown
 Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Jone
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Goffe
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: McAvoy
Taken: 1916-1920

Name: Unknown
Taken: March 17, 1911
Name: W. Dorsch
Taken: 1916-1920

The many mysterious and tragic events that befell the Woolworths after constructing the Woolworth Building

The dramatic Woolworth mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery 

With completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913, the leader of the five-and-dime retail craze Frank W. Woolworth had his grand declaration of success in New York, widely feted and proclaimed.  His hundreds of stores would go on to define the shopping experience around the world over the coming decades.  (Their lunch counters would also unfortunately typify racial segregation in the 1960s.)  While there are no more Woolworth stores in America today*, you can still find many outlets with that brand as far away as Germany and South Africa.

But life took a few unexpected, frequently tragic and often bizarre twists for the Woolworth family over the next few decades following the completion of the Woolworth Building:

Above: The ‘new’ Winfield Hall in 1925. Courtesy Old Long Island

1) Fire at Winfield Hall:  While the family enjoyed a very luxurious residence at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his wealth was better displayed in the mansion out in Glen Cove, Long Island, where his wife and daughters lived most of the time.  But this house — a wooden, columned manor named Winfield Hall — mysteriously burned down in November 1916.

And just as oddly, Woolworth had almost instantly on hand new plans for a colossal marble palace,  more in keeping with the many gigantic homes along Long Island’s Gold Coast.  Think The Great Gatsby of the five-and-dime; in fact,  Glen Cove is just a few minutes over from Manhasset, fictionalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald as ‘East Egg’.

The estate is reportedly haunted due, according to sources, to Woolworth’s interest in the occult.

2) Single White Mogul:  In 1892, in the early days of Woolworth’s business, he hired a young Brooklyn man, Hubert Parson, as a bookkeeper.  By the 1910s, Parson was Woolworth’s right-hand man, thought of as a part of the family and as the son Frank never had.  In 1916, Woolworth shocked many by promoting the relatively young assistant to the role of general manager.

It then appeared that the notoriously vain Parson was attempting to actually outdo his boss, first building a bigger Fifth Avenue mansion than his boss, then, in 1918 purposefully buying a house in Long Branch, New Jersey — named Shadow Lawn — that was far larger than Woolworth’s own Winfield Hall!  “If Woolworth bought a brand new automobile,” writes author Karen Plunkett-Powell, “then Parson would, too — complete with uniformed chauffeur.”

After Frank’s death, Parson would become president of the company.  Later in life, he would be criticized for his “extravagant personal lifestyle” during the Great Depression and was eventually forced to retire.

3) Death at the Plaza:  Woolworth’s daughter Edna was a tragic and very tormented woman, marrying an associate of her father’s who ended up drinking heavily and cheating on her. In 1917, at the Plaza Hotel, after reading a letter confirming yet another mistress, Edna put on her loveliest lace dress, sat by a window and ingested a lethal dose of poison.  Unfortunately, her body is discovered several hours later by her daughter Barbara.

4) Why You Should Go to the Dentist:  Frank Woolworth had an absolute hatred of going to the dentist, a prejudice that led to his death in April 1919, when he died suddenly due to a tooth infection.  Unbelievably, he died with his will unsigned, and all the money (about $30 million) went to his wife Jennie.

However, Jennie was having problems all her own, having been declared ‘mentally feeble‘ and legally incompetent by this time. Of the will, “DEMENTED WIFE GETS ALL,” said an unsubtle New York Times headline.  It’s not clear to me from the reporting of the day, but it appears from description that Mrs. Woolworth was suffering from Alzheimer’s when her husband died.

5) Gem Theft at the Plaza:  In 1926, the youngest Woolworth daughter Jennie, living the good life at the Plaza, had over $683,000 worth of jewels stolen from her room while she was in the bathtub.  “The thief displayed a shrewd knowledge of pearls,” said the Times. “Alongside the genuine ones in the drawer were four ropes of imitation pearls …. [T]he robber scorned them.”  The crime kept the Woolworths in the paper for an entire month.  The jewels mysteriously reappeared a week later and the man who purloined them — a private detective! — was arrested.

Five years later, Jennie’s husband would then poison himself (another suicide) and die in his office at the Woolworths’ Fifth Avenue residence.

6) Poor Little Rich Girl:  Barbara Hutton (above), who had discovered her mother dead in the Plaza, grew up to become something of an infamous party girl, thanks to an over-the-top debutante ball held in her honor during the Great Depression.  She was dubbed the ‘poor little rich girl’, fodder for gossip columns and, later, made-for-TV movies.  The heiress, never shying from an extravagant lifestyle, married seven times — most notably to Cary Grant in 1942 — in a life often marred by tragedy and physical abuse.

Most of the people mentioned above are buried in the ornate Woolworth Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  The mausoleum is a tribute to vast wealth and self-importance, designed like an Egyptian temple by John Russell Pope, best known for designing the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.!

*The remnants of the Woolworth company are now organized as Foot Locker Inc.

The legend of bank robber ‘Red’ Leary, his wife Kate, and the greatest jail break in Lower East Side history

 ‘Red’ Leary was one of the famous bank robbers of the 1870s, assisting in heists all along the Northeast. Above is an illustration of a bank robbery in Montreal, Canada, displaying some of the tools found at the crime scene.

They don’t talk about ‘Red’ Leary anymore down in the streets of the Lower East Side. In the hipster bars and boutiques, in the graphic design firms and the Chinese foot-massage parlors, his name goes virtually unspoken.

But over one hundred and thirty years ago, his unusual escape from the Ludlow Street Jail (pictured below) captivated New Yorkers, willing to overlook the rascal’s criminal misdeeds to marvel at the ambitiously planned jail break, orchestrated by his wife Kate Leary. ‘A Hero and a Burglar’ proclaimed the New York Times, appalled that teenagers were “absolutely besides themselves and exultant over the daring deed, each individual boy wishing, for the moment, that we was a Red Leary.”

John ‘Red’ Leary was one of the northeast’s most notorious bank robbers of the 1870s, frequently pairing with other known criminals of the day to pull of spectacular heists. In particular, as a part of the gang of George Leonidas Leslie (nicknamed “king of bank robbers”), Leary helped make off with thousands of dollars in stolen sums, involved in tricky operations that sometimes took years to plan.

According to Herbert Asbury, Leslie’s gang was responsible for 80% of the bank robberies between 1874-84. Not sure how that number was specifically settled on, but needless to say, as a critical member of Leslie’s operation, ‘Red’ Leary was a master at his chosen profession.

However, in December 1878, after a robbery at the Northampton Bank in Massachusetts (making off with a staggering $1.6 million), Leary was promptly captured back in New York at Second Avenue and 92nd Street, in connection with another bank robbery. It was decided to extricate Leary to Massachusetts to answer for the robbery there, so he was thrown into Ludlow Street Jail to await transferal.

The Ludlow Street Jail, between Broome and Grand streets, opened at 1862 as a debtors prison and a sometimes repository for New York’s more infamous criminals. In fact, just several months before Leary’s arrival, William ‘Boss’ Tweed had died in one of the cells here.

Leary would be sure not to meet the same fate, thanks in part to his wife, the fiery Coney Island pickpocket Kate Leary, and some of Red’s criminal cohorts. Included among them were Shang Draper, a crooked saloon owner famous for drugging customers and shanghaiing them onto ships.

Kate had already helped her husband escape capture once before, in August 1877, when the duo eluded several officers at a hotel near Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.  A lightly guarded prison in the middle of one of the most populated neighborhoods in the world was certainly no match for a woman as determined as Kate, known as much for her intelligence as for her venality.

In May of 1879, Mrs. Leary, in disguise, rented a tenement flat next door to the jail at 76 Ludlow Street.  She and her accomplices then knocked out a wall, drilling through the thick prison defenses until they broke through into the prisoner’s bathroom, perfectly timed with Red’s arrival there.

As author B.A. Botkin‘s describes: “No alarm was raised, nor was the tunnel leading to the room with its neatly piled ton of excavated brick discovered until 10:30. By that time the fugitive was on his way to Coney Island in a light truck.”

As a judge has explicitly stated that Leary would probably try to escape, the clean extraction of the high profile criminal elicited mocking scorn at the jailers and officers involved. Saving face, Ludlow officials declared Leary’s assisted release was “one of the most daring and skillfully-planned affairs of the kind to ever occur in the city,” “executed by shrewd and bold criminals.” [source]  The Ludlow jail would never really shake its, shall we say, porous reputation and was eventually demolished in the 1920s. Both the jail and the address 76 Ludlow Street would make way for Seward Park High School (pictured below, from 1930)

So dramatic was the 1879 Ludlow prison break that Leary and his crew were soon turned into folk heroes by the more rebellious residents of the Lower East Side. For this reason, the Leary escape is sometimes listed as a New York urban legend. But in fact, newspapers of the day spilled over with reports of the bold getaway.

Red Leary was eventually recaptured two years later and returned to Massachusetts to answer for his crimes there. He met a grim end in 1888 at the Knickerbocker Cottage (Sixth Avenue and 10th Street), smashed in the head with a brick by a card shark named William Train. His wife Kate literally drank herself to death in 1896 at a Coney Island hotel.

According to Botkin’s 1956  book ‘New York City Folklore’, the legend of Red Leary even briefly entered sports vernacular. “So celebrated did the exploit become, that …. [a] coach who wanted to instruct a player to break loose and steal a base simply yelled, “Red Leary!

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library