Crime Critic NO.6: Hoisted by Their Own Pens

Hoisted by Their Own Pens

by John Marr

His campaign began inauspiciously, with a series of small bombs that were ignored by the media and virtually unnoticed by the police. Gradually, the bombs grew in size and sophistication and the casualties mounted. The bomber penned a series of letters to the media, demanding publicity for his cause. The newspapers first refused his requests and then relented. But in the bomber's triumph were the seeds of his downfall. His distinctive writing style was recognized; he was swiftly unmasked by police.


The Unabomber? No, this was the saga of New York City's Mad Bomber, a man who terrorized the city in the 1950s with no less than 35 bombs. He planted his first bomb in 1940, but it took him ten years to hit his stride. And then he hit it with style. For the next six years, his trademark pipe-bomb-in-a-sock cropped up everywhere—hidden in phone booths, left in men's rooms, and jammed into slits cut into movie-theater seats. Among the Mad Bomber's highlights were a 1950 blast at the main branch of the New York Public Library that destroyed a phone booth, a 1955 bomb in Grand Central Station that almost killed a redcap, and two explosions in 1956: one injured six people during a screening of "War and Peace" at the Brooklyn Paramount; the other took out a Macy's phone booth, wounding four shoppers.

Random as the bombs seemed, there was a method to his madness. In numerous letters to the police and the papers, the bomber, who signed his letters F.P., complained bitterly about the unspecified "dastardly deeds" and "ghoulish acts" he had suffered at the hands of Consolidated Edison, the local electric utility. One communiqué advised "WHERE EVER A WIRE RUNS—GAS OR STEAM FLOWS—FROM OR TO THE CON EDISON CO. —IS NOW A BOMB TARGET...MY LIFE IS DEDICATED TO THE TASK."

Psychiatrist Dr. James Brussel developed a profile of the bomber, based information in F.P's letters as well as the design of his bombs. He pegged him as a single, middle-aged Slavic male, living with a female relative in Connecticut, with a preference for double-breasted suits, buttoned. And he was right.

In one of the Mad Bomber's letters the author claimed he'd contracted tuberculosis from an on-the-job accident at Con Ed in the early 1930s. A Con Ed clerk came across a similar claim by one George Metesky in 1934. Metesky's hypothesis was rejected as medically insupportable, and so he protested this "dastardly deed" with his bombs.

Metesky was quickly traced to the home he shared in Waterbury, Connecticut, with two maiden sisters. When the police knocked on his door, the 54-year-old Lithuanian-born man freely admitted to being the Mad Bomber. After putting on a natty, carefully buttoned double breasted-suit, he proudly showed off his garage workshop where he had so lovingly assembled the bombs. As for his "F. P." signature, why, that stood for "Fair Play." He was arrested on January 22, 1957.

Metesky was found mentally ill and committed to a mental hospital, where he was a model inmate for 17 years. Released in 1973, he remained unrepentant but nonetheless announced, "I have no intention whatever of resorting to any form of violence..."

Sadly, this lesson of history has been lost on other, more recent bomb makers. Crazy bombers are fine as long as they stick to their gunpowder and fuses. It's when they turn to their pens that they get caught.   </end>

John Marr is the editor of Murder Can Be Fun. He lives in San Francisco.