In the 1950s, an anonymous terrorist planted a pipe bomb in a New York City public space. Then another. And another.
Written by Alan Bellows • 41 minute read
On 29 March 1951, shortly after 5 p.m., a hand-grenade-sized pipe bomb exploded in the landmark Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Ordinarily, the detonation of a pipe bomb in a busy commuter terminal at rush hour would be cause for grave public concern, yet the local news media barely acknowledged the event.
It had been a hectic news day. In one of the shrillest moments in America’s infamous anti-communism “red scare,” husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. News from the ongoing war in Korea dominated the space below the fold. By comparison, the small explosion from the homemade pipe bomb at Grand Central didn’t hurt anyone; it merely startled passers-by and damaged a cigarette urn outside the Oyster Bar. Police dismissed the event as the work of “boys or pranksters.” The New York Times reported the event in the following day’s issue, though only with a three-paragraph brief at the bottom of page 24.
About four weeks later, another small bomb exploded inside a phone booth in the basement of the New York Public Library. Again, no one was injured, though the explosion damaged the booth—as well as the composure of a security guard leaning against the booth at the time. The NYPD bomb squad found fragments very similar to the Grand Central device; both were lengths of well-machined pipe with a cap on each end. Inside, a .25 caliber shell detonated a reservoir of explosive gunpowder packed with nuts and bolts. The alleged “boys or pranksters” had evidently reprised their prank—and they were far from finished.
The self-castrating devotees of Inanna in ancient Mesopotamia are evidence enough that religious fanatics can demonstrate their faith in uncommon ways, but surely few have done so as appallingly as Second Adventist (not to be confused with Seventh Day Adventist) Charles Freeman of Pocasset. In 1879, Freeman was certain that he was receiving revelations that demanded a great sacrifice. Recalling the tale of Abraham and Isaac, he came to the conclusion that he must sacrifice one of his children. His wife Harriet was not especially pleased by this proclamation, and attempted to change his mind, but no argument succeeded. When in the middle of the night Freeman awoke to announce that God had given him the name of the victim–Edith, her father’s favourite–the tearful Harriet made one last attempt to dissuade him. But on being assured that this was the will of God, she assented.
On 01 May 1879, having sent his elder daughter out of the children’s room, Freeman prayed over Edith, hoping that she would sleep through what was to come–or that his hand might be stayed at the last moment by God, just as Abraham’s was said to have been. Edith opened her eyes; and since no divine hand held him back, Freeman stabbed his five year old daughter. She had just the time to say ‘Oh, Papa’ before she died.
After he had suffered ‘a good deal of agony of mind’ over what he had done, Freeman came to feel at peace, certain that he had proven his piety. He called a meeting of his co-religionists, to whom he gave a rambling sermon presaging the imminent arrival of Christ, before displaying his daughter’s body to them. However shocked they might seem, he reassured them that in three days she would be resurrected. And reassured they were. Edith’s grandmother insisted that there was no need to tell the murdered girl’s sister Mildred about any of this, since Edith would be back in three days and the knowledge would only disturb the girl. The other Adventists all went home and continued with their daily lives, Freeman’s secret presumably safe with his fellow church-goers.
The next day Freeman and his wife were arrested for filicide. News of the crime, not to mention the fact that a number of the Adventists openly approved of what Freeman had done, caused a wave of fury. Pulpits bristled with denunciations of Adventism and fanaticism, and the New England Adventist Association was forced to quickly dissociate itself from the Pocasset congregation. Freeman remained unconcerned, certain that he would be vindicated when God resurrected his daughter on the third day.
The day of Edith’s anticipated resurrection came and went with nary a stir from Edith. In lieu of a resurrection there was a burial–accompanied, to be sure, by some mutters about God breaking his promises. At the grave side, Alden Davis, now the leader of the Pocasset Adventists, jumped onto a nearby grave and began to give a speech eulogising the murderer, until the cries from the crowd of ‘Choke him!’ and ‘Bury him in the open grave!’ led to something of a brawl over the coffin.
Freeman was found insane and therefore incapable of standing trial, but he rejected that diagnosis. He was “the spirit of Truth,” he proclaimed. “I represent Christ in all his parts, prophet, priest and king. All good is represented in one person, and that person is me. I feel sure that my name will be honoured above any other name except Jesus.” As for Edith, “I feel perfectly justified. I feel that I have done my duty. I would not have her back.” To his surprise, he was immediately committed to the State Lunatic Asylum.
It took four years for Freeman to acknowledge the horror of what he had done, at which time he finally stood trial. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, he returned to the asylum, where he remained until he was set free some years later as representing no further danger. And there he vanishes from view.