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.
While the New York City police advised the public not to worry, a creeping dread germinated in the department. This could be the beginnings of a troublesome spree. But weeks passed without a third bomb. Weeks grew into months. Perhaps it really had just been mischievous rascals with oversized firecrackers, and perhaps they had already exhausted their supply of pipes, powder, or shenanigans. But a new echoing boom in Grand Central Terminal one August evening destroyed the detectives’ misplaced optimism.
The bomb squad combed through the rubble of another broken phone booth and found fragments of yet another pipe bomb of the now-familiar design, though the police noted in their report that the latest bomb showed “considerable advance in technique as compared with earlier bombs.” No one had been nearby, but this seemed to be due to luck rather than an explicit effort by the bomb planter to avoid injuring the public. Investigators had no notion of who the perpetrators might be, nor the nature of their motives.
At each of the bomb sites—among the scattered detritus of pipe fragments, shell casings, broken plaster, glass, nuts, and bolts—police kept encountering one thing that was not like the others: a partially consumed throat lozenge. Finding a used cough drop on the floor in a public place was not a surprise, but detectives detected all of these in close proximity to—or in one case inside—the pipe casings. And they were all of the same Parke-Davis brand. The point or purpose of the lozenge was as mysterious as the bomb-maker’s motives.
A few weeks later, employees of Consolidated Edison—the New York City electric company known to most as “ConEd”—arrived at work to find that a phone booth in the lobby of their main office had exploded a little during the night. No one was harmed—the building’s only occupant was a night watchman. He’d heard a bang in the early morning, and observed smoke in the lobby. This bomb was larger still than previous units, measuring about five inches long by two inches wide. Speaking to reporters, police acknowledged the likely link to the prior explosions, but they downplayed the power of the devices and made only brief comments. They explained that giving the event publicity would serve only to “build up the ego of the nut who did it.”
Thirteen days later, a representative of ConEd contacted the the bomb squad and asked if they would kindly return to the company offices. The mailroom had received a suspicious package: a bulging manila envelope that enclosed a short length of galvanized pipe with caps on both ends. It had been addressed to the company’s personnel director, Edwin Jennings.
Within hours, a bomb squad officer shuffled into the ConEd mail room, wrapped in standard bomb-squad explosion repellent: steel-plated overalls, a bucket-like metal blast helmet, and steel-mesh gloves. He approached the envelope and peered inside through his narrow eye slits. The pipe’s workmanship and materials suggested the handiwork of the suspected serial bomber; it would indeed offer the first opportunity to examine an unexploded specimen.
The officer listened to the device with a stethoscope, but heard no ticking. He photographed the pipe with an X-ray fluoroscope, and the hastily developed film revealed what appeared to be a bullet-based triggering assembly and a quantity of powder inside. After jostling the package from a distance to ensure movement would not set it off, the officer gingerly lifted it into a box that resembled a wicker basket woven from thick steel cables, a container the bomb squad referred to as “The Envelope.” He hung the Envelope in the center of a long steel bar, and he and another armored officer each hefted one end of the bar onto his shoulder. In this safe-distance configuration, they carried the package to the similarly armored truck waiting outside.
Upon disassembling the device in the relative safety of the bomb squad laboratory, they found that it had much in common with the remains of the earlier devices. It was almost certainly made by the same hands. Its triggering mechanism was based on a .25 caliber bullet, and it had the odd throat lozenge calling card. But instead of gunpowder, it contained ordinary sugar. So this bomb was evidently a warning—a harmless prop (cavities notwithstanding).
Police dusted the pipe and mailing envelope for fingerprints and found only smudges. But the envelope provided the investigators with their first clues about their bomber: A postmark from White Plains, New York. A return address from “Lehman and Lehman,” a fictional entity. An address written by hand in all caps, providing police with a distinctive handwriting sample—one with some unusual letterforms, especially the letter G. Larger than the neighboring letters, the G resembled a capital C with horizontal bars on both ends of the loop.
On 22 October 1951, a letter arriving at The New York Herald Tribune cemented the bomber’s link to ConEd. It was an ordinary mailing envelope, addressed to the city editor. It arrived late in the evening, and the affixed stamp indicated that the sender had paid extra for special delivery—a service then offered by the U.S. Postal Service which required a mail carrier to deliver the letter right away rather than waiting for the next regular delivery cycle. The city editor opened the envelope to find a note hand-written in unusual penciled block letters:
BOMBS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE CONSOLIDATED EDISON COMPANY IS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE FOR THEIR DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME. I HAVE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER MEANS. I INTEND WITH BOMBS TO CAUSE OTHERS TO CRY OUT FOR JUSTICE FOR ME. IF I DON’T GET JUSTICE I WILL CONTINUE, BUT WITH BIGGER BOMBS.
The New York Herald Tribune contacted police right away. The special delivery of the note suggested an urgency to the message, as did the fact that the note indicated the bomber’s next alleged targets: a men’s room of the enormous Paramount Theatre “movie palace” in the Times Square district and a phone booth in Pennsylvania Station. Within the hour, armor-clad bomb squad officers swarmed the theater restroom and the train station. At the theater, officers discovered that the note was no bluff—investigators removed a small, live bomb that had been stuffed into a wool sock and hidden in the restroom. Its construction would turn out to resemble those prior, up to and including the lozenge. The officers at Penn Station, however, found nothing.
Upon receipt of the bomber’s letter—about seven months after the first pipe bomb exploded at Grand Central Terminal—detectives made a surprising realization. The first Grand Central device in March 1951 was not the first. In the evidence archives of the New York City police, housed in a dusty box dating from before World War 2, there was another note written by the same hand in the same strange block letters:
CON EDISON CROOKS, THIS IS FOR YOU.
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF POWDER BOYS.
It was signed “F.P.”
The evidence archive also contained two pipe bombs somewhat similar to these new devices. One had been found sitting on the exterior windowsill of a ConEd building way back in November 1940, eleven years before the recent Grand Central device. It was a simple, unexploded brass pipe filled with gunpowder. The handwritten note had been found wrapped around it.
About a year after discovery of the first brass pipe bomb, in 1941, a resident found another bomb with similar innards lying in the street about five blocks away from ConEd headquarters, stuffed inside a red wool sock in the street. This one did not include a note. Police recognized the construction and were cognizant of the proximity to ConEd, so they speculated that its owner had ditched it when they spotted law enforcement officers.
There was one other note in the old case file, received in early December 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The letter-writer had composed this one like a ransom note, with fragments of words cut from newspapers and magazines and glued to a sheet of paper:
I will make no more bomb units for the duration of the war — my patriotic feelings have made me decide this — later I will bring the Con Edison to justice — they will pay for their dastardly deeds
F.P.’s bomb attempts were indeed suspended pending the Allies’ bombing and toppling of Hitler and Hirohito. Evidently, he or she was a man or woman of their word. F.P. had waited out the entirety of the Second World War, and faded into an all-but-forgotten cold case, only to resume the bombing campaign after a decade-long hiatus.
This vendetta against ConEd suggested that F.P. must be a jilted customer or disgruntled former employee, the latter seeming more likely. Detectives provided ConEd management with a sample of the bomber’s handwriting. They urged the company to systematically rummage through its employee archives, seeking a problematic ex-employee with handwriting resembling the unusual letterforms or with the initials “F.P.”, or both. Considering the thousands of people that the large utility company had employed over the years, reviewing these files was no minor task. Nevertheless, a team of clerical workers leafed through stacks of boxes of stacks of folders, comparing the handwriting sample with old employee applications, tax forms, and other fragments of bureaucratic miscellany.
When ConEd handed over the results of their internal search, they had identified a single viable candidate: a man named Frederick Eberhardt. Eberhardt was a 56-year-old cable splicer who had worked for ConEd until 1948, when the utility fired him for alleged theft of company property. Police had arrested Eberhardt for the crime, but he was acquitted at trial. He had then filed a $75,000 suit against his ex-employer, a case that was still unsettled. As a cable splicer, he presumably had the mechanical means to build bombs. As a disgruntled employee, he had the motive. And the strange block handwriting was spot-on. It looked like they had their man.
On the night of Monday, 05 November 1951, police arrived at Frederick Eberhardt’s home in North Stonington, Connecticut. Police arrested him as he protested his innocence. During interrogation, he admitted that the handwriting from the sugar-bomb package appeared to be his, but he denied having any knowledge of this “F.P.” or sending the parcel. The following Wednesday, a disheveled Eberhardt stood, handcuffed, in New York Felony Court as a state district attorney explained to the judge that this calm, white-haired suspect was not of sound mind, and that he was a “particular source of annoyance to the New York City police.” The judge ruled that Eberhardt be sent to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Eberhardt’s wife Louise insisted that the police had the wrong man.
An 1879 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine described Bellevue Hospital as being “for the poorest of the poor, the dregs of society, the semi-criminal, starving unwelcome class who suffer and die unrecognized.” The hospital’s “pavilion for the insane” served as a collection center for the city’s undesirables, and it was considered revolutionary for its time. Within the walls of the psychiatric ward, practitioners combined traditional therapy with non-traditional experimentation, such as electro-shock treatment.
Although Eberhardt was locked away, enduring a nerve-racking, prolonged mental appraisal, his confinement did not bring an end to the bomb squad’s dispatches. Anonymous phone calls sent the police chasing after bombs in theaters and churches—bombs that did not materialize. But on 28 November 1951, a wall of coin-operated lockers exploded at the IRT subway station at Union Square. Evidence suggested the same menacing machinist. Again, somehow, no one was hurt. Soon thereafter, the Herald Tribune received another letter:
HAVE YOU NOTICED THE BOMBS IN YOUR CITY – – – IF YOU ARE WORRIED, I AM SORRY – – – AND ALSO IF ANYONE IS INJURED. BUT IT CANNOT BE HELPED – – – FOR JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED. I AM NOT WELL, AND FOR THIS I WILL MAKE THE CON EDISON SORRY – – – YES, THEY WILL REGRET THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS – – – I WILL BRING THEM BEFORE THE BAR OF JUSTICE – – – PUBLIC OPINION WILL CONDEMN THEM – – – FOR BEWARE, I WILL PLACE MORE UNITS UNDER THEATER SEATS IN THE NEAR FUTURE. F.P.
Although this bomb and letter ought to have exonerated Eberhardt, police were not prepared to drop the charges. Another bomb exploded in a phone booth at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 19 March 1952, also with no injuries, yet Eberhardt remained restrained. Finally, more than six months after Eberhardt’s arrest, a judge dismissed the charges due to lack of evidence. With Eberhardt’s name cleared, the number of names on the suspect list once again dropped to zero.
On 08 December 1952, at Loew’s movie theater on Lexington Avenue, hundreds of patrons sat in the darkened auditorium watching the musical Everything I Have Is Yours when one of the seat cushions exploded. The seat stuffing muffled the sound, but the woman sitting on the cushion couldn’t help but notice multiple lacerations on the backs of her legs. As the movie played on, ushers hastily ushered the confused, bleeding patron from the auditorium for first aid. This was the first of F.P.’s nefarious contraptions to hurt someone, but it would not be the last. A similar “delayed action” bomb had torn apart another seat in the same theater six months earlier in a similar fashion, but that seat had been unoccupied.
Although New York City detectives continued to downplay the bombs and discourage newspapers from publicizing F.P.’s ongoing campaign of bombs and letters, police spokespersons harshened their public vocabulary regarding the bomber from “prankster” to “publicity-seeking jerk” and “the old screwball.” Newspapers soon upgraded their vocabulary as well, referring to F.P. with a chilling new nickname: The Mad Bomber.
F.P.’s confusing campaign for justice continued throughout 1953 and 1954, with half a dozen bombs damaging theater seats, coin-operated lockers, phone booths, men’s rooms, and bystanders. The sophistication and potency of the bombs continued to increase. New bombs abandoned the finicky .25 caliber triggering mechanism in favor of one that used a cheap wristwatch to close a battery circuit at a precise time, with the resulting spark detonating the explosive powder. But most of these bombs only damaged property, not persons. One exception occurred in March 1954, when a bomb exploded in a men’s room at Grand Central Terminal, and three people suffered what one reporter described as “shock and bruises.” Another exception occurred in November 1954 when, 30 minutes into a screening of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas at Radio City Music Hall, in an auditorium with around 6,000 patrons, a seat exploded and injured two women and two boys. Apologetic theater ushers asked 50 or so patrons near the bomb site to watch the remainder of the film from alternate seats, allowing ushers to rope the area off so the police could investigate after the movie.
In 1955, six bombs separately exploded throughout the year, adding subway stations to the rotation of familiar targets. In one instance, an upholstery repairman was preparing to stitch up a slashed theater seat when a bomb plopped out of the hole onto his workbench—he was fortunate that it was a dud. Despite the police department’s continued policy to suppress the story, Mad Bomber articles began to creep from the back pages of newspapers toward the front.
The first serious injury from a Mad Bomber bomb occurred in 1956. An elderly restroom attendant was plunging a stopped-up toilet in a men’s room at Penn Station, unaware that the unseen obstruction was a pipe bomb stuffed inside a red wool sock. With a sudden blast—one so powerful that not even a subway toilet could contain it—the bomb filled the restroom with flying bits of steel and ceramic shrapnel, lacerating the attendant’s foot and forehead, and causing mild injury to seven other occupants. An analysis of the fragments of the bomb found that the bomber had waterproofed this device with a coat of paraffin wax.
In the wake of the subway injuries, New York police finally began to loosen their policy of total secrecy, issuing an alert seeking tips on the whereabouts and whoabouts of an “eccentric bomb planter” described as “a skilled mechanic who owns or has access to a drill press or a lathe.” Police were confident their man was a man, considering that he hadn’t bombed any ladies’ rooms. They also deduced that he must be 40 years of age or older, given he had begun his bombing campaign some 15 years earlier. The department designed and printed a run of flyers with a depiction of a pipe bomb and instructions: “When such a mechanism comes to your attention, you are to immediately notify the New York City Police Department.”
On the morning of 05 August 1956, police rushed to a residential neighborhood in New Jersey, where a small explosion had damaged the kitchen of a three-story home. The house belonged to a man named Thomas Dorney, a security guard who worked at the RCA building in Midtown Manhattan. Bomb squad investigators found pipe bomb fragments in the kitchen that exactly matched the Mad Bomber’s multiple devices.
Bombing a blue-collar residence did not conform to the modus operandi of the mysterious F.P., so police reasoned that Dorney must be their man. One of the bombs must have exploded before it could be planted; bomb-making was a dangerous business, after all. Dorney denied wrongdoing, explaining that a co-worker had found the handsomely machined length of pipe in a phone booth at work and given it to him for future plumbing repairs. He’d fidgeted with it for his entire graveyard shift and bus ride home, then set it on the kitchen table before retiring to bed. It just happened to explode later that night, while his family members slept in their rooms. Dorney’s co-workers corroborated the story, once again depriving the police of their sole suspect.
About four months later, the Mad Bomber’s total number of victims increased to 14 when a bomb exploded in a seat at Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, as movie-goers watched War and Peace. Six were injured, including the the seat’s occupant, who was thrown into the air. A woman suffered life-threatening shrapnel injuries to her face and scalp, and this proved too much for the media to bear. The following day, local purveyors of news threw off the remaining scraps of their quiet cooperation with police, and the Paramount bombing story led newspaper and radio reports. In light of the publicity, the NYPD abandoned their secrecy strategy altogether. Police commissioner Stephen Kennedy publicly announced the launch of the “greatest manhunt in the history of the Police Department” to identify the “eccentric or deranged person […] who has been responsible for twenty-seven such bombings in the city since 1940.” Police shared what little they knew about the suspect and furnished newspaper reporters with samples of F.P.’s unusual block handwriting in hopes that a reader would recognize it.
Commissioner Kennedy also established a special Bomb Investigation Unit to concentrate exclusively on the Mad Bomber case. He assigned nine detectives to the unit, but in time, 67 more would join them. The detectives pressed the public for information, attempted to identify the bomber’s supply sources, and visited mental hospitals. They also leafed through driver’s license forms, gun permit applications, and other government records looking for handwriting matches. But all leads led to dead ends. Before the month was out, the Mad Bomber struck twice in one week, with unexploded bombs found in a library phone booth and another in a seat at Paramount Theater. The New York City Board of Estimate posted a $25,000 reward for the apprehension of the bomber, and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association supplemented this with another $1,000—a combined reward worth about $230,000, when adjusted for inflation in 2017.
Unfortunately, as public awareness and alarm regarding the Mad Bomber grew, so did the quantity of false bomb threats reported to the NYPD, as many as 50 a day. Despite the deluge of prank reports, police and administrators of public places could not disregard the warnings—some of them proved legitimate. The Mad Bomber himself often warned his targets with a letter or raspy-voiced phone call, and a few of the signature pipe bombs were subsequently located and removed by the bomb squad before they could explode.
But the vast majority of reports in December 1956 were not genuine, and police resources were stretched thin. Police instituted a policy that the bomb squad would not respond unless something resembling a pipe bomb was actually found, but even when an apparent bomb was discovered, some turned out to be non-functional fakes from copycats.
When the citizenry began to grasp that the police had no solid leads after 16 years and 30 or so bombs, the general disquiet arose to a “great public hubbub,” according to one New York Times reporter. Reports on the bomber dominated newspaper front pages, and movie theaters and other public gathering places noted a marked decrease in attendance. Nerves in general became quite frayed. According to newspaper reports, sleepless nights due to bomb anxiety were a common occurrence.
Around Christmastime in 1956, the desperate NYPD enlisted the reluctant assistance of Dr. James A. Brussel, the assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. Perhaps, they hoped, he could use his knowledge of deranged minds to examine all available evidence, and apply some Sherlock-Holmes-like deduction to infer adjacent details. This was a novel idea, but times were desperate. Sportingly, Dr. Brussel assembled the physical evidence on hand—mostly handwritten notes and pipe bomb bits—combined with what was known of F.P.’s crimes, and stepped back to examine the Mad-Bomber-shaped hole in the middle. The description he produced for public consumption read:
Single man, between 40 and 50 years old, introvert. Unsocial but not anti-social. Skilled mechanic. Cunning. Neat with tools. Egotistical of mechanical skill. Contemptuous of other people. Resentful of criticism of his work but probably conceals resentment. Moral. Honest. Not interested in women. High school graduate. Expert in civil or military ordnance. Religious. Might flare up violently at work when criticized. Possible motive: discharge or reprimand. Feels superior to critics. Resentment keeps growing. Present or former Consolidated Edison worker. Probably case of progressive paranoia.
Brussel’s conclusions sprouted mainly from his observation that F.P. must be a “narcissistic paranoiac,” deduced from the man’s manner of communication: planting random bombs, writing rambling letters demanding justice for an unnamed wrongdoing, and general attention-seeking mayhem. Brussel would later write, “Instead of admitting failings or weakness in himself, he attributes all his troubles to the machinations of some powerful agency that is out to destroy him.”
Brussel also told detectives that a broad study of mental patients suggested an 85 percent probability that a paranoiac perpetrator was “athletic”—neither overweight nor underweight—and that he would be clean shaven, tidy, and polite. He also drew some conclusions based on F.P.’s odd handwriting and vocabulary—his use of words such as “dastardly” and “ghoulish” led Brussel to suspect that the Mad Bomber was not a native English speaker, probably German. Dr. Brussel’s unauthorized biography then took a decidedly Freudian turn, claiming that some letterforms in the handwriting had odd shapes that might be subconscious portrayals of female breasts and male genitalia. He pointed out that thrusting explosives into holes in theater seats was reminiscent of sexual penetration. Clearly, the bomber was grappling with a life-long Oedipus complex.
Regarding the “physical sufferings” the bomber had described in letters, Dr. Brussel considered cancer, but ruled it out based on the length of the bomber’s career and the mortality rate of cancer. He considered tuberculosis, but dismissed it based on how easily treatable it had become. He settled on heart disease as most likely.
Armed with this so-called “portrait,” the officers of the Bomb Investigation Unit set out in search of this self-important, mother-loving German. One promising suspect was an ex-military machinist who had worked for ConEd, described by those who knew him as an “eccentric.” The police tailed him for six weeks, but observed nothing out of the ordinary apart from his habit of feeding stray cats every morning. They arrested him anyway and searched his workshop, but they found nothing of consequence and had to let him go. Another suspect was a young man who had been working at New York Public Library when one of the bombs exploded there; he had later been overheard discussing how one might make such bombs. He denied the charge, and a search of his home yielded nothing. Police also spotted and detained a man behaving suspiciously at Grand Central Terminal, the site of multiple real bombings and numerous false reports. His name was George Cernac, a 63-year-old railroad maintenance worker. Cernac was terrified while awaiting police questioning, so much so that he suffered a heart attack. He died in police custody. Detectives later ruled him out as a suspect.
Amid this pandemonium, news media began reaching out directly to the Mad Bomber. Radio and newspaper reporters gently urged the perpetrator to call in to negotiate a surrender. Seymour Berkson of the newspaper New York Journal-American took a bolder tack, publishing an open letter to the Mad Bomber the day after Christmas. It read:
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MAD BOMBER
(Prepared in Co-operation with the Police Dept.)
Give yourself up.
For your own welfare and for that of the community, the time has come for you to reveal your identity.
The N.Y. Journal-American guarantees that you will be protected from any illegal action and that you will get a fair trial.
This newspaper also is willing to help you in two other ways.
It will publish all the essential parts of your story as you may choose to make it public.
It will give you the full chance to air whatever grievances you may have as the motive for your acts.
We urge you to accept this offer now not only for your own sake but for the sake of the community.
Time is running out on your prospects of remaining unapprehended.
You can telephone the City Editor of this newspaper at COrtlandt 7-1212, or you can go to any police station or even the policeman on the street and tell him who you are.
In all cases you will be given the benefits of our American system of justice.
Give yourself up now.
Two days later, a postman arrived at the Journal-American with a special delivery letter. Assistant editor Richard Piperno immediately recognized the tell-tale block handwriting on the envelope. Hand-written on jaunty snowman stationery, the letter said in part:
TO JOURNAL-AMERICAN – – – I READ YOUR PAPER OF DEC. 26 – – – WHERE WERE YOU PEOPLE WHEN I WAS ASKING FOR HELP?
MY DAYS ON EARTH ARE NUMBERED – – – MOST OF MY ADULT LIFE HAS BEEN SPENT IN BED – – – MY ONE CONSOLATION IS – – – THAT I CAN STRIKE BACK – – – EVEN FROM MY GRAVE – – – FOR THE DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME. CALLING ME NAMES – – – IS JUST FRUSTRATED STUPIDITY IN ACTION – – –
With the assistance of Commissioner Kennedy, Berkson continued this partially public correspondence with the Mad Bomber, printing open letters in the paper and receiving replies via mail. They managed to coax some details out of the infamous F.P., including the fact that he was injured while working for ConEd, and that he had been permanently disabled without any compensation. “WHEN A MOTORIST INJURES A DOG – – – HE MUST REPORT IT,” one letter read, “NOT SO WITH AN INJURED WORKMAN – – – HE RATES LESS THAN A DOG.”
Berkson and Kennedy insisted they were sympathetic, and promised to help the Mad Bomber with the worker’s compensation claim. They continued to urge him to turn himself in, or meet face to face, but F.P. would not commit. On 19 January 1957, a letter from the Mad Bomber arrived at the Journal-American that read in part:
YOU PEOPLE THREW ME OFF STRIDE – – – I EXPECTED TO HAVE TO FIGHT FOR AN INCH OR SO OF SPACE – – – THANKS VERY MUCH FOR YOUR EFFORT – – – THE BOMBINGS WILL NEVER BE RESUMED – – – COME WHAT MAY – – – YOU PEOPLE HAVE LET THE PEOPLE KNOW – MY PART OF THE STORY – – – I CANNOT ASK FOR MUCH MORE – AS I HAVE BURNED MY BRIDGES BEHIND ME.
IN ABOUT 3 WEEKS TIME THE N.Y. JOURNAL AMERICAN ACCOMPLISHED WHAT THE AUTHORITIES COULD NOT DO – – – IN 16 YEARS – – – YOU STOPPED THE BOMBINGS.
This abrupt cease-fire was the last letter the anonymous Mad Bomber of New York ever sent to the paper. Apparently, all he wanted was public acknowledgement and attention. And, as promised, there were never any more Mad Bomber bombs—he was a man of his word.
Still, the police intended to catch him. And a typed note accompanying the handwritten letter included an intriguing scrap of information: it mentioned, in passing, “I was injured on September 5th, 1931.”
Over the days that followed, leads continued to trickle in. One was an elderly loner named Andrew Kleewen who had just passed away from pneumonia. Of Latvian descent, the fellow had previously worked as a metalworker, and his handwriting looked similar to the Mad Bomber’s. His apartment had been found in the comprehensive disarray of a hoarder, including old newspapers, copies of crank letters he had sent to public officials, and a stack of ConEd utility bills dating back decades. Another lead came in the form of another promising handwriting match from a ConEd employee file, a veteran named George Metesky who had left the company following an injury. But detectives made no rush to investigate; the sense of urgency had apparently been diminished by the bomber’s promise to halt the bombings. Also, it was Friday.
The following Monday morning, a Bomb Investigation Unit detective stopped by the ConEd offices to pick up the Metesky file. Evidently, a secretary had found it in a separate, forgotten cache of old “troublesome employee” records. The handwriting was indeed a good match. According to the file, Metesky had been working as a maintenance man at a ConEd coal power plant nicknamed “Hell Gate” when a pressurized line ruptured nearby. He had inhaled some hot, acrid fumes of unknown composition, which caused him breathing difficulties for a prolonged period. Metesky later insisted that this accident caused him to contract tuberculosis. The date of the injury was 05 September 1931.
About 15 hours later, in the frosty dark of a January midnight, four NYPD detectives and a local police officer rang the bell of a three-story house in Waterbury, Connecticut. They had a search warrant for this house—17 Fourth Street—the address from the old ConEd employee file for George Metesky. The file was 26 years old, and the deed for the house was in the name “George Milauskas,” but it was the only lead they had, so it was worth a shot.
A middle-aged, pajama-clad, bespectacled man answered the door, smiling and affable. He looked perfectly innocent and neighborly. Yes, he confirmed, with no trace of a foreign accent, his name was George Metesky. The detectives explained that they had a search warrant and asked if he would like to see it. He waved away such formalities and invited the detectives inside from the cold.
Metesky explained to the officers that he lived with his two sisters, and they were both asleep. The detectives politely agreed to keep the search quiet. They gave him a piece of paper and a writing implement, and asked him to write his name. When Metesky wrote the Gs in his all-caps “George,” he wrote them in a peculiar way. They were larger than the neighboring letters, and they resembled a capital C with horizontal bars on both ends of the loop. Detectives asked Metesky to get dressed so they could go out to the detached garage. He excused himself to the bedroom to comply, emerging minutes later in his blue Sunday best.
In the garage, the detectives found metalworking tools, including a lathe. They asked Metesky if he knew why they had come. He suggested that they might suspect him of being the infamous Mad Bomber. They asked him what “F. P.” stands for. “Fair Play,” he said. As police handcuffed the still-cooperative 54-year-old and loaded him into a squad car, his two groggy, confused sisters shouted from the porch, insisting the police had the wrong man.
In the ensuing interrogations, Metesky eagerly explained everything. His motive? To receive compensation for his debilitating tuberculosis. Where are the bomb-making supplies? In a hidden compartment inside the house. Why did you resort to bombs? There was no other choice. Weren’t you worried that innocent people would be harmed? “I used to pray no one would be hurt by my bombs, especially on Sunday.” Why on earth were there lozenges inside the early bombs? These were crude timers, doused with water so they would slowly dissolve, eventually releasing a spring mechanism to close a circuit. And so on. Police also learned that they had almost caught Metesky red-handed in 1951 or 1952. He was in his car preparing a bomb when a police officer approached to inform him that he was parked in a restricted zone. Despite being almost too frightened to speak, Metesky had managed to quietly drop the incriminating object onto the floor, out of sight.
Each time police moved Metesky to another location for more official business, a mob of reporters and onlookers waited outside. Metesky appeared positively thrilled at the attention, grinning, waving, and calling out cheerful greetings while carrying a newspaper bearing the headline “Letters to Journal Trap the Mad Bomber.” Metesky’s apparent glee at being a Mad Bomber suspect was a textbook example of inappropriate affect, a display of emotions that do not fit a circumstance, sometimes a sign of mental illness.
At the arraignment, Metesky’s appointed lawyer explained to the judge that the defendant seemed to have a schizophrenic personality, and suffered from a persecution complex. “I would say it is my humble belief at this time that this defendant is of such a state of mind as not to understand the nature of the charges against him.” The judge agreed to have Metesky committed to Bellevue for observation and mental assessment prior to his trial.
Metesky’s brother and two sisters defended his good name in front of the press, unaware that their sibling had already confessed. “George couldn’t possibly be the ‘Mad Bomber’,” they insisted, “he is a gentleman in every way.” They arranged for a lawyer to correct this injustice. His sisters Anna and Mae had evidently been supporting George for most of his adult life, and they were entirely unaware of their unemployed brother’s booming side business as a gentleman-bomber.
As promised, New York Journal-American bankrolled a legal investigation into why Metesky was never compensated for his work-related injury. They discovered that he hadn’t filed for worker’s compensation until after the deadline, so the claim had been automatically rejected. They prepared an appeal on his behalf.
Naturally, the matter of the $26,000 in reward money became a subject of excited discussion. ConEd had already informed the public that Alice Kelly, a humble secretary, had spotted the handwriting match on Metesky’s employee file. But the police claimed that a detective had requested the file by name. When the police version of events turned out to be erroneous due to internal miscommunication, they pivoted, alleging that ConEd had deliberately hidden these “problematic employee” files. But the NYPD offered no feasible motive, and public opinion of the police began to sour. Op-eds criticized the police for failing to find the bomber for over 16 years, and for sitting on the key Metesky evidence for a whole weekend before acting on it. Kelly, for her part, asked not to be considered as the reward recipient—she had only been doing her job.
One entity to emerge victorious was the Journal-American, earning well-deserved heaps of praise for their part in neutralizing the bomber. There was even talk of giving the reward money to the paper. But in an editorial, the newspaper owners preemptively refused the reward, writing, “Under no circumstances would this newspaper claim or accept any monetary reward for performing a public service.”
A commendable suggestion regarding the reward appeared in The New York Times as a letter to the editor from Ruth S. Jackson. “Why not contribute the reward money offered for the identification of George Metesky to the National Association for Mental Health?” it read. “It might be used there to prevent some similar maladjustment to society. Then we would all be rewarded.” Commissioner Kennedy, who was charged with identifying the most appropriate recipient, either did not see this suggestion, or did not heed it.
Metesky’s competency hearing was delayed several times while waiting for Bellevue psychiatrists to submit their official report. Finally, the honorable John A. Mullen insisted that Metesky appear in court to make a plea, assessment or no assessment. One of the Bellevue psychiatrists gave testimony that their final report was certain to find Metesky mentally incompetent, but Judge Mullen was unimpressed, and over the strenuous objection of Metesky’s attorney, the judge pleaded “not guilty” on Metesky’s behalf, ordering the trial to move forward. After a series of follow-up hearings, Judge Mullen finally vacated his plea-by-proxy, but only when it became clear that his hot-headed act of dubious legality would be reversed on appeal. Judge Mullen clearly had every intention of throwing the book at Metesky, picking it up, dusting it off, and throwing it again. Meanwhile, Metesky dozed in the defendant’s box.
The trial of George Metesky was further stymied by his faltering health. He did indeed suffer from tuberculosis, though it was unclear whether his ConEd accident had had anything to do with it. In April 1957, he suffered a relapse, and his lungs hemorrhaged. He was rendered bedridden, and he lost over 20 pounds over a period of weeks. The judge decided to move the proceedings to a makeshift courtroom at Kings County Hospital. As lawyers made their cases regarding the defendant’s sanity, Metesky’s grayish, supine form wheezed and coughed from a hospital gurney. It soon became clear to all parties that this absurd trial at death’s door would not effectuate justice. The trial was suspended indefinitely to allow the alleged Mad Bomber of New York to either get better, or get buried.
Metesky was transferred to the tuberculosis ward at Matteawan Hospital, and to the surprise of many, he did recover, though slowly. By 1961, he was well enough that he was transferred from the medical ward back to the psychiatric ward, where he resumed his old hobby of vehement letter-writing. He wrote repeatedly to New York County officials, demanding that the county either resume or drop their case against him. But they seemed content to sequester him in judicial limbo for his remaining days.
Metesky very well may have lived out the rest of his days at Matteawan hospital were it not for the indirect intervention of a class-action lawsuit. In winter 1971, social activist Kristin Booth Glen filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of New York, arguing that it was unconstitutional for psychiatric institutions to confine an accused but unconvicted person unless they had been declared “dangerous” by a jury. The court found in favor of the class, and the United States Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed the decision. New York state reformed its laws relating to the criminally insane, and the new laws strictly limited the length of time an insane person could be held without a jury trial.
Under these new laws, 70-year-old Metesky had already served most of his maximum time. And due to his advanced age and poor health, it was unlikely that any New York jury would find him dangerous. On 10 December 1973, after more than 16 years in legal limbo, George Metesky was granted his freedom in a hearing that drew wide publicity. When asked by reporters about his future, the retired terrorist said, “I have no intention whatever of resorting to any form of violence. I’ve found that at this particular time, the pen is mightier than the sword. I’ll be quite busy. I don’t enjoy controversy.” A few days later, he boarded a Greyhound bus bound for his home town of Waterbury. He settled back into the three-story house on 17 Fourth Street. He would take care of his ailing sister Mae, he said. Their other sister Anna had died while George was held at the hospital. He would write a book about his life, he said. He would do a lot of reading, perhaps engage in polite correspondence. He would have a quiet life.
The mild-mannered former Mad Bomber of New York lived another twenty years. He died on 23 May 1994, aged 90. As promised, he spent most of the rest of his days as his sister’s caretaker. He was a man of his word. The reward for the Mad Bomber’s identification was never claimed, Metesky’s worker’s compensation claim was never approved, the eagerly anticipated autobiography was never written, and ConEd never did pay for their allegedly dastardly deeds.
Before his capture, George Metesky planted 33 bombs in the New York City area, 22 of which exploded, causing minor injury to thirteen people and serious injury to two. Somehow, no one was killed. But not all of the Mad Bomber’s bombs have been accounted for. Metesky insisted that he had hidden one of his bombs in the iconic Empire State Building, yet no such explosive was ever found on the premises, despite an exhaustive search of the building’s publicly accessible areas. And no one has reported a pipe bomb explosion at the site in the subsequent decades. Perhaps it remains there today, inside a dust-blanketed woolen sock, tucked into a seldom-seen corner of the 102-story skyscraper—housing a load of gunpowder, a .25 caliber bullet, and one imperfectly dissolved Parke-Davis throat lozenge.