Radio City Music Hall circa January 1957, just about the time the Mad Bomber of New York was finally captured. The bomber planted several pipe bombs in Radio City over the years. In 1954, one of them went off during a showing of White Christmas, injuring five people. In 1953, one went off while the bomber was still in the theater. An usher stopped him as he was running for the door---to apologize for the interruption.
There were eight million stories in the naked city. The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt That Paralyzed a City by Michael M. Greenburg is one of them.
I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed a book about a paranoid lunatic setting off pipe bombs all over the naked city as much as I enjoyed The Mad Bomber of New York. I almost certainly shouldn’t have enjoyed it as if it was an extended episode of the old TV show.
And I’m a little surprised at myself for enjoying it despite its being filled with passages like this:
The long shadows of the day now began to submerge Manhattan in their cold December gloom. The early dusk of winter had cast its tenebrous veil upon the office, though the men had seemingly failed to notice. Nearly four hours had passed, and a rising sentiment of hope seemed to infuse the air like vivid sunlight. The faceless ghost that the New York police had so painstakingly sought through the years had, at last, taken shape---and a technique, developed through history as a curious blend of science and intuition, had suddenly come of age in the office of a New York crime psychiatrist.
But regular eruptions of breathless and purple prose are part of what makes The Mad Bomber of New York so enjoyable. It’s a story of the Big Apple in the ‘40s and ‘50s and the Tabloid forced urgency and canned grittiness of the writing seems not just appropriate but integral. It’s as if the New York of the period was built out of screaming headlines over lurid newspaper stories of scandal, crime, murder, gossip, and heartwarming mawkishness as much as out of steel and concrete. The other boroughs had their accents and idioms. Manhattan had a tone and a style, smart, fast, tough, belligerent and boisterous, just a notch down on the dial from a shout, off-handedly romantic, inadvertently sentimental in the way only people who are soft-hearted about everything but especially themselves are sentimental, ironically poetic.
Now I’m doing it.
What The Mad Bomber of New York is missing is people who speak with that tone and in that style, who live it out, who are self-created by it.
What the book has instead is a single person who creates a little circle of quiet around himself that somehow implies the shouts of eight million others.
Ironically, this person has given himself the mission of being very loud all on his own.
For about sixteen years, from 1940 through 1956, a seemingly mild-mannered, middle-aged, ex-Marine, unemployed utility worker, and semi-invalid from Waterbury, Connecticut waged a one-man terrorist campaign in New York City where over those years he planted at least thirty-three pipe bombs of his own design and devising around Manhattan and Brooklyn. Twenty-two of them went off and, all tolled, fifteen people were injured.
George Metesky had been working for Consolidated Edison in 1931 when a vapor leak from a boiler blasted his lungs with hot gases. While he was out of work recovering, he developed pneumonia and then tuberculosis which so debilitated him that he was never able to return to his job. For reasons he could never understand or accept, he was denied workman’s compensation. He was forced to live off the support of and under the constant care of his two doting older sisters in the shabby family home in Waterbury where he often spent whole days in bed, unable to take a decent breath.
The power plant where Metesky worked, by the way, was called Hell Gate.
You can’t make these things up.
Metesky blamed Con Ed for the accident, then blamed them further for the denial of his claim. He became convinced that the denial was the result of a plot against him. Whenever he could muster the energy, he filled his time writing hundreds and hundreds of angry letters to anyone he thought might be in on the plot. He estimated his letters totaled close to 800,000 words in all. He wrote to executives at Consolidated Edison, to New York City and New York State officials, tothe mayor’s and the governor’s offices, to newspapers. A typical letter went:
You know, I just refuse to be robbed by the law, or a Power Trust, of my health, my ability to earn a living, the best years of my life, my advancement in the world…You are paying me what is due me, or you are telling me why not. Said reason better be AIR TIGHT. If there is any TREACHERY, or DOUBLE-CROSSING, I may assume the role of JUDGE JURY AND EXECUTIONER, and straighten matters out. I am done fooling around with SCUM.
He kept it up for years, never receiving so much in reply, he complained “as a single penny postal card”. At some point he concluded that he needed to do something drastic and dramatic to call attention to his cause. He decided he needed to make some noise.
He planted his first bomb in September of 1940.
It was found before it went off.
He planted his second bomb in November of 1941.
It was found before it went off.
He didn’t plant another bomb until 1946.
He held off out of a sense of patriotism.
On December 7, 1941, with the United States about to enter World War II, Metesky wrote nine letters. He wrote to the managers of Bloomingdales, Bonds Clothes, the Capitol Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, the Roxy Theatre, the Strand Theatre, the Astor Hotel, and the Hotel Commodore. In the last of them he concluded with this:
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-ED TO JUSTICE---THEY WILL PAY FOR THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS…
He signed it as he would sign all his letters from now on, F.P.'
It stood for Fair Play.
In 1946, he felt his duty to his country was discharged (my pun) and he was free to resume his “mission” (his word). He began planting more bombs.
He later claimed that over the next five years he planted twenty-four bombs---he called them “units.” None of them went off. None of them were ever found.
The target of Metesky’s first two bombs had been the buildings owned by Con Ed. But now:
With the advent of postwar suburban life and effortless automobile travel…interstate rail service had begun to decline, and by the early 1950s the condition of the once majestic [Grand Central Terminal] had suffered greatly, prompting murmurs of its possible demolition. among the many legends and architectural oddities of Grand Central that had survived, however, was the so-called Whispering Gallery that lay beneath the tiled Guastavino arches, extending across the ceilings of the lower concourse in front of the famous Oyster Bar, a seafood restaurant that opened in 1913 with the inauguration of the station itself. Created by the low ceramic structures of the domed ceiling, the unique architectural design allowed even faint whispers in one corner of the gallery to heard clearly and distinctly across the expanse to the other.
As George Matesky stole into the lower level of Grand Central Terminal in the early afternoon of March 29, 1951, and placed his latest edition of revenge in a cigarette sand urn outside of the Oyster Bar, the acoustical quirk of the Whispering Gallery carried his footfalls throughout the passageway. The later explosive blast would fill the area with the same force and avid resolve as Metesky now brought to his reborn cause.
The bomb exploded at height of rush hour, spraying sand and shards of debris. No one was hurt. The police came and scratched their heads. There was nothing left of the bomb to study for clues as to who made it. The New York Times, in a story buried on page 24, reported that the police thought the bomb was the handiwork of some “pranksters.” Nobody made a connection to the bombs that didn’t go off outside the Con Ed buildings a decade before.
Metesky made the connection for people.
From March of ‘51 through December of ‘56, Metesky’s pipe bombs exploded at various locations around the City. A bomb went off in Radio City Music Hall during a showing of White Christmas. Another bomb went off in Pennsylvania Station. Another in a car dealership. Still another in a phone booth in Port Authority Bus Terminal. Two more were planted in Grand Central, one of them tearing up a men’s room. Two bombs went off in the Lexington Movie Theater. Metesky liked targeting movie theaters. He’d buy a ticket, sit down to watch the show for a few minutes, then take out a knife, slit the cushion of a seat next to him, stuff his bomb in the cushion, and leave. His last bomb went off in the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, during a showing of War and Peace.
A security guard at the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center (Better known as 30 Rock.) found one but didn’t figure out what it was. He gave it to a friend who took it home, thinking it was a harmless piece of pipe he could put to use somehow. He left it on the kitchen table overnight. At six in the morning it exploded. Fortunately, the whole family was still in bed and all it did to them was wake them up.
He planted a bomb in a phone booth in the main branch of the New York Public Library but a librarian, going to make a phone call, dropped his dime and getting down on his knees to look for it, found the bomb under the seat in the booth. Not knowing what it was, he picked it up and examined it. Pretty soon he was running through the halls with the bomb that he finally threw out a back window into the grass in Bryant Park behind the library where it lay until the bomb squad arrived.
All along Metesky continued to send out his angry letters explaining why he was doing what he was doing, warning he planned to keep on doing it until he received justice.
Ironically, for several years, the police and the media wouldn’t do the one thing that might have caused Metesky to stop, respond to him and his letters.
It’s not that they ignored the bombings. But they agreed to pretend to the public that they weren’t what they knew them to be, the work of a single madman. The papers covered the story as stories, reporting on each explosion as if it was just one of those random crimes that big cities had to put up with as a matter of course.
This may explain why my mother-in-law, born and raised in Queens, a young woman working in the City during the Mad Bomber’s most, um, productive years, has only the dimmest memory of what Greenburg’s subtitle calls “the manhunt that paralyzed a city.” For a long time, the City’s residents didn’t know they should be paralyzed. If she even saw the newspaper stories buried in the back pages, she'd have been pretty much assured that the explosions were no big deals and forgotten about them quickly the way she’d have forgotten specific stories about muggings and liquor store hold-ups in which no one got hurt or hurt badly. Amazingly, no one who was caught in one of Metesky’s explosions was critically injured. On the day after one of his pipe bombs went off, the papers would likely feature stories of other crimes that caused more blood and heartache.
It’s interesting to me that I’d never heard the story before I came across the book. I’d thought I was pretty well up on New York City true crime lore. But this may be why I had a hard time reading The Mad Bomber of New York as a true crime story. I don’t have any facts stowed away that I can use to ground Greenburg’s storytelling in the historical New York I’ve got built in my head. But it’s also the case that Greenburg doesn’t tell the story in a way that makes it real.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe what he writes or that I doubt his research. It’s a matter of the writing. And I’m not talking about the many passages that of tabloid journalese. Greenburg doesn’t include enough of the sort of idiosyncratic details that make places and persons come alive on the page. There are plenty of details, but they are second and third-hand and seemed borrowed. And the sources they seem to be most often borrowed from are movies.
The problem is that few of the people involved are still alive to tell their stories to any writer who wants to go after those details. Few of the ones now gone left personal accounts of what was going on around them. Greenburg routinely had to resort to interviewing people who knew people who people. For contemporaneous accounts, Greenburg mostly had to rely on police and medical reports and court documents, not the most scintillating reading, and newspaper stories, and since the new journalism wouldn’t be invented until the early 60s, newspaper reporting tended to be Times-gray dull or Scandal Sheet loud and hysterical but rarely well-written. The voices that speak to us out of those records and newspapers are either stilted and impersonal or canned.
Without any truly personal points of view to show us the City as it looked and felt to people who lived in it at the time, the glimpses of New York Greenburg gives us often read like the verbal equivalent of what in the days before filmmakers could build virtual realities out of cgi was called stock footage. And while Greenburg does his best to draw realistic sketches of them, his characters insist on coming to life not as their real selves but as characters in a movie from the period based on “real events.” Maybe it was just me, but even though there are plenty of photographs of the real place and real people, I kept seeing studio back lots filled with the likes of great character actors like William Demarest, William Frawley, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, J.Pat O’Malley, Thelma Ritter, Ellen Corby and Margaret Hamiltion (those last two as Metesky’s over-protective sisters). There are no leading roles for Dana Andrews or John Payne or Gloria Grahame or Jean Hagen, unfortunately, or the story of the Mad Bomber really could have been a movie from back then. It could still be a good movie.
The one character who seems most real, who comes alive as the person he might really have been is Metesky.
Of course, Metesky was the focus of attention for a great many people whose job it was to write down his every word, cops, lawyers, reporters, doctors. And then there are all those letters.
Strangely, he doesn’t come across as mad.
He was. He was a textbook case, a paranoid schizophrenic who was somehow able to hide his symptoms for decades from everyone who knew him. The accident at Hell Gate and the denial of his workman’s comp claims didn’t drive him insane. He reacted to those events as an insane person. But insanity was only visible to strangers who read his letters. One on one, he was quiet, amiable, usually polite if not overly friendly. He was noticeably quirky, tended to keep to himself, but he was always neat and presentable, and it was easy enough to attribute his little oddnesses as stemming from his illness.
Poor guy has to spend so much time in bed, no wonder he’s grown a little peculiar.
He was something else. Intelligent. He didn’t finish high school---he dropped out because, he told his family, school didn’t interest him; probably, though, he was beginning to suffer the early stages of his schizophrenia---but he had training as a machinist and a mechanic and he was a self-taught electrician. He was also an inventor and even held a patent on “a piston-driven circuit breaker for connecting and interrupting the electrical circuit of a solenoid pump.” His pipe bombs were of his own design and he worked diligently at refining and improving those designs. Their triggering mechanisms and timing devices impressed detectives on the bomb squad.
And he was methodical, meticulous, careful, and thoughtful. So much so that while I was reading about them his plans and crimes began to seem…sensible.
He routinized what he did and went about it in a way that was almost responsible. Not in a moral or ethical sense, of course. But in a way that very much like that of a sane man doing his job. Add to this the fact that he really had been wronged or had good reason to feel wronged and I found myself almost rooting for him not to get caught or at least to not get caught in the rather banal and anticlimactic way he finally was caught.
The police department’s and the media’s determination to downplay his bombings and to ignore his letters infuriated Metesky and drove him to increase the attacks and make his bombs more powerful. And then, one day, in 1956, the crusading editor of the New York Journal-American, Seymour Berkman, got the idea that what the Mad Bomber seemed to want more than anything was attention. This happened to coincide with advise the police had gotten from an eminent psychiatrist they had gone to for some insight into the character of whoever was building and planting these bombs. With the cooperation of the police, the Journal-American published one of Metesky’s letters (carefully edited to remove details that copy cats might latch onto) and then published the editor’s reply calling upon the Mad Bomber to give himself up.
Metesky responded. Things went back and forth, with the Journal-American publishing the Mad Bomber’s “story” as Metesky gave it to them, until one day he wrote this:
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.
He didn’t turn himself in, exactly. But he offered the City a “truce” and he followed up with letters that revealed more about him and facts and details behind his grievances that provided the police with important clues.
I’m not giving anything away the ending of the book. Metesky’s capture occurs with more than a hundred pages left in the book. With the arrest of Metesky, The Mad Bomber of New York turns from a crime story into a human interest story, and a sad one.
Relieved by his capture of having to pretend he was another sort of person, Metesky was free to be himself and it was clear to everyone except one stubborn judge that he was clinically insane and mentally incompetent to stand trial. To start with, he was shockingly happy in custody. It really had been all about calling attention to his “cause.” He was glad to be able to talk about it, volubly and at length with as many people who were willing to listen. And whenever he talked it was clear that his crimes weren’t real to him. He didn’t understand them as crimes. As far as he was concerned, all he was guilty of was “making a loud noise in a public place.” He claimed to have taken care that no one would be killed or even hurt by his bombs, but it was really dumb luck that no one had died and it didn’t register with him when it was pointed out that despite his supposed care and concern people had been hurt.
All that seemed to matter to him was that now, at last, he was going to receive justice for all that he’d suffered.
It didn’t work out that way.
Metesky was never tried for a single crime nor was he ever officially declared insane, which would have meant commitment to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Instead he was left to languish in the hellish Mattewan State Prison for the criminally insane for sixteen years.
In the end, then, The Mad Bomber of New York isn’t a police procedural or a book-length tabloid-style newspaper story or even like the kind of movie I couldn’t help seeing it as in my head. It is like an extended episode of Naked City in that the focus isn’t on the crime but on the criminal and on the criminal as one of his own victims. The Mad Bomber of New York is the biography of a nobody, a sad, physically and mentally ill little man the world would just as soon not notice who can think of no other way to make it pay attention and admit that he exists and that his existence has significance except by making a very, very loud noise.
Photos of Radio City Music Hall and George Metesky under arrest from LIFE Magazine via Google Books. Photo of The Whispering Gallery and the Oyster Bar courtesy of PBS. The photograph of the dead body in the barber shop is from the New York Daily News and the body is that of mob boss Albert Anastasia, head of Murder Inc., who was gunned down in October of 1957, the year George Metesky’s career as the Mad Bomber of New York came to an end.
The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt That Paralyzed a City by Michael M. Greenburg, published by Union Square Press is available from Amazon in hardback. Sorry, kids, no kindle edition yet.