What Crucial Role Did Criminal Profiling Play in Catching the Mad Bomber?

The Mad Bomber, later revealed as being a man called George Metesky, terrorised New York City for nearly sixteen years between 1940 and 1956. He planted a total of thirty three small bombs in theatres, phone booths, train stations, libraries and other public areas.

Metesky also sent letters to the police and press — in these it was evident that the primary motivation behind the attacks was a grudge held against the Consolidated Edison energy and utility company. In one of his letters, written entirely in block capitals, he said:

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.

Fingerprint, bomb, handwriting and other forensic experts working alongside the New York Police Department toiled to apprehend the bomber to no avail. Criminal profiling had been used in previous cases — most famously, to profile Jack the Ripper — but it was by no means the standardised practice it was to become.

Nevertheless, nearly out of options, investigators approached psychiatrist and criminologist Dr James Brussel to create a criminal profile of this mysterious madman.

The profile

After studying the crime scene photographs, the letters from the bomber and the other evidence in the case, Dr Brussel came up with a comprehensive profile of who the Mad Bomber might be.

Some of these assessments were merely common sense: they concluded that the bomber had a grudge against Consolidated Edison and was likely a former employee, for instance. It is likely he was permanently injured in a workplace accident and was seeking revenge.

Dr Brussel concluded that the bomber was male as historically, with a few exceptions, bombers have always been male. He was neat, meticulous and precise based on his handwriting, the skilled construction of his bombs and the careful planning behind his attacks.

The bomber was foreign, likely Slavic, based on the formal language used in his letters. Phrases like “dastardly deeds” sounded as if they had come directly out of a Sherlock Holmes novel. Based on the fact that some of the letters had been mailed from Westchester Country (between New York and Connecticut), Dr Brussel assessed that the bomber lived in Connecticut. Furthermore, at the time, this state was home to large communities of Eastern Europeans.

The bomber was a textbook paranoid believing that the company and the public in general conspired against him. This also made him overly sensitive to any criticism. Another assessment was that the bomber was likely around fifty years-old. Paranoia generally peaks around age thirty five and the bomber had been active for sixteen years.

 

The bait

Investigators had a profile but, now what? Hundreds, if not thousands of men, matched the profile created by Dr Brussel but there was only one bomber.

Police policy dictated that the specific details of ongoing cases were kept out of the public eye and when Dr Brussel suggested that they release the profile to the press, they outright refused. However, he argued that the bomber craved the publicity and, already outraged by the fact that the newspapers weren’t publishing his letters, would be sure to correct any discrepancies between the profile and his real self.

Eventually, the investigators conceded and just as he had won the argument, Dr Brussel made one, final conclusion. He said: “When you catch him – and I have no doubt you will – he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. And it will be buttoned.”

Unsurprisingly, with the publishing of this profile, police were inundated with bomb hoaxes, false confessions and empty leads. But, it would all be worth it…

 

The big mistake

Over the next few months, as predicted by Dr Brussel, the Mad Bomber became even chattier than before, taking credit for the crimes and revealing more details. He even made contact with Dr Brussel himself — to warn him off the case. Secretly, Dr Brussel was pleased as he believed it was only a matter of time before the bomber’s arrogance got the better of him.

On the 19th of January 1957, in a letter to the New York Journal American, the Mad Bomber said that a workplace injury had left him lying on the cold concrete floor for hours, resulting in him contracting pneumonia and later tuberculosis. While these details could probably be considered vague enough, he also revealed one detail that would prove to be the metaphorical nail in his coffin: the date of this injury, the 5th of September 1931.

Concurrently, an administrator at Consolidated Edison, while pouring through former employee files in the search for a potential suspect, came across the file of one George Metesky. After a disability claim following a workplace injury had been denied, Metesky started writing angry letters to the company. In one, he even used the unusual (and by now familiar) phrase “dastardly deeds”.

They had found their Mad Bomber.

 

The aftermath

When the police arrived to arrest Metesky, he was, as predicted by Dr Brussel, wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned all the way up.

This case inspired both investigators and criminals alike. Take the case of the Zodiac killer for example: criminal profiles were created in an attempt to identify this killer who was, in turn, thought to be inspired by the Mad Bomber.

In the end, George Metesky was declared insane and did not stand trial. Instead, he was committed to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Dr Brussel would visit him here and Metesky would often tell the psychiatrist that he had carefully constructed his bombs not to kill anyone. On one occasion, Dr. Brussel even asked him if he thought he was crazy. Smiling politely, Metesky simply answered “no”.

Your turn: Can you think of any other cases where criminal profiling has played a crucial role? Share your stories below, we’d love to hear from you!

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