Long before the specter of terrorism haunted the public imagination, a serial bomber stalked the streets of 1950s New York. In Incendiary, Michael Cannell recounts the thrilling race to catch him that would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling.
Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hallfor almost two decades, no place was safe from the man who signed his anonymous letters “FP” and left his lethal devices in phone booths, storage lockers, even tucked into the plush seats of movie theaters. His victims were left cruelly maimed. Tabloids called him “the greatest individual menace New York City ever faced.”
In desperation, Police Captain Howard Finney sought the help of a little known psychiatrist, Dr. James Brussel, whose expertise was the criminal mind. Examining crime scene evidence and the strange wording in the bomber’s letters, he compiled a portrait of the suspect down to the cut of his jacket. But how to put a name to the description? Seymour Berksona handsome New York socialite, protégé of William Randolph Hearst, and publisher of the tabloid The Journal-Americanjoined in pursuit of the Mad Bomber. The three men hatched a brilliant scheme to catch him at his own game. Together, they would capture a monster and change the face of American law enforcement.
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About the Author
MICHAEL CANNELL is the author of The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit and I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism. He was editor of the New York Times House & Home section for seven years and has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and many other publications. He lives in New York City.
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The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
By Michael Cannell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Michael Cannell
All rights reserved.
ANGEL OF JUSTICE
Five years earlier, on the afternoon of October 22, 1951, F.P. drove his Daimler sedan ninety miles down the Taconic Parkway, carefully minding the speed limits. If a highway patrolman stopped him, he might have cause for suspicion. The patrolman might frisk F.P., and he might discover the heavy object F.P. carried in his coat pocket.
In the earliest days of his bombing campaign F.P. rode the train to Manhattan, but he felt unbearably conspicuous. He was one of the few male passengers boarding in the hours after the morning commute. The women dressed for city luncheons or matinees shot him suspicious looks. The conductor paused a little too long while punching his ticket, as if to memorize his features. Or so F.P. imagined.
He parked the Daimler on Riverside Drive near Ninety-Sixth Street, as he always did, lingering in the driver's seat to slowly, deliberately pour gunpowder from a bottle into a length of pipe steadied between his leather lace-ups. By waiting to arm the bomb, he reduced the chance of an accidental explosion during his drive to the city.
He was on foot now, walking among the sober-faced office buildings standing shoulder to shoulder in midtown. A wealth of goods filled store windows — shined-up oxford shoes and woolen suits, Danish living room sets, DuMont televisions in dark wood cabinets. F.P. admired it all, as one covets things one will never have. The sidewalk crowds brushed by F.P., heightening his sense of invisibility. All the while the live bomb buried deep in the pocket of his overcoat ticked away like a mechanical heartbeat.
Soon the first wave of commuters would march east to Grand Central Terminal and board trains to outlying towns — Bedford, Rye, Darien. Clinking ice buckets and the hugs of pajama-soft children awaited them in ranch homes set back among the russet leaves of October. No such comforts would greet F.P. He had no job. No real home of his own. No familial warmth. He had none of the consolations he saw depicted on television or in Life magazine ads. What he nurtured instead was a grievance and a growing conviction that he — and he alone — was chosen to be a great avenger, an angel of justice.
Standing on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Broadway, F.P. could see the full neon honky-tonk shine of Times Square pulsating above him. Camel cigarettes. Admiral appliances. Chevrolet. The billboards glimmered and blinked with the wattage of a thousand light bulbs, as if to compensate for the gloom of a dying afternoon.
On the west side of Times Square stood an ornate old movie palace called the Paramount, fronted by an oversize marquee with a gaudy highboy swoop. Four years later the Paramount would host one of the first rock-and-roll parties with Chuck Berry and other acts produced by radio DJ Alan Freed, but in 1951 it was still an old-fashioned movie theater equipped with a Wurlitzer that droned out popular standards before the newsreels and previews.
The lobby would be empty, or nearly so, when F.P. stepped inside among the white marble columns and crystal chandeliers to buy a ticket for The Mob, a gangster movie about a cop who infiltrates the waterfront rackets. The movie was the latest installment in a noir genre portraying tough guys and foul play on the city docks. A poster in the lobby portrayed three men with meaty gangster faces above the tagline "Cruel, Cunning, Cold as Ice."
F.P. looked anything but cruel or cunning. Nothing about him would have aroused the ticket taker's suspicion, dressed as he was in a forgettable suit and tie. He was an almost perfectly nondescript forty-eight-year-old, stocky but not fat, with gold-rimmed eyeglasses, a slight pudge of double chin, and thinning colorless hair combed to a polite pompadour. He looked unremarkable in every way, as if life had failed to make a distinguishing mark on him.
"He's the perfect example of a man you'd never recognize the second time you saw him," an acquaintance said. Nothing in his manner suggested what hung over him. He betrayed no hint of the murderous thoughts he carried.
He seated himself in an empty section of the center orchestra some distance from other moviegoers in the sparse late-afternoon crowd. The houselights dimmed, commanding the audience to silence. Up on the big screen, the story began. Rain pours hard on West Sixty-Third Street. Inside a pawnshop, Detective Johnny Damico haggles over earrings he wants to buy for his girlfriend. Walking home, he hears gunfire. A body lies facedown in the wet, empty street. A man in a trench coat stands over the victim with a gun. The shooter produces a shiny badge. He identifies himself as Lieutenant Henderson from the Twenty-First Precinct. Henderson says he'll go over to a nearby diner to phone in a report of the shoot-out to headquarters. Instead he slips out the back door.
It was time for F.P. to make his own escape. He stood up and shuffled down the aisle, as if leaving to use the men's room. The bomb stayed behind. He walked away unnoticed under the throbbing shine of Times Square lights.CHAPTER 2
The bomb squad settled in for its evening shift just as F.P. left the Paramount Theater on October 22. The detectives killed time in an open squad room on the top floor of a three-story brick-and-brownstone building on Poplar Street, hard against the long down slope of the Brooklyn Bridge off-ramp in a nearly deserted backwater of the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Miniature models of a dozen bomb types hung from the ceiling, like hobby aircraft in a boy's bedroom.
The detectives sat around drab metal desks in their cheap G-man suits, narrow ties loosened and hats pushed back, shuffling paperwork and kidding around. If things got really quiet, they might deal a hand of rummy. The green lights strung along the bridge cables twinkled outside their windows. One might reasonably assume that they talked about the New York Giants, who had two days earlier surged from a 17–0 halftime deficit to beat the Philadelphia Eagles at the Polo Grounds. Whatever the subject, the banter would have been loose and lighthearted, despite the evasive serial bomber causing them anxious days. By custom, bomb squad detectives affected the deliberately relaxed manner found among those who work in close contact with dangerous possibilities, as if reserving their acuity for when they needed it most.
The squad consisted of ten detectives drawn from a waiting list. Most were former military-ordnance officers or commercial blasters who, by quirk of personality, chose to earn a living handling combustibles. All volunteered. All were married with children. The bomb squad was known within police circles as the world's most dangerous assignment. The men's bravery earned them no hazard pay, no special benefits. The turnover rate was among the lowest in the police department.
The job entailed stretches of boredom relieved by moments of trembling dread. The knowledge of what could happen went unspoken, but it was always with them. "It is a little flirtation we play with the unknown," said Captain Finney, the commanding officer of the bomb squad and the affiliated crime lab.
There was little in the way of preparation for the excruciating job of handling and defusing live explosives. Captain Finney conducted no formal training, with no protocols or procedures to impart, only a series of prohibitions handed down from squad veterans. Never submit to curiosity. Never smoke near explosives. Never handle suspicious packages unless told to do so. Never tilt them or turn them. Never carry them into a precinct house or an inhabited public space. Never cut a string or lift a cover. Never submerge a bomb in water. Never open a suitcase the conventional way; open it by removing the pins in its hinges. These were hard-earned lessons.
* * *
Americans have a short memory for violence, but the bomb squad never forgot. All ten detectives were aware that forty-three years earlier, in January 1908, a bomb blew out the façade of Pasquali Pati & Sons, a bank on Elizabeth Street serving the swelling population of poor, hardworking Italians settling in the grimy tenement blocks of Little Italy, where children played in streets clumped with residual horse dung and laundry fluttered on lines strung between windows. Seventeen years after arriving from Calabria, Pati had fattened himself up as the J. P. Morgan of Little Italy. He proved his solvency in terms his depositors could understand: $40,000 worth of gold coins and paper bills displayed in the bank window for passersby to admire.
In the moments after the blast, Pati's son, Salvatore, ran about the glass-covered street leaping and grasping for the fluttering bills while blood dripped from a cut over his left eye. The bomb throwers slipped off among the shoppers and pushcarts. They had no designs on the swirling cash; they had thrown the bomb as retribution. Days earlier Pati had opened an envelope in his bank office. It contained an extortion threat: pay tribute to the Black Hand or face the penalty. The stationery bore the dark ink outline of a hand holding a dagger. Pati had refused.
More than 3 million Italians disembarked from steamships in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century. Most, like Pati, arrived as peasant folk — paesani — from poor rural towns. Calabrians, Sicilians, Puglieses, in threadbare vests and bowler hats queued up on Ellis Island. The great resettlement carried with it hidden foot soldiers for the ancient crime syndicates based in Sicily and Naples. They had come to America to escape prosecution for murder and other violent crimes. The Black Hand met the fugitives on the piers and put them to work. One by one the shopkeepers on Mulberry and Mott Streets received extortion letters with the black imprint of smoking bombs and other menacing symbols. "Woe upon you if you do not resolve to buy your future happiness," they warned. "Bring the money if you do not wish to die."
Merchants who refused to pay the fee — usually between $50 and $100 — could expect a bomb in their mailbox or tossed into the parlor where their toddlers played, or some other grim payback. In 1909, the body of a holdout was found crammed in a barrel with his genitals stuffed in his mouth.
The Black Hand confirmed the opinion of many New Yorkers that the Italians pouring down the gangways were a dirty, quarrelsome breed infected with violent European habits. They had carried disorder to America, just as imported fruit can carry contagion.
The decent, law-abiding citizens of Little Italy feared that the Black Hand threatened their hard-earned standing. Bollettino della Sera, an Italian-language newspaper published in lower Manhattan, warned that the "doors of this country would be closed to Italians if the Black Hand atrocities continued."
In December 1908, a group of Italian-born detectives met secretly above a Centre Street saloon. A lieutenant with a heavyset face named Joe Petrosino rose to address his colleagues. At just five feet three inches and two hundred pounds, he was soft bellied and barrel shaped. The police department had waived the height requirement when he joined the force at age twenty-three. Petrosino proved skilled with his fists, despite his size, and he racked up spectacular arrest records. His colleagues in the predominantly Irish ranks called him the Dago, but they addressed him with respect. In 1895 Teddy Roosevelt, then police commissioner, made Petrosino head of the homicide division.
Now Petrosino proposed to form a secret police corps, the original bomb squad, to fight the Black Hand. The corps had to be staffed by Italian detectives, he said. The merchants of Little Italy would never trust the Irish cops.
Petrosino exceeded all expectations, arresting five hundred and halving the number of bombings. He went undercover in the saloons and spaghetti kitchens of Prince Street, picking up bits of information while disguised in a long-brimmed felt hat, fake whiskers, and a red bandanna tied around his neck. By infiltrating among the Black Hand's operatives he learned of its conspiracies and secret plans with an ease his Irish colleagues could not fathom — all of which he recorded in a journal he called "the library of crime."
"He knew every manner and custom of the Sicilian and Calabrian murderer," The Washington Post wrote at the time, "and it was only necessary for him to glance at the wounds on a victim's body to know what inspired the murder and what branch of the mafia was responsible."
Arrests alone would not eradicate the Black Hand. Petrosino would have to kill the network at its roots. Fortunately for him, a newly enacted law allowed the police to deport immigrants convicted of a crime in another country within three years of their arrival in the United States. To make use of it, Petrosino would have to travel back to the land of his birth to obtain the criminal records of suspected mobsters operating on the New York streets. "The United States has become the dumping ground for all the criminals and banditti of Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria," Petrosino said.
In February 1909 Petrosino kissed his wife, Adelina, and their one-year-old daughter good-bye and boarded a steamship bound for Genoa. His luggage contained a .38 revolver and a notebook with a list of potential informants. Petrosino had planned to travel undercover as a businessman seeking treatment in Italy for an intestinal infection until, days before his departure, The New York Herald printed a story detailing his mission. He knew that its publication put him at risk. Monsignor John F. Kearney, his pastor at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Little Italy, had warned that he might not return. "Probably not," Petrosino said with a smile, "but it is my duty to go, and I am going."
At 9:00 p.m. on March 12, Petrosino left a restaurant in Palermo to meet informants in Piazza Marina. It was a trap. Two men approached as Petrosino stood beneath an overhanging fig tree. They fired four shots. He drew his revolver and returned fire, then collapsed. His shots missed, but their report alerted a sailor strolling nearby. He knelt at Petrosino's side as his eyes went still.
The Black Hand expired shortly after Petrosino did, but the fledgling bomb squad, renamed the Bomb and Radical Squad, continued to handle sporadic bombings, most planted by foreigners. In the Red Scare years after World War I the bombers were more likely to be anarchists or Bolsheviks than extortionists. Bomb-making manuals were handed out along with radical manifestos. The targets, then as now, were the symbols of American power and profit.
Shortly before noon on September 16, 1920, a warm Thursday morning, a rickety horse-drawn covered wagon, the kind used to deliver milk and eggs, rattled east along Wall Street. The driver reined the bay mare to a halt across the street from the domed J. P. Morgan bank rising like a stone citadel at the corner of Wall and Broad — an intersection known in financial circles simply as the Corner. Across the street was the New York Stock Exchange. On the opposing corner a bronze statue of George Washington stood above the granite steps of the sub-Treasury, marking the site of his inauguration and the place where Congress first convened.
Seven months earlier, men and women had stood on these streets to cheer twenty-five thousand high-stepping soldiers returning from the Great War. The banners and rousing Sousa marches gave way to a postwar swoon — unemployment, shuttered factories, homeless families — and the unpleasant privations of Prohibition. Hard times hit, followed by dissent. Bolsheviks had murdered the Russian royals in 1918; there was reason to believe that revolt would spread to America. A series of bombs exploded in 1918 and 1919, including two designed to assassinate Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. President Woodrow Wilson, fearing insurrection, struck back. On January 2, 1920, more than three thousand suspected leftists, most of them immigrants, were arrested in thirty cities. Hundreds were deported on suspicion of "force and violence."
Eight months after the arrests, the wagon came to a halt on Wall Street, blocking traffic. Rather than pull out of the way, the driver stepped down to the footboard and slipped away. For some minutes the carriage stood still, the mare bowing and raising her head against the halter and shooing flies with her tail. Across the street, the Morgan partners assembled for their daily conference in a second-floor meeting room. Noon bells clanged from the spire of Trinity Church a few blocks to the west. A crowd of messenger boys, clerks, and brokers streamed onto the street for lunch hour, unaware of the ticking muffled by a burlap tarp thrown across the wagon. Then, without warning, Wall Street erupted. A hundred pounds of dynamite shredded the horse and wagon. Window sash weights, sawed in half, were packed with the explosives. They sprayed pedestrians with jagged slugs, killing thirty. (Eight more would die in the hospital.) A concussive wave of flame rolled down Wall Street, knocking hundreds of pedestrians off their feet.
Excerpted from Incendiary by Michael Cannell. Copyright © 2017 Michael Cannell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Manhunt
Angel of Justice
Up from the Streets
"It Will Be Buttoned"
"Keep out of This"
The Dead Files
Part Two: The Laws of Insanity
The Smiling Avenger