Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt That Paralyzed a City


Rate: 4 Stars


Let's take a moment to admire the cover first, shall we? While I am not about judging a book by its cover, I do appreciate the beautiful ones and it is a bonus when the content and cover match to meet/exceed my expectations.

I really enjoyed this one, it was an interesting story that I knew nothing about - you'd think in some US History class I'd have heard about this at some point, a "mad bomber" who planted devices around New York City for SIXTEEN YEARS (1940-1956), and was only caught in 1956 after a few weeks of communication with a newspaper. He hit major targets - Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall, Grand Central Terminal, you name it, there was probably a home-made bomb there at one point in that time period.

Fun Fact: One bomb was planted somewhere in the Empire State Building that to this day has not been found.

The author details the life of George Metesky, this 'mad bomber' who terrorized New York City for 16 years before finally being apprehended. From childhood we meet George, the quiet boy who was the baby of the family, who eventually enlists in the Marines and by all account served his two years admirably, being honorably discharged with a classification of 'excellent'. From that time on, George lived with his two older sisters after the deaths of their parents in the home they'd all grown up in. A fourth sibling had already married and moved out. It is an interesting dynamic created, as neither sister ever married either, and they basically devoted their lives to taking care of George, yet they had no idea anything of his private life, thoughts, feelings. And certainly no idea that there was anything in him that could turn him into such a destructive force for so long a period of time. George's civilian life was fairly standard, though reclusive, for a few years until he gained a job at Hell Gate in the city, a massive power plant owned and operated by Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Con Ed for short. By all accounts there he was shy, considered 'peculiar', but was polite and courteous to his co-workers. The reclusive tag stuck there as well though, as he never seemed to develop many - if any - work friendships. It was here at Hell Gate that a workplace injury would set the course for the next sixteen years of Metesky's life.

After being exposed to a toxic mix of chemicals and soot that left Metesky coughing up blood and supposedly laying on the floor of the plant for two hours with no first aid administered, he eventually is admitted to the hospital in Waterbury and his rage at his former employers grows to the point where he begins fashioning  bombs and planting them in public places in order to draw attention to his plight. This comes after his case is dismissed several times asking for more and additional benefits to help pay for medical treatment and other costs. Bombs accompany notes accusing Con Ed of treachery and this goes on for almost two decades until Metesky is finally apprehended after a few weeks corresponding directly with the New York Journal-American newspaper. The rest of the tale them involves Metesky's court hearings, admission to Matteawan State Hospital (an asylum for the insane), his continuing battle with illness, and finally his release and return home - where he would live until 1994, having outlived nearly everyone involved in his case.

This truly is such a fascinating story, I did not want to put it down (even when I had to do things like go to work). I had no idea that there were so many serial bombers active in the early 1900s, long before the Unabomber, and definitely had never heard of the Mad Bomber of New York, something that in a strange way I feel is unfortunate for this man. It seems a strange thing to say, considering his bombs eventually injured several people, but you really can't help but in a roundabout way kind of feeling bad for the guy. He was injured on the job and Con Ed did little to help with his care - not entirely their fault however, as it was over a year from the incident before he filled his case. But in turn it created what could have been a PR nightmare for them - imagine if a similar incident would have happened today in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and camera phones. Regardless of time limit, public pressure alone would have the company paying millions for the rest of his life.

One thing that baffled me throughout the book was, whenever Metesky planted a device, it was accompanied by a letter that emphasized how he was wronged by Con Ed and published in the newspaper. Given the legal battles that Con Ed had gone through with Metesky, it is a wonder that no one made the connection. He talked of getting justice and their 'dastardly act' against him - the same wording he used when addressing them directly. Did they really screw over hat may of their employees that George and peculiarities did not stand out among them? As years pass, it is equally strange to me that Con Ed worked to purposely conceal employee files when it was finally pieced together that the bomber was a former worker for the company. Con Ed insisted employee files before (I believe it was) 1940 had been destroyed, yet magically they somehow found his file later on when several secretaries were assigned to just that task. It clearly shows they had something to hide, and would at least be publicly held responsible in some capacity for loosing the mad bomber on the city. Another telling factor is that the secretary who found the file, Alice Kelly, declined to accept the reward money and shunned attention from being the one to 'discover' it.

While I felt bad for Metesky, there's a point where eventually you realize someone is going to be seriously injured with his bombs. Metesky always maintained he did not want to hurt the public, and wanted to bring attention to how he had been wronged. Yet he began building bigger and stronger devices that did end up injuring several people. When that fact was pointed out, Metesky claimed that it was the fault of the police for not evacuating the public and keeping them safe. One of the most severely injured men was an elderly Porter at Penn Station who was in the bathroom at the time of one of the explosions. Yet he said he had no ill feelings toward Metesky about what happened, which I find truly amazing. I think there were a lot of people who might have understood why he did what he did, even if they didn't agree with his methods.

I don't typically read books that deal with true crimes, but this story really was fascinating. It helps that no one died in the bombings, otherwise I am not sure I could have handled reading much of the story. That fact doesn't excuse what Metesky did, because people were injured, though I think it is also clear he was mentally ill and a danger to society as a result. But come on, due to what he felt was his patriotic duty, he promised - and kept the promise - to not plant any more devices after the news of Pearl Harbor reached the mainland and would refrain until the war was over. At first you think, well gosh that's nice of him, and on the other hand you're like, wow dude, so self-centered. But then you remember, oh wait you are crazy, and it all makes sense again.

In my lifetime, we have grown accustomed to the uniforms worn by bomb squads, and the methods they use to deactivate explosive devices (Helloooo 'Speed' and Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock speeding through LA on a city bus, ha!). That's why I especially love the many photographs included, particularly the one that shows the kind of armor the bomb squad detectives wore in the first half of the 20th century. There were so many wonderful photos included in the book - several of Metesky as well - but among my most favorite was the photo of the detectives removing the bomb from the Paramount Theatre at Times Square in December of 1956. You look at it and think there is no way those guy could survive if the bomb went off. It is amazing how far we have come in that time.

The author does a fantastic job weaving Metesky's life story together and showing how he became the Mad Bomber, without judging him. I found the reporting to come across as unbiased and that to me is the mark of a good storyteller - one who lets your arrive at your own opinion of the subject. Great read, highly recommended.

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