Thu
Nov 9 2017 3:30pm

The Prequel to Mindhunter: How Dr. James Brussell Created the World of Criminal Profiling

Read Michael Cannell's exclusive guest post about Dr. James Brussell, the psychiatrist who pioneered criminal profiling, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of Incendiary!

It’s impossible to switch on a television these days without running across a profiling drama. They’re everywhere—Criminal Minds, The Blacklist, Hannibal, Law and Order, to name a few. Those meaty-faced FBI agents populate the TV dial, their hands on coffee cups and ties loosened, earnestly picking over forensics and conjuring suspects out of thin air. We all used to watch Friends. Now, the TV switcher leads us to humanity’s darkest reaches.

Our collective fixation with profiling is on the upswing with the success of Mindhunter, a much-discussed new Netflix series based on a 1996 memoir by FBI Profiler John Douglas. Set in the 1970s, Mindhunter loosely recalls the real-life story of two special agents—eventually joined by a behavioral psychologist—who plumb criminal pathology by interviewing incarcerated serial killers. Working from a windowless room several floors beneath the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, they categorize the personality types prone to serial crimes. “How do we get ahead of crazy,” one agent says, “if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”

Mindhunter presents itself as an account of profiling’s genesis. In fact, the FBI adopted profiling from a New York psychiatrist. Mindhunter, it turns out, has a prequel, which can found in my book, Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

You wouldn’t know it from watching Mindhunter, but profiling originated with a serial bomber loose in the streets of New York. For a long, harrowing stretch of the 1950s, a paranoid schizophrenic convulsed the city with terror. He planted 32 homemade explosives in public places—train stations, movie theaters, subway stops, the main branch of the public library.

In the early stages of his 16-year campaign, the mystery bomber—perpetually hidden in city shadows—shrewdly placed his devices to incite panic but not cause injury. One of his debut bombs, for example, exploded in a corridor beneath Grand Central Terminal. It blasted shrapnel through the concourse and filled the hallways with billows of black smoke at the height of rush hour, but it spared commuters harm.

Over time, the bomber turned more malicious. By 1956, he was doling out more powerful bombs and shrewdly placing them in crowded movie theaters and other places where dense crowds congregated. In a series of letters to the New York Journal-American—an afternoon newspaper of scrappy disposition—he threatened death and dismemberment.

By now, the vaunted NYPD looked like fools. The famously tough-minded New York detectives stumbled and fumbled, which a harassing band of newspaper reporters detailed at every turn. “Seldom in the history of New York,” wrote the Associated Press, “has a case proved such a torment to police.”


You wouldn’t know it from watching Mindhunter, but profiling originated with a serial bomber loose in the streets of New York.


With the manhunt reaching critical urgency in December 1956, Captain Howard Finney—bomb squad commander—took the unprecedented step of asking Dr. James Brussel, a psychiatrist, what the forensic evidence might reveal about the bomber’s troubled inner life. What strange sort of person was he, and what wounding life experience led to his murderous avocation?

Dr. Brussel, who ran the New York mental asylums, had a theory that he could define an unknown serial offender by their behavior. He called it “reverse psychology.” (The term profiling would not be coined for another two decades.) Years of work among the violent asylum patients had taught him that deviants had their own logic. If Brussel could enter into their mindset, he theorized, he could decode their behavior.

On a December afternoon, Captain Finney deposited two satchels of evidence on Dr. Brussel’s desk. Using a mix of Freudian theory, deductive reasoning, and intuition, Dr. Brussel described the fugitive right down to the cut of his jacket. A month later, detectives knocked on the door of a bedraggled house in Waterbury, Connecticut. The man who answered was, in fact, the bomber. He matched Dr. Brussel’s description almost exactly. This is profiling’s origin story, the critical event that launched an entire field of criminology. 

Dr. Brussel would employ his “reverse psychology” to help police in a string of subsequent high-profile cases, including the Boston Strangler. Newspapers called him “the Sherlock Holmes of the couch.” A young FBI agent named Howard Teten read the accounts of Dr. Brussel’s work with great interest. In 1973, he visited Dr. Brussel—by then retired—at his Greenwich Village apartment. Teten offered to pay Dr. Brussel a fee—whatever his hourly rate as a psychoanalyst might be—to share his methodology. The FBI couldn’t afford his rates, Dr. Brussel answered. So he helped Teten for free.

Dr. Brussel’s story ends where Mindhunter begins, with the FBI taking its first steps toward becoming a national clearinghouse for crime data and forensic analysis, translating autopsies and crime-scene photos into profiles of uncanny accuracy.


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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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63 comments
peter gladue
3. peterg201
Amazing to see the REAL people who started before all that CSI Stuff on TV
Jennifer Hodges
4. ViolinGeek
Fascinating subject. Looking forward to reading this!
Gordon Bingham
5. gordonbingham
Took a class in kinesic interviewing techniques once...these guys are good...
James Joyce
6. JamesPatrickJoyce
Inside the minds of those who go inside the minds...
Todd Henson
8. thedelfrog
Fascinating bit of history here. Would love to read more.
Carol Kubala
10. ckubala
Read John Douglas' book years ago, am watching Mindhunter and like many have an interest in the history of profiling to solve crime. I'd love to win a copy of Incendiary.
Jeanette Jackson
11. lindahl
This is a book I'd really like to read. Please enter me.
14. berritt
this looks fascinating. i have read many books about profiling. it is something i thought i would be good at. i would love to win this book!
Esther Whatley
15. ewhatley
This book sounds fascinating. Would love to win it.
16. berritt
i cannot log in. i even got a new password. i STILL wish to enter to win this glorious book. please. make it so. somehow? it looks so amazing. so very good. please. thank you very much.
Carl
18. Carl Scott
Sounds fascinating. True crime at its finest. I'd love to have a copy. Thanks
Jackie Wisherd
19. JackieW
I would thoroughly enjoy reading about criminal profiling. I must read this book.
Karen Martin
21. ReeRee
Very interested here in the originas of criminal profiling, so would love to read this book.
23. Travis B. Donnelly
Been interested in criminal psychology, forensics, forensic entomology, etc. for quite a while. Fascinated with sociopathic and psychopathic behavior as regards both criminal behavior and dealing with the unidentified sociopath down the street......Would love a copy of this new book!
Travis Donnelly
24. skeptic1955
Been interested in criminal psychology, forensics, forensic entomology, etc. for quite a while. Fascinated with sociopathic and psychopathic behavior as regards both criminal behavior and dealing with the unidentified sociopath down the street......Would love a copy of this new book!
MARGARET GAWLEY
25. pegkeohane
Love to learn about the history of criminal profiling....
26. helen martin
Very interesting. Love what he covers.
Barbara Bibel
27. bbibel
This is a fascinating bit of history. I would love to read it.
Lori Provenzano
28. Mountainesque
I wonder if my interest in criminal profiling was spurred by reading John Douglas's memoir when it first came out. 'Incendiary' sounds like a fascinating dive into modern history, er, a blast from the past.
Mary Gilles
29. gilles
This book sounds fascinating. I can't wait to read it. I keep wondering why so many of us are interested in this genre of literature. I haven't figured it out.
Ms Eddie Jenkins
30. Demoyn
This subject fascinates me. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.
Vernon Luckert
31. vl4095
Very interesting. I would like to learn how criminal profiling works
Michael Carter
32. rubydog
I'm on fire!
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks ---
Crystal Blackburn
34. lovesmysteries
I'd never heard of Dr. Brussel until I read this article. Now I want to know more. I'd love to win a copy of this book.
susan beamon
40. susanbeamon
I tried to watch Mindhunter. I found it too dark, by which I mean the sets seemed to all be at night or deep in a coalmine. I could see next to nothing, so the story meant very little and didn't keep my interest. I would rather read true crime than watch the stiff actors those shows love to use.
Rhonda Barkhouse
42. Rhobar
I read Mindhunter years ago and loved it. I would love to read this as well.
Rhonda Barkhouse
43. Rhobar
I read Mindhunter years ago and loved it. I would love to read this as well.
44. Samara
This is what my daughter is studying in college. I think this would be a perfect book for her!
vicki wurgler
45. bison61
interesting about criminal profiling-love to read this book
Robert Grieco
46. RobG
I'm extremely interested in reading this book. Fingers crossed!
Beth Talmage
47. wordygirl
There are a lot of books on this topic, but I'd trust the one by Michael Cannell.
49. Libraryman
Sometimes I think in trying to show how smart we are getting and how we got there we tell the criminals too much.
Jim Belcher
50. librarypops
Sometimes I think in trying to show how smart we are getting and how we got there we tell the criminals too much.
john frost
51. jackfro
AS A TEENAGER IN THE 50'S I REMENBER THE MAD BOMBER VERY WELL HAVING BEEN TERRIFIED OF GOING TO MOVIE THEATERS IN NYC. WOULD LOVE TO READ THIS!
55. Noel wheeler
Very interested!
Carolyn Bybee
56. CSB
Would love to learn more about criminal profiling and how it developed!
Karen Hester
57. rosalba
I would like to learn more about the history of profiling.
58. Charlee
We just finished watching Mindhunter. I'd love a copy of this!
Charlee Griffith
59. Possum
We just finished watching Mindhunter. I'd love a copy of this!
Abigail Gibson
60. luvlife4ever
Loved the Netfilx series. Looking forward to reading the book.
Sandy Klocinski
61. attea2d
Sounds awesome! I am looking forward to reading it. Profiling has always been an interest of mine
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