Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell details the search for a serial bomber who stalked the streets of 1950s New York. The race to catch him would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling (available April 25, 2017).
Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall—for 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 Berkson—a handsome New York socialite, protégé of William Randolph Hearst, and publisher of the tabloid The Journal-American—joined 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.
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 lightbulbs, 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.
Copyright © 2017 Michael Cannell.
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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.