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.