A Townhouse Bomb Factory Explodes in New York

Last week I featured the work of New York’s Mad Bomber. This week we look at another case where radical students turned a New York townhouse into a bomb factory. But this time, the bombers themselves were the victims.

Explosions in Greenwich Village

West 11th Street at the edge of New York City’s Greenwich Village is normally quiet. Expensive townhouses crowd the picturesque, tree-lined street. But shortly before noon on Friday, March 6, 1970, West 11th Street shuddered with a violent explosion. The blast came from the quaint townhouse at number 18, which began to burn furiously.

FDNY works to extinguish the blaze at 18 West 11th
FDNY works to extinguish the blaze at 18 West 11th

Authorities first suspected that natural gas leak had caused the explosion. But they quickly determined that the ruptured gas mains were a result of the explosion, not its cause. Besides, the blaze didn’t look like a natural gas fire. As Chief of Detectives Al Seedman later remarked, the townhouse burned “like an ammo dump.”

Workers clear rubble from the site of the townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th
Workers clear rubble from the site of the townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th

Sorting Through the Rubble

After the firefighters finally extinguished the fire, investigators began to sift through the ruins. They discovered an improvised bomb factory in the basement of the townhouse. Cathy Wilkerson, the daughter of the building’s owner, belonged to the radical-left Weather Underground. Unhappy with the limited success of Molotov cocktails, Wilkerson and some of her colleagues decided to use dynamite bombs instead. To make them especially lethal, the bombmakers packed the dynamite with roofing nails so that deadly shrapnel would accompany an explosion.

A view of the space where the townhouse at 18 West 11th used to be before the explosion
A view of the space where the townhouse at 18 West 11th used to be before the explosion

There was some disagreement later as to precisely what the bombers planned to target. One candidate was a scheduled dance for non-commissioned officers at nearby Fort Dix in New Jersey. Another was the main library of Columbia University. The dispute was largely academic since the “factory” blew up before the Weathermen could plant any bombs.

The investigation revealed that on March 2, someone using stolen identification bought two 50-pound cases of dynamite in rural Keene, New Hampshire. The dynamite ended up at 18 West 11th along with blasting caps and a 1916 37-mm antitank shell.

The Bombmakers

Two young people, 28-year-old Diana Oughton and 22-year-old Terry Robbins were assembling crude bombs in the basement. Neither Robbins nor Oughton had any experience handling explosives. Nor did they have even a rudimentary knowledge of electricity. Consequently, they failed to incorporate any safety features in their bomb circuitry. As they taped nails to sticks of dynamite something went wrong.

Diana Oughton, one of the bombmakers killed in the blast at 18 West 11th
Diana Oughton, one of the bombmakers killed in the blast at 18 West 11th

Perhaps the inexperienced Robbins had crossed wires but for whatever reason, a bomb prematurely detonated, killing the pair instantly. A third person, Theodore “Ted” Gold died when the building’s exterior collapsed onto him. Wilkerson and a fifth person, Kathy Boudin, escaped with cuts and bruises and went into hiding.

Terry Robbins, also killed in the townhouse explosion
Terry Robbins, also killed in the townhouse explosion

Wilkerson remained underground for a decade before she surrendered to authorities in 1980. Boudin also remained underground and continued her radical activities. Police arrested her in the aftermath of a botched armed robbery in Nanuet, New York.

Epilogue

The lot at 18 West 11th remained vacant for a few years but a new townhouse was built on the site in 1978. Although it blends well into the tony neighborhood, it has a distinctly different appearance from the 1840s Greek Revival architecture of the neighboring buildings. In 2012, it sold for $9.2 million.

The townhouse at 18 West 11th in 2017 (Author Photo)
The townhouse at 18 West 11th in 2017 (Author Photo)
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The Mad Bomber of New York City

This week I write about a string of bombings that terrorized New York City for sixteen years. Unlike last week’s case, no one died, which was something of a miracle. When the public realized that a serial bomber was at work, they and the newspapers dubbed him the Mad Bomber.

The First Bombs

The first bomb surfaced on November 16, 1940. It was crude, a brass tube filled with gunpowder. Someone discovered it before it could go off. Perhaps the Mad Bomber didn’t intend for it to explode, because he wrapped in a note that an explosion would have destroyed. The note, printed in block capitals, read, “CON EDISON CROOKS—THIS IS FOR YOU” and was signed, “F.P.”

The Mad Bomber placed this "unit" in a locker in New York's Grand Central Terminal
Police examine the aftermath of a bomb that exploded in a Grand Central Terminal locker

The first bomb and a similar one discovered in September 1941 attracted little public attention. Then shortly after the United States entered World War II, New York police received a note. This one, also printed in block capitals and signed, “F.P,” promised to plant no more bombs for the duration of the war.

The bomber was as good as his word. Instead of bombs, he sent crank letters to the police and to Consolidated Edison.

The Mad Bomber Returns

Nearly a decade after Pearl Harbor, on March 29, 1951, a small bomb exploded in Grand Central Terminal. The bomber had dropped his device in a sand urn near the Oyster Bar in the terminal’s lower level. There were no injuries, but it marked the return of the Mad Bomber.

Between 1951 and 1957, the Mad Bomber left at least 33 explosive devices in public places. Twenty-two of them exploded injuring 15 people. The bomber’s favorite locations included the Grand Central and Pennsylvania railroad terminals, the New York Public Library, Radio City Music Hall, movie theaters, and subway stations.

Police said the Mad Bomber used these components to make his "units"
The Mad Bomber used these components to make his “units”

As the bomb count rose, the public naturally became more uneasy. But police were unable to make significant headway towards discovering the identity of the bomber. It was apparent from notes that the bomber left with some of the bombs that he harbored a grudge against Consolidated Edison, the large electric utility. But that was hardly enough to narrow the field of suspects. And the bombs kept exploding.

A Pioneering “Portrait”

Police captain John Cronin asked his friend, psychiatrist James A. Brussel to meet with detectives. Working with the detectives, Brussel developed what he called a “portrait” of the bomber. Today we would call it an offender psychological profile.

After carefully studying crime scene photos, Brussel created his “portrait” of the bomber. Then as now, the profile did little to identify the bomber in a city of millions. But it would help police recognize him when they found him. Newspapers published the profile on Christmas Day 1956.

Con Ed clerk Alice Kelly read the profile. She dug through the company’s workers’ compensation files looking for employees with serious injuries. She came across one that included phrases the bomber had used in letters to the New York Journal-American. The name in the file was George P. Metesky. Police arrested him at the home in Waterbury, Connecticut that he shared with two unmarried sisters.

Police arrest George Metesky as the Mad Bomber
Police arrest George P. Metesky as the Mad Bomber

George Peter Metesky

George Metesky began working for Con Ed in 1929. On September 5, 1931, he was working as a generator wiper at the company’s generating station at Hell Gate. A boiler backfired, knocking Metesky down and filling his lungs with fumes. Con Ed denied his worker’s compensation claim and discharged him after 26 weeks of sick leave. Metesky felt the company had unfairly denied his claim. He also believed that several coworkers had perjured their testimony in his compensation case to favor the company.

George Metesky, the Mad Bomber, behind bars
George Metesky behind bars

Feeling that Consolidated Edison and the city had ignored him, Metesky decided his only option was to attract public attention. He decided to do this by planting “units” (he never called them “bombs”) around the city. When asked why he signed his notes “F.P.,” Metesky replied that it stood for “Fair Play.”

Metesky admitted to placing 32 bombs and a grand jury indicted him on 47 counts, including attempted murder. However, he never went to trial. Judge Samuel Leibowitz declared him a paranoid schizophrenic and confined him to the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane. His lung ailment was so severe that orderlies had to carry him into the hospital.

Epilogue

Metesky responded well to treatment and recovered his health. In 1973, a decision by the United States Supreme Court forced the State of New York to move him to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, which is outside the state correctional system.

George Metesky at Matteawan
George Metesky relaxes at Matteawan

Doctors at Creedmoor determined that the former Mad Bomber was now harmless. They released him on December 13, 1973. He returned to his home in Waterbury. The only condition was that he make regular visits to a Connecticut Department of Mental Hygiene clinic near his home. He died in Waterbury on May 23, 1994 at age 90.

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Jack Abbott — A Killer with Influential Friends

From our English case last week, we cross the Atlantic to a very American one. Jack Abbott was a criminal convicted of murder among other crimes. His made some influential friends who argued for his parole, only for him to kill again shortly after getting out.

Jack Henry Abbott

Jack Abbott was born in Oscoda, Michigan during World War II. His father was an Irish-American soldier and his mother was a Chines-American former prostitute. After the war, Abbott senior deserted his family. In and out of foster care, he earned his first stretch in juvenile detention at age nine. At 16, he entered the Utah State Industrial School, a long-term detention facility.

Jack Abbot  (David Handschuh/AP)
Jack Henry Abbott  (David Handschuh/AP)

In 1965, when he was 21, Jack Abbott was in a Utah prison serving a sentence for forgery. There he stabbed another inmate, James Christensen, to death and wounded another. He claimed he killed Christensen to fend off a homosexual attack because Christensen wanted to make Abbott his “prison wife.” Another version of the story is that Christensen had ratted out Abbott to guards for having contraband in his cell. In his writings, however, Abbott gave probably the true reason: men who have killed other men, especially other prisoners, earn the most respect.

Jack Abbot continued to collide with the law. He received a three-to-twenty-year sentence for killing Christensen but escaped in 1971. Authorities caught him after he robbed a bank in Denver and sent him back to prison. Freedom had lasted a month. Spending much of his prison time in solitary confinement for disciplinary issues, Abbott read widely, included Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sartre, and Nietzsche.

Enter Norman Mailer

In 1977, author Norman Mailer was writing a book about Utah killer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore, like Abbott, was a career criminal who murdered two people four months after earning parole. His case became a cause célèbre when he refused to appeal his death sentence. Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States after the reinstatement of capital punishment. Mailer’s book, a novelized true crime story a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was The Executioner’s Song. Published in 1979, it won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Norman Mailer helped Jack Abbot win parole (By Grlucas - Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63095348)
Norman Mailer (By Grlucas – Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006)

When Jack Abbott learned about Mailer’s project, he wrote the author and the two struck up a correspondence. Abbot claimed that Gilmore had embellished his experiences and offered to provide Mailer a truer picture of life in prison. Mailer was instrumental in getting Abbott’s letters to him published in book from as In the Belly of the Beast. Mailer was also instrumental in obtaining parole for Abbott. Other supporters who helped in the effort include actor Christopher Walken and actress Susan Sarandon, and The New York Review editor Bob Silvers.

In the Belly of the Beast is a collection of letters Jack Abbott wrote to Norman Mailer about life in prison
In the Belly of the Beast book cover

Jack Abbott Kills Again

Jack Abbott moved into a halfway house in New York City and rubbed elbows with some of Mailer’s literary friends. But he preferred spending time with lowlifes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In the early hours of Saturday, July 18, 1981, Abbott and two women were at a the Binibon, a small restaurant on Second Avenue. Richard Adan, a 22-year-old actor and playwright working as a waiter, refused Abbott access to the employees-only restroom. Instead, Adan led Abbott outside to an alley to urinate where Abbott then stabbed him to death.

Fleeing New York, Abbott made his way briefly to Mexico. Not speaking Spanish proved to be a significant handicap. Therefore, he moved on to Louisiana, where he worked in the oil fields. A business owner recognized him and tipped off authorities.

During his trial for murder, Abbott repeatedly insulted Adan’s widow and claimed Adan “had no future as an actor.” His attorney, Ivan Fisher, managed to win an acquittal on murder charges, the jury convicting him of manslaughter instead. His influential supporters mostly stood by him, though. Mailer argued for a lenient sentence saying, “Culture is worth a little risk.” Cold comfort to the families of Adan and Christensen.

Epilogue

Following his return to prison, Jack Abbott saw his arty friends desert him. His second book, My Return, did not have the same glitzy reception as In the Belly of the Beast. Denied parole in 2001, hanged himself in his cell in February 2002, constructing a noose of bedsheets and shoelaces.

At the time, Norman Mailer defended his role in winning Abbot’s release. But in 1992, he told The Buffalo News that his involvement with Abbott was “another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in.”

Jack Abbott may have had literary talent (the point is debatable). But in the final analysis, he was a violent psychopath whose purported talent won him undeserved freedom.

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