Let me get one thing out of the way, and it is my only negative comment about Michael Greenburg's "The Mad Bomber of New York": it's the subtitle, "The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Parlayzed a City". George Metesky did not paralyze New York City, ever. Blackouts, strikes, blizzards and hurricanes may paralyze us, as well as planes flying into our skyscrapers. But no one person, with the possible exception of David Berkowitz, stopped New York's energy. Michael Greenburg even mentions that during the escalations in the bombings people engaged in nervous joking but they did their shopping and went to work. And each bombing or bomb discovery drew crowds of curiosity-seekers. (I was often reminded of Weegee's famous photographs of witnesses to crime scenes, many of which were taken during Metesky's rampage.) Okay, that's done. Sorry, but I get defensive about my town.
Notice my mini-rant (you don't want to see my long ones) did not affect the five-star rating, and that's because everything else about this book is on the money. Attorney Greenburg goes through great pains to explain that the fact that none of Metesky's detonations resulted in fatalities was based on nothing but luck. (Perhaps it is because of this lack of fatalities that Metesky's bombings, while laden with an aura of folklore, doesn't evoke memories of terror--nostalgia, maybe, not terror--among older New Yorkers.)
However, Greenburg reminds us that the NYPD was correct in treating these bombings as criminal acts of depraved indifference, and that Metesky was dangerous, to say the least. While we're on the subject of the police, Greenburg exhibits justifiable sympathy for its inability to quickly track Metesky down. Metesky was an out-of-towner. The source of Metesky's outrages occurred years before the bombings began. Metesky was meticulous and evasive. He knew how not to get caught, how not to leave a trail. In an age before computers, it was nearly impossible for law enforcement to collect miniscule data and search for patterns. The police of that time did the best they could.
Greenburg's best work in this book, to me, happens when he outlines how the Metesky case influenced so much in so many fields in New York and America. First and foremost, the Metesky case gave birth and credence to the science of psychological profiling of criminals. Dr. James A. Brussel's work on the case, which by no means perfect, got the ball rolling. He would be approached by law enforcement agencies across the nation for his expertise of the subject. Brussel, aptly regarded as the father of criminal profiling, would be a huge influence on Howard Teten, who, in turn, would provide the rock solid foundation of modern behavioral analysis.
The legal effects of the case (which Greenburg excels at describing) were also deep and rippling. The treatment, detention, indictment and incarceration of mentally ill suspects all changed in New York, and later the rest of America, because of what happened to Metesky. The McNaughton rule, an antiquated insanity law, was revamped in the 1960s because of this case. This change caused legislators to review and modernize their opinions on the rights and status of the criminally insane across the nation.
While the relationship between the press and the police had always been contentious at best in New York, the Metesky case showed how cooperation between the two could have outstanding results. Seymour Berkson and his Journal-American sacrificed huge bursts in circulation and profits by withholding letters written by Metesky from the public for the benefit of the investigation.
The physical and mental well-being of all inmates of institutions for the criminally insane had to be re-evaluated. Metesky's physical health deteriorated during his incarceration at Matteawan, as did his mental well-being. Metesky's complaints and charges against the institution brought a more liberal thinking (for better or worse, depending on your point of view) toward the treatment of the criminally insane. In 1976, New York restructured its delivery of mental health to the criminally insane and in the process shut Matteawan down.
It's ironic how one man's rampage brought about so many improvements.
And if that is not enough, Greenburg's accounts of the actual bombings, the investigations, and the city as it was, all those years ago, just give the book its additional pleasure and full dimensions. As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book. Whether your interest is in New York History or Psychology or true crime, you will enjoy this book, too.