This is a book about madness—madness and gunpowder.
In these pages lives a serial bomber, a paranoid schizophrenic who, for a long, harrowing stretch of the 1950s, convulsed New York with dread. The nearly three dozen homemade explosives he set off in public places brought into being a culture of fear more than four decades before terrorism became an American fixation. He embodied everything unnerving about the years W. H. Auden called "the age of anxiety." Whatever cruelty they inflicted, the century's two great wars were at least fathomable. The bomber was not. He was like a dream distortion of postwar disquiet—unhinged, unrelenting, perpetually hidden in city shadows.
The bomber had a rightful grievance against an uncaring employer. His resentment transmogrified into a consuming rage. The venom spouted from a dark psychic hole where logic does not go. I correct myself: where normal logic does not go. Schizophrenics follow their own logic. We just don't understand it.
The NYPD certainly didn't understand it. The famously tough-minded New York detectives stumbled and fumbled, as a harassing band of newspaper reporters detailed at every turn. For more than a century the police had relied on muscle and shoe leather to collar bad guys. The street corner respected the billy club, and that was that. But the reliable strong-arm methods proved useless in the face of a schizophrenic serial bomber. "Seldom in the history of New York," wrote the Associated Press, "has a case proved such a torment to police."
The bomber's rampage came at a time when science was transforming the way Americans thought about the world around them. Jonas Salk came up with the polio vaccine, eradicating a disease that had crippled hundreds of thousands. Bell Labs paved the way for modern electronics, and all that came with it, by inventing the silicon transistor. Physicist Edward Teller created the hydrogen bomb.
Scientific advancements, however, did not elevate policing, at least not in New York. The NYPD's corrupt precinct captains and stubborn commanders resisted new methods promoted by college-educated criminologists—until the serial bomber forced them to adapt. With the manhunt reaching critical urgency, the police took the unprecedented step of asking a psychiatrist what the forensic evidence revealed about the bomber's troubled inner life. What strange sort of person was he, and what wounding life experience led to his murderous avocation? In other words, they asked the psychiatrist to invent a new criminal science, one that would peer into the mind of the bomber. The term profiling would not be coined for another two decades.
Until then the only investigators who had drawn portraits of a criminal's emotional history existed in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes could size up the evidence and bring blackmailers and assassins to mind with photographic precision. Could a psychiatrist do the same in real life? Could life imitate a murder mystery?
Today art mostly imitates life. Television and movies have so inundated us with fictional accounts of profiling that we easily lose sight of what a breakthrough it was in 1957. Every one of today's profilers, real or televised, traces his or her lineage back to the psychiatrist who depicted the serial bomber with uncanny accuracy.
What follows is an account of profiling's beginnings. Everything in these pages is true, including the quotations (though the bomber's thoughts are speculation). Like any resonant story it contains at its heart an unanswerable question: Can science alone grasp the intricacies of the human mind, or does true understanding require the reverberative powers of intuition? How does one apprehend the wits of a madman?
These questions gripped me as I worked on this book over the past three years. Along the way I came to understand that to write about madness is to write about one's self, however obliquely.
The virtuous man is content to dream what a wicked man really does. —PLATO
Everybody has a hunch occasionally. —DR. JAMES BRUSSEL
Shortly after lunch on a cold December morning in 1956, a trio of New York City detectives stepped out the back door of the copper-domed police headquarters looming like a dirty gray temple above the tenements and trattorias of Little Italy. Across the street, half-shrouded in winter shadow, a revolver-shaped sign hung outside John Jovino's, the oldest gun store in the city, if not the country, where patrolmen bought the .38 Specials slung on their hips. Directly above Jovino's hung a fire escape where Weegee, the dean of tabloid photographers, perched with his boxy black Graflex flashbulb camera for choice views of handcuffed mobsters and murderers dragged in for booking. Down the block, on the corner of Grand Street, was a German restaurant called Headquarters. Under its carved mahogany ceiling, at a lengthy oak bar, the top brass took their off-duty rye and beer. Officers requiring discretion could enter the bar through an underground tunnel.