Research

Bruce Joshua Miller, editor of "Curiosity's Cats," recounts his experience trying to uncover details on New York "Mad Bomber" George P. Metesky. (Brad Sloan, Flickr RF photo)

"I have let loose enough information in my letters it seems to isolate a grain of sand in a bucket."

— From an anonymous letter George Metesky sent to a newspaper in 1956

As editor of "Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research," I had asked various writers — historians, journalists, novelists and a screenwriter/director — to compose original essays about their adventures in nondigital research. I suggested this might include describing face-to-face interviews, digging in libraries and archives, or visiting obscure and lonely patches of geography — anything a writer does to find background material. For my own essay, "The Mad Bomber Guy," I chose to relive an obsessive research quest that lasted 15 years or more, took me from Chicago to The Naugatuck Valley of Connecticut, Manhattan, Staten Island, towns and cities in New Jersey, and microfilm machines at 20 libraries across the country. This essay was the first publication resulting from my "Mad Bomber" phase.

This odyssey began in 1989 after I spotted a newspaper mention of George P. Metesky, an inventor, Marine veteran, devout Catholic and patriotic American of Lithuanian background who had in 1931, at age 28, suffered a workplace injury while employed by the United Electric Light & Power Co., a subsidiary of the Consolidated Gas Co. of New York.

He was working in the Bronx at the massive (aptly named) Hell Gate Generating Station in a brand new, 11-story, $5 million building housing two new boiler units. He was hit by a blast of gas while opening a generator door in the boiler room, and the combustion gases ruptured one of his lungs, causing pneumonia, he said, then tuberculosis. Immediately following the accident, he spat blood on the floor, and two co-workers witnessed this, he later said. He notified the foreman of his injury, but the foreman was unconcerned and asked him to perform taxing physical labor, "carrying heavy wood." After 20 minutes Metesky collapsed on the floor and was abandoned for two hours without help of any kind.

"Mr. F.W. Smith [president of Con Gas] was riding around on the soft cushions of a 16 cylinder Cadillac," Metesky wrote to the New York Journal-American. "Me, laying on concrete." He wrote this 25 years after the fact. The accident had left him unfit to hold a job, dependent mainly on his sisters for support.

By 1936 he had exhausted his appeals of the company's denial of his workers' compensation claim, and a few years later he began sending anonymous threatening letters to his former employer (which had since become known as Consolidated Edison), newspapers and prominent Manhattan businesses. He placed small pipe bombs in railroad stations, theaters and other public places. They were small but packed a punch. Fortunately, no one was killed. After he was arrested in January 1957, he was deemed unfit for trial and committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Metesky was paranoid, injured in body and spirit, and living in Waterbury, Conn., with his unmarried sisters, Anna and Mae, on the first floor of what we Chicagoans would call their three-flat, with tenants on the other floors. He manufactured his bombs on a lathe inside his garage, making springs and pipes from scratch so the parts could not be traced. Waterbury and the Naugatuck Valley has a rich history of manufacturing, including the production of bullets, an irony I found extremely compelling, since Metesky spent many hours opening .22 caliber shells and emptying out the powder to use in his bombs.

Reading about his idée fixe, eccentric family and the long-running and unsuccessful police investigation fascinated me. Once I started looking for information, the extracurricular activity sucked up my precious free time like a sponge. I came to see the Metesky case as something much greater than the sum of its parts, a story about labor history, technology, newspapers, psychiatry and the Doomsday culture of the 1950s. The time I spent trying to get to the bottom of the story was roughly equivalent to the 16 years New York City Police detectives tried to figure out his identity. The more I knew, the more I wanted to know.

Exactly what caused the boiler accident? Was there a connection between dangerous working conditions in the plant and the fact that this was a period of great transition at Consolidated Gas, including an all-out expansion at the Hell Gate Generating Station? And was Metesky schizophrenic, as the rather eccentric court-appointed psychiatrists (and separately, his criminal defense attorney, James D.C. Murray) asserted in their report?

Why had John J. Holland, the manager of property protection at Con Edison, deliberately stymied the police investigation? I scribbled these and many other questions and variations in notebooks, on legal pads and bits of paper as the years wore on.

I compiled lists of journalists, detectives and other police officials who had worked on the case, interviewed whomever I could, spoke with retired utility workers, a couple of psychiatrists involved in the case, spied on Metesky himself, and interviewed a few people who knew him.

Obsessiveness may conjoin a grandiosity of purpose with a wish to escape the weary, stale tedium of everyday life. By plunging headlong into the past, through research, a writer might (like E. Taylor Cheever, protagonist of Patricia Highsmith's short story "The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head") live in a world of his own making quite apart from the task of composing a narrative for publication.

While I learned a lot about Metesky's character during my research, the Mad Bomber turns out to have been a sort of MacGuffin that allowed me to explore the working lives of police detectives and journalists in the context of a bizarre news story and the last hurrah of the kind of journalism depicted in "The Front Page." I got the story behind the headlines 40 years later. But more than that, it was the stories I had collected as an unofficial oral historian that kept me coming back for more.

Through the interviews I conducted, the newspapers, books and police records I obtained, New York and Waterbury of the 1950s became the world of my imagination and my escape. Along the way, I had developed an exquisite infatuation with the idea of mid-20th century New York, something like Jan Morris' attitude in "Manhattan '45."

As I accumulated documents and information, I was like a squirrel gathering and burying nuts for a harsh winter: I planned to use them later, forever seeking fresh material, so some of what I had on hand, like some apparently marginal FBI reports I got through a Freedom of Information Act request, I never thoroughly read until asked to write my essay for "Curiosity's Cats."

When I met retired Det. John Justy at the Iroquois Hotel, then a shabby place (and almost charming in its eccentricity) on West 44th Street, in New York, he gave me two brown folders with yellowing pages he had gotten from Con Edison's Holland, who pretended to be very helpful to police while holding back documents that could have solved the case.

The pages are attached to the folders at the top with brass paper fasteners. The cover of one of them is labeled with hand-drawn letters and a pen-and-ink border, "Public Service Commission 1937-1939." The entries describe every imaginable kind of injury, including broken or dislocated bones, falls, head injuries, some fatal. One thing was apparent: Working at a utility company could be very dangerous.

Justy wasn't the only person to hand me irreplaceable original documents in the course of my research adventures. The thrill of holding a piece of history in your hands is an experience not to be missed. These things are a connection to the past in a way that digital culture cannot duplicate, carrying as they do, for good or ill, the imprint of the human hand.

One of the things I found riveting was that George Metesky was a writer who loved the sound of his own words. He wrote over 1,000 pages of letters during the course of his war against the Consolidated Edison Co. Unlike the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, he wrote no manifesto, and neither does it appear Metesky was trying to kill. He claimed he placed the bombs because no one paid attention to his letters. Lord, what a rejected writer might resort to!

Of course, there were more than a few bumps in my research road. A police reporter who began his career in the 1950s — and who was still working — threatened to kill me during a phone conversation. He was drunk, and felt other writers had exploited his experience in the past. And there were many documents I was never able to find.

But every essay in "Curiosity's Cats" describes obstacles to be overcome, puzzles to be solved, emotions to be salved, and questions of authenticity to be resolved.

Of the 13 essays in the book, mine stands out as a cautionary tale. At one time I thought of using the title, "How Not to Do Research," because I enjoyed the fruits of my labor far too much. My advice to writers is "research but write." Don't wait until you have gathered every conceivable fact or explored every area of interest. Put the collection away and start typing. Avoid what the novelist Margot Livesey calls in her essay, research's "siren song."

I sometimes think of research as a country: It's a place you reside temporarily to learn about other people, to listen sympathetically to their points of view, as you might a family member, while strengthening your connection to the past. One must be careful, though, not to stay too long.

Bruce Joshua Miller is editor of "Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research." He blogs at brucejquiller.wordpress.com.

"Curiosity's Cats"

Edited by Bruce Joshua Miller, Minnesota Historical Society, 291 pages, $18.95