Brussel and the "Mad Bomber"

In the 1950s, a series of bombs exploded in the Garment District of New York City. Neatly-penned notes arrived at police headquarters, claiming responsibility. After studying the notes, psychiatrist James Brussel was able to provide police with a detailed description of the bomber.

How did Brussel describe the "mad bomber"?

"He goes out of his way to seem perfectly proper, a regular man. He may attend church regularly. He wears no ornament, no jewelry, no flashy ties or clothes. He is quiet, polite, methodical, prompt... Education: at least two years of high school. The letters seem to show that. They also suggest that he's foreign-born or living in some community of the foreign-born...He is a Slav... One more thing," I said, my eyes closed tight. "When you catch him—and I have no doubt you will—he'll be wearing a double-breasted suit....And it will be buttoned," I said. (Brussel, 1968)

Brussel assumed the bomber would be a middle-aged man because paranoia most often afflicts middle-aged males. Brussel assumed the man was "exact, precise, neat, clean" because the letters in the notes from the Mad Bomber were printed neatly and meticulously, with no errors, erasures, or crossed out words. The Mad Bomber's peculiar use of English suggested to Brussel that he was foreign-born, or had grown up with recent immigrants. For example, the Mad Bomber referred repeatedly to "the Con Edison" in his notes. "New Yorkers had been calling it just plain Con Ed for decades."

How did Brussel come up with his description?

Similar clues led Brussel to other predictions. Brussel was using correlations—knowledge of things that have occurred together in the past—to make predictions about the criminal. A person who writes an extremely neat, handwritten note will usually be neat in other ways. When Brussel solved the case (the late 1940s) a very neat man was likely to be wearing a double-breasted suit in public. Peculiarities in the man's use of English reminded Brussel of the Slavic languages. Brussel was using intuitions which, with sufficient research, might be represented by correlation statistics.


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