Sam Melville and the mad bomber
Samuel Joseph Grossman took the name Melville from the Moby Dick author. In his mid-thirties, Sam Melville became increasingly angry. Sam Melville became actively opposed to apartheid and the Vietnam War. Sam Melville developed links with radical leftist groups. He also became interested in George Metesky, the Mad Bomber, who had been responsible for a series of bombings in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. Metesky’s bombing campaign was sparked by his grievance with his old employer, Consolidated Edison. Metesky had an accident at work and later lost his job. His application for compensation was not successful. Over the course of 17 years, Metesky placed 30 bombs in various places around New York. He would target public places. Although the targets usually had no connection to Consolidated Edison, often the bombs would contain notes critical of the company. Metesky also wrote to various newspapers, informing journalists that the bombings would continue until Consolidated Edison was held accountable for what they had done to him.The bombing campaign created real fear in the city because of the targets that Metesky chose. For example, Metesky would hide his bombs inside the upholstery of movie theatre seats. His devices injured 15 people, some seriously. He was arrested in 1957. He was found unfit to stand trial and spent more than a decade in a psychiatric institution.
In the mid-1960s, when Sam Melville became interested in Metesky’s history, Metesky was still in that psychiatric institution. Melville formed a small group of accomplices, including Jane Alpert, and together they began a bombing campaign of their own. The little band of accomplices, some of whom have never been identified, had loose ties with the Weather Underground and Black Panther Party. The first bombing took place on July 27,1969. Seven bombings followed until Melville was arrested on November 12,1969. Most of the bombings took place late at night. The targets were mainly corporate buildings, such as the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters, which Melville targeted on November 11. In some ways, we could link Melville with Metesky through the reference point concept. Metesky injured people but he did not kill anyone. There is no doubt that Melville tried in some way to emulate Metesky’s ‘one man’ assault on corporate America (Pickering 2007, p.8) and there is evidence to suggest that Melville’s reference point, taken from
Metesky, was ‘zero fatalities’. For a while, Melville would scrawl graffiti on walls across New York City that read‘George Metesky Was Here’.
We might be inclined to think that Kahneman &Tversky’s (1979) editing process is a more or less ordered sorting through of the alternative prospects. Indeed, sometimes Melville and Alpert devoted a great deal of time assessing the probability of success. For example, during 1969, Melville helped to hide two members of a Canadian terrorist group, Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ). He was as fascinated by their activities as he was with George Metesky. In determining whether it would be possible to help the two fugitives escape by hijacking a plane to Cuba, Alpert spent hours in the library figuring out the success rate of similar hijackings that, as we saw earlier, were occurring regularly at the time (Pickering 2007, p.10). At other times, Melville seemed to make his decisions on the move. In what is his most infamous bombing, the bombing of the Marine Midland Bank building on August 20,1969, Melville set the timer on some dynamite before knowing where he would actually place the bomb! According to Alpert, Melville told her that he just walked around Wall Street until he found a likely target. A corporate building. A glass tower. A building with a ‘phony sculpture’ in front (Pickering 2007, p. 19). The editing (and evaluation) of the alternative prospects was done with deliberation but not the sort of deliberation that we might usually associate with bombings.
Not surprisingly, Melville’s haste on this occasion led to a miscalculation. Melville’s bombings, as we mentioned, were carried out at night. Apart from the possibility that the bomb would not detonate or that more or less damage would be caused, the range of possible outcomes was fairly narrow That is, the risk was relatively low. Or at least it seemed to be. What Melville overlooked when he hastily chose the Marine Midland Bank building was the presence of staff working nightshift for the bank’s bookkeeping division. When the bomb exploded at 10.30 pm, around 20 people were injured. The news of the injuries was, according to Alpert, upsetting to Melville, who had not intended to hurt anyone (Pickering 2007, p.22). In this case, we might say that Melville attributed a negative value to injuries and fatalities, placing the value of injuries and fatalities below his reference point (zero). As such, the infliction of injuries was viewed by Melville as a loss. Prospect theory can help us see the decisions made by Melville and his group of accomplices in a new way. The role of predecessors to provide reference points and inspiration. The research of possible outcomes.The sometimes hasty editing and evaluation of alternatives.The divergence of actual outcomes from expected outcomes that is the very nature of the risk that makes risky prospects risky.The feelings of loss that loom larger than feelings of gain.