If you live in Rockaway, you’re sure to have heard of Fort Tilden. You may be aware of the many roles it held in its lifetime; coastal defense, Nike missile site, and, prior to its official establishment in 1917, naval airfield. However, did you know that Fort Tilden played a small but crucial part in aiding a sixteen-year, citywide manhunt for one of the most notorious criminals in New York history? Sixty-six years ago, Fort Tilden served as the disposal site for the incendiary devices of the original “Mad Bomber,” George Metesky.
Metesky, a disgruntled ex-employee for Con Edison, built dozens of pipe bombs and set them to detonate in public spaces around Manhattan, hoping to draw attention to his alleged wrongful firing by the company. From 1951 to 1956, his homemade explosives rocked the city, spreading fear throughout the population. While few were seriously injured and none died, Metesky’s bombs could appear anywhere, from rental lockers to movie theater seat cushions, and in such heavily trafficked areas as Grand Central Station and the Radio City Music Hall.
Despite Metesky’s scheming, public vigilance combined with sheer luck sometimes uncovered the bombs before they could explode. On Dec. 24, 1956, when a New York Public Library employee bent down to retrieve a fallen dime, they discovered a bomb stuck to the back of a phone booth. They alerted the police and averted disaster. However, their call raised another question: where do you take a bomb in a city of over 7.8 million people? The answer lay fourteen miles south, at Fort Tilden.
In the 1940s, Fort Tilden served as a key point in New York’s coastal defense, protecting the harbor from naval and air invasions. Bunkers casemated with cement dotted the grounds, and while they were originally meant to protect the soldiers inside from falling bombs, the principle worked just as well in reverse. Members of New York’s still relatively new bomb squad removed the bomb from the library and transported it to the fort in a truck comprised of woven steel mats. Once there, soldiers secured the bomb in a special plastic container and placed it in an unused bunker to await study and controlled detonation. The same process occurred with unexploded devices discovered at Penn Station and the Paramount Theater.
Of Metesky’s thirty-two improvised bombs, seven were either duds or safely removed before detonation. The opportunity to study their construction gave NYPD detectives vital information to narrow down the manhunt. In the end, officers arrested Metesky at his home in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1957. He confessed to his crimes, but a judge declared him mentally unfit to stand trial. His commitment to a psychiatric hospital ended the story of the truly “Mad” Bomber, and New York breathed a sigh of relief. As peace returned and the events slowly faded from mind, Fort Tilden remained, overlooked but ever vigilant, to protect the city from threats both foreign and domestic.
By Jonathon Ahl
Intern for the National Park Service at Gateway