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Exploring The Criminal Mind: The Origins of Criminal Profiling

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This entry was posted on 5/18/2006 4:56 PM and is filed under Psychology,Science,Educational,Interesting.

The CBS drama criminal minds is the latest in a long line of TV series, films and books that have featured FBI profilers.

The notion that to catch a criminal, you have to think like one is an interesting concept in itself; but when the criminal in question is a notorious serial killer in the mould of Hannibal Lecter then the concept becomes utterly fascinating.

Attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible is why real life profilers write books with titles like 'Journey into Darkness' (John Douglas) and 'I have lived in the monster' (Robert Ressler)

There was a time when the most dangerouscriminal minds went unstudied. There were no elite groups of profilers working day and night to establish the type of person responsible for the worst type of crimes, why they were carrying them out and crucially what they would do next.

So where did it all begin?

Well to discover how a double breasted jacket literally made criminal profiling fashionable, read on.

The psychiatrist Dr James A. Brussel is widely credited with undertaking the first systematic offender profile within a criminal investigation. It was a profile of the person responsible for a series of indiscriminate bombing attacks spanning 16 years in New York, that began in November 1940.

Background to the case:

The first bomb was left at the business premises of the electric company Consolidated Edison, although it did not detonate (arguably by design), as when it was discovered it was found to be wrapped in a note which read ‘CON EDISON CROOKS, THIS IS FOR YOU’.

A year later a similar device was discovered. At this point, neither incident had been reported in the press.

When American involvement in the Second World War began the bomber sent a typed letter to the police stating

I will make no more bomb units for the duration of the war, my patriotic feelings have made me decide this, later I will bring the Con Edison to justice, they will pay for their dastardly deeds.

In fact the bomber did not make another bomb for nine years, although he did send more threatening typed letters and hand written letters to the police, politicians and Consolidated Edision.

It was March 1950 when a third unexploded bomb was discovered. This was the calm before the storm, a fourth bomb exploded at the New York Public Library followed by another shortly afterwards at Grand Central station. In the next six years over 30 bombs were planted, the vast majority of which went off.

Despite the fact that no one had been killed there was a genuine sense of fear that it was just a matter of time. Public and political pressure grew on the police force to catch the bomber. In response to this pressure, Dr James A. Brussel was asked to generate a profile of the bomber in the hope that it would help focus the investigation. This is what he came up with.

The Criminal profile:

Male, former employee of Consolidated Edison, injured while working there so seeking revenge, paranoid, 50 years old, neat and meticulous persona, foreign background, some formal education, unmarried, living with female relatives but not mother who probably died when he was young, upon capture he will be wearing a buttoned up double breasted jacket.

The logic behind the profile:

Most of Brussel’s observations were based on common sense e.g. male (like the vast majority of bombers); and the aspects of the profile relating to his former employer Consolidated Edison were obvious from the content of the letters he posted.

Other aspects of the criminal profiling were Sherlock Holmes like in their deductive nature. Take for example the claim that the bomber was foreign, Brussel believed this to be the case because he wrote in an over formal way e.g. ‘dastardly deeds’. However, in terms of its lasting legacy, the most significant parts of the profile were based on Brussel’s psychiatric and psychoanalytical interpretations.

Brussel believed that the bomber had an ‘Oedipal complex’ and most Oedipal sufferers tend to be unmarried and live with female relatives, hence it’s inclusion in the criminal profiling. He formulated this observation on what he saw as the phallic construction of the bombs and the way in which he wrote ‘breast-like’ W’s in the hand written letters he posted. Also when he planted bombs in movie theatres, Brussel noted that the offender would often ‘slash’ and ‘penetrate’ the seats.

Criminal profiling based recommendations:

Brussel suggested that the police publicise their investigation along with the profile description of the bomber. In Brussel’s opinion the bomber wanted credit for his work and it was this arrogance that would lead to his downfall.

Every major newspaper in New York gave details of the profile and although this resulted in a number of false leads the real bomber phoned Brussel warning him against any further involvement.

At the same time staff at Consolidated Edison had been asked to search all their employee files for anyone who appeared to match the bombers profile.

A member of staff came across the file of George Metesky. Metesky had an accident at work and had filed an unsuccessful disability claim against the company. In response to the failed disability claim he wrote a number of letters to the company, one of which referred to their ‘dastardly deeds’.

George Metesky was arrested shortly afterwards. As he was been taken to the police station, were he immediately confessed, people didn't fail to notice that he was wearing a buttoned up double breasted jacket!

If you'd like to find out more about criminal profiling, including how the FBI built on the work of Dr James A. Brussel you can do so by visiting

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