James A. Brussel: the "Sherlock Holmes of the Couch".
Article Type: Case study
Subject: Psychiatrists (Myths and legends)
Psychiatrists (Practice)
Bombings (United States)
Bombings (Investigations)
Forensic sciences (Case studies)
Author: Ramsland, Katherine
Pub Date: 03/22/2009
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Spring, 2009 Source Volume: 18 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics; 980 Legal issues & crime Computer Subject: Company legal issue
Persons: Named Person: Brussel, James A.; Brussel, James A.
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 195323150

"He'll be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned." Such precise detail seemed amazing--even absurd--to the investigators who had just spent the afternoon with Dr. James A. Brussel, a psychiatrist based in Greenwich Village. They had shown him a collection of letters and photos from the unsolved 16-year spree of the infamous "Mad Bomber" of New York City. Although no bomb had yet been lethal, the attacks had grown more dangerous. Brussel studied the letters to deduce the unknown perpetrator's ethnicity, living conditions, skills, educational level, issues, and disorders. Eventually, the detectives made ah arrest and parts of the profile were ah impressive match--even to the offender's preference in clothing.

The mythic version of how a psychiatrist helped end the offender's attacks has been told in many venues, usually idealized, but just how Brussel worked and who he was has been overlooked. He called his method "my own private blend of science, intuition, and hope." Brussel wasn't always right, but over half a century ago he did help launch what is now a veritable industry in forensic behavioral assessment.

Playing the Odds

More than 3 dozen explosions occurred in Manhattan between 1940 and 1956, in public places such as Radio City Music Hall and Grand Central Station. The perpetrator had sent a barrage of angry letters to the area newspapers, politicians, and a utility company, Consolidated Edison. In 1956, psychiatrist James A. Brussel--also a skilled handwriting analyst--was asked for an analysis to help catch the perpetrator. At the time, he was an associate of the chief of New York's Bureau of Missing Persons and had spoken at several conventions for police chiefs. The idea of using a psychiatric consultant for crime scene analysis was unprecedented, but the detectives had tried everything else. Thus, three investigators showed Brussel whatever they had.

Expecting to find a method to the bomber's madness, Brussel studied the crime-related material and provided details that same afternoon: Because the first letter had been sent to Consolidated Edison, he surmised that the offender was probably a former employee with a grudge. Because bombs were the weapons of choice, he thought the perpetrator was most likely a male European immigrant, which also revealed his likely religion: Roman Catholic. His progressively more paranoid messages placed his age between 40 and 50 and suggested he was a fastidious loner. Thus, he probably lived with an older female--a mother figure--who took care of his basic needs. Because the letters were often mailed in Westchester County, if one considered this to be halfway between his home and his target, he probably resided in an ethnic community not far from the city.

From the letters, Brussel outlined a few more traits and behaviors: The bomber probably attended church and was quiet, polite, and helpful, although he would have difficulty managing his anger. He would also be miserly; hence, the old-fashioned suit. In addition, although the Mad Bomber had been meticulous in his missives about forming each letter of the alphabet with straight lines, the 'w' was always rounded. This signaled to the Freudian psychiatrist sexual issues and a deep love for his mother.

Years later, Brussel explained his reasoning in his 1968 memoir, Casebook of a Forensic Psychiatrist. His deductions were based on simple probability, flavored by his clinical experience. He did offer erroneous notions about the offender, such as having a facial scar, being of Germanic extraction, and living in White Plains, New York, but having no precedent for such an analysis, Brussel was cutting his own pattern.

He also suggested a strategy for how to use his analysis. Upon completing the profile, Brussel urged the police to publish it in the newspapers, because he was certain from the emotional tone in the letters it would draw a response. The Bomber wanted people to see how important he was, which he seemed to measure by newspaper coverage.

Brussel's suggestion worked. Although the profile sparked several false leads and drew an abundance of tips that wasted police resources, the perpetrator did respond, pointing out errors and revealing the date of the incident that had so angered him. With that, it was possible for Consolidated Edison to check through its abundant employee records. Early in 1957, a clerk broke the case when she matched unique phrases the Bomber had used to phrases in written complaints to the company.

When the police finally arrested George Metesky, age 54, in Waterbury, Connecticut, he was in his robe and pajamas. He did live with two unmarried older sisters and was of the correct ethnicity and religion. He owned a typewriter, which was matched to the letters, and had a workshop stocked with tools and materials for making the bombs. The police told him to get dressed, and he returned (according to Brussel's memoir) buttoning up a double-breasted suit. Nevertheless, it was not the profile's details that had assisted the police, but the way it had provoked Metesky to reveal himself.

Despite Brussel's warning that a psychiatric analysis might influence tunnel vision, which could mislead rather than lead, he continued to be in demand for similar consultations, and he included six such tales in his memoir. In each, he studied what the criminals did to deduce who they were. Although he took pride in being consulted and always believed he was right, in light of what we now know about criminal behavior, his analysis of the series of 11 murders in Boston from 1962-64 seems unsophisticated, even amusing.

Success Breeds Confidence

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and its medical school, Brussel served a psychiatric residency during the 1930s on Long Island before he became chief of the Army's neuropsychiatric service at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He then went to New York to take charge of the Army's mentally ill criminals. During the Korean war, he served another military stint, returning to Manhattan where he would eventually become assistant commissioner for the Department of Mental Hygiene. Along the way, he consulted on counter-espionage tactics for the FBI and CIA.

When Gerold Frank, author of The Boston Strangler, penned a foreword to Brussel's memoir, he described the psychiatrist as a "wiry, sharp-witted, no-nonsense super sleuth" and likened him to Sherlock Holmes, with a "loud voice" and "strong opinions." By this time, Brussel had already published half a dozen books, including a crime mystery and something akin to the idiot's guide to psychiatry. Because Frank was writing a definitive book about the Boston spree, he was interested in Brussel's opinion of the type of killer or killers who had committed the series of brutal stranglings.

The first victim, on June 14, 1962, was Anna Slesers, age 55, found in her home with the cord from her bathrobe wrapped around her neck. She had been sexually assaulted. Two weeks later, 68-year-old Nina Nichols was strangled with two nylon stockings, the ends of which were tied in a bow. On the same day, Helen Blake, 65, meta similar death. Soon, two more elderly women were strangled in their homes.

Then the assault pattern shifted to young women, killed in their apartments: Sophie Clark, 20, an African-American student at the Carnegie Institute of Medical Technology, and Patricia Bissette, 23, who had resided near Anna Slesers and Sophie Clark. Four months after Bissette, 68-year-old Mary Brown was found beaten, strangled and raped. But then came graduate student Beverly Samans.

Boston was in a turmoil. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke set up a "Strangler Bureau" to collect, organize, and assimilate more than 37,000 documents. Hundreds of suspects were fingerprinted and more than 3 dozen given lie-detector tests. Every known sex offender was tracked down and patient leaves from mental institutions were checked, but the police were so stymied they resorted to consulting a nightclub psychic.

On September 8, Evelyn Corbin, a 58-year-old divorcee, was strangled with two nylon stockings 2 months before a younger woman, Joann Graff, was raped and murdered in her apartment. Two brown nylon stockings and a black leotard were tied in an elaborate bow around her neck. The final victim was 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, murdered in an apartment into which she had recently moved. The killer had thrust a broomstick handle into her vagina and propped a card against her foot that said, "Happy New Year."

Several psychiatrists, including Dr. Brussel, were consulted. Given the diverse victimology, quite a few of these professionals believed there was more than one killer, but Brussel insisted that one man had committed all the crimes. To explain the shifting patterns, he suggested a series of life upheavals.

"What has happened to him, in two words," Brussel recalled saying, "is instant maturity. In this 2-year period, he has suddenly grown, psychosexually, from infancy to puberty to manhood." That is, the Strangler had struck out at his mother, symbolized by the elderly women. Once he came to terms with his Oedipal Complex, he was able to sexually respond to younger women, as evidenced by semen at those scenes. But he was still angry, so he continued to kill. "He had to commit these murders to achieve his growth. It was the only way to solve his problems, find himself sexually, and to become a grown man among men." However, Brussel did not explain why the offender had killed two older women in the midst of his attacks on the younger women. He did believe that, with the over-the-top sexual treatment of Mary Sullivan, the killer was finished--even triumphant. He had been cured of his aberrations. And the murders did appear to stop.

On November 5, 1964, Albert DeSalvo was arrested for a series of rapes. He soon confessed to being the Boston Strangler, and his attorney F. Lee Bailey worked out a deal that would send him to trial for only his sexual offenses, but including details from the murders to support an insanity defense.

Brussel was proud to have been among the few who "knew" that the murders were the work of a single perpetrator. To his surprise, Bailey invited him to join the defense team, which gave Brussel the opportunity to interview DeSalvo. He conducted two long sessions, whereupon he learned something that contradicted his theory. DeSalvo had never been impotent. Quite the opposite. He'd been sexually insatiable and claimed to have committed more than 1,000 rapes. He certainly had dozens on his record.

Nevertheless, Brussel believed they could prove that DeSalvo was mentally ill and unable to control himself during the commission of each crime. He readily agreed to serve as an expert witness, hoping to get treatment for DeSalvo in a psychiatric institution rather than incarceration. Yet, Brussel conducted only two interviews with the notorious defendant and undertook no standardized assessment; he appears to have accepted whatever DeSalvo told him. Despite his optimism, DeSalvo was convicted and sent to prison for life. Apparently, the jury was not as easily swayed.

It remains unknown whether physical evidence would have corroborated DeSalvo's confession (for which he believed he would be paid a substantial reward), and he would eventually recant, putting into doubt not only that he was the Strangler but also that a single perpetrator had committed all the murders. (A recent exhumation of the final victim, Mary Sullivan, cleared DeSalvo of her murder with a DNA analysis, and this finding raised doubts about the rest of his confession.)

In retrospect, with more now known about the motives and behavior of predatory serial killers, it seems native to theorize that murdering older women would "resolve" a predator's "mother issues" and "graduate" him to younger women. Brussel had also concluded that with Mary Sullivan the Strangler was finished. This prediction, too, is undermined by probability--Brussel's own favorite tool. Crime does not cure killers, and serial murderers rarely just stop, especially when their crimes have grown more frequent and brutal. Even if Brussel were correct that DeSalvo was the killer, DeSalvo's own sexual history defies any notion that he could so decisively control his criminal acts.

The Legacy of the Hunch

"A psychiatrist's dominant characteristic," Brussel writes, "is his curiosity. He wonders about people." Whenever asked by reporters what proportion of his assessments was based in science, he would tell them he always began with science, but then intuition and imagination would take over. Even so, he'd check his hunches against research data, and he trusted the law of averages. Mostly, he used mental immersion. "When you think about an unknown criminal long enough, when you've assembled all the known facts about him and poked at them and stirred them about in your mind, you begin to see the man. These words impressed someone at the FBI: Special Agent Howard Teten read Brussel's Casebook and knew he had to learn more.

With rising murder rates during the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI had received expanded jurisdiction, especially for serial crimes. At the FBI Academy, a handful of agents were teaching ideas from psychology and sociology--disciplines routinely snubbed by law enforcement. Teten was among them, with his course, "Applied Criminology," and he had developed a method of behavioral analysis that he'd tested successfully on already-solved cases. Brussel's ideas seemed to offer another layer.

In 1973, Teten met Brussel, now retired, and they struck up an association. Over the course of that year, Teten learned Brussel's method for analyzing unknown offenders from behavioral manifestations ("psychological impressions") at a crime scene. He thought Brussel's approach offered more detail from psychological analysis, but he believed his own ensured fewer errors. He was also uninterested in Freudian explanations. Teten blended the two methodologies, developing criminal profiling for the fledgling Behavioral Science Unit (now the Behavioral Analysis Unit). Brussel's unique tool was now in the hands of an agency that could "spread the wealth."

In 1982, the father of criminal profiling died at the age of 77. His application of psychiatry to the investigation of crime has earned him recognition as a true pathfinder.


Brussel, J. (1968). Casebook of a forensic psychiatrist. New York: Dell.

Foster, D. (2000). Author unknown New York: Henry Holt. Frank, G. (1966). The Boston strangler. New York: New American Library.

Gladwell, M. (2007). "Dangerous Minds." The New Yorker. November 12.

"James A. Brussel, Criminologist, is Dead." New York Times. October 23, 1982.

Jeffers, H. P. (1991). Who killed precious? New York: Dell.

Ewing, C and J. T. McCann. (2006). Minds on trial. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thorwald, J. (1964). The century of the detective. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wilson, C. (2007). Serial killer investigations. West Sussex: Summersdale.

Know Victims of the Boston Strangler

1. Anna Slesers, age 55, June 14, 1962

2. Mary Mullen, age 85, June 28, 1962

3. Nina Nichols, age 68, June 30, 1962

4. Helen Blake, age 65, June 30, 1962

5. Da Irga, age 75, August 19, 1962

6. Jane Sullivan, age 67, August 20, 1962

7. Sophie Clark, age 20, December 5, 1962

8. Patricia Bissette, age 23, December 31, 1962

9. Mary Brown, age 69, March 9, 1963

10. Beverley Samans, age 23, May 6, 1963

11. Evelyn Corbin, age 58, September 8, 1963

12. Joann Graff, age 23, November 23, 1963

13. Mary Sullivan, age 19, January 4, 1964

Information retrieved from http://www. allserialkillers.com/boston_strangler.htm


By Stuart

Swenson, EdD,

Timothy Brown,

EdD, and David

Plebanski, PhD

Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V, has published 34 books, including True Stories of CSI and Beating the Devil's Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation. Dr. Ramsland is an associate professor of forensic psychology and the department chair at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners International since 1998.
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