Inside the story of the Sunday Bomber, the New York City terrorist that was never caught

New York Times

New York City is currently undergoing a bit of a crime wave on the subway. 2015 saw a 20% spike in robberies and a 15% rise in felony assaults on the MTA. Citywide, January 2016 was the safest month the MTA had seen on record—except for the pesky increase in the number of slashings that occurred on the streets and trains alike, harkening back to the pre-Giuliani New York that seemed to have a new, lurid tale of subway crime every week.

These slashings might be a copycat crime, which is especially likely given the increase in media coverage each incident receives, but there's no way to know for sure. That said, even with the uptick in crime on the subway, this pales in comparison to the story of the Sunday Bomber, a terrorist who struck public transportation multiple times in 1960, killing one and injuring dozens more, sending the city into a bit of hysteria before disappearing, never to be found and face prosecution.


The bombings seem to have been forgotten, relegated to one sentence asides in accounts of terrorism from the era. The Sunday Bomber captured the city's attention that fall, reminding New York residents of George Metesky, the Mad Bomber of Waterbury, who terrorized the city for 17 years before his capture in 1956. Like the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski close to 40 years later, Metesky was identified after sending taunting notes to the press. The Sunday Bomber left notes, but managed to escape discovery.

The Sunday Bomber's attacks started on Sunday, October 2, "when a crude bomb exploded in shrubbery at the north end of Times Square," injuring six. At a nearby movie theater, a note was found addressed to Police Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy, it read:


“please forgive me for the first bomb but I have to kill 100 people in one week. I am sick like before. The next bomb will be Oct. 3, 1960 at a Times Square show.”

It was signed, “The Sick."


After the note was discovered, the police got their first description of a suspect, who was seen dropping a plain white envelope that contained the letter to Commissioner Kennedy. He was described “as being about 32 years old, of slight build and wearing a gray shirt and gray slacks."

The second bombing actually occurred the following Sunday, near the New York City Public Library on 40th St. and 5th Ave. No one was injured in that explosion, but several windows were shattered. This bomb was also placed in shrubbery.


The third bombing happened on Columbus Day in the Times Square subway station. Thirty-three people were injured, but a teenager on the scene was able to make a detailed description to "a Transit Authority artist" after seeing a man kneeling near where the bomb was planted and two sketches were produced and released to the public.


But the sketch didn't win over the NYPD, for whatever reason.

“We are not going to send the whole force out looking for this one man when, for all we know now, it may be a woman who set the bomb,” one police official said.


Following the third attack, the Times reported on just what sort of penalties the perpetrators would face if caught:

"Attempted murder, endangering life by the malicious placing of an explosive in or near a building, violation of the Sullivan Law (carrying concealed weapons), felonious assault, and damaging a building by explosion. All are felonies, carrying penalties of from seven to twenty-five years."


After three bombings, police were certain though, that they were all the work of the same perpetrator. All three bombs were fuse devices, meaning whoever set the bombs was near the scene shortly before the explosions. However, all three incidents also had reports of two young men fleeing the scene shortly before the bombs went off.

The fourth bombing, October 23, finally broke the Midtown pattern, being set and exploding on the Staten Island Ferry as it passed the Statue of Liberty, blowing a two-foot hole in the deck, but leaving none injured because it was left under a seat, by a life-jacket container, in an empty area of the ship reserved for female passengers. Police stopped and detained several passengers after the ferry docked in Staten Island, but it quickly became clear that the bomber has successfully placed the bomb onboard and left the ferry before it departed from Manhattan.


Two boys told police that they witnessed "a big, fat man" sitting in the Manhattan terminal with a box "containing a lot of coils" who did not travel on the ferry.


Lt. Thomas Cavanagh, who was in charge of the investigation, declared it "obvious" that the bomber was not trying to injure anyone since the explosion occurred in an unoccupied area on the boat.

The bomber's intent became much clearer the next time he or she struck.


The fifth bombing was Sunday, November 6, at the IND line's 125th St. stop (in Harlem). It injured another 18 people, leaving the number of wounded at 57. It also caused the first fatality of the spree, after Sandra Breland, a 17-year-old from Bushwick, and a daughter of a Transit Authority employee, was unlucky enough to be sitting directly under the bomb. Two friends were traveling with Breland and were critically injured.

The Times managed an oddly poetic description of the carnage:

The floor of the car was covered with shattered glass. Personal items were scattered here and there—a gray glove, a handkerchief, an earring.


However, police weren't convinced this was the same bomber as dynamite was used in the on-train blast and "black powder" had been found at the previous explosion sites.

A potential sixth bombing at another movie theater was foiled later that day when it malfunctioned and did not go off.


Commissioner Kennedy urged the public to lend a hand in stopping the bomber, saying: “The perpetrator is a dangerous person and must be apprehended as quickly as possible."

To better assist the public, Kennedy re-assigned 500 additional detectives, bringing the number to 600, to solve the case, and turned the case over to Chief of Detectives James B. Leggett.


Weeks later, the police had a suspect in custody and sent him to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Walter Long was, at the time, "a 29-year-old powder-shack watchman who had escaped from a mental hospital" that July. Police were tipped off to Long after checking construction union records for men with histories of mental illness. A detail was put on Long and police thought they lost him when he did not report to work. In a turn of events too bizarre to be fake, he had lost the cops while traveling to a police station to complain about being spied on by detectives.

Long matched the descriptions the police had received from witnesses.

During a police interrogation, he placed himself near the first four bombings and admitted to stealing "blasting materials," but denied being the bomber.


While at Bellevue, Chief of Detectives Leggett called Long "a prime, hot suspect." However, while still under suspicion, he was transferred back to the hospital he escaped and press mentions of him dry up. One of the last mentions is in an article that lays out the science of stopping future bombers. Leggett retired about a month later, and died a year after that.

Perhaps Long was the bomber. He was present at four of the five scenes, had a troubling background, and admitted he had stolen explosives. Also, the bombings stopped when Long was readmitted to a mental health facility. Even if it wasn't him, the perpetrator was probably caught and convicted of a different crime. Or became the Zodiac Killer across the country. The case has never officially been solved and, since its likely that most of the parties involved are no longer living, it probably won't ever be.


David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him:

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