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Mad Bomber Melville: Part One

Sam Melville grew up in Tonawanda in the 1930s and 1940s and was killed in the famed 1971 Attica prison uprising. In between, Melville waged an urban guerrilla war in Manhattan against government agencies and corporations driving the Vietnam War effort, inspiring a flood of similar revolutionary activity in the 1970s.

Leslie James Pickering is a Buffalo native with a master’s degree in history and journalism and a strong background in radical social justice. Pickering’s biography of Melville, Mad Bomber Melville, will be available in mid-June at Look for it locally at Rust Belt Books and Talking Leaves. The following is an excerpt from the book, the first of four.

For a while Sam drifted, living off odd jobs and unemployment until he got work teaching plumbing design at a trade school through the winter and spring of 1968.

That’s when radical activity around Columbia University caught Sam’s interest. He quit his teaching job and began working for an underground newspaper called The Guardian, making $50 a week for delivery and handy-work around the office. Sam was approaching his mid-thirties and wasn’t a student, but he began attending Peace and Freedom Party rallies and joined the Community Action Committee (C.A.C.).

The C.A.C. was a group of a couple dozen Columbia students, Upper West Side radicals and working-class tenants who were organizing against Columbia University’s tenant evictions. Columbia was evicting tenants living in apartments that the university wanted to tear down to build an eight-story gymnasium. It was at a C.A.C. demonstration that Sam was first arrested for refusing to vacate an eviction site. The arrest was featured on the television news, showing Sam walking sternly as the police led him into the paddy wagon.

It was also through the C.A.C. that Sam met Jane Alpert. The group organized a sit-in against the eviction of the St. Marks Arms tenants on West 112th Street. Sam saw Jane reading the newspaper there and made his move. He swapped Jane’s copy of the New York Times for a current issue of The Guardian. They got take-out from a nearby coffee shop and Jane gave Sam a check for a year’s subscription of The Guardian. She gave Sam her phone number on the back of the check.

Jane got a call from Sam a week later asking if he could drop by her apartment. He was there in five minutes wearing the same boots, work shirt and jeans he wore at the sit-in.

Jane never met anyone like Sam before. He was more than six-feet-tall, with a broad chest and shoulders, two different colored eyes, very defined features…and he was a revolutionary.

“This country’s about to go through a revolution,” he told her. “I expect it to happen before the decade is over and I intend to be a part of it.”

“That winter the talk around our kitchen table turned increasingly to guerrilla action,” Jane remembered. “The argument went like this: if the movement was dying, it was because the movement had never really learned how to fight. We had to stop acting like coddled children, scared off by a few arrests, a couple canisters of tear gas.”

B ack in 1961, Sam’s natural tendency to disobey senseless authority got him a $50 fine when he was cited for refusing to take cover during an air-raid drill.

The first time Sam ever went to a protest, police were raiding a student strike at Columbia University. Sam tried to convince the students to fight back and started dragging 50-gallon garbage cans to the roof of the Low Library to hurl onto the police below. He tried to get the students to join him, but they only scattered in fear and confusion. Police grabbed Sam in the act, dragged him into a building, clubbed him and left him tied to a chair. Sam could never understand why nobody would fight back.

The movement wasn’t moving enough for Sam, and he wanted to give it a push, so he took to graffiti. He started writing “George Metesky Was Here” on the sides of buildings across New York City.

George Metesky was committed to the Matteawan Asylum for the Criminally Insane after he admitted to planting dozens of pipe bombs around New York City from 1940 to 1956. When Metesky’s bombs weren’t duds, they usually erupted in public places, like movie theaters and library telephone booths, injuring a number of innocent people and leaving investigators at a loss. His enemy was his former employer and energy giant, Consolidated Edison. Metesky credited his tuberculosis to an injury he got on the job at Consolidated Edison that the company refused to compensate him for.

Metesky’s first bomb was found on a windowsill of a Consolidated Edison building with a handwritten note attached, reading, “Con Edison crooks, this is for you.” Later notes, written in cut-out letters from newspapers and magazines, were mailed threatening, “I will make Con Edison sorry. I will bring them before the bar of Justice—public opinion will condemn them…” and, “…I will bring the Con Edison to justice—they will pay for their dastardly deeds.”

The notes were signed “F.P.” (standing for “Fair Play”) but most knew of Metesky by a nickname the press gave him, “The Mad Bomber.”

Sam found inspiration in the way Metesky was able to wage a one-man-war against a large and powerful corporation. With his graffiti, Sam was sending a reminder of the strength of even just one person against the rich and powerful.

U p in Montréal, a group of French-Canadian revolutionaries called the Front de la Liberation de Québec (F.L.Q.) were planting bombs too.

The F.L.Q. was founded by Pierre Vallières, a French-Canadian from the working-class slums of Montréal’s East End and the shantytowns of the South Shore. Vallières went underground in 1966 to fight for Québec to become a socialist nation independent from Canada.

In May of 1966, the F.L.Q. bombed the La Grenade shoe factory that had fired all their workers and hired scabs after an eighteen-month strike. The explosion killed one person and injured several others. When Vallières and another F.L.Q. member, Charles Gagnon, went to the United Nations asking for political asylum in France they were arrested for the La Grenade bombing instead. Vallières published a book that he wrote while behind bars called White Niggers of America. The book served as the battle cry for the independence of Québec.

Since the early 1960s, the F.L.Q. had carried out hundreds of guerrilla attacks in Québec, and the arrests of Vallières and Gagnon only seemed to fuel the fire.

On February 13, 1969, a cell of the F.L.Q. set off an explosion that blew out the northeast wall of the Montréal Stock Exchange and seriously injured thirty-eight people. In response, Canadian authorities issued warrants for the arrest of Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, Raymond Villeneuve and Mario Bachand. Pierre-Paul Geoffroy was captured and claimed sole responsibility for a series of bombings so his comrades could evade capture.

Villeneuve and Bachand became fugitives and made a hasty escape from Canada, relying on a single contact in New York City who they were referred to by somebody they’d never met. Only one of them could speak English, barely. When they got to New York City they called their contact from a pay phone, only to find out that the contact wanted nothing to do with them. They were passed from person to person and it seemed nobody in the movement was willing to risk helping them, until Sam’s name was brought up.

When Sam got the call he took the two fugitives into his own apartment. Soon a second apartment was secured that belonged to some of Pat’s friends who were out of town for a few months.

All of Sam’s time went to caring for the F.L.Q. fugitives. He was captivated by their adventure. Dynamite, bomb plots, disguises, hideouts, communiqués, narrow escapes, and revolutionaries on the lam fascinated him.

Every morning Sam went to the Post Office to check if any mail arrived for them from Québec. He bought them clothes, gave them money and did their grocery shopping. He drew up maps of the parts of town where they could stretch their legs without drawing attention. At three o’clock each afternoon, Sam went to the foreign newsstand in Times Square to buy them copies of the Montréal newspapers.

Whenever Sam had a chance he would drill the fugitives on the specifics of wiring dynamite bombs. He took notes and drew up diagrams. They would stay up late into the night going over details of hiding bombs in briefcases, covertly planting them in buildings, safely storing and transporting dynamite, and putting a cloth over the telephone receiver to disguise your voice while making a warning call.

The fugitives were more interested in explaining the political situation in Québec. “If we win independence before we make Marxist revolution, then Québec becomes…a colony of the United States. We do not want to trade government by Toronto for government by Washington. We want to make a communist state independent of both.”

The Canadian fugitives weren’t sure whether the type of guerrilla warfare the F.L.Q. was waging in Québec should be applied in the U.S., but Sam was.

The Montréal papers from April 2, 1969 told of Pierre-Paul Geoffroy raising a clenched fist to a courtroom of supporters as he was led to prison to serve 124 concurrent life sentences. The fugitives knew there was no going back.

Sam kept trying to come up with false identification for the two from either Canada or France. He made at least two trips up to Québec to meet with F.L.Q. supporters, but still had no luck. The fugitives wanted desperately to be safe under the protection of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Castro was allowing hijacked planes from the U.S. safe harbor at Cuban airports. Finally, a desperate plan was plotted to hijack a plane and redirect it to Cuba.

Jane went to the library to research the success rates of similar hijackings. She found that their chances looked good. The airlines’ main defense was public relations psychology. By cooperating with the media, the Federal Aviation Administration got heavy coverage for failed hijackings and development of security equipment, and reduced coverage of successful hijackings. They also posted signs warning of the penalties of air piracy and offered $25,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest of hijackers. This way, they were able to reduce hijacking by creating the public perception that it had become very risky without running the high costs of searching every passenger, getting high-tech security equipment or lobbying for increased legislation.

Jane found out that only one airline was experimenting with metal detectors and the chances of a successful hijacking were as good as ever. She was so excited about her discoveries that she wrote an unsigned article in the RAT Subterranean News about it.

Sam hung out at the airport to observe the boarding of Miami-bound flights, finding that Atlantic Airlines flights were pretty empty and were the most laidback when it came to searching their passengers. Miami-bound flights required the least rerouting and would have enough fuel to make the trip to Cuba. He figured the fewer people on the flight, the lesser the chances of a vigilante passenger attempting to stop the hijacking.

Using a false name over the phone, Jane made two reservations for Atlantic flight 301 leaving from La Guardia on Monday, May 4, 1969. She gave the fugitives $300 for their tickets from her savings. Sam got them a small pistol with a leg holster and a seven-inch hunting knife. They set up chairs in their apartment to simulate airline seating and practiced their hijacking routine. They rehearsed their lines in broken English.

On the day of the flight Sam and Jane discretely saw them off at the airport and went home to watch for news of the hijacking.

“Atlantic Airlines Flight Number 301 from New York to Miami has been diverted to Cuba, where it has now landed,” the Associated Press reported. “The plane carried seventy-five passengers. It changed course about forty miles from Miami, with no word to ground controls. This is the twenty-fourth hijacking since January 1, 1969.”

Next week: Sam Melville and Jane Alpert begin their bombing campaign.