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Forensic Linguistics

In Michael Cannell’s book Incendiary, about the manhunt for a 1950s serial bomber, detectives noticed a small disparity in dialect that they hoped would lead them to the fugitive’s neighborhood.

By
Michael Cannell, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 20, 2017
Episode #565

Page 1 of 2

Every perpetrator leaves evidence at a crime scene—blood droplets on carpet, fingerprints left as hidden oil patterns on drinking glasses, clothing fibers on corpses. As fans of crime shows know, the forensic team’s job is to find the evidence and unlock its meaning. 

But evidence doesn’t have to be tangible. Language also helps solve crimes. Detectives specializing in the growing field of forensic linguistics—word scientists—look for language in ransom notes, threatening texts and other communications that may reveal the offender’s identity or state of mind. They study cadence of speech, grammatical lapses, or terms associated with a specific region. Northerners tend to say faucet, for example, while southerners say spigot. So if a ransom note demands that a bag of money be left by the spigot behind a warehouse, your kidnapper is likely a southerner.

The George Metesky Case

Forensic linguistics bookIn Michael Cannell’s book Incendiary, about the manhunt for a 1950s serial bomber, detectives noticed a small disparity in dialect that they hoped would lead them to the fugitive’s neighborhood. The bomber made the bombs himself from ordinary pipes and other hardware. In canvassing plumbing outlets, the police found that New Yorkers call a short stretch of galvanized connecting pipe “line pipe coupling.” North of the city the same item was known as “well-coupling.” 

The detectives therefore assumed the bomber lived in a northern suburb because he called his pipe “well-coupling.” But they knew little more than that. In desperation, they showed satchels of evidence to Dr. James Brussel, a psychiatrist with a particular interest in the workings of the criminal mind. Dr. Brussel noticed a reliance on awkward, old-fashioned phrases such as “treachery” and “dastardly deeds” in the handful of letters the bomber had sent to newspapers. The letters, he later wrote, “sounded to me as though they’d been written in a foreign language and then translated into English.” So the bomber was probably foreign, but of what nationality? 

Detectives suspected the bomber was of German descent because of his vaguely Teutonic handwriting. His G’s ended their circular form with an eccentric pair of horizontal slashes, like an equal sign. 

Dr. Brussel concluded the bomber was more likely Slavic after comparing his campaign to the prolific bombings by anarchists and other radicals in Eastern Europe. If the bomber was, in fact, an Eastern European who lived north of the city, he probably lived in Connecticut, where Slavic enclaves had formed around factories and mills. These conclusions, drawn from the bomber’s language and lettering, narrowed the search window. 

A few minutes before midnight on January 21, 1957, detectives knocked on the door of a wan, middle-aged man named George Metesky. As Brussel predicted, Metesky was of Lithuanian descent and a resident of the industrial town of Waterbury, Connecticut. While searching Metesky’s house, detectives found a notebook filled with handwriting that appeared to match the bomber’s. They handed Metesky a pen and asked him to write his name on a yellow legal pad. They watched, spellbound, as the familiar block letters appeared on the page—the G in George had the telltale double bars.

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