Ted Kaczynski

With more than 5.2 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or wondering if you can look up how to make a bomb and still plausibly tell the FBI you’re just researching your novel. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,215,828-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Ted Kaczynski

What it’s about: In 2016, weekly mass shootings pass through the news cycle so frequently we’re numb to the horror. But in the more innocent days of 1996, an unbalanced loner who killed three people in a series of bombings that spanned 17 years was enough to enthrall a nation. Between 1978 and 1995, the man known to the public as the Unabomber sent a series of bombs through the mail as part of an anti-technology campaign of terror, before the FBI was able to identify him as university professor-turned-hermit Theodore Kaczynski, and put him away for life.

The FBI’s composite sketch of UNABOM

Advertisement

Strangest fact: The Unabomber probably didn’t know he was known as the Unabomber. The name comes from the FBI’s designation for the then-anonymous bomber: UNiversity & Airline BOMber (UNABOM), as his earliest targets included several universities, an American Airlines flight (while the bomb did explode mid-flight, no one was hurt beyond some smoke inhalation), and the president of United Airlines (who was badly burned). The media expanded that to “Unabomber” once the FBI’s search for the bomber and his identity became national news. The U.S Postal Inspectors, who were added to the case since his bombs were sent through the mail, gave him the less-appealing name “Junkyard Bomber,” as his bombs were cobbled together from scrap.

A recreation of one of Kaczynski’s bombs, built by the FBI and currently on display at the Newseum.

Biggest controversy: In 1995, Kaczynski send anonymous letters to major news outlets insisting they print a 35,000-word essay entitled Industrial Society And Its Future, known to the FBI and later the public as the Unabomber Manifesto. Kaczynski vowed to stop sending bombs if his manifesto was published, although when Penthouse was the first publication to offer, Kaczynski insisted that if they did, he’d still send one more bomb. After much discussion with the Justice Department and the FBI, the manifesto got a more respectable home in The New York Times and The Washington Post, who agreed to publish the screed in the hopes that some reader might be able to help identify the author. By that point, the FBI had issued a million-dollar reward for the Unabomber, but was no closer to identifying him.

Advertisement

In the manifesto, Kaczynski attacks modern society, claiming people had become “oversocialized,” wasting their time pursuing unfulfilling goals. Like so many people who have written manifestos, he believed the only way to fix the system was to blow it up (literally and figuratively), writing that, “the big problem is that people don’t believe a revolution is possible, and it is not possible precisely because they do not believe it is possible.” He also inveighed against “leftists,” in ways that don’t feel unfamiliar 20 years later, attacking “social justice warriors” before that phrase had been coined: “Those who are most sensitive about ‘politically incorrect’ terminology are not the average black ghetto-dweller, Asian immigrant, abused woman or disabled person, but a minority of activists, many of whom do not even belong to any ‘oppressed’ group.”

Thing we were happiest to learn: Publishing the manifesto worked. Before its publication, Linda Kaczynski, the bomber’s sister-in-law, began to suspect Ted. David Kaczynski, her husband, didn’t want to believe his brother was responsible, but after reading the manifesto, was forced to admit that the writing style was similar to his brother’s, and the arguments made were familiar. The Kaczynski brothers had had ongoing philosophical debates about technology as younger men, but had a falling out 10 years earlier. David found letters Ted had written to newspapers years earlier arguing against technology, and realized the language was similar.

Still reluctant to send the FBI after a family member, David and Linda hired a private detective to investigate Ted discreetly, and only then went to the FBI. While the FBI took their claims seriously enough to investigate (not a given, as the bureau was receiving over a thousand phone calls a day in the wake of the manifesto’s publication), they were still skeptical, as even the arrest warrant for Kaczynski notes that experts found that the manifesto, “was written by another individual, not Kaczynski.” They took him far more seriously as a suspect when they arrived at the remote Montana cabin where Kaczynski had lived since 1971, and found bomb parts, hand-written bomb-making instructions, and an earlier draft of the manifesto. Kaczynski was promptly arrested, pled guilty to all charges to avoid the death penalty, and is serving four life sentences.

Advertisement

The Unabomber’s shack was eventually dismantled and reassembled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Unabomber got better at bombing as his career went on. His earliest victims suffered minor cuts and burns, and two of his early bombs were defused before they could harm anyone. But in his eighth attack, in 1985, UC Berkeley grad student John Hauser lost four fingers on his right hand and sight in one eye when a bomb went off. It was Kaczynski’s second attack on Berkeley, where he had been an assistant professor in the late ’60s. Later that same year, the Unabomber targeted a computer store owner named Hugh Scrutton, and the bomb killed him. His next three bombs severely injured their victims, and his last two, in 1994 and 1995, both killed their intended targets—an advertising executive who helped improve Exxon’s image after the Valdez disaster, and a timber industry lobbyist.

Also noteworthy: Kaczynski’s attacked had their quirks, even by the standards of loners who live in shacks in the woods. Many of his bombs were stamped with the letters “FC”—“Freedom Club” was an organization that sometimes claimed responsibility for the attacks, although Kaczynski seems to have been the only member of the club. He also mailed his bombs using Eugene O’Neill $1 stamps. But the oddest recurring detail was a seeming obsession with wood. Perhaps in keeping with his nature theme, the Unabomber included branches or bark in some of his bombs. But his targets also included Percy Wood, Leroy Wood Bearson, and Thomas Mosser.

Advertisement

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: An odd footnote to the Unabomber case, Kaczynski was briefly considered a suspect of the Zodiac Killer murders. Never identified by police, Zodiac, like Kaczynski, operated in the San Francisco area in the late ‘60s, was highly intelligent, and wrote to newspapers demanding publication. However, Zodiac’s victims were shot or stabbed to death, while the Unabomber only ever sent bombs, so he was not considered a suspect for long. And, of course, we all suspect the Zodiac Killer was in fact a different guy named Ted.

Further down the wormhole: The Unabomber’s preferred method of attack was via the mail. While every postal service does its best to detect bombs and other dangerous material, mail bombs have a long and ugly history that stretches back to 1764, when a box full of gunpowder and trigger was mailed to a Danish official. Wikipedia has less information about a similar bomb sent the same year in Italy. Of that nation’s many contributions to world culture, none is colder and tastier than gelato, a richer variant on ice cream. The gelato Wikipedia page has innumerable ice cream links, with everything from flavors (Superman!) to desserts that include ice cream (mochi!) to ice-cream related events, including the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars, far and away the most violent ice-cream-truck incident in history, which we’ll examine next week.