Sam’s Story (A Better Sam Melville Wiki)

Sam Melville’s Wikipedia page is short on detail. It is posted here (from May 2015) with additions in bold and bracketed. If you would like to add or correct anything click/tap the form at the bottom of this page.

 

Samuel Melville Wiki

Samuel Joseph Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman, 1934 – September 13, 1971), was the principal conspirator and bomb setter in the 1969 bombings of eight government and commercial office buildings in New York City[1]. Melville cited his opposition to the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism as the motivation for the bombings.

[While Vietnam was the centerpiece of bombing campaigns, it should be noted that Melville himself never stated the Vietnam War as his singular issue. His letters written from prison indicate that his motives swept a broad range of issues, not the least of which was civil rights and gender/racial inequality. What is clear is that Melville, a Marxist, hated imperialism in any manner and demonstrated such by at least one bombing of a Marine Midland bank which had no relationship to the Vietnam War.

 

He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and to bombing the Federal Office Building in lower Manhattan, as well as to assaulting a marshall in a failed escape attempt.[2] A key figure in the 1971 Attica Prison riots, he was shot and killed when the uprising was put down by force.[3]

 

Early Life

Sam Melville (a name borrowed from author Herman Melville) was born to Dorothy and William Grossman in 1934 in New York City.

[This is assumed due to the fact that Herman Melville was a well-known literary figure and authored one of Melville’s favorite books, Moby Dick. However, Melville was also a fan of renowned French Film maker Jean-Pierre Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach) who also changed his name to one decidedly less ethnic. In interviews with Melville’s wife, she claimed that the decision of “Melville” over other names they were considering was arbitrary.

Melville changed his name in 1963, shortly after the birth of his son, to disassociate himself from Judaism, which, due to his Marxist learnings, he had come to see (as he saw all religions) as opiates.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the inspiration for his name change was as a way of distancing himself from his father, William Grossman, who he had come to see as unfaithful to the Progressive Labor movement. After a career as a leader in PL, Grossman left the Party to open a restaurant and move to a middle class suburban neighborhood. Melville talked openly of his disappointment in his father. In his will, William Grossman left his son his eyes in hopes that he could repair the one that had been blinded as a boy. Melville never claimed them.]

Dorothy left William and moved with Sam back to her hometown of [North] Tonawanda, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. Melville lost sight in one eye at a young age because of a flying cinder.

[Melville had one blue and one green eye. He was blind in his green eye. No one knows for sure how this happened.]

He claimed to have had a rough childhood because of his mother’s series of alcoholic and abusive boyfriends. He left home and moved to Buffalo as a teenager, making his living as a bowling alley pinsetter. Melville later met his father, who had come to Western New York to look for him. His father convinced him to move back to New York City, finish his high school education and pursue his passion for singing. Back in New York, Melville completed high school, studied singing, found employment as a draftsman, got married and started a family.

[Some tweaks: The source of the claim that Dorothy had alcoholic and abusive boyfriends comes from Jane Alpert’s memoir.

Based on public housing records it was clear that Dorothy Grossman lived meagerly. According to his public school year book, Melville graduated high school in North Tonawanda at age 19 and with honors. He then moved to the Bronx to live with his father to pursue music as profession. He decided to abandon music as a career at age 22 after making plans to have a family with his wife, Ruth. He then enrolled in a trade school and earned a degree in plumbing and air conditioning engineering.  Subsequently he began work for the plumbing design firm of Syska Hennessy as a draftsman and mediator. During his six year employment he worked on several prestigious projects including, New York’s Lincoln Center fountain among them.]

Politics

Melville enjoyed his job but hated the company he worked for. When he was ordered to work on a project for Chase Manhattan Bank designing new offices in the then apartheid based Union of South Africa, Melville became outraged and quit his job.

[Corrections: According to Syska records and interviews with Melville’s former boss, the job was to design the plumbing for segregated bathrooms in a shopping mall in South Africa. Melville left the firm rather than perform.]

This contributed to a rift and eventual estrangement from his wife and child.[4] Melville survived on odd jobs, including working for The Guardian, a leftist weekly newspaper published in New York City.

[Inaccurate. Ruth asked Melville to leave in 1965 after a string of mutual infidelities and when it was clear they were growing apart ideologically. They briefly had a reconciliation and then separated for the last time in 1966. Melville left Syska in 1967. Next he worked for two smaller competitors of Syska and taught air conditioning engineering at a trade school for a several months. He quit after he received a large settlement ($14,000) from an insurance company for a car accident in 1966, where he suffered a fractured jaw. He then went to work for The Guardian which paid him $50 a week to make deliveries. It was there that he first met David Hughey who worked in the art department and would become part of Melville Collective.]

He joined various groups in opposition to the Vietnam War, became familiar with social issues, and met many radical activists. Melville became interested in the story of George Metesky, who had terrorized the city with 37 bombings of theaters, terminals, libraries and offices between 1940 and 1956 and was then in a state mental hospital.[5] Melville began writing “George Metesky Was Here” on buildings around the city.

[Poems written by Melville and records show that Sam was well versed in revolutionary history and Metesky years before his radical activities began. He wrote “Metesky was here” as a joke on a plywood tenement door in the East Village near where he and Jane Alpert were living.] [4]  

Bombings

Melville was responsible for at least the following bombings, all of them in 1969. The majority were preceded by telephone calls warning building security personnel and featured simultaneous political communiques to the press. Although most explosions were timed for late-night hours, the bombing of the Marine Midland Building resulted in 19 [minor] injuries.

[The term “Melville Collective” was coined by the FBI in an effort to compartmentalize multiple New Left investigations. Melville also made bombs for several radical cells. As a result, his bomb constructions showed up in several cities aside from the New York targets.  In some cases (as indicated) the bombs were built by Melville but actually placed by people other than himself.]

 

Accomplices

Melville had met and become romantically involved with Jane Alpert, a recent graduate from Swarthmore College, while she was enrolled in a graduate program in journalism at Columbia University. The pair were also close with Pat Swinton and Dave Hughey who assisted them with several bombings. Other members of their group were never identified. Melville and Alpert became increasingly involved with the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party.

[Inaccurate:  Melville was captured in November of 1969; the Weather Underground didn’t form until 1970 although it included in its forming at least two of Melville’s accomplices, Robin Palmer and Sharon Krebs  both formally of a ultra left fringe group called “the Crazies.”

Pat Swinton escaped arrest and went underground with Alpert for two years. When Alpert surrendered she turned state’s evidence.   Swinton was lovers with both Melville and David Hughey for a brief time. Her contributions to the Collective have never been confirmed. She  refused to cooperate with the FBI after capture and served 18 months.  She rejects some of Alpert’s version of events.

Jane Alpert went on to have a career as a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in New York City.

David Hughey refused to turn state’s evidence and served two years for conspiracy. When released he changed his name and became a Preacher in the South and fathered two children.

Jonathon Krell was only 18 at the time of the bombings.  He jumped bail after arrest and fled to Albuquerque NM. He was later apprehended and supplied evidence to the FBI. He also participated  with Robin Palmer in an attempted bombing of Chase Manhattan bank on December 4th 1970 where Palmer was arrested along with Sharon Krebs.

Other members of the group are hard to identify due to a lack of formal boundaries. However, unindicted co-conspirators who orbited the Collective were:

Robin Palmer: Weather Underground and Crazie.   Served three years at Attica. Became a Cable TV host in Ithaca New York.  Died in 2010 of Cancer.

Sharon Krebs: Served three years at Bedford Hills for conspiracy.  Mothered three children afterward and died of Cancer in 2008

John Cohen: Columbia University Organizer and collator of the book of Melville’s letters,  Letters from Attica.  Never arrested.  Currently lives in Vermont.

A Sociology Professor from Rutgers University and his girlfriend, a Rutgers student. They were never arrested and have never come forward but have been identified through FBI documents made available through FOIA.]

Arrest and Charges

Melville had been working with George Demmerle, a well known radical activist in New York. Demmerle was a minuteman mole, and assisted in the gathering of evidence and apprehension of the group. On November 12, 1969, hours after the Criminal Courts Building bombing, police arrested Melville and Demmerle as they placed dynamite charges in National Guard trucks parked outside the 69th Regimental Armory at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue. Alpert and Hughey were arrested shortly thereafter.[1][6]

[Demmerle was estranged from his wife and son in 1964. He began accepting payment for information to the FBI  that same year and became a full time salaried FBI informant in 1966.

Through him the FBI both funded and infiltrated several New Left groups, including the Black Panthers, The Crazies and the Yippies. Demmerle held positions of authority in all three. It was his  New Left resume that attracted Melville to confide in him.

The Melville case remains his most well-known credit. After the arrest, Demmerle was revealed as an informant, retired from intelligence service and moved to Austin Texas where he became a local sculptor. Despite claiming to be a liberal and embracing the counter-culture, he had no regrets for helping the FBI or for being instrumental in Melville’s capture and, indirectly, his murder. He stated in an interview, “those people were dangerous.” He died in 2008 of cancer at the age of 71, having never united with his family. His obituary can be found here.]

Escape Attempt

On March 7, 1970 Melville overpowered an unarmed marshall at the Federal Courthouse and tried to escape. During a conference with his attorney on a Saturday, when the building was almost deserted, he jumped the marshall, knocked him down and tied him up with his own belt before running out of the room and down a stairway. Melville was recaptured by an armed marshall on a landing two floors below.[7]

[Melville was a problem for every prison administrator. Sent to The Tombs he organized a prisoner strike. Congressman Ed Koch documented his negotiation meeting with Melville in his autobiography “All the Best.” They discuss better prison conditions in exchange for Melville recommending prisoners return to work. Melville was then sent to Sing Sing were he organized another prison strike. After these events it was decided that he should be sent to a maximum security prison.

 

Imprisonment and Death at Attica

Melville was eventually transferred to Attica Prison in Western New York. There he began an underground publication called Iced Pig and began to organize the prison population to fight for better conditions. Melville, Elliott Barkley and Tommy Hicks are thought to be among the principal organizers of the Attica Prison riots in September 1971. Melville, twenty-eight other inmates and ten hostages were shot and killed by state police on September 13, when the uprising was put down by order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.[3]

[At the time of the uprising, Mancusi had confined Melville to a group of “trouble makers” within the prison known as “Five Company.” Melville was the only non-Black member of this group. When violence erupted on September 9th, 1971, Melville was among several well-known inmates (including Jerry Rosenberg) along with Five Company members who were elected as “Spokespersons” to negotiate for the peaceful surrender of the prison. Melville was elected to represent white inmates.

He resigned his seat on the second day after inmate leaders were insistent upon amnesty and transportation to an African nation as a condition. Melville spent the next two days manufacturing weapons to defend inmates against a certain assault by State Troopers. These included hundreds of Molotov Cocktails, barricades and a fake rocket launcher.

In his autobiography, “Attica–My Story,” Prison Commissioner Russell Oswald wrote that Melville was considered the most significant threat the Troopers faced in a strategy to retake the prison by force. Recent evidence uncovered in the 1991 civil suit against the State of New York by surviving prisoners revealed that Melville was singled out and assassinated by a state trooper, named Vincent Tobia. Tobia, who took responsibility for the shooting, shot Melville at close range, claiming that Melville was attempting to throw a Molotov Cocktail at hostages. No such device or weapons were found near his body and autopsy reports showed that all hostages were killed by friendly fire from State police.

State trooper records show that after ten years in the State Troopers office, Tobia left amidst controversy from the Melville killing and became an informant who posed as a lawyer for State investigations into malfeasance. Eventualy, Tobia became a licensed attorney negotiating labor disputes for the Buffalo Bills football team. He died of alcohol related heart failure in 1999 at the age of 60. His obituary can be found here.]  

Legacy

A book was published with the letters he wrote from prison, Letters From Attica, with a foreword by William Kunstler, and additional contributions by Jane Alpert and John Cohen.

[The book has become a seminal text on teaching about racism and the US prison system in the late 1960s.]

On the basis of the text of a letter he wrote on May 16, 1970, Frederic Rzewski wrote a musical composition, Coming Together. The text used is I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate–sometimes even calculating–seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

[After Melville’s death numerous benefits for prison reform were held in his name. The week following Attica, Oswald’s office was bombed in effigy for Melville’s death. Shortly afterward a group calling themselves the “Sam Melville Group” continued to bomb various political targets for several years.]

On August 28, 2000, a Federal judge awarded $8 million to the survivors of the Attica riots. The son of Sam Melville, Josh Melville, was awarded $25,000.

[The money was donated towards the creation of an artists’ rights activist company and to finance various memorials in Melville’s honor. Other litigants who survived the Attica assault received $150,000. Lawyers working the case received millions. Some litigants were outraged by the inequity. Robin Palmer, one Attica inmate,  donated his share of the settlement ($7,500) to Melville’s son.]

References

    1. ^ a b Treaster, Joseph B (1969-11-13). “Court Building Bombed; F.B.I. Seizes 2 at Armory”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12. A bomb extensively damaged a part of the fifth floor of the New York City Criminal Courts Building last night in the fourth explosion in a Manhattan public building in two days.
    2. ^ Lubasch, Arnold H (1970-05-05). “3 in Bombing Plot Plead Guilty Here”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12. A bomb extensively damaged a part of the fifth floor of the New York City Criminal Courts Building last night in the fourth explosion in a Manhattan public building in two days.
    3. ^ a b Tomasson, Robert E (1971-09-15). “Melville, Attica Radical, Dead; Recently Wrote of Jail Terror”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12. Samuel J. Melville, the terrorist radical who pleaded guilty to the 1969 bombings of eight buildings in Manhattan, was one of the Attica prisoners killed Monday by state sharpshooters, Deputy Correction Commissioner Walter Dunbar said yesterday.
    4. ^ a b Pickering, Leslie James (2007). Mad Bomber Melville. Arissa Media Group. ISBN 978-0-9742884-4-4.
    5. ^ Kaufman, Michael T (1973-12-13). “Mad Bomber,’ Now 70, Goes Free Today”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12. George Metesky, the onetime “Mad Bomber,” who for 16 years in the nineteen-forties and fifties terrorized the city with the explosives he set off in theaters, terminals, libraries and offices, is going home to Waterbury today.
    6. ^ Arnold, Martin (1969-11-14). “F. B. I. CHARGES 4 WITH 8 BOMBINGS HERE SINCE JULY”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12. The Federal Bureau of Investigation charged three men and a woman yesterday with being left-radical terrorists who had set off the bombs in eight major corporate and governmental structures in the city since July.

^ Whitney, Craig R. (1970-03-12). “Suspect in Bombing Conspiracy Foiled in an Attempt to Escape”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12. Samuel J. Melville, accused of being the explosives expert in a group that was alleged to have bombed six buildings in Manhattan last fall, overpowered an unarmed marshal and tried to escape from custody at the Federal Courthouse last Saturday.

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