Sam Melville (a name borrowed from author Herman Melville) was born to Dorothy and William Grossman in 1934 in New York City. Dorothy left William and moved with Sam back to her hometown of Tonawanda, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. Melville lost sight in one eye at a young age because of a flying cinder. 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.
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. This contributed to a rift and eventual estrangement from his wife and child.
Melville survived on odd jobs, including working for The Guardian, a leftist weekly newspaper published in New York City. 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. Melville began writing "George Metesky Was Here" on buildings around the city.
Melville was responsible for, or connected to, 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 injuries.July 27, Grace Pier, owned by United Fruit Company
Aug 20, Marine Midland Building
Sept. 19, Federal Office Building on Federal Plaza, offices of the Department of Commerce and the Army Inspector General
Oct. 7, Army Induction Center on Whitehall Street
Nov. 11, Standard Oil offices in the RCA Building
Nov. 11, Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters offices
Nov. 11, General Motors Building
Nov. 12, New York City Criminal Courts Building on Center Street, where the Panther 21 trial was being held.
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.
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.
On March 7, 1970 Melville overpowered an unarmed marshal 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 marshal, 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 marshal on a landing two floors below.
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.
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.
On the basis of the text of a letter he wrote on May 16, 1971, 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.
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.