William Powell was a teenager, angry at the government and the Vietnam War, when he walked into the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan in 1969 to begin research for a handbook on causing violent mayhem.
Over the next months, he studied military manuals and other publications that taught him the essentials of do-it-yourself warfare, including how to make dynamite, how to convert a shotgun into a grenade launcher and how to blow up a bridge.
What emerged was “The Anarchist Cookbook,” a diagram- and recipe-filled manifesto that is believed to have been used as a source in heinous acts of violence since its publication in 1971, most notably the killings of 12 students and one teacher in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Throughout his manual, Mr. Powell fashioned a knowing voice that suggested broad experience in warfare, sabotage or black ops, mixed with an extremist’s anti-establishment worldview.
“As almost everyone knows, silencers are illegal in virtually all the countries of the world,” he wrote before describing how to build a silencer for a handgun, “but then a true revolutionary believes that the government in power is illegal, so, following that logic, I see no reason that he should feel restricted by laws made by an illegal body.”
He declared that his book was an educational service for the silent majority — not the one identified by President Richard M. Nixon as his middle-American constituency, but the disciplined anarchists who were seeking dignity in a world gone wrong. To them, he offered how-to plans for weaponry and explosives as well as drugs, electronic surveillance, guerrilla training and hand-to-hand combat — a potent mix that attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The book found a big audience. More than two million copies have reportedly been sold, and still more have been downloaded on the internet.
“It was inevitable that he did it,” James J. F. Forest, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said in a phone interview. “If he hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. It’s human behavior to tap into a dangerous stream of knowledge, and in his case he was inspired to make that dangerous information available to anyone else who was interested.”
Mr. Powell never revised the book or wrote a sequel, but his original stayed in print, through Lyle Stuart and its successor company, Barricade Books, and most recently by Delta Press. Eventually, he renounced the book. In 2000, he posted a statement to that effect on Amazon.com. And later, in 2013, he expressed his regret in an article he wrote for The Guardian.
He chose a career as a teacher, not a revolutionary, specializing in working on behalf of children with special needs.