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‘Headless Body in Topless Bar’: 40 years later, the story behind an iconic newspaper headline

By 1983 standards, the headline went viral — nearly all of the 965,000 daily newspapers that rolled out of the Post’s building in Lower Manhattan were sold.

The front page of the New York Post from April 15, 1983, featuring the iconic headline: "Headless Body in Topless Bar."
The front page of the New York Post from April 15, 1983, featuring the iconic headline: "Headless Body in Topless Bar."Read moreStaff

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a watershed moment in journalism: the publication of the “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline on the front page of the New York Post.

Headlines sell newspapers — at least, they sell the print newspapers offered via those relics known as newsstands. In 1983, almost all of the 965,000 daily newspapers that rolled out of the Post’s building in Lower Manhattan were sold on newsstands.

On April 15, 1983, the newsroom had to sell Mayor Ed Koch’s plan to hire 1,000 more police officers and the arrival of tax day. Yawn.

But then, a sensational murder. Tabloid gold.

Vincent A. Musetto, one of the Post’s managing editors, gets the credit for “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” In a madcap newsroom run largely by owner Rupert Murdoch’s Fleet Street-hardened crew of Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis, Musetto was a real-deal, prototypical New Yorker: brash, zany, unafraid to drop-kick a trash can during a debate.

From that day, I wanted to work for Vinnie. Two years later, as a pun-loving 25-year-old copy editor at a South Jersey paper, I tried out as a Post sub-editor, designing pages and writing headlines. On the first day of my tryout, the editors sent me a goofy filler story about male dogs being electrocuted by a poorly grounded lamppost. The headline I submitted: “Piss of death.” It ran in exactly one edition before someone pointed out that such a four-letter word in 18-point type might be too much, even for the New York Post, which five years before had paid a morgue worker to unzip John Lennon’s body bag and take a photo of the slain Beatle in repose.

Musetto slapped my back, shot me a grin, and offered me a job.

How ‘Headless Body’ came down

No one on the Post’s news desk debated the news value of the story: A Brooklyn man named Charles Dingle shot Queens bar owner Herbert Cummings to death and held patrons hostage. When Dingle learned that one was a mortician, he ordered her to behead the victim. Dingle, a box containing the head next to him, was arrested in an unlicensed cab in Manhattan. (Dingle died in prison in 2012, according to New York state records.)

The New York Times also covered the story, stuffing it on Page 2 of the Metropolitan section under the headline, “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.”

There would have been no Post headline without the gory story. Reporter Jim Norman wrote in a 2012 recollection that the police teletype in the newsroom had two items — one about the discovery in Manhattan of a cardboard box containing a head and the other about the discovery in a Queens bar of a mutilated torso. Norman said he helped to connect the dots as the “headless body” angle riveted the newsroom.

Someone had heard that Herbie’s Bar hosted topless dancing, but that claim was harder to nail down. The bar, a crime scene, was closed, and no one answered the phone. Norman said he used a cross-directory to cold-call a neighbor, who confirmed. Meanwhile, another Post reporter was dispatched to Jamaica Avenue to peer inside the darkened bar’s window, where she saw a sign reading “topless dancing.”

Either way, the headline could fit the crime. Musetto said he celebrated atop his desk, something he did often. Others have said fellow editors were responsible for the headline, citing the collaboration of the Post’s news desk.

The impact

The headline went viral, by 20th-century standards. Musetto was on David Letterman’s show. It also was the title of a black comedy in the mid-1990s.

In this digital age, when search engine optimization rewards literal headlines and punishes wordplay, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” could perform well online. Was it too over the top? When veteran editor Steve Dunleavy heard criticism at the time, he supposedly replied, “What should we have said? Decapitated cerebellum in tavern of ill repute?”

Musetto always said his favorite headline was “Granny Executed in Her Pink Pajamas” over the 1984 story about the execution of Margie Velma Barfield, who killed her husband in North Carolina. (Musetto seemed to get all the good stories. My own favorite from my year at the Post was “Art thieves take the Monet and run.”)

After leaving the news desk, Musetto was a longtime film critic. He died of cancer in 2015 at age 74. The first paragraph of Musetto’s obituary in the New York Times referred to “Headless Body in Topless Bar” as “the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism.”