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Headless body in topless bar

The backstory of “the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism.

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.

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.

The headline went viral, by 20th-century standards. (then-NYPost managing editor Vincent) 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.”)

Heh. Good stuff, that is, from a lost era before the qualities of wry, frisky humor; convention-straining wordplay; hard-boiled iconoclasm; and an above-all-else dedication to Getting The Story encoded in the DNA of crusty, old-school reporters with the de rigeur pint of whiskey tucked away in the bottom desk drawer had all been exorcised in favor of today’s fear-mongering; obeisance to Big Government and the urgenturgentURGENT!!! blandishments of “experts”; and lickspittle fealty to the PC/Woke/Hard Left agenda entire—a noxious hell-brew that poisoned bona-fide American journalism as it had previously been known fatally, and for all time.

Back in the 90s when I was living in NYC, the Post was the only daily I cared much about purchasing and perusing. NY Newsday plainly and simply sucked, on those occasions when it wasn’t infuriating; then again, it was an offshoot of Long Island-centric Newsday, and what sophisticated, urbane Manhattanite such as moi cared a whit about what those yokels might get themselves up to way out there in the boonies, anyway?

The WSJ was meh, boring, and still is. The Old Grey Whore (a/k/a the NYT) had nearly completed her long, slow slide into total hyperpartisan irrelevance and rank dishonesty; the NY Daily News was middle-of-the-road bland, making it a small cut above the rest of the shitlib propaganda broadsheets.

Later, 2002 would see a short-lived stab at reviving the old NY Sun, but despite the sly, self-deprecating insider-witticism of being printed on piss-yellow paper early on (because yellow journalism, get it?), the Sun failed to distinguish itself otherwise and thus quickly died the death, at least in its print version. Maybe it was good, who knows; although I was still spending a lot of my time in NYC, I still can’t remember ever even reading the thing, honestly.

As for the rest of NYC’s then-crowded field of news outlets: weekly radical-Left alternarag The Village Voice…well, most of the people I hung out with bought it exclusively for the voluminous rock-show and apartment-for-rent listings; amusing if frequently scandalous, even pornographic, personal ads; and maybe Nat Hentoff, among the small handful of my punk-rocker pals who cared about topical affairs.

When it came along, Russ Smith’s NY Press felt like a welcome breath of fresh air to NYC’s minuscule minority of RightWingNaziDeathBeasts like me, but it was short on the aforementioned Voice features New Yorkers had come to rely on. Even though I bought a copy every week the minute it appeared at the bodega down the street and read it cover to cover, I never for a minute thought it could ever amount to serious, credible competition for the Voice. And that’s pretty much how it went, eventually.

Maybe the best thing about this noteworthy anniversary of an unforgettable tabloid headline is that The Power hasn’t gotten around to outlawing any remembrance or remark upon such lighthearted, entertaining mass-media insouciance yet. You can bet they’re probably working on it, though.


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