Vincent A. Musetto, the longtime New York Post staffer credited with writing one of the most memorable headlines in the history of American newspapers, died Tuesday at 74. On April 14, 1983, Musetto was on front-page duty at the Post when the newsroom received a police bulletin about a decapitated body that had been found in Queens. Further research revealed that the body had been found in a bar; and, like that, Musetto had his headline: “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.” The headline was perfect, and the Post newsroom knew it. “The whole staff gathered behind Vinnie, like one of those oil paintings you see of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with the founding fathers huddled together to absorb the impact of the moment,” former Post staffer Charlie Carillo recalled years later. After confirming that the bar did, indeed, feature topless dancing, the Post ran the story under Musetto’s screaming front-page headline. The rest is tabloid history.
But the details of the crime that inspired the headline have been largely forgotten, and that’s too bad. Because Musetto’s headline, great as it is, hardly begins to characterize the grisly horror and weirdness of the crime that inspired it. 1983 was one in a string of rotten years for New York City, crime-wise. The city logged 1,622 homicides that year, and the “HEADLESS” homicide may well have been the strangest. A 23-year-old parolee named Charles Dingle was drinking at Herbie’s Bar in the Jamaica section of Queens when he got into an argument with the bar’s owner, Herbert Cummings; the argument ended when Dingle shot Cummings in the head. From there, Dingle proceeded to hold four women hostage for hours, raping one of them and forcing another—a part-time mortician—to attempt to dig the bullet out of Cummings’ head, and then, when that bid at evidence-extraction failed, to sever that head with a steak knife.
After putting Cummings’ severed head in a box, Dingle stole a taxi—his own car would not start, apparently—and drove to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, accompanied by two of his hostages and the boxed-up head. There, he fell asleep, and was promptly arrested. As you have probably guessed, drugs played a part in Dingle’s decision-making that night; police told the New York Times that Dingle had been using cocaine. The Times’ own headline, in case you were wondering, was much less colorful than the Post one: “OWNER OF A BAR SHOT TO DEATH; SUSPECT IS HELD.”
Dingle was convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery. He died in prison in 2012. Musetto went on to review movies for the Post until he lost that gig due to budget issues in 2013. As Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo reported at the time, Musetto forwarded his termination email to the Post newsroom, appending a brief note that read, “after 40 years at post, during which I wrote ‘Headless Body in Topless Bar,’ it has come to this.”