NEW YORK, NY — Summertime 1977: New York City resembled not so much the planet’s most bustling, glamorous, and endlessly exciting cosmopolitan megalopolis as it had in times past — as it did Hell on Earth.
The local government was broke, and the feds apparently remained committed to providing no help (as invoked two years earlier by the famous New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”).Violent street crime, sexual assaults, and murders skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, and lack of funds forced the closing of police precincts, fire stations, and hospitals. At the peak of stink season, garbage piled high due to a sanitation strike. The filthy, hobbled subway seemed more like a sweatbox of vipers than a viable means of transportation. A new breed of cat-sized, pesticide-proof “super rats” rose from the sewers and train tunnels to attack passersby.
Like an apocalyptic high-and-low-point simultaneously, a five-borough electrical blackout on July 13 ignited a (literal) firestorm of arson, riots, and looting that citizens and officials alike had never even imagined, let alone prepared for.
Lording over it all, in a sense, was a self-described enemy derived from even more sinister forces: a serial slayer stalking young women and couples who was initially nicknamed “The .44-Caliber Killer” and who, then, in the midst of Gotham’s apparent utter collapse, introduced himself as the “Son of Sam.”
Later, of course, he’d be revealed as David Berkowitz, a pudgy, 33-year-old postal worker who claimed to be acting on occult orders from a father figure named “Sam” and directly issued by “Harvey,” his landlord’s talking dog.
The rot consuming the Big Apple in 1977 transformed not just the city and its residents, but how reporters and journalists handled such sensational material.
Considering that no story loomed larger at the time than Son of Sam — from his first strike the previous year to the parking ticket that busted him on August 10 — the crimes and capture of David Berkowitz impacted the city’s mass media as perhaps no other topic before it and only a handful since then. Here are five examples of how that happened.
Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer premieres on Investigation Discovery on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.
1. TV NEWSCASTS AS REAL-LIFE HORROR MOVIES
Unlike today’s 24-hour, second-by-second news cycle, in 1977, New Yorkers (and everyone else) got updated on world events by way of newspapers, weekly magazines, and local TV newscasts that typically aired twice nightly, at 6 P.M. and 11 P.M. (national news, handled by the three big networks, came on at 7).
As a result, once police established in March 1977 that the .44-Caliber Killer was out actively hunting humans, tuning in to the evening news suddenly felt like a necessary component of survival.
Ratings soared, and TV stations clamored to rush anything and everything Son of Sam–related into New York area living rooms. News alerts pumped up the hysteria with all-day teasers of “breaking information” that may or may not have existed and interrupted regularly scheduled programming with even the faintest flicker of fresh insights.
In large part, the Berkowitz case prompted New York broadcasters to invent and perfect the tropes of “tabloid TV” that would come to dominate in the next decade via half-hour hype-machines on the order of A Current Affair and Hard Copy.
2. JIMMY BRESLIN AS THE .44-CALIBER CORRESPONDENT
Prior to 1977, Jimmy Breslin ruled the New York Daily News as a colorful chronicler of the city’s everyday citizens and most outrageous characters alike. Outside the reach of his daily beat, readers knew Breslin as the author of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a best-selling comic novel based on mobster Joey Gallo.
David Berkowitz changed all that on May 31. That afternoon, Breslin opened a letter from the killer in which he wrote:
“Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C., which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed on the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks.”
Berkowitz signed the missive “Son of Sam.” He also referred to himself in the text as “The Duke of Death,” “The Wicked King Wicker,” “The Twenty-Two Disciples of Hell,” and “John Wheaties — Rapist and Suffocator of Young Girls.” What stuck, though, was “Son of Sam.”
And from there, Son of Sam was forever stuck to Breslin. The newspaperman wrote brilliantly about the case, including his unexpected connection to it, and up to his death at 88 in 2017, Breslin spoke on the topic, as only he could.
In the decades leading up to 1977, The New York Post, believe it or not, stood as the city’s most outspokenly left-leaning daily newspaper.
Upon its being purchased that year by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, though, the Post not only took a sharp and continuous editorial policy turn rightward, it transformed almost instantly into a powder-keg of a publication, ignited each day by eye-popping “screamer” headlines (perfected, in 1983, with “Headless Body in Topless Bar”).
After publishing a tawdry and tempestuous “Blackout Special” following the city’s powerful failure, New York Mayor Abe Beame said “The Post made ‘Hustler’ look like ‘The Harvard Review.’” The Son of Sam saga suited the Post’s new direction, then, with spiked potency.
What the New York Post lacked in Jimmy Breslin during the Summer of Sam, they made up for in the sheer chase-any-strand-of-a-possible-story bravado of Aussie columnist Steve Dunleavy, which he’d later bring to TV on A Current Affair.
On August 11, the New York Post announced the arrest of David Berkowitz with a glaring, single-word, red-ink headline: “CAUGHT!” The next day, after Steve Dunleavy acquired old letters Berkowitz had written to a girlfriend, the Post printed them, and its front page announced, “HOW I BECAME A MASS KILLER.” From there, the paper only upped its frantic coverage.
In The Ultimate Evil, a classic conspiracy-themed book on the case, author Maury Terry writes:
“‘The New York Post’, a recent acquisition of Australian publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch, was heavily involved in coverage of the Son of Sam case. At times, it was guilty of sensationalism, but so were the rest of the media. The ‘Post’ was losing money when Murdoch took the reins, and he immediately laid claim to the .44-caliber investigation, engaging the ‘Daily News,’ particularly, in a battle of headlines as the probe continued. It was said in New York that Murdoch ‘hung his hat on Son of Sam’.”
Mark Feldstein, a media historian and professor at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism, recently remarked of the Post’s transformational moment, “I think the Son of Sam murders really kind of broke new ground for sensationalism by the tabloid press of New York.” Feldstein himself obviously doesn’t speak in screamer headlines.
Myron Fass was a true only-in-New-York media kingpin. The Brooklyn native began his ink-stained rise to legendary status as a comic book artist in the late 1940s before publishing Lunatickle in 1956, a rip-off of the hugely popular Mad magazine. With that move, Fass found his calling.
Under numerous company names, Fass flooded newsstands with all manner of flashy, often wonderfully trashy periodicals over the ensuing decades. M.F. Enterprises handled Fass’s comic books. Tempest Publishing put out magazines devoted to pin-ups, wrestling, and sordid detective stories, along with the early shock tabloid, the National Mirror. Eerie Publications competed with horror giant Warren Publishing with titles such as Weird and Tales From the Tomb.
Countrywide Publications, founded in the 1970s, may figure as Myron Fass’s most fascinating endeavor. In addition to one-offs such as Acid Rock and Rock Groupies, the company largely pumped out rapid-fire single-shot magazines typically dedicated to the tawdry news topics such as JFK assassination theories and the sudden demise of Elvis Presley. Each issue averaged sales of an astonishing 20,000 copies.
In August 1977, Countrywide rushed out Son of Sam, a one-off entirely dedicated to the case of its title. It features grimy photos, slapped together stories, and a close-up of the parking ticket that did in Berkowitz.
New York music icons Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone famously posed for a photo with the Son of Sam mag in Punk magazine. The periodical iteslef has since become a sought-after collector’s item among devotees of both true-crime and bottom-of-the-barrel pulp-media cash-grabs.
Seeming to take a page from the Myron Fass school of print-it-and-ship-it now, book publishers also scrambled to cash in on all those .44-caliber headlines. Books written and produced rapidly in the wake of major news events were nothing new, of course, but the Son of Sam case seemed to light the process on fire.
Following an immediate onslaught of quickie page-turners, several Sam books stood out over the next few years. The bluntly titled Son of Sam: The .44-Caliber Killer by George Carpozi, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, reached bookstores by September 1977, mere weeks after Berkowitz got busted.
Jimmy Breslin took heat in 1978 for accepting a huge payment to co-author .44, a novel based on the Sam slaughters. Even Breslin’s millions of regular readers shunned the book, and it tanked.
Lawrence D. Klausner made a mark in 1981 with Son of Sam: Based on the Authorized Transcription of the Tapes, Official Documents, and Diaries of David Berkowitz.
The most intriguing Son of Sam tome, however, remains 1987’s The Ultimate Evil: An Investigation Into America’s Most Dangerous Satanic Cult, With New Evidence Linking Charlie Manson and the Son of Sam by journalist Maury Terry. In a genuinely alarming account, Maury alleges that Berkowitz did not act alone and was part, in fact, of an international occult conspiracy tied directly to the Process Church of the Final Judgment. It must be read to be believed … or not.
For never-before-seen content about the occult connections to the case, watch Son of Sam: The Satanic Cult Theory original video on ID GO on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.
Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer premieres on Investigation Discovery on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.
Main photo: New York Post, August 11, 1977 [front cover image]