As anyone who has watched a 1950s B-movie knows, sex and juvenile delinquency were the twin terrors of mid-century America. The two fears collided in the case of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a group of teenage boys who went on a violent crime spree in the summer of 1954. The boys – 18-year-old Jack Koslow, 15-year-old Robert Trachtenberg, and 17-year-olds Melvin Mittman and Jerome Lieberman – were from typical middle-class families. What would inspire them to kill two men and injure several other defenseless victims? When a theory came to light, it caused a national panic that would change both the lives of the boys and the public’s view of obscenity for years to come.
Jack Koslow wasn’t a normal teenager. Although World War II had ended less than a decade prior, Koslow (who was Jewish) openly declared that Adolf Hitler was his hero and even cultivated a small mustache in his honor. According to one psychiatrist, as a child in school “he was known to stand up in class and yell to his classmates, ‘Let’s get her’ – the teacher.”
Koslow’s best friend, Melvin Mittman, has issues of his own. An enormously muscular boy weighing 210 pounds, he told police, “I use bums as a punching bag to see how hard I can punch.” Mittman, also from a Jewish family, joined Koslow in the dubious fashion choice of the Hitler mustache. When megalomaniacal Koslow and heavyweight Mittman rounded out their group with pliable companions Jerome Lieberman and Robert Trachtenberg, things were bound to turn ugly.
In the beginning, the boys were bullies – walking through the park at night punching strangers. By mid-August 1954, they had progressed from simply punching their victims to violent beatings, and one man had already died from his injuries. On August 16, the boys found Willard Menter asleep on a park bench with his socks and shoes off. They awakened Menter by burning his feet with matches and cigarettes, then demanded that he follow them to the East River. Menter, who was drunk and terrified, complied. There, the boys beat their victim unconscious and threw him into the river, where he drowned.
It didn’t take police long to find and arrest the four attackers, and the boys freely admitted their acts of violence.
“[It] was a supreme adventure for me,” Koslow told police in response to questions about Menter’s murder. He also added that he felt “abstract hatred” for the homeless.
But what was the true motive? Not all of the targeted victims were homeless people, the population Koslow purported to hate. The prosecuting attorney, the boys’ parents, and the news media all struggled to find an explanation for the seemingly senseless acts of violence.
“There’s no greed, no revenge and no sex behind these crimes,” admitted District Attorney Edward S. Silver in a widely published AP article.
A sensationalistic feature in Pageant magazine was even more blunt: “These youngsters burned girls with cigarettes and kicked men in the groin, just for the thrill.”
New York City psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham had a different theory. Wertham had achieved fame with his anti-comic book treatise Seduction of the Innocent, published just four months before the arrest of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers. He jumped at the opportunity to interview Koslow and determine if he, like an estimated 87% of mid-century American teenagers, read comic books. Koslow admitted that he did.
“[H]e was an addict of the type of pornographic horror literature which is closely allied to comic books,” Wertham later told government officials. “He told me that he had read every volume of the Nights of Horror…[and] had been fascinated and emotionally overwhelmed by them.”
There it was: the motive everyone was looking for. Nights of Horror, a series of cheaply-produced books, contained stories of bondage and sadomasochism. It also featured fantastic illustrations that were eventually attributed to Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman. Clearly these descriptions and illustrations of obscene, unnatural sex acts had driven the Thrill Killers to murder!
Although the books were printed in small batches and had almost no distribution, eliminating Nights of Horror from America’s cultural landscape became a national obsession. Police raided bookstores that sold adult material, seizing and destroying any copies they found. The New York State Legislature appointed a committee to explore the effects of obscene material on young people, ushering in a period of widespread censorship and stiffer penalties for those who created or distributed adult material.
The panic also contributed to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating body of the comic book industry designed to eliminate sex, crime, and other salacious elements from comics. In what may have been an attempt to distance the industry from Nights of Horror, the first page of the Code declared, “No comic magazine shall use the word horror…in its title.” The Code remained a governing force for the next five decades.
With a motive established, Koslow and Mittman were tried as adults, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Lieberman was acquitted due to lack of evidence. Trachtenberg, the youngest of the group, was tried in juvenile court and sent to a reformatory.
The crimes of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers gradually faded from public memory, but the case had lasting consequences. In the wake of the crime spree, reactionary campaigns against obscenity destroyed the livelihoods of many distributors of adult material. Ironically, another legacy of the case is Nights of Horror itself – a publication that would almost certainly have disappeared into obscurity were it not for Dr. Wertham’s crusade.