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The Kitty Genovese murder in Queens, New York, in 1964 is one of the most famous murder cases to come out of New York City and into the national spotlight. What propelled it wasn’t the crime or the investigation, but the press coverage that alleged the murder had many witnesses who refused to come to the Kitty Genovese’s defense. This has been disproved over time, but not before it became part of the accepted lore of the crime.
KITTY GENOVESE MURDER
Kitty Genovese was returning from work home at around 2:30 a.m. on March 13, 1964, when she was approached by a man with a knife. Genovese ran toward her apartment building front door, and the man grabbed her and stabbed her while she screamed.
A neighbor, Robert Mozer, yelled out his window, “Let that girl alone!” causing the attacker to flee.
Genovese, seriously injured, crawled to the rear of her apartment building, out of the view of any possible witnesses. Ten minutes later, her attacker returned, stabbed her, raped her and stole her money.
She was found by neighbor Sophia Farrar, who screamed for someone to call the police. Police arrived several minutes later. Genovese died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
The murder elicited a brief news item in The New York Times.
WHO WAS KITTY GENOVESE?
Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 7, 1935, to parents Vincent and Rachel Genovese. The oldest of five children, Genovese was a graduate of Prospect Heights High School and remembered as a very good student and voted “Class Cut-Up” in her senior year.
Following her graduation in 1953, Genovese’s mother witnessed a murder on the streets, which motivated the family to move to New Canaan, Connecticut.
Kitty Genovese, however, remained in New York City, working as a secretary at an insurance company and working nights at Ev’s 11th Hour, a bar in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, first as a bartender then as the manager, prompting her to move to Queens.
A decade later, Genovese met her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko, in a Greenwich Village nightclub. The two found a second-floor apartment together in Kew Gardens in Queens, considered a peaceful, safe area to live.
It was 4 a.m. when police knocked on the apartment door and informed Zielonko about the stabbing and Genovese’s death.
It wasn’t until around 7 a.m. that Detective Mitchell Sang arrived to question Zielonko, who was being consoled with liquor by neighbor Karl Ross. Sang found Ross intrusive to the questioning and arrested him for disorderly conduct. Sang also knew that Genovese’s body was discovered lying at the bottom of the stairs leading to Ross’ apartment.
Later, homicide detectives John Carroll and Jerry Burns arrived and grilled Zielonko on her relationship with Genovese. The questioning took an inappropriate turn, focusing on their sex life, and lasted for six hours.
Much of the police questioning of neighbors revealed a preoccupation with the gay lifestyle. Zielonko was considered a suspect.
MURDER OF KITTY GENOVESE SOLVED
Later that week, police got a call about a suspected robbery. When police showed up, they found a television in the trunk of the suspect’s car. The man, Winston Moseley, was arrested and taken to the station, where he confessed to stealing appliances dozens of times.
Moseley drove a white Corvair, and this struck Detective John Tartaglia, who remembered that some witnesses to Genovese’s murder had reported seeing a white car. This was mentioned to Moseley, who said nothing.
Tartaglia called in detectives John Carroll and Mitchell Sang. They noticed scabs on Moseley’s hands and accused him of killing Genovese. Moseley replied that he had and confirmed information that only the murderer would know.
Moseley had spotted Genovese at a traffic light while he sat in his parked car and then followed her home. He had been driving around Queens looking for a victim but gave no motive for the attack. Moseley was married with three children and had no prior record.
Later interrogations would have Moseley confess to several other rapes and two other murders, those of Annie Mae Johnson and Barbara Kralik. Moseley was sentenced to death on June 15, 1964—it was reduced to a life sentence in 1967.
He would later claim that a mobster executed Genovese and he was only the getaway driver. Moseley’s son has stated that he believes Moseley attacked Genovese because she yelled racial slurs at him. Moseley died in jail on March 28, 2016 at 81 years old.
NEW YORK TIMES COVERAGE
On March 27, 1964, The New York Times ran an article titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call The Police,” alleging that multiple neighbors heard or witnessed Genovese’s murder but did nothing to help her.
The report was prompted by a conversation between Times editor A. M. Rosenthal and Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, during which Murphy made the claim that was the basis for the article.
The newspaper followed it up the next day with an analysis speaking to several experts on the psychology of why people would choose not to get involved.
Later in the year, Rosenthal adapted this information into a book called Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case.
The New York Times coverage has been criticized for numerous factual errors and accused of contriving a social phenomenon for sensationalistic purposes.
The phenomenon, called the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Syndrome, attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime would not help the victim.
Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley made their careers studying the Bystander Effect and have shown in clinical experiments that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely any one person will intervene.
The Bystander Effect was used by the press as a parable of a morally bankrupt modern society losing its compassion for others, particularly in cities.
NEW YORK TIMES DEBUNKED
Decades following the murder, a journalistic movement began to correct the misinformation perpetuated by The New York Times stories.
In 2004, journalist Jim Rasenberger wrote an article for the Times debunking the claims of the 1964 reporting. A 2007 article in American Psychologist by Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins further deflates Rosenthal’s claims.
In 2015, Genovese’s younger brother Bill produced and narrated the documentary The Witness, which lays out the case against the Times reporting in strong terms.
‘I DIDN’T WANT TO GET INVOLVED’
Only two neighbors have been shown to behave at the time of the murder in the way the Times claimed 38 people did. One of those was Karl Ross.
Intoxicated that night, Ross heard noises and after deliberation, cracked open his door to investigate. He saw Genovese laying on the ground, still alive and attempting to speak, and Moseley stabbing her. He shut the door and called a friend to ask what to do. The friend said not to get involved.
Ross eventually climbed out of his window and went to a neighbors apartment. He called the police after hearing Sophie Farrar call for someone to do so. Ross’ explanation—“I didn’t want to get involved”—became the famous rejoinder of the Bystander Effect.
THE BIRTH OF 911
The murder of Kitty Genovese is credited as one of the factors that pushed the emergency 911 system into place, after New York City officials joined in a national effort involving officials in other cities. It became the national emergency number in 1968.
Kitty Genovese. Kevin Cook.
A Call For Help. The New Yorker.
Her Shocking Murder Became the Stuff of Legend. But Everyone Got the Story Wrong. Washington Post.
Debunking the myth of Kitty Genovese
At 3:15 on the morning of March 13, 1964, a 28-year-old bar manager named Kitty Genovese drove her red Fiat into the parking lot of the LIRR station by her Kew Gardens home.
As she walked home — she was only about “a hundred paces away” from the apartment she shared with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko — she heard a man’s footsteps close behind her. She ran, but the man, Winston Moseley, was too quick. He caught her, slammed her to the ground and stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed twice, once yelling, “Oh, God! I’ve been stabbed!”
Across the street, a man named Robert Mozer heard Genovese from his apartment. Looking out his seventh-floor window, he saw a man and a woman, sensed an altercation — he couldn’t see exactly what was happening — and yelled out his window, “Leave that girl alone!”
Moseley later testified that Mozer’s action “frightened” him, sending him back to his car. At this point, Genovese was still alive, her wounds nonfatal.
Fourteen-year-old Michael Hoffman, who lived in the same building as Mozer, also heard the commotion. He looked out his window and told his father, Samuel, what he saw. Samuel called the police, and after three or four minutes on hold, he reached a police dispatcher. He related that a woman “got beat up and was staggering around,” and gave them the location.
Other neighbors heard something as well, but it wasn’t always clear what. Some looked out the window to see Moseley scurrying away, or Genovese, having stood up, now walking slowly down the block, leaning against a building. From their vantage point, it wasn’t obvious that she was wounded. Others who looked didn’t see her at all, as Genovese walked around a corner, trying to make her way home at 82-70 Austin St.
But the police did not respond to Samuel Hoffman’s call, and Moseley, seeing no help was imminent, returned. He hunted down Genovese — who had made it to a vestibule in her building before collapsing — stabbed her several more times, then raped her.
Word of the attack spread though the building. A woman named Sophie Farrar, all of 4-foot-11, rushed to the vestibule, risking her life in the process. For all she knew, the attacker might have still been there. As luck would have it, he was not, and Farrar hugged and cradled the bloodied Genovese, who was struggling for breath.
Despite the attempts of various neighbors to help, Moseley’s final stab wounds proved fatal, and Farrar did her best to comfort Genovese in the nightmarish final minutes of her life.
The murder of Kitty Genovese shifted from crime to legend a few weeks later, when The New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of her neighbors had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.
The Times piece was followed by a story in Life magazine, and the narrative spread throughout the world, running in newspapers from Russia and Japan to the Middle East.
New York became internationally infamous as a city filled with thoughtless people who didn’t care about one another where people could watch their neighbors get stabbed on the street without lifting a finger to help, leaving them to die instead in a pool of their own blood.
The people of Kew Gardens — before that, a relatively crime-free neighborhood where few bothered locking their doors — were referred to in the press as monsters.
But as journalist Kevin Cook details in his new book, “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America” (W.W. Norton), some of the real thoughtlessness came from a police commissioner who lazily passed a falsehood to a journalist, and a media that fell so deeply in love with a story that it couldn’t be bothered to determine whether it was true.
The account of the murder at the top of this story is accurate, based on Cook’s reporting. Instead of a narrative of apathy, the media could have told instead of the people who tried to help, and of the complex circumstances — many boiling down to a lack not of compassion, but of information — that prevented some others from calling for aid.
One could argue that Genovese became a legend not on the day she was killed, but 10 days later, when New York City Police Commissioner Michael “Bull” Murphy had lunch with The New York Times’ new city editor — later to become the paper’s executive editor — Abe Rosenthal.
After Rosenthal brought up a case Murphy wished to avoid discussing, the commissioner pivoted to the Genovese case.
“Brother, that Queens story is one for the books. Thirty-eight witnesses,” Murphy said. “I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.”
“Rosenthal felt a spark running up and down the back of his neck,” writes Cook, “the spine-tingling sense that he was onto a story readers would never forget.”
By this point, coverage of the murder had been minor, mostly stories buried deep inside the paper.
Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to dig deeper, and Gansberg interviewed Genovese’s neighbors for three days before the Times ran his front-page story on March 27.
The article began as follows:
“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”
Cook and others speculate that the story’s first paragraph was written by Rosenthal.
The story made the Genovese murder front-page news around the world. People began wondering aloud how society had fallen so far, and letters to the editors at various newspapers blamed everything from television to the “women’s-lib movement.”
But while journalists welcomed to opportunity to moralize, pontificate, and cement New York City’s reputation as the new hell on earth, not one could be bothered to check the facts.
Cook’s research for this book included reading the detectives’ report on the Genovese investigation. The report had 38 entries.
“The document lists 49 witnesses who saw or heard something on the night Kitty died. Sixteen were eyewitnesses,” he writes.
Cook notes that neither of these numbers are complete, as key witnesses are missing. “It was a roundup of interviews with many of Kitty’s neighbors,” he writes, “not a definitive account of anything.” And each individual entry in the report was structured differently, with some containing a detective’s interviews with multiple witnesses.
“In all likelihood,” Cook writes, “someone in the Police Department counted the entries and passed the total on to Commissioner Murphy, who passed it on to Rosenthal. An innocent mistake, possibly made in a hurry. A clerical error.”
While this “clerical error” turned the world on its head, leading to a neighborhood being ostracized and a major city redefined, the number, 38, was “so arbitrary that Murphy may as well have picked it out of a hat.” (The Times also erred in citing three separate attacks, as there were only two.)
As for the other mistaken belief that was treated as fact — that none of Genovese’s neighbors tried to help in any way, including calling the police — this information was fed to a Life magazine reporter by a New York City police lieutenant. There’s no telling why the lieutenant believed this was true.
The tale of uncaring neighbors was not completely false. There are two men who certainly watched the crime happen and did nothing.
Joseph Fink was an assistant superintendent at the building across the street from Genovese’s. Stationed in the building’s lobby, he had a clear view of the first stabbing, and later told prosecutors that he “thought about going downstairs to get my baseball bat,” but took a nap instead. When asked by the prosecutor why he didn’t help, he shrugged. Another prosecutor later said, “It made me sick to my stomach dealing with this man.”
The other thoughtless witness was Karl Ross, a dog groomer who lived two doors down from Genovese and Zielonko. Ross was a friend who would often care for Genovese’s dog, which he had sold her, and also frequently came by to drink and chat.
Ross was, according to Zielonko, a “very nervous, frightened person.” He was also usually accompanied by a bottle of vodka. When Genovese and Zielonko spoke of him, they thought of him as “scared of his shadow, trying to drink his fears away.”
Genovese would learn the hard way just how true this was.
As was his habit, Ross had been drinking the night of the murder. At 3:30 a.m., he heard a noise outside his window that sounded like a woman screaming.
“Skittish by nature, the groggy Ross wasn’t eager to find out what was happening,” Cook writes. “He stayed where he was. He waited, hoping the noises would stop. Soon they died down. He relaxed.”
But a few minutes later, a similar noise arose, this one closer, possibly “a scuffling” or “a muffled cry.”
“Ross stood by his door but didn’t open it,” Cook writes. “He paced behind it, wondering what he should do. At last his curiosity got the best of him. He opened the door a crack.”
What he saw was Genovese, his friend, “lying flat on her back . . . trying to speak” as Moseley continued stabbing her. Suddenly, Moseley stopped — and looked directly at Ross, who retreated into his apartment as quickly as possible.
Instead of calling the police, Ross wasted time calling other neighbors for advice, and they, for reasons unclear, then called others. It was a fatal game of telephone that wasted precious minutes, until Farrar finally yelled at Ross to call the police while she rushed to comfort the victim. Ross called at 3:55, too late to save Genovese’s life.
When the police questioned him about why he didn’t help, Ross inadvertently invented a phrase that would come to symbolize civic apathy, telling them, “I didn’t want to get involved.”
Disgracefully, after his questioning, Ross brought a bottle to a heartbroken Zielonko and drank with her, mentioning nothing of how he could have saved her girlfriend’s life.
But there were not 38 witnesses who did nothing. Not even close. For the reprehensible actions of Fink and Ross, an entire city was tarred.
The effects of the Genovese murder were vast, including the adoption of good Samaritan laws nationwide, and the discovery of the bystander effect, which showed that people are unlikely to help someone if they think others are available to do so.
Winston Moseley was found guilty of Genovese’s murder. He was initially sentenced to death, but that was commuted several years later and changed to life in prison, where he remains today. At 78, no living inmate has spent more time in the New York prison system.
Today, the Genovese case is remembered, correctly or otherwise, as a touchstone for the decline of polite society, and for igniting several of the darkest decades in New York City history.
As one Kew Gardens resident said on the crime’s 25th anniversary, “No death that has come since can compare to it. That’s where things changed — the beginning of the end of decency.”
Catherine Susan Genovese was an average American girl growing up in Queens, New York in the 1940s. Kitty, as she was called by friends and family, was the eldest of five children. Her parents moved to Connecticut when she was a young woman, but Kitty stayed in the city with her grandparents. After a failed marriage and a succession of uninteresting clerical jobs, Kitty got a job as a bartender at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar. She worked the night shift, returning home to the apartment she shared with her girlfriend at Kew Gardens around 3am each night.
Winston Moseley seemed to be living an average American life as well. He was married with two children and had a job and a home. He did have the penchant for breaking into homes and stealing television sets, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Winston had psychotic urges, and it was these urges that had him driving around at 2am on the morning of March 13, 1964 while his wife and children slept. He spied Kitty getting out of her car and his darkest self took over. He ran over and stabbed Kitty in the back twice while she screamed. Robert Mozer later testified he heard Kitty screaming, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Help me! Help me!” He called out his window and the man ran away and the girl walked around the corner out of sight. Mozer thought no more of it and went to bed. As the did the other people in the other apartments. However, no one thought to check if anyone was hurt. Since he heard no sirens, Winston returned to stalk his prey.
By this time Kitty had made it to the lobby of her apartment building, although badly hurt. He cornered her in the lobby and stabbed her again. Winston then raped her and stole the little money she had, about $49. Then he escaped into the night. The attack itself took a half hour. Kitty was certainly not quiet, and neither was Winston. It was in apartment hall in the middle of a crowded city. Why were the police not called?
The manhunt for the murderer was on, and Winston was caught initially for stealing a television set. When he was taken into the police station, he confessed to Kitty’s murder saying he just wanted “to kill a woman”. He was convicted of murder, attempted kidnapping and robbery and died in prison. Not before orchestrating an escape attempt from Attica and raping another victim and taking five hostages. He was the longest serving inmate in the New York prison system.
Through later police interviews, they found a dozen people who had heard Kitty Genovese screaming and fighting for her life. The police were not called until Kitty was dying in the hallway by a neighbor, Karl Ross. Don’t call Karl Ross a hero, as he opened his door and saw the attack going on and slammed his door shut. The police were not called until the attack was over. Only one neighbor, Sophia Farrar, left her apartment to help Kitty, and the young woman ended up lying in Sophia’s arms until the ambulance came. The most common excuse the police heard for not calling the police? “I didn’t want to get involved.” The New York Times ran with the story, and sited the number of witnesses who did nothing as thirty-seven. The headline screamed Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”. In a later book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, author Kevin Cook brought that number up to forty-nine. These numbers have been disputed.
No matter how many people were involved, not one of them stepped into help. Most of the public was shocked that a young woman was brutally murdered with no one lifting a finger to help. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley studied this case, and put their findings into a theory called The Bystander Effect. This hypothesizes that the more witnesses there are the less likely it is for anyone to take action. They will take cues from the group and assume someone else will take care of it.
Another movement that came out of this tragedy is the creation of a universal emergency phone system. The three digit emergency number of 911 was instituted in 1964 as an easy to remember way to get a hold of emergency services. Prior to this, all calls for police were sent to an individual precinct and not always prioritized. If you called the wrong precinct, then you were just out of luck. The 911 system has saved countless lives over the years. So some good came out of the terrible death of the young woman that early Friday morning. May she rest in peace.
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'The Witness' Tells A Different Story About The Kitty Genovese Murder
As the story went at the time, 38 people witnessed the attack on Kitty Genovese 50 years ago, and did nothing. But that story is wrong, as James Solomon and William Genovese explore in their new film.
Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who managed a bar, was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, outside of her apartment building in Queens. That terrible crime, shocking in itself, became notorious when the vaunted New York Times reported that 38 people saw Kitty Genovese being murdered and did nothing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tomorrow marks what many people regard as one of the most shameful anniversaries in New York City history.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Police discovered that more than 30 people had witnessed her attack. And no one had picked up the phone to call the police.
SIMON: It was a story of cruel indifference that became a signature of an uncaring New York in the 1960s. A new documentary re-examines the case and questions if that's what really happened. The film is by James Solomon and it features Bill Genovese, who is Kitty Genovese's younger brother. They both join us now from our studios in New York. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.
BILL GENOVESE: You're welcome. Thank you.
JAMES SOLOMON: Thanks so much for having us on, Scott.
SIMON: Mr. Genovese, let me turn to you first. Not to give away too much of the film, what did you discover, Mr. Genovese?
GENOVESE: There were a lot of things we discovered. During the course of 11 years, there was a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.
SOLOMON: What's been incredibly striking is for 50 - now 52 - years, everybody has been telling a story of Kitty Genovese, but the voices that have not been heard are those who are actually the most impacted, most specifically Kitty's family. It turns out that the horror of her death and the public nature of her death, as Bill's older brother says in the film, it was so horrible, so terrible, that we basically erased her from our lives so that the next generation of Kitty's family can only tell you the story of her death. They don't have a story of her life. And what Bill has done in the film - and in my opinion, makes this the ultimate sibling love story - is reclaimed Kitty's life from her death, not just for the public but most importantly for his own family.
SIMON: There are so many emotional points in the film, certainly when you find the woman who held your sister when she died. I mean, you find people who did call the police. You did find the people - you find people who did shout at the murderer. You find a woman who was with your sister when she died.
GENOVESE: That was enormous. It was such a relief. My only regret is that my parents were not able to understand that that was the case. I think probably the worst thing about the whole story was that in the original story, 38 people witnessed that she was attacked three separate times over 32 minutes or some odd. Well, that's horrible. My parents would have been, I'm sure, somewhat relieved to have known that somebody was there and not only somebody, it was a friend of hers.
SOLOMON: Scott, the story of Kitty Genovese is known to all of us. We know the name Kitty Genovese 50 years later because it's the story of no one coming to the aid of someone. And yet, there was, as you point out, a woman who ran down in the middle of the night outside into a rear alley and forced her way inside a vestibule and cradled Kitty. How that part of the story has not been told for 50 years is stunning.
SIMON: We need to mention her name.
SIMON: Yeah. I have to be blunt. What you found in this film impeaches the editorial integrity of The New York Times. And the man who - A.M. Rosenthal, who eventually became the paper's executive editor, this story did a lot of good for his career. And it suggests that no less than one of the sleazy tabloids that The Times often mocks, they sensationalized a story and then put a sociological bent on it so that the readers would accept it.
GENOVESE: Yeah. I think it was a case of where Mr. Rosenthal thought through and composed in his head a scenario that seemed to fit with the facts that he knew at the time that he was able to speak out to the public that was coming from his heart rather than as a professional, I'm - even though I'm an editor, I'm a reporter, basically. And so I think he spoke from his heart and not from his professional point of view.
SIMON: You meet the son of Winston Moseley, your sister's convicted murderer. We should explain Moseley spent the rest of his life in prison, never paroled and died about a month ago
SIMON: He's a reverend. He seems a very good man, but he apparently grew up with some myths about your family.
GENOVESE: Yeah, he did. Stephen (ph) believed that the Genovese family was related to the Genovese crime family. And so the mythology that went around within his family was like, oh boy, you know, what's going to happen to us?
SOLOMON: The film is, in many respects, about false narratives and the impact of false narratives on our lives, how we hold stories, real or imagined, and they shape our lives. The Times story is a - the original Times story is a deeply flawed narrative that did some real good things. It was an inspiration or helped lead to 911 emergency system and Good Samaritan laws and neighborhood watch groups. But the truth is very important, and that's what Bill does within the film is to sort of unravel the truth so that we move forward knowing that there was on that night a hero and that some may have called on that night.
SIMON: There's a startling scene toward the end of the film when you get an actress to essentially re-enact Kitty Genovese's death, including that bone chilling scream.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WITNESS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Kitty Genovese, screaming) Help me.
SIMON: You alerted the neighborhood in advance so that they knew what was happening.
GENOVESE: Well, for me, going in, it was an effort to try to live through what she lived through in the very street with the buildings virtually the same as they were 50 years before. What it turned into for me was a morph to kind of my philosophical/spiritual bent, which is it's not just Kitty on the street. It's all of us on the street.
SOLOMON: Bill needed to feel what it was like that night and there was not a test of the neighborhood or testing of reaction of neighbors. And I think that's actually an incredibly important point. We've been filming in that neighborhood for 11 years and countless residents allowed us - welcomed Bill into their homes so he could see, feel and the way this neighborhood - because this neighborhood was branded, stigmatized, by this narrative of 38 eyewitnesses not doing anything.
And yet the moment they met Bill and knew it was Bill, Kitty's brother, it changed everything. And that's why we are hearing from, for the first time in a half-century, the people most deeply affected because of Bill.
SIMON: Bill Genovese and James Solomon - their documentary is "The Witness." Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.
SOLOMON: Thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR&rsquos programming is the audio record.
Correction May 31, 2016
A previous introduction to this story misspelled James Solomon's name as Soloman.
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But two weeks later, on March 27, The Times published a front-page report by Martin Gansberg under the headline, “Thirty-eight who saw the murder didn’t call the police.” The article, which has since been cited innumerable times in other media outlets, social-psychology textbooks and academic studies, opened as follows: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault one witness called after the woman was dead.”
As a result of the Times report, the name Kitty Genovese became a byword in social psychology, a metaphor for urban alienation and a journalistic cliché that for decades has cropped up regularly in media reports about people who are infuriatingly silent in the face of moral outrages. An abundance of studies appeared on the “bystander effect” – known, unofficially, as the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.” They asked why bystanders would ignore tragedies that were unfolding before their eyes and why, the more witnesses there were, the less likely it was that one of them would intervene. A few years after the murder, the emergency number 911 came into use, creating one, universal phone number for calling the police that eventually was adopted in every state. Some states also passed “Good Samaritan” laws that guaranteed legal protection to bystanders who came to the aid of someone in distress.
It emerged about a decade ago, however, that the public’s perception of the Kitty Genovese case had been based on distorted reports about what really happened on that fateful night, and its history has since been rewritten, with the Times acknowledging its role in perpetrating that distortion and the fact that many of the details in Gansberg’s report were inaccurate.
Kitty Genovese photographed circa 1956. The Witnesses Film / LLC
Then, last year, a series of new developments catapulted the case back into the headlines. Her killer, an African-American named Winston Moseley, serving a life sentence, died in prison at the age of 81, after all his many requests for parole were rejected. The popular television series “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls” devoted episodes to the story and introduced it to a new audience of viewers who were born many decades after the event. And the victim’s brother, Bill Genovese, who was 16 at the time of his sister’s brutal murder, is the protagonist of a new documentary film titled “The Witness,” which, it was announced last month, is on the short list of 15 candidates for the Oscar nomination in the documentary category.
“The reason it took so long to make this film is that for many decades no one in my family was able to talk about Kitty’s murder,” Genovese told me in an interview last month in Manhattan. “For many years after the murder, my siblings and I felt that our job was to protect Mom, who suffered from a life-threatening stroke a year after Kitty’s death. [Their father, Vincent Genovese, died of a heart attack three years after the murder, at age 59.] Because of the notoriety of the murder, there were so many articles and television shows and we wanted to protect my mother from all this information. Kitty was her first child, and during the funeral she threw herself on the coffin.”
‘Parable of inaction’
Bill Genovese says he started asking questions when his mother, Rachel Genovese, died in 1992, and after Winston Moseley filed yet another request for parole.
“I was interested in researching what went on during Kitty’s final hours,” he continued, “and started collecting police records and talking to her neighbors. In 2004, The New York Times ran an article that recounted the whole story 40 years after the original report written by Gansberg.”
That same year, James Solomon approached Genovese with an idea for an HBO feature film about Kitty, but they came to the conclusion that a documentary about Bill Genovese’s efforts to track down the 38 purportedly silent witnesses would be more effective. It would be Solomon’s first foray as a documentary filmmaker.
They say that time is the best medicine, but in your case it seems that the pain is still surprisingly fresh. Why did it take you so many decades to go back to this traumatic event?
Bill Genovese: “I don’t buy the cliche of time as a cure for pain and suffering. Post-trauma is a complicated and ongoing condition. I can go down a street and catch a specific smell or aroma, or see a red sports car [like the one his sister drove] racing down the road – and my heart just stops. There are always paralyzing moments of pain. When working on the film, Jim and I were focused on technical details – we’re going to put the microphone there, or place the camera in this corner – but every now and then I had a flashback that took me back to Kitty’s last moments and her agonizing and fear. She was bleeding and having trouble breathing because Moseley’s knife penetrated her ribs and lungs, and that must have been so painful for her.”
Genovese and Solomon’s search for the truth went on for 11 years. The final result of their efforts is “The Witness,” an 88-minute documentary that is currently playing in limited release in the United States (it is available on Netflix). The film, which does not make for easy viewing, tells the odyssey of Bill, a retiree, now in his sixties, whose world fell apart when he was a teenager and his beloved sister died in the wake of a fateful chance encounter with a rapist and serial killer.
In an attempt to refute the highly influential narrative that “38 people watched and did nothing,” Genovese became a self-styled private detective and collected every scrap of evidence and every finding that could shed new light on the events of that fateful night in March 1964. What he discovered casts doubt on the original legendary story that developed. Contrary to what Gansberg originally wrote in the Times, “The Witness” reveals that Mosley attacked Kitty Genovese twice – not three times – and that most of the neighbors had no idea what was happening, owing to the architecture of the housing project, which hid the deserted parking lot and the back entrance from the view of most of the tenants. In addition, Genovese tracked down his sister’s neighbor and good friend Sophia Farrar, who told him that a neighbor called her at about 3 A.M. after hearing Kitty’s screams, whereupon Farrar quickly got dressed and went outside to the stairwell minutes after Moseley had left.
Bill Genovese and James Solomon. Natan Dvir
“I was born a year after Kitty’s murder,” James Solomon – whose screenwriting credits include a 2010 feature, “The Conspirator,” which was directed by Robert Redford) – told me. “I grew up in New York in the 1970s, when the city was described as dangerous and cruel, in a way. If something were to happen, you were on your own. I didn’t realize at the time how much this narrative of New York was based in part on the murder of Kitty Genovese. For a half-century, this story served as a parable of inaction, and I was drawn to writing a scripted film based on that narrative for HBO.
“As I started to do research for that film, I met people who were most directly impacted by that night and realized that few of them have been heard from. I also realized how much that story had been fictionalized. There was too much fiction and not enough facts. Bill Genovese was one of the first people I met who’ve been shaped by the false narrative of the 38 witnesses – it propelled the course of his life. He was a natural protagonist for a nonfiction film documenting his investigation.”
What he and Genovese discovered during their years of work “is that there is no definitive narrative as to what happened,” he explains. “But we do known that the reality of that night was different from the New York Times report. The story was that ‘38 watched for over half an hour and did nothing,’ as if there were people sitting in an amphitheater and watching a show – and that’s a myth. More people acted, starting with Sophia Farrar, Kitty’s neighbor and friend who came down in her nightgown to help her and cradle her in her arms during Kitty’s final moments. There was no way that 38 witnesses could have watched for so long, since the attack took place in two separate areas of Kew Gardens. Many heard, but very few were able to watch what was going on. There was no collective understanding of what was going on.”
As a result of your investigation, and of others that were published in the media, we know today that the original Gansberg report in the Times was riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Why do you think he chose to emphasize the number of witnesses who supposedly watched the murder and depict them as indifferent? And how did such a mistaken report get onto the front page of one of the world’s most respected newspapers?
Solomon: “I do think that part of the reason this false narrative came to be was very well impacted by the Holocaust. In 1964, several months after [President John F.] Kennedy’s assassination, the country was asking ‘Who are we?’ and I believe that that question extended back to the Holocaust. [A.M.] Abe Rosenthal, the Times editor who assigned the story to Gansberg and later wrote a book titled “Thirty-Eight Witnesses” about Kitty’s murder, had been a correspondent in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s. He was deeply affected by the Holocaust, and in his book he ruminates on silence and the nature of being an observer and not acting. How much of that thinking informed and influenced the Kitty Genovese narrative is an interesting question.”
For Bill Genovese, it was important to focus not only on the neighbors and their response to the assault, but also on the historical injustice that was done to his sister because of how she was described in the tabloids. Accordingly, much of the documentary is devoted to Kitty’s life, and not only to her death.
Genovese says that “the witness” of the film’s title referred to himself: “As we came to the final stages of putting this film together, I was thinking, ‘What is the message of all of this’? It seemed to me that we are all witnesses, and we need to take more responsibility for our everyday choices. What do we owe each other? I saw a video documenting the final moments of the Russian diplomat who was assassinated in an art gallery in Turkey [last December 19] – a human being who dies in front of our eyes. It’s human life, not just pixels on a screen. Of course, the difference between seeing images of someone shot and being there when someone is shot is substantial. Death is not as sterile as seen on television. But it all boils down to the fact that we are all witnesses to each other’s lives when we cross each other’s paths. What do people who witnessed and did nothing during the Holocaust owe the victims? What do we owe the people dying in Syria?”
The greatest challenge to the investigation was the absence of documentation or of objective findings from the scene of the crime, because in the 1960s there were no security cameras everywhere, or mobile phones. After 11 years of digging, are there still open questions?
Genovese: “For me, the primal question is: Could there really have been 38 eyewitnesses [who stood by passively]? I always wondered about that, and I think we now know for certain that this description was inaccurate. Most people were ear-witnesses rather than eyewitnesses: They didn’t see what was going on in the dark parking lot, and they didn’t realize a murder was taking place. A neighbor named Karl Ross called Kitty’s friend, Sophia Farrar, who ran down as fast as she could to help my sister. So the reality of Kitty’s death was substantially different than the description in Gansberg’s report. We now know that Ross also called the police shortly after Moseley left, but it was too late.”
One of the people interviewed in the film says that she called the police the moment she heard Kitty’s screams, but you say in the narration that the police have no record of this. Can testimonies be trusted after 40 years? Do you think human memory is selective?
“Well, some things are burned in our memory – that’s a neurological phenomenon. The police log only showed Karl Ross’ phone call, but maybe other neighbors called. A woman named Patti said to me that she called the police that night and was told that they’d already received a call about this case. Another neighbor wrote an affidavit later on, claiming that his father called the police around 3:30 A.M., but this didn’t appear in the official police records. So who do you believe? Did the police operator forget to log some phone calls or simply ignore them, thinking it was just a ‘lovers’ quarrel’? Eventually, the New York Times’ inaccurate report shaped the collective memory of this event as ‘38 saw murder and did nothing.’”
Single and attractive, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese, who worked as a shift manager in a Queens bar, was dubbed by the New York tabloids at the time a “barmaid” who “was separated from her husband” and “ran with the fast crowd,” while living in the “bohemian section” of Queens. In conversations with his sister’s friends and those who loved her, Bill Genovese paints a far richer and more complex picture of a smart, independent woman who was born in New Canaan, Connecticut and raised in New York. She was a popular student and an amateur dancer. Beginning in her twenties, she supported herself by working in bars and plied the city’s streets in a red sports car. Following a failed marriage to a man named Rocko that was annulled within months, she moved into a small but pleasant apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, with a friend, Mary Ann Zielonko. The apartment was a short distance from the bar where she worked nights.
Kitty Genovese. The Witnesses Film / LLC
For years, Bill Genovese and his family believed that Rocko had been Kitty’s only love, but his work on the film revealed, to his astonishment, that Zielonko, with whom his sister lived in the year before the murder, was actually her romantic partner. On that fateful night of March 13, police came to the apartment the two shared and took Mary Ann to the hospital to identify the body, even before the Genovese family arrived. According to Mary Ann, Kitty was ambivalent about her sexual inclination and therefore kept the story of their relationship a secret from family and friends. Out of respect for Kitty’s memory and wishes, Mary Ann did not tell the Genovese family about the true nature of her relationship with Kitty.
Two years after the event, Bill Genovese decided to enlist in the Marines, which sent him to Vietnam. After months of jungle combat, he stepped on a land mine and lost both legs he has been in a wheelchair ever since.
In the film you explain that Kitty’s murder made you join the Marines. Why did such a violent death make you want to put yourself on a risky battlefield, where one might be killed or be forced to kill others?
“I didn’t think about it that way. Post-Vietnam, everyone suddenly had insights and knew it was a horrible war, but the truth was that leading up to it, not everybody was as knowledgeable. I grew up in the 1950s, and as children we were getting under our school desks to save us from the initial burn of a nuclear bomb. We grew up learning about Stalin’s monolithic communism that was trying to overthrow the West. We were ‘cold warriors,’ and then, in 1961, Kennedy came and said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ and all that. I was 13 years old, and home because of a snow day. I listened to his speech, and it really played on me. And in 1964 my sister was murdered in this arbitrary and brutal way. I didn’t want to be one of these people who didn’t bother to pick up the phone that night.
A scene from 'The Witness.' The Witnesses Film / LLC
“Back then I felt Vietnam was a just war to stop monolithic communism and save millions of innocent people from falling into the hands of Stalin and Mao. I didn’t know then what I know now. I was only in Vietnam for two months before I was injured and lost my legs. Eventually, I was lucky enough to come back home without killing anyone. And I knew I served my country and I was nothing like one of the 38 bystanders.”
While Bill Genovese and his siblings married and started their own families, American collective memory was shaped by the myth of the “Kitty Genovese syndrome” and the alienation of contemporary urbanites. In 2002, the Times profiled Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, who was then plotting the invasion of Iraq. Wolfowitz, the paper’s readers were informed, had “a horror of standing by and watching bad things happen.” The proof? “He often talks about Kitty Genovese.”
The American pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River in 2009 (and whose story is told in the recent Clint Eastwood movie “Sully: Miracle on the Hudson”), noted in interviews afterward that as a teenager he followed the coverage of the Genovese case in the Texas press and it had a tremendous impact on his life.
The Genovese murder was recently referred to in a different context as well. Last August, Yale University President Peter Salovey cited the murder and its aftermath prominently in his freshman address to the incoming class of 2020, under the title, “Countering False Narratives.” Noting that he had for many years taught introductory psychology to freshmen, he explained that he had asked students to look at the question of people getting involved in offering help to others in emergency situations: “I would begin with the tragic and well-known case of Kitty Genovese . Over the years, I have described this shocking incident many times. So have other social psychologists teaching similar courses, and so did the social scientists who sought to explain how witnesses could exhibit such callous indifference to a horrific crime taking place before their eyes. Here’s the trouble: The standard account of the Kitty Genovese case is wrong in some of its crucial details.”
Referring to the film “The Witness,” Solovey suggested to the new students that although the case had become a metaphor for urban alienation, today it should be treated as an example of the long-term influence of narratives that capture the imagination even though they are based on distortions and unsubstantiated facts. In the “post-truth” era, Solovey urged the freshman class at the iconic educational institution to investigate the hidden ways in which mistaken may narratives shape our lives.
I asked Bill Genovese why he thinks that, among the hundreds of homicides perpetrated in New York in 1964, his sister’s murder became burned into the public consciousness and inspired so many social-psychology studies about the “bystander effect.” “We tend to remember stories better than facts,” he replied, “and ’38 witnesses’ was an excellent story.” He added that in the wake of the Times report, studies were conducted that found that the more witnesses there are, the less likely it is that one of them will intervene – because each of them is certain that someone else will step in or call the police. “Does that explain what happened on the night my sister was murdered? I doubt it.”
Although “The Witness” provides answers to many of the questions concerning the murder and its documentation, it declines to address one disturbing issue: What made Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old family man who operated business machines and lived relatively well in a home of his own in Queens where he and his wife raised their two young children, become a rapist and serial killer? (Moseley later confessed to the murders of three women, and the rape of eight, as well as dozens of burglaries – including the rape and killing of another woman just a few weeks before his encounter with Kitty Genovese.)
Despite the filmmaker’s choice to focus on Kitty and the Genovese family, and not on the murderer and his story, the film offers a partial glimpse into the roller-coaster life of one of America’s most notorious killers. Moseley was arrested about a week after the Genovese murder in the wake of a failed burglary attempt. He was sentenced to death in the electric chair, but in 1967, two years after New York State abolished capital punishment and Moseley appealed his sentence, he was given life imprisonment.
But that was not the end of the mayhem Moseley wreaked. In 1968, while being taken to a Buffalo hospital for treatment of a self-inflicted wound, Moseley overpowered a guard and escaped. Over the course of four days, during which he broke into homes in the Buffalo area, he succeeded in eluding a massive manhunt conducted by the police and the FBI. He then entered an empty house, and when the owners returned he tied up the husband and raped his wife at gunpoint. He was finally recaptured after taking additional hostages and agreeing to turn himself after negotiating with the FBI. Following his escape attempt, he served 52 years in a maximum security facility in Dannemora, New York, near the Canadian border. He died there last April, aged 81.
In 1977, he obtained a B.A. in sociology by correspondence. He gave a few media interviews and in April 1977 published an op-ed in The New York Times about the importance of prisoner rehabilitation. He claimed that he too had been rehabilitated and wanted to open a new chapter in his life. (“The man who killed Kitty Genovese in 1964 is no more,” he wrote, and concluded, “Today I’m a man who wants to be an asset to society, not a liability to it.”) He requested parole regularly, but was just as regularly turned down.
Genovese admits that he has never managed to solve the mystery of Winston Moseley. “If I had access to the psychiatric evaluations of Winston Moseley, I might have an idea of why he was a serial killer, but these records are confidential,” he said in our interview. “What I do know is that his mother cheated on his father, and his first wife cheated on him. But can these facts explain what pushed him to become a monster? I doubt it. He abused women for years, and with each rape he became more and more violent, to the point when he shot, raped and murdered a 24-year-old woman named Annie Mae Johnson two weeks before he murdered my sister. Once he realized he was able to get away with these atrocities, he became more and more brutal.”
Moseley’s death and the release of “The Witness” have made it possible for Genovese to talk about his sister’s killing with a feeling of acceptance and conciliation. Next week, he and James Solomon will find out whether their life’s project is one of the five documentaries nominated for an Academy Award.
Genovese responds with an embarrassed smile to the question of whether he’s bought a new suit and prepared an acceptance speech should the need arise. He doesn’t think that will happen, but he does know what he would want to say: “The witness to me is me and you and everybody else. It’s Israelis who don’t care about Palestinians who get killed in retaliatory strikes it’s Palestinians who don’t care about Israelis who get killed by suicide bombers or rockets. We live in a very small world, and nation-state boundaries are very precarious. Somehow we had better transcend this so we can keep what’s good about each country. Because if aren’t able to do that, the other option is reactionary in the extreme, like Trumpism in the U.S.
“All the great religions ask what we owe our fellow men. I don’t want to sound like a New Age guru, but I do believe that until we can break through these boundaries of animosity, we’re doomed – because dictators will keep trying to mobilize people against each other. We need to focus on education for sensitivity and empathy, and learn how to be better witnesses to each other’s lives. We can no longer afford to be passive bystanders.”
The first article about Genovese’s murder appeared in the New York Times on Saturday March 14, 1964. It was a short blurb — only four paragraphs — titled “Queens Woman Is Stabbed to Death in Front of Home.” But two weeks later, Martin Gansberg published a piece with a shocking headline: Who Saw Murder Didn&apost Call the Police.” The attention-grabbing headline was followed by an even more disconcerting description 𠇏or more than half an hour 38 respectable, lawiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman.” Although it was later determined that many of the so-called ts” in Gansberg’s piece were gross exaggerations (for example, it is speculated that a few witnesses did call the police during the attack and there is skepticism that there were in fact ” apathetic onlookers), this version of Genovese’s murder made national headlines and the disturbing apathy surrounding the events sparked national debate about bystander intervention, particularly in urban settings.
A New York Story: Kitty Genovese
Since 1964 the story of Kitty Genovese has shaped our expectations of community. It has served as a powerful cautionary tale, especially but not exclusively for women, at a time when new possibilities for independence and involvement drew many young people to big cities. Specifically, it was deployed to alert New Yorkers to a problem that did not exist: that of apathy. Activism was in the air and on the streets in 1964, and many New Yorkers joined local, national, and international organizing campaigns. Far from being apathetic, they gave their time and money as individuals to build groups and campaigns that could press their demands for reform and revolution. The infamous phrase “I didn’t want to get involved” was quoted in a front-page New York Times report in March 1964 that blamed the killing of Kitty Genovese on more than three dozen people—thirty-eight witnesses to a heinous crime. Her neighbors were castigated for a failure of personal and collective responsibility. Almost immediately, the story of a young woman’s death became a warning of the growing “sickness” of apathy. The media promoted an epidemic of indifference at the precise moment when millions of Americans were organizing for social change. The myth that resulted is at the heart of the paradoxical story of Kitty Genovese.
It is a myth that has inspired concrete social changes. In the decades since the shocking tale of uncaring neighbors first made headlines, it has become commonplace to call 911 in an emergency, but in 1964 that was not possible -- the 911 system did not exist. The Genovese crime hastened its development as one solution to the perceived problem of apathy. Like another hallmark of the crime -- psychological research into how and why people react when they see someone in trouble -- the emphasis was on understanding responses to crime. But in part the research that resulted in the theory of “bystander syndrome” was based on the assumption that the witnesses in Kew Gardens, because they lived near one another, behaved as a group rather than as individuals when they heard a young woman’s cries for help. Ultimately the studies exposed stark discrepancies between New Yorkers’ expectations of personal responsibility and community involvement.
My own interest in Kitty Genovese began when I first saw her photograph. As a thirteen-year-old girl in Wilmington, Delaware, with dreams of living a grown-up life in New York City, I was riveted by the image of her pale heart-shaped face and piercing dark eyes. For me, she was a potent symbol of the horrible fate that could befall a woman bold enough to navigate the world on her own. Her story has haunted me ever since. As I finished high school, married, moved, divorced, moved again, came out, went back to school, and moved a few more times, Genovese’s story, as the poet Maureen Doallas has said, “stayed with me.” I could not shake her image from my mind nor forget the awful details that I remembered from newspaper accounts. Genovese was a reminder that, despite the changes brought about by 1960s social movements, freedom could have devastating consequences. From time to time over the years I caught references to her name and read articles about the bystanders who did not help her, but without learning much more about the woman she had been. That changed in 2004. In February, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Genovese’s death, a powerful feature in the New York Times brought her to life for me. The cipher became a person, one who laughed and danced and was devoted to her family and friends, who included a female lover. As I sat at the computer at home in Brooklyn writing my dissertation on the first American lesbian rights organization, friends from all over the country brought the lengthy story in the Sunday Times to my attention. At that point I knew I had to learn more about Kitty Genovese.
The most popular image of Genovese - a mug shot taken in 1961 for an arrest on minor gambling charges. The New York Times used the image frequently, without ever mentioning the arrest.
The more I learned, however, the more apparent it became that newspaper and other media accounts eliminated salient facts from the narrative. Also missing was any sense of the vivacious twenty-eight-year-old Italian American woman who drove a red Fiat around New York in the early 1960s. I realized that she had been flattened out, whitewashed, re-created as an ideal victim in service to the construction of a powerful parable of apathy. It seemed to me that Kitty Genovese’s personhood had been taken from her, first by her murderer and then by the media, in order to serve a greater good. The erasure of the facts of her life ensured that she would not be the focus of the story. Instead, her twenty-eight years of existence were reduced to one sentence in most early news accounts, while the awful details of her death were transformed into an international saga of her neighbors’ irresponsible behavior.
In the construction of the story of Kitty Genovese, neither Genovese the victim, nor the perpetrator, a twenty-nine-year-old African American man named Winston Moseley, nor the senselessness of the violent crime itself was ever at the heart of the matter. In the Times’ telling of the tale, both Genovese and Moseley were overshadowed by the people who lived across the street from Kitty in Kew Gardens, a quiet neighborhood in Queens where such horrible things were not supposed to happen. The very scene of the crime was aberrant. It was not a place that was associated with violence. For many New Yorkers in 1964, the opposite was true: Kew Gardens was considered safe because it was largely middle class, almost all white, with well-maintained single-family homes and midrise apartment buildings on narrow tree-lined streets. Many residents of Kew Gardens knew their neighbors, spoke to them on the street when they passed, did their shopping and socializing in the stores and restaurants along Lefferts Boulevard and Austin Street, much as Genovese and her girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko had done. But two weeks after the crime took place, the New York Times highlighted a story, initiated by local police complaints, that blamed her death on her neighbors. The women and men of Kew Gardens took center stage in the media drama that then unfolded, making them infamous as bystanders.
The story of Kitty Genovese as constructed by the Times generated social and political questions in a city divided along lines of race and class. New Yorkers in 1964 were increasingly feeling the impact of rapid social change, which was often equated with race, the deterioration of communities, and upheavals in gender and sexual norms, all of which spiked in the last decades of the twentieth century. Historian Elaine Tyler May summarized the era: “The civil rights movement challenged racial hierarchies, and women were challenging domesticity by entering careers and public life. The counterculture, the antiwar movement, and the sexual revolution added to the sense that the tight-knit fabric of the Cold War social order was coming apart.” The story of urban apathy was promoted at a time when the intensifying war against crime dominated political discourse and undercut debates about racial justice. The racialization of crime, based on the increasing identification of wrongdoing with people of color, solidified a process that had been under way throughout the twentieth century and fundamentally affected America’s cities. “The idea of black criminality was crucial to the making of modern urban America,” asserted historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad. “In nearly every sphere of life it impacted how people defined fundamental differences between native whites, immigrants, and blacks.” It can be seen in media accounts as well as popular culture, and the story of the Genovese crime and the political responses to it fit within this context.
Furthermore, some people began to look inward and examine their consciences on hearing about the Kew Gardens neighbors. They asked themselves and one another: Who had we become if we could stand by silently and ignore someone’s cries for help? The answer took many forms: condemnations of urban density and disconnectedness, the atomizing effect of popular culture, the growth of individualistic survival strategies in a dog-eat-dog world, and the disintegration of community. Tensions that had escalated during two years of protests over the intransigence of racial segregation in New York City education, housing, and employment, as well as ongoing instances of police violence against blacks and Latinos, exploded in the summer of 1964 at the same time that Moseley was being tried and sentenced. Genovese’s rape and murder took place near the start of a meteoric rise in the crime rate in New York City, which led to growing fears of victimization among residents and calls for shifts in policing strategies throughout the city. Changes in other public policies soon followed. The political reactions to her death, informed by local as well as national discourses on race and crime, gender and sexuality, involved law enforcement, social scientists, activists, and community organizations.
“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” With this sentence, on March 27, 1964, the New York Times introduced its account of one of the city’s most notorious murders. While the headline of the front-page article caught readers’ attention -— “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” -- it was its subhead that established the moral of the story: “Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector.” When the report first appeared, it was as if a bomb had been detonated in the middle of Manhattan. “Kitty Genovese” and “Kew Gardens” dominated conversations and captured the attention of the city, highlighting fears at a time of growing mistrust among residents and a sickening sense of the city in decline.
Myth and Truth in Kitty Genovese’s Story
It was the location, many later said, that gave a heightened sense of horror to what happened.
In the early morning of March 1964 in Kew Gardens, a quiet residential district of Queens, considered “idyllic” by New York City standards, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered on her way home from work in a bar. It would become the catalyst for a curious debate, lasting decades, about what role bystander effect played.
Across the street stood an immense ten-story apartment building that ran the length of the entire block. Lights were coming on, first one and then another and another, as if a giant stone creature had suddenly awakened and begun to open its many rectangular eyes.
Author Catherine Pelonero approaches this incident and its historical impact by retracing the voluminous newspaper reporting around it. Because Kitty’s murder was such a sensational story at the time, it was reported on extensively, beginning with the New York Times article that started the witnesses” story.
A wealth of materials exist and in almost detective-like fashion, Pelonero pieces together where reality began to morph into myth as the story was retold and more people were interviewed after having absorbed media coverage until it snowballed into an event that does say something meaningful about society, violence, and responsibility, but perhaps not exactly what we’ve always assumed.
I really liked this approach, as it showed the evolution of the story and its progression through the media, what was chosen to report and what was ignored, or hidden, resulting in this being a much more nuanced bit of history than the narrative that’s become infamous. Pelonero includes interview excerpts from over the years with the neighborhood’s residents, recalling that night and how its aftereffects were wider-reaching than perhaps realized.
The narrative of Kitty’s murder with its demonstration of bystander effect is well known, but like many stories that have been repeated for too long between too many sources, the truth is more complicated and often contradictory. There were a number of factors that contributed to what happened – that is, a noisy murder committed in the middle of the night in a heavily populated residential area, the astonishing fact that the murderer was chased off but able to return to rape and kill his victim despite lights on and people shouting – and they weren’t all related to bystander effect.
Among them were, surprising to me, the complexities of the time around contacting the police and, less surprisingly, confusion over whether what they heard or partially saw was a domestic dispute between a drunk couple. It’s like that parable of blind men touching an elephant and each reporting something wildly different despite describing ostensibly the same thing. This had a lot to do with how people interpreted what they saw, and what they felt their responsibilities, or abilities, were in connection. One reporter quoted an elderly woman who said she was so frightened by what she heard that her hands trembled too badly to dial the operator.
That same reporter, Edward Weiland, interviewed another man who said: “You get used to it after a while. You get conditioned. So when you hear a cry, you figure it’s just another drunk or a teen-ager [sic] raising hell. How can you pick one noise out of a hundred and know this time it’s murder?”
This was the most powerful aspect of the book for me. Kitty’s name has become a reductive byword for the not-my-problem attitude of big city living, a horror story repeated with the threatening undertone of unsurprising violence against women out too late alone – all unfortunate parts of this story, but not the whole thing. There’s absolutely truth in the bystander effect here, but there’s also a perfect storm situation of circumstances of the moment plus social elements, coalescing tragically.
But, he insisted, he was not a coward. “I believe I would have helped if I’d realized what the real situation was.”
As for his thoughts on what the “real situation” was at the time, he said: “At one point I thought maybe a girl was being raped—but if she was out alone at that hour, it served her right.”
It’s worth mentioning that the details of Kitty’s ordeal are harrowing. I think the outline is clear from the oft-repeated version of this story, but it’s infinitely worse than I knew. It’s haunting.
Despite no lack of detail, Pelonero makes this about Kitty’s life as much as about her death, and it’s a remarkably touching and in moments, beautifully happy story. I can’t believe that so much about who she was has been lost as the story of her death has been repeated over time, eclipsing anything that came before it. One of the “private consequences” of the subtitle was what happened to Mary Ann Zielonko, her surviving partner.
This was a time when homosexuality was relegated to the sidelines, and although the pair were roommates, their romantic partnership wasn’t common knowledge. Mary Ann sank into a deep depression after Kitty’s murder, numbing herself with alcohol in isolation for months, before she “decided to rescue herself.” It’s clear that part of her pain stemmed from not being able to openly express the depth of what she’d lost.
Also covered is the life of Kitty’s murderer, Winston Moseley, whose wife mused about it being “near impossible to imagine a man more placid or less confrontational than Winston.” He’s a curious character, and although I didn’t enjoy reading about him and failed to feel sympathy, Pelonero is thorough in presenting every angle of this story and everyone involved.
Interestingly, Kitty’s death was an impetus for 911. Journalist Martin Gansberg wrote an article for the New York Times that led to discussions about implementing a simple, streamlined system for citizens to contact police directly. Until that point it had involved an operator, calling individual precincts or a police communications bureau, thus accounting for one of the convoluted elements that allowed this to happen.
There are a number of books about Kitty and I wasn’t sure which to read – I picked this one because it was $2 in the BookBub newsletter, and it ended up being excellent. It’s informative, well-structured and compellingly written in narrative nonfiction style, and provides so much insightful background about social context, not to mention about Kitty’s life and acquaintances. (This was maybe even a more scandalous element than the infamous alleged 38 witnesses – a close friend saw her lying in the apartment vestibule and went back inside without helping. There’s so much about this story that’s just confounding.)
But aside from those too frightened, those who had heard too little to know what was happening, and those who had miscalculated the severity of the situation, in certain others the sense of detachment was palpable, as if the agony endured by a neighbor had no more bearing on their lives than would a broken traffic signal on Austin and Lefferts. Somebody should fix it, but not me.
The Rape and Murder of Kitty Genovese: When Witnesses Don’t Help (The Bystander Effect)
On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, a 28-year-old resident of Queens, New York City was stabbed to death near her neighborhood. The media reported that at least 38 people in the vicinity witnessed the attack but had done nothing to help, even failing to call the police, which allowed the attacker to return to the scene and finish his killing.
These reports were repeated in nearly all major media outlets, creating an uproar and outrage about the “bystander effect” in which citizens witness a crime but offer no assistance. Americans became disgusted with one another, and the country engaged in soul searching on a massive scale.
The problem is that although Kitty was indeed murdered, the circumstances were not as reported. In fact, one person did yell at the attacker from his window and several others had called the police, but no one realized that Kitty had been stabbed as she had staggered out of sight, and for some reason, the police were slow to respond.
The attacker returned a short time later and continued his assault. Again the police were called, this time responding in a timely manner, but it was too late. Kitty had suffered fatal wounds and died in the arms of a local witness, Sophia Farrar, who had left her apartment and gone to the stricken woman’s aid.
The attacker, Winston Moseley, had also raped the wounded woman before finally leaving her to die, with the entire incident spanning about 30 minutes. Genovese’s death seems more a result of slow police response than uncaring witnesses, but in any case, only 1 or 2 witnesses realized what was really happening. The others heard or only saw bits and pieces of the incident and did not realize a rape/murder was taking place.
Moseley had, in his words, been on a mission to “kill a woman,” and was apparently a twisted, evil goof. After being sentenced to death and having his sentence changed to life in prison upon appeal, Moseley managed to escape from prison in 1968 and went on a crime spree, taking people hostage and raping a woman. He was given 2 more 15-year sentences for those crimes, and, in 1970, was part of the infamous Attica prison riot. While in jail, this miserable creep managed to get a B.A. in Sociology. Having already been turned down for parole 17 times, Moseley continues to rot in prison right where he belongs.
Martin Gansberg of the New York Times is apparently the source of the misinformation about the event, when he wrote an investigative report blaring “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.” First off, only about a dozen people saw any part of the event, and people did call the police. Gansberg quoted the apocryphal “unidentified” neighbor who did not call the cops because he “didn’t want to get involved.”
Despite the fact that the lack of witness response has now been discredited, the tale of Kitty Genovese remains a tale of uncaring, gutless citizens and a sign of the decline of America as a society. It is true though that people often decide to “not get involved” and thereby allow the triumph of evil through their inaction. With the proliferation of cell phones, hopefully more folks will be encouraged to call the police and record any crimes they witness.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever helped a victim when he or she was being assaulted? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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