The Kitty Genovese Case 50 Years Later

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Today is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. This was a crime that shocked and outraged America and the world, and still horrifies and fascinates people to this day. At The New Yorker, Nicholas Lehmann describes some of the reasons this news story has become so iconic and reviews two new books on the case. Lehmann argues that New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal created a news environment in which this particular murder became the focus of so much attention. Lehmann deliberately shaped the coverage of the murder in a sensational and misleading manner. The story ended up as the focus of a classic psychological study.

a post about this in August 2009, and I thought I’d put that post up again today.

I wrote a piece about this in August 2009. I thought I’d repost it today. I’ve made a few minor edits to the original. At the end, I list some recent books and articles for further reading.

The Kitty Genovese Case: A Fascinating Intersection of True Crime, Psychology, and Media Misinformation

A Murder in Kew Gardens

On March 13, 1964, at around 3:30AM, there was a murder in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York. The murder probably wouldn’t have gotten much publicity at all if it hadn’t been for a sensational article that appeared on the front page of The New York Times, a couple of weeks later. The Times story led to groundbreaking research in social psychology and the discovery of new and counter-intuitive information about human behavior.

It was very late, very cold, and very dark when 28-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese parked her car at the Kew Gardens train station after driving from Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar in Hollis, where she worked nights as manager. When she got out of her car, she saw a stranger walking toward her. The man, Winston Mosley, 29, stabbed Genovese two times as she hurried past a bookstore on Austin Street, pehaps headed a local bar named Bailey’s to seek assistance. She called out, “Oh my God. He stabbed me. Please help me,” and fell to the ground. Winston was leaning over her to stab her again, when he heard a man’s voice calling from a window in an apartment building across the street, “Leave that girl alone!”

Winston Mosley
Winston Mosley

Startled, Mosley ran down an alley, got into his car, and backed up, ready to drive off. Lights had gone on in the nearby apartment building, but they went off again. Mosley got out of the car and again followed Genovese, who had reached the doorway of her apartment building, which was in the back of the building at 82-62 Austin Street. As she fell forward through the doorway, crying out, “I’m dying, I’m dying,” Winston caught up with her, stabbed her again, and then raped her. A short time later, a neighbor, Greta Schwartz, who had called the police after receiving a phone call from another neighbor, ran down to the lobby and cradled Kitty in her lap until the paramedics arrived.

From interviews in the neighborhoods of the two stabbing incidents, police learned that as many as 37 people had seen or heard part of the stalking and murder of Kitty Genovese by Winston Mosley, but supposedly none of them had called the police except Greta Schwartz.

The New York Times Breaks the Story

On March 27, 1964, The New York Times published a front page story by Martin Gansberg (Warning, PDF) headlined “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.”

Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

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 the sound of their voices 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.

That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of the borough’s detectives and a veteran of 25 years of homicide investigations, is still shocked.

He can give a matter-of-fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him–not because it is a murder, but because the “good people” failed to call the police.

Just that brief excerpt contains a number of inaccuracies, which I’ll get to a little later. Nevertheless, it was from this newspaper article that Americans–and people around the world–formed their lasting impressions of the tragic death of Kitty Genovese. The story shocked the nation; everyone was talking about how terrible it was that in big cities like New York, people just didn’t seem to get to know their neighbors or care about them. Those of us who lived in small cities and towns were sure things would be different in our neighborhoods.

Psychological Study of the Bystander Effect

In 1968, J.M. Darley and B. Latane published a study (pdf) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that was inspired by the supposed behavior of the 37 “witnesses” to Kitty Genovese’s murder. They hypothesized that the reason bystanders did not take action was “diffusion of responsibility,” and that the more bystanders in an emergency situation, the more these bystanders believe that “someone else will help, so I don’t need to.”

Participants in the study were college students in an introductory psychology class at New York University.
Darley and Latane told participants that they wanted to study how students adjust to university life in a highly competitive, urban environment. They said they wanted participants to discuss their problems honestly with other students; and in order to avoid personal discomfort, participants would sit in separate rooms equipped with an intercom system.

There were three different groups. Students in group one were told they would be talking with one other person. In group two, students were told there would be two other people on the intercome with them. Group five was told there would be five other people listening in to the conversation. In reality, all of the students were alone and they the other voices they heard were on tape. The emergency was that one of the participants in the discussion has epileptic seizure (the sounds of the seizure were actually played on tape).

As the intercom discussions began, students heard the first student, a male, tell about his difficulties concentrating on his studies and problems adjusting to life in New York City. He then added, with some embarrassment, that he sometimes had severe seizures, especially when under a lot of stress. Then the conversation switched to the next student. In group 1, the actual student’s turn came next. In the other two groups, the real student heard one or more other students speak first. After the real student took a turn speaking, the first “student” again started to speak normally, then began having a seizure, and asked for help. Darley and Latane measured how long it took subjects to help the student in trouble (helping was defined as leaving the cubicle and notifying an experimenter of the problem).

Why? Not because they were apathetic. All subjects were anxious and showed physical signs of nervousness. Darley and Latane conclued that as the number of people involved in an emergency situation increase, it’s easier for bystanders to assume that someone else will handle it; and the potential guilt for not helping is divided up. Other possible reasons for failure to act are fear of embarrassment or ridicule, fear that they are misinterpreting the situation. The authors also pointed out that most people don’t have much experience with emergency situations and are likely to become confused or overwhelmed when they encounter one.

Joseph De May, Jr., and the Kew Gardens History Page

In 2000, Joseph De May, who had lived in Kew Gardens since 1974, decided to build a website that would contain a comprehensive pictorial history of the neighborhood. As part of his project, De May dug up as much information as he could about the Kitty Genovese murder and then critiqued the original New York Times article and debunked some myths that had grown up around the case. Here is the “short version” of his critique:

# There were only 2 attacks, not 3.

# The attacks were not continuous. There was about a 10 min. interval between them when the killer moved his car to a parking place farther away.

# There were not 38 eye witnesses to either of the attacks. Only 3 people are known to have seen one or the other of the stabbings.

# The first attack on Austin Street – the one that awakened the witnesses – was likely over before all but a few of the witnesses got to their windows.

# Probably many more than 38 were ear witnesses to Kitty’s screams. However, that first attack occurred a few yards away from a bar known for its late night rowdiness.

# After the first attack, Kitty left the scene under her own power without making any outcries for help.

# The second attack took place in a small vestibule in the rear of a building where only one witness was in a position to see it.

# Given the layout of the crime scene, it would have been impossible for anyone to have seen or heard everything.

# Assuming the police were not timely called – a big assumption in my opinion – there were reasons apart from apathy why they were not.

Crime scene photo: back of apartment building where Kitty died
Crime scene photo: back of apartment building where Kitty died

Furthermore, a 15-year-old boy named Michael Hoffman saw Winston Mosley run away after the first attack in front of the bookstore and saw Kitty Genovese get up and stagger in the other direction. He didn’t know there had been a stabbing, but he told his father what he had seen and the father called the police. The police later admitted they had received several other calls. One man did see the knife and understood that a woman was being stabbed. This man never called the police and couldn’t explain his inaction. At least five other people saw Mosley return to the original scene, but by that time Kitty Genovese was gone.

There were two attacks, not three as the New York Times reported. A man on the first floor of Kitty’s building open his door and saw the final attack. He wanted to call police, but said his wife didn’t want him to get involved. He went to Greta Schwartz’s apartment and asked her to call police, which she did. She then ran downstairs with a friend, found Kitty still alive and cradled her until an ambulance arrived. Also contrary to The New York Times story, the occupants of Kitty Genovese’s apartments building knew and were friendly with each other. Many knew and liked Kitty and her roomate Mary Ann Zielonko.

The Real Kitty Genovese

In 2004, on the fortieth anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s death, Mary Ann Zielonko came forward and talked about Kitty publicly for the first time. She was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. In the interview, Zielonko, who now lives in Vermont, revealed that she and Kitty Genovese were lovers. A lesbian blogger in Vermont wrote a piece about her own feelings after she learned about Kitty’s sexual orientation.

Hearing that Genovese was a lesbian has shaken up my psyche. Genovese’s name was always a cautionary tale – about being a woman alone in the city at night, about the need to care and take action in the face of assault. But now it’s also somehow more about me as a lesbian, about our denied and undiscovered herstory, about the dangers we faced then – and now.

In 1964, it was not okay to be queer. The only place to go to hold your lover’s hand in semi-public was a bar. Mary Ann remembers the Swing Rendezvous on MacDougal St. and the Seven Steps on Houston. Police raids and being beaten up for wearing butch or femme drag were common events.

Until now we’ve never had the opportunity to ask whether the neighbors’ indifference might have had an element of homophobia (not that the word existed then). Kitty and Mary Ann lived together in the apartment Kitty was so desperately trying to reach that March night. Mary Ann says some of the neighbors suspected they were lesbians, because they were always together. “But we didn’t look ‘gay,’ whatever that means.” Mary Ann got home from her own shift tending bar and went to sleep – until the police knocked at her door at 4 a.m. and drove her from the tree-lined streets of their Kew Gardens, Queens, neighborhood where Kitty died, to the hospital morgue to identify Kitty’s body.

Some of the neighbors may have suspected that Kitty and Mary Ann were gay, but several reported in interviews that she was a friendly, smiling young woman whom they liked. A few told police and reporters that they “didn’t want to get involved,” but most weren’t sure what they had seen or heard and couldn’t say why they didn’t call for help. It was after 3AM on a winter night, in a neighborhood where there were often loud voices and even fighting among people leaving local bars. As with the participants in Darley and Latane’s study, some of the witnesses may have feared giving a false report to police and looking foolish.

In addition, Joseph De May reports that in those days, NYC police demanded that callers identify themselves rather than just accepting reports of emergencies. That may have deterred some from calling police or holding on long enough to get someone to listen. Even if witnesses had called police to report screaming or fighting, they would likely have taken a long time to respond, because of the bars in the area.

In 2004, The New York Times interviewed De May about his research.

In the end, Mr. De May’s conclusion about the murder is that, while the behavior of the witnesses was hardly beyond reproach, the common conception of exactly what occurred that night is not in fact what occurred. What did occur, he argues, is far more complex and far less damning to the residents of Kew Gardens.

”Yeah, there was a murder,” Mr. De May said. ”Yeah, people heard something. You can question how a few people behaved. But this wasn’t 38 people watching a woman be slaughtered for 35 minutes and saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be involved.”’

Mr. De May began his research with the seminal Times article of March 27, 1964. ”I remember reading through it, then putting it down and thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t hang together at all,”’ he said. ”And then I read it again carefully. I knew the area. I knew the crime scene because I go by there every day.”

Mr. De May soon found himself poring through legal documents related to the case, scouring books and articles, and interviewing neighbors. At one point, he even ran the route of Ms. Genovese’s flight up Austin Street, timing it with a watch. He became convinced that his first impression was correct. ”Here’s something that everyone thinks happened,” he said, ”that isn’t so.”

Winston Mosley

Kitty’s murderer had no idea that she was a lesbian. He had set out that night to kill a woman. He was certainly a sociopath and may have been a serial killer. He confessed to having killed at least one other woman after he was arrested for the Genovese murder. In 1968, Mosley managed to escape from police custody and raped a pregnant woman in her home. In April, 2008, the New York Daily News reported on Mosley’s latest parole hearing.

Forty-four years after stalking and stabbing Kitty Genovese, her killer still blames his wife-beating father for the vicious murder.

“My father was at the time stalking my mother and thinking about killing her,” Winston Moseley told the parole board last month when asked about the infamous 1964 slaying.

“But the problem was not just at that moment in time,” he said. “It existed for many years of sort of the emotional trauma that I was going through.”

Moseley, whose parole bid was rejected for a 13th time, has long displayed little remorse for the March 13, 1964, slaying – although he did offer an apology this time, a transcript of the hearing shows.

Further Reading:

Books

In 2008, Charles E. Stoller, the man who prosecuted Winston Mosley for the murder of Kitty Genovese and two other murders, published a book about the cases, Twisted Confessions: The True Story Behind the Kitty Genovese and Barbara Kralik Murder Trials.

Catherine Pelonero, Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences (2014)

Kevin Cook, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America (2014)

Articles

Boston Globe book review, ‘Kitty Genovese’ by Kevin Cook and ‘Kitty Genovese’ by Catherine Pelonero

Nicholas Lehmann, A CALL FOR HELP: What the Kitty Genovese story really means.

AP (via CBS Local NY), 50 Years Later, Kitty Genovese Murder Case Still Grips NYC, Nation.

Fabian Tepper (Christian Science Monitor),  Kitty Genovese murder: would you have helped? 

Nancy Dillon (NY Daily News), Brother of Kitty Genovese to release documentary about sister’s 1964 murder, which prompted ‘Genovese Syndrome’ research

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20 Comments on “The Kitty Genovese Case 50 Years Later”

  1. List of X says:

    I couldn’t get the link with the study to open, but I think I have heard about it – or similar studies. And if I remember correctly, there was some diffusion of responsibility in big groups, according to studies. So it is interesting how a misleading article can actually lead to an expansion in our knowledge.

  2. joanelle says:

    Thanks for this post, BB. I heard an interview with the author of a recent paper on this and found it confounding how many flaws were identified.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Interestingly, I actually had a lot of those corrections in this post. I was especially surprised when I learned Kitty was gay. That definitely wasn’t written about back in the 1950s. I do remember hearing about the case as a kid though. It was a big deal.

      • Fannie says:

        Same here, and I’ve used her case to make points about protecting yourself and others from violence.

  3. RalphB says:

    Abe Rosenthal and his false meme caused a lot of flawed research and perceptions. Then Bill Keller and his false meme helped set us on a course to war in Iraq. I fucking hate our national media. They are not just worthless, they’re dangerous.

    Then occasionally you find a good reporter like Michael Hiltzik at the LA Times and he covers a Senate hearing by Bernie Sander’s committee like this and it yields a little hope.

    LA Times: Watch an expert teach a smug U.S. senator about Canadian healthcare

    In which Dr Danielle Martin lands a knockout blow on Sen Richard Burr(R-Ludicrous)

    • RalphB says:

      Forgot to mention but Rosenthal also set the phony meme for the Clinton scandals. What an asshole!

      • bostonboomer says:

        There was validity to the notion that people stood by and allowed a woman to be killed. One man actually saw that Morley come back and kept stabbing Kitty after he had been temporarily frightened away; and instead of calling police, the man went into another room and went to sleep. An upstairs neighbor witnessed Kitty being raped and stabbed, but closed his door and did nothing. Others may have witnessed part of the attacks and not comprehended what was happening. But this murder could have been prevented. There’s no doubt about that.

        • RalphB says:

          I don’t disagree but I think it was blown completely out of proportion and gave the country a false sense of their fellow citizens on the whole. By the way, I don’t believe that’s an uncommon occurrence at all.

  4. bostonboomer says:

    That guy in Austin sure did pick the wrong state to drive drunk in. He’s being charged with two counts of capital murder.

    http://kxan.com/2014/03/13/two-killed-multiple-injuries-after-car-runs-through-crowd-downtown/

    • RalphB says:

      The Stand your Ground defense doesn’t work too well here either. If you’re not really in danger, best not pull the trigger. It’s an almost sure bet that Zimmerman would be in prison for a long time.

      As for the capital murder charge, the second person killed made that happen. Otherwise it would have been first degree murder without special circumstances.

  5. bostonboomer says:

    Ezra Klein hires anti-gay gay writer who graduated from Liberty University.

    http://prospect.org/article/ezra-kleins-queer-new-hire

  6. RalphB says:

    The latest on the crashed Malaysian jet via PDiddie at http://brainsandeggs.blogspot.com/

    BEIJING—The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet over the weekend took a sinister turn today, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R—TX) revealed that two of the passengers on board had recently signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

    “Although we cannot prove that this tragedy was caused by the White House’s misguided efforts at health-care reform, the math doesn’t lie,” said Cruz at a combined Tea Party/lobotomy convention. “Experts have said that the probability of two people getting Obamacare insurance and boarding a plane, and then having that plane crash, is less than one in a million.”

    Cruz said it would be inappropriate to speculate on the exact mechanism by which health insurance could have caused the disaster, but noted that “crash” and “healthcare.gov” had appeared together in news articles more than ten thousand times in the last six months. “Everywhere we look, we see the President’s fingerprints on this,” he added.

    In related news, the White House offered its condolences to the families of those presumed dead on the missing jet. “What makes this tragedy even worse,” said spokesman Jay Carney, “is that one of those passengers was supposed to make the final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.”

    • NW Luna says:

      Cruz is an ridiculous idiot. And I think the parody is in bad taste, if I put myself in the place of one of the relatives and friends of those missing — probably dead — passengers.

  7. NW Luna says:

    Very interesting, BB. Thanks for posting this again, and updating it.

    • Yup, I was glad when she sent me a message say she was planning to repost this. BB and Dak both have some great post that could and should make a reappearance.