The myth of the 38 idle witnesses: The murder of Kitty Genovese.

kitty genovese

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most infamous murders in recent American history. On March 13, 1964, at about 3:15 in the morning, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman, was coming home from her job at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Sports Bar in Queens, New York City, when she was brutally attacked and stabbed by a man named Winston Moseley. She was 100 feet from the door of her apartment building on Austin Street. Her attacker ran away to where his car was parked nearby. She crawled in through the back entrance of her apartment building but couldn’t get upstairs. Ten minutes after the first attack, Moseley returned to finish the job. He found her in the hallway of her building, stabbed her again, raped her, and left her for dead. A neighbor found Kitty lying in the hallway. An ambulance was called, but she died on the way to the hospital.

Horrific as the attack was, Kitty’s story became warped and confused as news of it rippled out into the news media. An errant remark by a NYPD officer to a New York Times reporter, suggesting that many witnesses saw (or heard) Kitty’s murder but did nothing, eventually resulted in an investigative report that made the shocking claim that 37 people witnessed the attack but no one intervened to stop it. (Somehow the number of witnesses went up to 38, which is how it crystallized into popular consciousness). The story quite naturally provoked moral outrage, playing not only on the fears of random crime in New York–where the crime rate was spiking in the mid-1960s–but also the apathy of people living in a big city, who supposedly “didn’t want to get involved” even as a woman was being horribly attacked right in front of them.

There was a problem with the New York Times report, however: very little of it was true, at least with regard to the issue of the witnesses. There were two attacks on Kitty, not one, and of the “38 witnesses” who supposedly did nothing, not a single one saw or heard both attacks. Indeed Kitty’s cries for help upon her initial attack by Moseley were not heard by many people at all, and only two recognized them as a woman in distress. One of them did try to intervene, shouting out the window, “Let that girl alone!” which was what caused Moseley’s initial flight back to his car. After that, Kitty stopped screaming and was walking away under her own power–no doubt she was severely wounded, but she did not appear to be seriously hurt at first glance.

genovese place

This is what the street where Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered looks like today. Few traces remain of the neighborhood’s appearance as it was half a century ago.

As for the second attack, which occurred out of view of witnesses, the one person who did see it–a man named Karl Ross–did call the police, and one who came to the scene after the attack was over, Sophia Farrar, remained until the ambulance came. The claim that (alternately) 36, 37 or 38 people stood by and deliberately did nothing as Kitty was attacked is simply false.

There were serious problems with law enforcement response to Kitty’s attack. In those days the NYPD phone banks were crude and not well organized, and the calls that did come in about the attack weren’t given priority. Had officers responded sooner, Kitty might have been saved.

Kitty Genovese’s murderer, Winston Moseley, is a real piece of work. He was a serial killer who had raped and murdered two other women before Kitty. He was caught shortly after her murder, tried and sentenced to death, though the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He escaped from prison in 1968 and kidnapped and attacked 4 more people on his spree before he was caught again. He is still alive. Four months ago, in December 2013, he was denied parole for the 17th time. He claims that the notoriety of his crime has made him a victim. He seems to have missed the part where he chose to do these horrible things.

The murder of Kitty Genovese was unquestionably tragic, senseless and horrible. The fact that the trauma was compounded by false claims of “38 idle witnesses” seems to me like rubbing salt in an open wound, but that’s just my opinion. Fifty years on this murder is not likely to be forgotten, but hopefully we can begin to understand it better.

The photo of Kitty Genovese is copyrighted (C) 1964 by the New York Times. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.
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3 Comments

  1. I remember reading an article about Mr. Moseley and it talked about what he said before the parole board — not at his most recent hearing, but earlier:

    During one state Parole Board appearance, Moseley even tried to spin himself as the victim in the March 13, 1964, murder.
    “For a victim outside, it’s a one-time or one-hour or one-minute affair,” Moseley said. “But for the person who’s caught, it’s forever.”

  2. One thought, and perhaps I’m wildly off base here, is that the fuzzy ‘popular’ perception of Kitty Genovese’s murder is evidence of a festering concern that has nothing at all to do with the attack itself. The attack is, at best, incidental to a perverse certainty that we are those people who did not look away from their television sets when Genovese was attacked regardless of whether those people existed in the first place. Maybe there are people out there who took one look at this whole situation and were not surprised. I can understand where the fascination comes from. A sense of the uncanny, a sense that what has happened is not peculiar and so surprising.

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