Imagine a young woman being stabbed to death in a vicious attack by a total stranger, while 37 people stood by and watched. Sounds pretty unbelievable, doesn’t it? Completely cruel and inhumane.
This is how the The New York Times reported the murder of Kitty Genovese, but the story as as they told it wasn’t actually a true. The murder wasn’t made up, but the circumstances were. The sensational headline was used purely for the purpose of selling papers.
Catherine ‘Kitty’ Susan Genovese was born July 7, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York. She was the eldest of Rachel and Vincent Genovese’s five children. Kitty attended an all-girls school while living in Brooklyn, where she was remembered as being outgoing, confident and friendly. When Kitty graduated high school in 1954, her family moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, but she stayed in Brooklyn with her grandparents.
Kitty soon moved into her own apartment and worked several office jobs. In 1958/59, she got her first bartending job, which she preferred far more to clerical work. She worked at Ev's Eleventh Hour Bar on Jamaica Avenue and 193rd Street in Hollis, Queens, where she was well-liked by patrons and her co-workers. The owner of the bar was largely absent and Kitty soon took on the role of manager. She was making a decent wage and saving money in the hopes that she would eventually be able to open her own Italian restaurant. Kitty lived with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko, in an apartment on Austin Street in Kew Gardens, Queens.
March 13th, 1964
At 2:30am, after finishing her shift at the bar and locking up, Kitty made her way to her Fiat and began the drive home. The drive from the bar to her apartment in Kew Gardens was around 45 minutes long. She parked her car in the parking lot at the Kew Gardens Long Island Railroad Station, which was around thirty meters from her apartment door.
Little did Kitty know, that while she had briefly stopped at a traffic light on her way home, she had been spotted by a man sitting in his parked car. The man proceeded to follow Kitty, and when he saw she was pulling into the parking lot, he pulled into a bus stop on Austin Street and got out of his car. He held a hunting knife in his hand and began to approach Kitty, who was walking towards her apartment.
Kitty saw the man with the knife and in a panic, ran to her building, however, the man was too quick and caught up with her. He stabbed her in the back twice, at which point she screamed, ‘Oh my god, he stabbed me! Help!’ A male neighbour in a nearby apartment building heard the commotion and shouted out the window for the man to ‘leave that girl alone’. The man with the knife fled to his car and drove away.
Kitty staggered into an alleyway around the back of her apartment block. She was becoming increasingly disoriented from the loss of blood. She reached her door, but it was locked. Too weak to retrieve her keys or shout for help, she collapsed.
Around 10 minutes later, the man who had attacked her returned. This time he was wearing a wide brimmed hat to disguise himself. He stalked around the area for several minutes before finding Kitty lying, barely alive, in the entryway of her apartment. He savagely attacked her again, stabbing her and then raping her, before stealing $49 she had on her person and running away.
A neighbour of Kitty’s, 70-year-old Sophia Farrar left her apartment to investigate. To her horror, she found Kitty, lying in a pool of blood in the doorway of her apartment building, barely clinging to life. Sophia rushed to Kitty, got down on the ground and cradled the young woman in her arms. The police and ambulance arrived soon after Sophia discovered her, at 4:15am. Tragically, Kitty died in the ambulance. Her body was transported to where her family were living in New Canaan, Connecticut and buried there.
Who Murdered Kitty?
Twenty-nine year old Winston Moseley lived with his wife and three children in Ozone Park, Queens. He worked at Remington Rand as a computer punch-card operator. Moseley had no criminal history.
Six days after Kitty’s murder, a man spotted Moseley carrying a television set out of his (the man’s) neighbour’s home, walking towards a white car. The man called the police, who arrived promptly and apprehended Moseley. One of the responding officers recalled Kitty Genovese’s neighbours claiming they had witnessed an unfamiliar white car driving in the area at the time of Kitty’s murder.
Moseley was taken into custody, where he confessed to the murder of Kitty. He described what had happened that night, including specific details of the attack itself. His confession aligned with the evidence at the crime scene. He described his motive as nothing more than ‘to kill a woman’. He also confessed to the rape and murder of two other women, Annie Johnson several weeks before Kitty’s murder and 15-year-old Barbara Kralik in her family home in July 1963 (although another man had also confessed to this murder). He also confessed to 30 to 40 burglaries.
Moseley was charged with Kitty’s murder, but not the other two murders to which he confessed. The trial began June 8, 1964. He first pleaded not guilty, but his plea was subsequently changed to not guilty by reason of insanity at the recommendation of his lawyer. Moseley described how he murdered all three women, as well as detailing burglaries and rapes he had committed (even though the charge was only for Kitty’s murder).
The trial only lasted three days; on June 11, the jury deliberated and came back with a verdict of guilty and Moseley was given the death penalty. On hearing the verdict and sentencing, Moseley remained stony-faced. The judge said to Moseley:
"I don't believe in capital punishment, but when I see a monster like this, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the switch myself.”
Moseley underwent a psychiatric evaluation shortly after he was apprehended, during which it was determined that he suffered from a host of unspecified mental disorders, ‘psychological disturbances’ and ‘issues with women and sex’. It was during these evaluations that Moseley was confirmed to be extremely intelligent, with an IQ of 135. Psychiatrists also confirmed that Moseley was likely a necrophile.
Nearly three years later, on June 1, 1967, the New York Court of Appeals changed Moseley’s sentence from death to life imprisonment.
In March 1968, Moseley escaped from prison after a short stay in hospital where he was being treated for a self-inflicted injury. He made it to the vacant home of a couple and stayed there for 3 days. The couple returned home to find Moseley, who tied up the husband while he raped the wife. He stole their car, fled to another home, where he broke in and held a mother and daughter hostage for several hours. He let them go, and subsequently turned himself in to authorities. He was sentenced to two more 15-year sentences, which he would serve on completion of his life sentence he was serving for the murder of Kitty.
Moseley died in prison on March 28, 2016 at the age of 81. He was one of the longest serving inmates in the New York prison system.
The New York Times Article
Two weeks after Kitty Genovese was murdered, a sensational article was published in The New York Times*, titled:
37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICE
Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector
The article went on to say:
“For more than half an hour, thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.… Not one person telephoned the police during the assault."
The reactions to the article from the public were unsurprisingly emotive. People were shocked and appalled that such a heinous act could occur with nobody lifting a finger to prevent it.
The quote, ‘I didn’t want to get involved’, from an unnamed resident became central to the article. It appeared that the aim of the article was to portray residents of large cities, particularly New York City, as being apathetic and uncaring.
Debunking the Myths
The story as originally reported in The New York Times has (rightly) been under heavy scrutiny since it was published in the spring of 1964. In fact, in a 2016 article on the death of Winston Moseley, the newspaper admitted that the original story was flawed in that it had ‘grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived’.
First of all, there were not 37 witnesses to the murder. In fact, only 6 witnesses were found that actually saw what had happened and could be used for the trial, according to Charles Skoller, the assistant district attorney at the time.
Many that did see or hear the attack explained that they assumed it was either drunks stumbling out of the bar, the Old Bailey, which was known for its rowdy clientele, or that they thought it was lovers quarrelling.
A Kew Gardens resident and historian, Joseph De May Jr, has explained that it would be near impossible for so many residents to witness the full attack. While some witnessed the first attack, there were very few that would have witnessed the second attack after Moseley returned; by that time Kitty had staggered into the back alley and collapsed in the entryway of her apartment, where she could not be seen from the windows of the apartments on Austin Street. The article stated Kitty was attacked on three separate occasions; in fact, there were only two different attacks with 10 minutes in between.
The article stated that no one intervened or called the police, which is untrue. The man yelling out the window scared Moseley off the first time. A man who was a teenager living in Kew Gardens at the time (who is now a retired New York police officer) said that on seeing Kitty staggering around and Moseley running away, his father called the police. There is only one witness, Karl Ross, who confirmed seeing the second attack. He admitted that he was drunk and didn’t know what to do right away, but eventually did call police. Others who witnessed what went on claimed to have also called police. As previously mentioned, Sophia Farrar, Kitty’s neighbor, held the dying woman in her final moments.
The Bystander Effect and 9-1-1
Kitty’s murder and the reporting by The New York Times gave rise to the psychological phenomenon ‘the Bystander Effect’. The Bystander Effect is described as ‘increased disinclination to intervene when in the company of others’ (Jarrett, 2017).
While the facts regarding the witnesses as reported by The New York Times were largely untrue, research by leading American social psychologist Bibb Latane and subsequent peer review into the Bystander Effect has demonstrated that the phenomenon is solid i.e. groups of people are less likely to assist someone in trouble than a single individual (Benderly, 2012).
The phenomenon is written up in psychology textbooks as standard, however, there is dispute about whether or not Kitty Genovese’s murder is the right example to use; many regard the ‘37 witnesses to the murder’ as a parable, used for dramatic effect in high school and first year university psychology classes to grab the attention of students.
As well as being the case responsible for the bystander phenomenon, Kitty’s murder also played a pivotal role in the development of the 9-1-1 emergency phone number in the United States. At the time of Kitty’s murder, you would either call the nearest police station, or dial ‘0’ to be connected to authorities by a telephone operator.
The story in The New York Times led people to question how this dreadful murder could have happened. The public outrage led local officials to campaign for a ‘unified emergency response protocol’. As Kevin Cook, author of Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America explains, the 9-1-1 emergency calling system was developed largely in response to the public outcry surrounding Kitty Genovese’s murder.
The irresponsible and untruthful reporting by The New York Times in 1964 was entirely to blame for shifting attention away from Kitty’s murder and onto her neighbours, painting them as heartless and callous individuals. As we know now, the story as published by the newspaper was, for the most part, completely baseless. But for close to half a decade, Kitty’s neighbours were subject to unfair scrutiny by the rest of the city, as well as the world. As Kevin Cook wrote in his book:
‘Kitty Genovese was not killed by apathy, she was killed by a monster named Winston Moseley.’
At the end of the day, it’s vital not to forget that a smart, beautiful, bubbly young woman with her whole life ahead of her was murdered in cold blood. May she rest in peace.
* Sources vary between whether the number of witnesses was 37 or 38. The NY Times piece said 37, which is what I went with for this article.