Lost Truth - The Kitty Genovese Murder Case and Controversy

Crime in New York During the Civil Rights Era

After I reviewed my criminology notes and texts on the Kitty Genovese case and the Genovese crime family of New York City, I was appalled again at the Kitty Genovese murder and its aftermath.

1963 March on Washington

IS THERE A "CROWD MENTALITY"?
IS THERE A "CROWD MENTALITY"?

Italian American Controversy and Replay in School Yards

Kitty Genovese could be mistaken for a member of the infamous Genovese crime family, but no evidence of that has surfaced. She was murdered, and not a murderer.

Her murder in March 1964 in front of (from a few to 38) witnesses that did nothing but watch is the iconic event applied to the phenomenon of Bystander Syndrome (or Bystander Effect or Genovese Syndrome), used in the social sciences.

The case evidence was perhaps fresher than it is today, back when I learned about it from US criminologists just over a decade after the event. Some of this evidence has been suppressed and supplanted by new evidence and the controversy of a claim that no one stood by and simply watched the murder.

I believe that some onlookers did watch and do nothing - perhaps not all 38 as originally reported, but a portion of these. I believe this, because I have seen several instances of severe physical bullying in school yards and on the streets, with accompanying spectators who did nothing but watch. Some even laughed.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom Iights 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.

— Martin Gansberg, New York Times

Kew Gardens, Queens, NYC

Source

Crime, Civil Rights, and Deviant Behaviors

The mid-1960s were an era of simmering Civil Rights after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the initiation of Miranda Rights, and the elimination of all rights for Kitty Genovese in her early death. The New York Times splashed a big bloody article about it on its front page half a month afterward. Still a kid with 5 TV channels and no Internet, and heard nothing of it until I went to college

The Genovese case is the center of at least one lesson in most introductory social science classrooms in high school and universities today. My high school offered no social sciences and I puzzled with that part of the ACT exam, so I will never forget the case as presented by Dr. Simon Dinitz. He was an animated and well-versed earlier student of Walter Reckless, who founded a school of sociological thought and practice (see the material on Criminology at the link below).

My first self-defense lesson occurred in that classroom: Avoid places, times, and behaviors that attract deadly attack. The way to avoid fatal danger is to be elsewhere. I teach this to my martial arts students today. It is not always possible to avoid danger, but one can be prepared in ways for surviving it.

Kew Gardens, NYC

show route and directions
A markerKew Garden Train Station NYC -
Lefferts Blvd & Austin St, Queens, NY 11415, USA
[get directions]

B markerGenovese Apartment: 82-62 Austin Street, Queens NYC -
82-62 Austin St, Queens, NY 11415, USA
[get directions]

C markerApproximate location of Ev's 11th Hour Bar Hollis, Queens, NYC -
Hollis, Queens, NY, USA
[get directions]

Controversy: Curiouser and Curiouser

CONTROVERSY

For over 45 years, a controversy in the Genovese murder has simmered and flared. The newspaper reports of 1964 showed that 38 people watched or listened to Kitty’s stabbing murder and did nothing but watch and listen, while other sources state that such an event did not occur*.

Some reports now are that Kitty was attacked by the African-American perp (convicted in 1964 and up again for parole in 2011), three (3) separate times and died before or during the last, which was a rape. Other reports state that the murderer returned to Kitty several times to do more stabbing.

*In my criminology class a dozen years later, we heard that Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her apartment building courtyard in one attack, while several people watched from the upper windows.

Comparison Experience

I remember seeing a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade boys drag a 2nd grade girl in a dress around by one ankle in the gravel on a school playground. She was a nasty or maladjusted child that bit people on the arms, drew blood, and attacked other children and adults repeatedly. Teachers and administration did nothing about this, so perhaps the boys crossed the threshold of tolerance and retaliated. I remember over a dozen children in grades 1-6 watching, and no one intervening, including teachers. I was a child that was shocked. At age 8, I also thought the girl deserved it. As an adult, I call the police when I see an attack; occasionally, I intervene myself (I cannot catch bullets in my teeth, after all).

My Anti-Hero

Here's an honest, hard-hitting reaction. Harlan Ellison® writes about the Genovese murder in his book Harlan Ellison's Watching. He mentions reports that he read and that I heard in the classroom, that one man turned up his radio in order to drown out Genovese's screams. The author states that one report said the "not getting involved" excuse was used by almost every one of the thirty-eight individuals that witnessed the attack. He mentions the 38 onlookers more heatedly as "thirty-eight m_____f____s" in The Other Glass Teat, which blisters low-quality TV, poor and biased news reporting, and mindlessness, as does his first volume in this two-book series.

Since the 1970s, "I didn't want to get involved" has become standard for TV poilce dramas. One problem in the 1960s is that NYC Police Departments insisted that callers identify themselves; some reporting crimes did not like that lack of anonymity and felt they'd be attacked by the perpetrator for reporting him/her..

CASE MATERIAL

Kitty was a bar manager at Ev's Eleventh Hour Club in Hollis, Queens NY. Interestingly, her mother had witnessed a murder in NYC and asked that the family move to Connecticut 10 years before Kitty’s murder. Kitty stayed in New York. On the early morning of her murder, 28-year-old Kitty drove home and parked close to her apartment’s rear entrance at 3:15 AM. At least one source says she parked at the train station and walked over to her building, but a distance of only 100 feet.

Ellison is Still Watching

Harlan Ellison's Watching
Harlan Ellison's Watching

One male witness even turned up his radio volume in order to drown out Genovese's screams! Read about it here.

 

Risky Behaviors

I see two immediate risky behaviors:

  1. Traveling alone, unarmed and untrained in self-defense, in the middle of the night in a higher crime area and
  2. Placing oneself at the poorly lighted rear lot (or courtyard) of a building at 3:15 AM when crime activity is at a crescendo.

SERIAL KILLER

Perpetrator Winston Moseley, age 75 today, was a 28-year-old serial killer of at least three women whom he also sexually assaulted. Some report him as a necrophile that rapes corpses. Today’s body of evidence reveals three (3) separate attacks on Genovese. Supposedly, Moseley left Kitty after the first stabbing attack, drove back to find her in a back hallway of her building as she was dying, stabbed her again, and then raped her. Another report says he returned repeatedly, until she was dead (see information below).

Murder #2, Same Place!

New York Times archives show an article of 12/28/1974 in which model Sandra Zahler was reported to die by beating on Christmas morning in her apartment of the building that overlooked the Genovese’s murder. Again, neighbors said they heard screams did nothing.

Could this Bystander Effect possibly not be true, given that it continues to occur? Perhaps it is one of the justifications for the group of people in America that has adopted their own Super Hero personals to avert crime in their cities (Superheroes Anonymous - People That Change the World).

Ideas for Discussion

I think some individuals in a crowd of onlookers will not act to help a victim of crime or persecution for a variety of reasons. A few will help without hesitation, while some will help only if no one else is looking on. Some of the crowd enjoys a fight or enjoys seeing others suffer. Some think that the victim deserves it. A few people feel that life has beat them down so much that they cannot help anyone; or, why should they help when no one helps them? Some think, “I have no insurance, what if I get hurt?” Others do not want to make a statement to law enforcement or in court. Other reasons may exist.

Considering all of the case materials, new information released in the 2000s, and various opinions, could the fact that the perpetrator in the Kitty Genovese case was African-American and the victim a lesbian be connected to the lack of effective-enough onlooker action during the murder? Did anyone hope that they would kill each other or that one would be murdered and the other executed, ridding society of two "undesirables"? Prejudice and stereotype was still solid for Blacks, lesbians, women, and Italian-Americans in parts of the US in the 1970s. Kitty had three strikes.

© 2010 Patty Inglish

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Comments 28 comments

K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 6 years ago from Northern, California

Outstanding presentation regarding the "Kitty Genovese Murder Case" and the many flaws it spot-lighted regarding human behavior. I was still, until your article here, under the impression she was an active member of the crime family of the same name. I find this very informative and a top read on the Genovese murder. Thank you for another well done read!

K9


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

WOW! I wonder if there is nother Kitty, so will go and look it up. Any rate, I'll never forget my class lesson on it long ago. Thanks for reading!


barb t profile image

barb t 6 years ago from Denver

Hi Patty,

Thank you for sharing information some of us have never heard about. Have a very Blessed day.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

What kind of human can stand there and watch? What kind of human race are we turning into? I can't even think about it.

Thank you for writing such a systematically followed through hub. Even so it was a murder case which is for hard to read about it but I couldn't stop reading it because of your style of your writing.


A la carte profile image

A la carte 6 years ago from Australia

I had never heard of this case until now and was certainly captivated by your writing of it. I am also keen to follow up on the bystander effect.


G L Strout profile image

G L Strout 6 years ago from Ohio, USA

I remember this case. It was one of the first to get widescale publicity because of the indifference of the witnesses. It is still unbelievable to me. Wonderful article, thanks.


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

Brilliant assessment of a horrendous crime and the study of human behaviour. Thank you , Patty.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

WOW! What nice comments -thanks to everyone!

While some of us loved this criminology class, some thought "What will we ever do with it?" So, now I can tell readers what was said and done just 10-12 years after a landmark case; even if I did not go into criminology as a career (which I would do now), I can use what I heard and saw. Now, more people will know about this important case, because someone asked a question about it.

Hello, hello - At age 8, I just stood and watched, but could not do that as an adult. Thanks for the compliment about my writing. I left the goriest details in the links for those interested. Ghastly.

Dim - More and more of what I learned in school is starting to make sense to me in today's world. Thanks for reading!


KKalmes profile image

KKalmes 6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

Hello Patty, very nicely drawn for us... I will explore more in depth as I find criminology incredibly intriguing and was my area of study in school... wish I had finished my degree.

I think a very big element in witness apathy is fear of retaliation justifying their refusal to "not get involved" and a real lack of concern for "strangers". I am one who runs toward the sound of a gun shot... am I more empathetic by nature, more curious, more fearless... maybe.

The playground situation would have required my sticking up for the young girl because she was the underdog regardless of her dreadful nature.

It may very well be a personality type that goes toward danger without much thought, and those who are more pragmatic and step back from it... anonymity is the key if police want help from witnesses.

thumbs up and awesome because we don't have an excellent rating.


Jane@CM profile image

Jane@CM 6 years ago

I was really drawn into this hub as I remember reading in depth about it years ago. I was intrigued to see the title after so many years.


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

"no one intervening, including teachers" ??? - This is unbelievably horrible


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

KKalmes - Thanks for your thoughts! Adults trained me not to get involved, but in high school I was able to shake that.

Jane@CM - Thanks for the comments and I'm happy to find another that also remembers this case.

De Greek - It was staunchly horrifying. I'll never forget instances where no adults would help when a child was beat up or bullied - I'd say this happened in about half the cases. In one 1st grade class, a teacher partnered children with their bullies and tormentors for projects in the belief that it would socle the problems. It did not. In a 5th grade class, whenever a child was attacked and asked the teacher for help, the teacher told him/her not to be a tattletale. Teachers in other classrooms took effective action.


BDazzler profile image

BDazzler 6 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

In your ideas for discussion ... Courage would not be a virtue if it were common ... for one to act with courage, one must face the truth of ones soul, whatever it is, and come to grips with it and act according to a value higher than one's self interest ... "The man who shot Liberty Valance ... he was the bravest of them all".

Re: "Prejudice and stereotype was still solid for Blacks, lesbians, women, and Italian-Americans in parts of the US in the 1970s. Kitty had three strikes. "

Prejudice and stereotype get a lot of bad press. But they are simply aspects of our need to generalize in order to handle complexity. Any behavioral psychologist can tell you that it you administer an electric shock when you show someone a red hanky, they will avoid red hanky and teach their fiends to avoid red hankies ... they will probalby avoid red cloth in general.

Courage to confront the red hanky would then be a personal triumph, however, if the negative stimulus is randomly re-inforced, even the most courageous will at least try to avoid them.

Stereotypes, right or wrong, often have their basis in behavioral pysch. The question an individual will unconsciously process is: Do "Blacks, lesbians, women, and Italian-Americans" threaten me and my friends in family in some way. If they feel the answer is yes ... then it is label prejudice. But is there a legitimate threat social or otherwise that needs to be addressed ... at least for an individual? It is not popular to voice these questions. You can train someone not to say the "N Word" but you cannot train out fear or hatred. That requires courage.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

That could all be a Hub in itself, BDazzler!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Intermittent variable reinforcement - yes, that one's difficult, sometimes impossible, to overcome. Thanks for causing me to remember.


BDazzler profile image

BDazzler 6 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

As I read your hubs, your professional profiles, etc. I have a great deal of respect for how you help individuals have the best chance at overcoming ... with your marshal arts, you train physically, with your work with your faith in Gd and work through your church you mentor spiritually and with your wide ranging articles on jobs and careers you help financially ... there is a common thread among your work ... you provide tools for those who choose to find whatever internal courage they have to gain strength and leverage over whatever life experiences they may have.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Thanks BDazzler - I think courage as a cocept and a goal has always been important to me.


ladyt11 profile image

ladyt11 6 years ago

This was very interesting. It amazes me how people stand around and do nothing when someone is under attack, like they're watching a movie or something!. I have intervened in one attack on someone that I did not know. I was in my car, I didn't get out but I kept yelling at the guy that I was calling the police and to leave the lady alone. Thank God he got spooked and ran away! Had I been professionally trained I might have gotten out of the car. I can understand people not rushing the attacker for fear of getting hurt but calling for help is always in order and bravo to the people who acutally go to assist the person being harmed just out of sheer courage. I agree with BDazzler's comment about you and your hubs Patty Inglish, Very professional and enlightening. You make me want to go and take some type of self defense class or maybe even learning the basics of the kickboxing technique. I think me and my daughter would benefit from this.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Self defense courses usually last a few hours, days, or weeks and then you have to practice on your own. That's OK if you and your daughter can think of dangerous scenarios and practive what you would do in each one. Kickboxing can be good or even a decent exercise class that incorporates the right moves into it - repetition of effective movements is key: Wax On, Wax Off :) -- or in the new "Karate Kid" - put it down, pick it up, hang it up, put it on, take it off. It can work to build skills. An effective instructor is the best element of a good class.

Thanks for the kind words, too, ladyt11.


IzzyM profile image

IzzyM 6 years ago from UK

I'd never heard of this case case either before I read it here. Thanks for the education, very interesting.


glendoncaba profile image

glendoncaba 6 years ago from Somewhere in the hubverse

O course I am interested in which version of the story is accurate. Perhaps only the confession of the killer.


burning bush profile image

burning bush 5 years ago

Great presentation. Very interesting observations of group behaviour.


doublekk 5 years ago

I grew up on Austin Street. This really hits home. I was 6 years old when this happened.


Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas

If indeed there were witnesses to this murder and they did nothing, I think it was more likely for the following reasons: The killer was a black man with a knife; he demonstrated his willingness to use the knife and kill with it; he demonstrated his willingness to return to the scene thus he was not fearful of anything or anyone apparently. I don't know that Kitty as a lesbian plays into it at all unless some of the witnesses already knew her. The fact that she was a female was likely totally overshadowed by the presence of the knife. Guns and knives, especially knives, cause folks to rethink their intentions and freeze in the tracks in many cases. There was ample evidence visible to say to any witness, this guy will come after to you as well and not think twice about killing you in the process. That's my two cents. Thanks for a good write. WB


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

I remember seeing the news report as a child. On a side note, there was a T.V. movie about the murder. Cloris Leachman and Ed Asner played a married couple who witnessed the event. The movie showed the police investigation afterward and how the perp was caught. It was a very inaccurate portrayel, the killer in the show was a white man.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

I was a child, but old enough to remember the Kitty Genovese case. I thought it was horrible that the poor woman took hours to die and no one even attempted to help her. I can understand that people were afraid to directly intervene, but why not call the police, immediately, in hopes the girl might be rescued from her attacker in time. So what, you have to give your name...a person's life is at stake.

I called the police in my apartment building when I heard screaming and crying at 3 am. It turned out to be a domestic incident, and was handled competently by the police officer. The police responded very quickly. I was glad to have done at least that much for the woman being hurt.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Patty....an interesting hub, for more than one reason. I have always been horrified by "on-lookers," curious as to what goes through their heads, if anything. Yes, I'm aware of all the "human nature" explanations. Many of them are understandable, once considered, but I often wonder when natural reflex comes in? This particular case is most baffling, since witnesses were safe within their apartments. It's impossible to believe there were not 38 calls going into the Police at once. I want to believe that much of this has changed in this age....but I don't know if the statistics bear this out. Thank you for your thought-provoking story.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 4 years ago from North America Author

I think many of the witnesses were afraid for their own lives or did not care enough to become involved. Racial tensions were high in the US during this period of The Great Society programs beginning and Civil Rights Movement - peopoe shot in the South for registering voters, crime rate in NYC was high, we had all sorts of TV crime shows scaring people, and a dozen other barriers to helping.

I think today, more people jump in and try to stop the situation themselves, sometimes withot safety precautions.

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