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The Kitty Genovese Murder - Is the Legend True?

Updated on July 1, 2013
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The story of the murder of 28 year-old Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964 is less a story about a murder than about the reactions of 38 so-called witnesses, and the legend that grew about them.

Kitty Genovese was returning to her apartment above a row of shops in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York from her job as a bar manager. It was about 3:15 am. She parked her car in the Long Island Railroad parking lot about 100 feet from the entrance to her apartment in an alley near the rear of the building. Almost immediately she was attacked by a 29 year-old man, subsequently identified as Winston Mosely. She ran toward Austin Street, a commercial area when Mosely stabbed her twice. The site of this attack was on Austin Street, in full view of an apartment building. Mosely retreated to his car, but returned a few minutes later. He attacked her again in a hallway, now totally out of view from anyone who may have seen the initial attack. He stabbed her several more times, raped her and stole $49 from her pocketbook. That is essentially how the murder happened. Kitty Genovese was dead, and a legend was born.

The Legend

Two weeks after the Genovese murder two men had lunch, A.M. Rosenthal the metro editor for The New York Times and Michael Joseph Murphy, the New York City Police Commissioner. Mosely, the perpetrator was already under arrest and had confessed to the crime as well as to another murder, even though a suspect in the second murder was already under arrest. Rosenthal was asking Murphy about the second murder and the double confession, even though there was an arrested suspect. This sounded like a story. Murphy, however, changed the subject and focused on the Genovese murder. He told Rosenthal that no fewer than 38 people had witnessed the Genovese murder and none called the police (if only we had gotten there sooner). Although Rosenthal would later write that he believed Murphy to be exaggerating. Nevertheless, Rosenthal dispatched Martin Gansberg, a copy editor who recently had been promoted to reporter. Four days later there appeared on the front page of The New York Times a report that would become history.

· The report - "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." (Kim Rasenberger "Kitty, 40 Years later" New York Times February 8, 2004).

Thus, the Kitty Genovese murder became an iconic metaphor for apathetic and non altruistic Americans who just couldn't be bothered.

The case is often discussed under the heading The Bystander Effect, also known as the Genovese Syndrome. The effect refers to the reluctance of some people to help when there are others present.

But Was the Story Wrong? A Look at Some Perverse Incentives

Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago Economics Professor and Stephen J. Dubner a former writer and editor for The New York Times, wrote Super Freakonomics, a follow up to their bestselling book Freakonomics. Ignore the stupidest title ever put on a book. Their work is important and ground breaking. Both books are about microeconomics and how incentives operate on people. In Superfreakonomics, they address the Kitty Genovese case. Combining the disciplines of microeconomics and solid journalism, Levitt and Dubner take a jaundiced look at the possible incentives for people to bend the facts.

Source

· The New York Times. Did editor Rosenthal and reporter Gansberg have an incentive to go with this story as they did? The Kitty Genovese murder could have been seen as just another murder in the far off precincts of the borough of Queens in an era of high crime. Hardly the stuff of the "Journal of Record," and certainly not deserving of front page treatment. But 38 apathetic people who couldn't even rouse themselves to call the cops to prevent the murder of an innocent young woman, and who choose instead to go back to bed? Now that's a story! Rosenthall would go on to write a book entitled Thirty-Eight Witnesses which became a blockbusting best seller. Did they have an incentive to go with a story about civic apathy rather than just a murder?

Source

· The New York City Police Department. If only somebody had called us sooner, we could have saved the life of that poor young woman. It wasn't your hard working police department, it was The Silent 38. Levitt and Dubner don't accuse Commissioner Murphy of lying, but they do raise questions about his incentive to view facts in a certain way.

Subsequent Discoveries

During their research Levitt and Dubner met a guy named Joseph De May, Jr. a 69 year-old maritime lawyer who had moved to Kew Gardens in 1974 about 10 years after the Genovese murder. De May, a member of the local historical society, begun to put together a history of Kew Gardens for a website. His lawyerly efforts started to uncover some discrepancies in the Genovese story. He found six factual errors in paragraph one of the Times article. When the first attack occurred at 3:20 am, most people nearby were, naturally, asleep. It occurred on a darkened sidewalk. As Levitt and Dubner point out, it was common at that time for reporters to get most of their facts from investigating police officers. This led to the almost certainly exaggerated number of 38 witnesses. Even the prosecutor of Mosely was able to find only six reliable witnesses. Also, as the police would later admit, there were only two attacks, not three.

Mosely, age 78 as of this writing has been denied parole several times, from his life sentence. He will again be eligible for parole in November 2013

One witness, age 15, testified that he yelled out the window, although he couldn't see anything clearly. He also testified that his father called the police. He and his father saw a woman who seemed to be walking shakily. They assumed the police would come shortly and they went back to bed. This was before 911 technology. You had to look up the police phone number and place your report. The 15 year-old, Mike Hoffman, said that he assumed the call was low priority, because they saw her walking, although hesitantly. Mr. Hoffman is now a retired NYC police officer, ending his career with the rank of lieutenant. And there may have been other calls. Mr. De May heard from other residents who told him that they had placed calls after the first attack. We will never know for sure. Even De May said that there were a number of "ear witnesses" who could have acted more decisively.

So that is the legend of Kitty Genovese. A young woman was brutally attacked on a darkened sidewalk in the early morning and was attacked a second time in a hallway away from anyone's view. Possibly influenced by psychological and economic incentives, the press and the police establishment created an iconic tale about civic apathy and non-caring human beings. We will never know all the facts. What we do know is that there were some elaborate exaggerations of the story.

I grew up in Queens, New York in the 1960s. I was an 18 year-old high school senior at the time of the murder. Like everyone, I was shocked and mesmerized by the horrible tale. I lived about six miles from Kew Gardens, and I recall my neighborhood as a place where people would run to the scene of an accident, not away from it, a place where neighbors looked out for each other and for their kids. I was skeptical that people so close to me could be so uncaring. After reading Levitt and Dubner's book, I realize that my skepticism was well placed.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Unbelievable! What a great story; I knew very little about this so thanks for filling me in with some great details.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 4 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

      I'd heard the name, Kitty Genovese, but I've never heard the story. Judging by the way events get exaggerated anymore, I can totally believe it. Thank you for the well-written and informative Hub!

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. It was/is an amazing story

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Georgie

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      I am extremely familiar with this story as well as the "legend" that followed. I too wonder just how accurate the police details were. There are cases later on where people did call and did run to the aid of another. I believe it was the "perfect storm". Some may never have heard anything as they were sleeping while some may have thought they were looking at an inebriated individual. This would be the likely assumption at 3:00 in the morning. So many factors at play here. As you say, we may never know the truth.

      Excellent article.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      rfmoran

      Add this to the list of mysteries.

      So basically, information reported to the public is always questionable.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks shiningirisheyes. I am convinced it was the MY Times article and the police commissioner's motive to embellish that turned this murder into amisplaced metaphor.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      That, my friend, is an excellent view of this story. As grandma always told us, don't believe everything you read.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Interesting and mysterious thanks for informing me on this hub

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks DDE

    • jayman6018 profile image

      jayman6018 4 years ago from Los Angeles / Beijing

      Great story. I had a similar thing happen with my Mom about the same time 1967 in Philadelphia. It was a bad time, high crime, and we lived in the belly of the beast N.Philly. My Mom worked a part-time job at night, and got home about 10pm, often we were already in bed when she got home.

      One night a guy followed her from the El (elevated train) home and attacked her with a knife in alley by our home, I heard her screams and jumped up from bed and headed toward the door, my Father was blur, flying past me and outside before I knew it. My Mom fought back and my Father managed to get the knife, but the guy ran, however he ran only about 20-30 ft. As I came out the door two neighbors, who also heard the screams, had hit the guy and tackled him, they held him until the police came.

      This was the norm back then, at least from my experience. People ran to help when someone was in trouble.

      I take anything the NYT says with a large grain of salt.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for sharing that scary story about you mom Jay. I note that the time was 10 pm, when a lot of people are awake. Had Kitty Genovese been attacked then rather than 3:20 am, the legend would have never been born. I take NYT stories with a BLOCK of salt.

    • jayman6018 profile image

      jayman6018 4 years ago from Los Angeles / Beijing

      Well, don't what made me bang out that story, but I was nine when that happened and reading your Hub brought it vividly back, especially being awakened from a sound sleep by the screaming, however like you say maybe not as much at 3;20am ?

      I read many stories over the years about the Kitty Genovese Murder, some that really got silly, making it sound as though people were hanging out their windows, eating popcorn, and watching the murder.

      Whatever happened thanks for the interesting take on it. Who was it, Mark Twain who said, 'Once a newspaper gets a hold of a story, the facts are lost forever.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Jay. Great Twain quote!

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 4 years ago from Northern California

      Interesting facts adding to what I've heard about this. We went over this case a few times in my journalism classes, going over the journalistic issues inherent in this and how it was reported. Also in my psychology classes, where we talked about how a lot of people will feel that someone else will take care of it and thus not worry about it.

    • jeffduff profile image

      Jeff Duff 4 years ago from Southwest Wisconsin

      I remember first hearing about the Genovese story in a 1970s college Social Psychology class. That is when I heard the term, "Diffusion of Responsibility". Perhaps the Genovese case was greatly exaggerated, but it does represent a very real phenomenon. If you don't believe me, walk into a party room full of people and ask, "Who spilled some of their drink on the floor?" You'll see almost everyone looking around at everyone else at the party ... and the silence will be deafening! (This is true for groups of adults or children, by the way.)

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      It's really a case of journalistic misbehavior mote than any thing else. Remember, it was 3 am in the morning.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Please remember, this happened in the wee hours of the morning when people were asleep. That, combined with simply non-truths in the NY Times created a legend - based on a reporter trying to make a name for himself.

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Absolutely horrific situation. You do a great job memorializing her name and telling of the incident. People stand in lines to be lottery tickets, but they don't check on their neighbors...that's my philosophy generally. People have to care enough to react. Thanks for this hub.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comments ytsenoh

    • S Leretseh profile image

      S Leretseh 3 years ago

      I've done quite a bit of research on black-on-white crime (as well as white-on-black crime). I'm familiar with this case. I'm not sure what the six reliable witnesses could hv actually testified to. It was, as you stated, after 3 o'clock in the morning - pitch black.

      Moseley , IMO, ws lying in wait for the girl. He had probably observed her a few nights before while driving around at night looking for potential white female rape victims. Moseley was most likely a serial rapist/murder in the making. He was caught, and fortunately, in the very early stages of his obsession (a future Clophius Prince , Gerald Parker, or maybe even Coral Watts - who knows).

      After Moseley initially attacked the girl, he was driven off by shouts from windows. However, he was one very determined rapist. Most would hv fled the scene. Not Moseley. He waited a few minutes to see if any one would come out and investigate. When no one did, he went after the white female again. She had been stabbed a few times but managed to crawl from the sidewalk up to and thru the outer door of her apartment complex. That's where Moseley found her. He raped her there. After the rape he stabbed the girl a few more time and fled.

      After Moseley's confession and subsequent court trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, since this atrocity took place in the state of New York, it was virtually forgone conclusion that Moseley would be spared. The death sentence was likely to placate the public. A liberal appeals court intervened and declared (ready for this?) Moseley was clearly "clinically insane" at the time of his crime and therefore not responsible for his actions.

      Mosely, tho, was not done with rapes:

      ""In 1968, during a trip to a Buffalo, New York hospital for surgery, Moseley overpowered a guard and beat him up to the point that his eyes were bloody. He then took a bat and swung it at the closest person to him and took five hostages, raping one of them in front of her husband—actions for which Moseley would later blame his parents—before he was recaptured after a two-day manhunt."

      Regarding Catherine "Kitty" Genovese, 28, she should bear some responsibility here. A young and attractive female out alone in the wee hours of the night is an obvious item of interest to any rapist on the prowl.

    • profile image

      ken 3 years ago

      not 38 and multiple calls....unresponsive cops

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 2 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      What a horrifying story. And then even after being in jail, the first opportunity he gets, he beats a guard and takes people hostage. Then again he rapes a woman hostage in front of her husband. From these actions you must presume that Moseley is insane.

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