RIGHTING THE WRONGS: Kitty Genovese

On March 13, 1964, a woman was brutally murdered outside her apartment in Queens, New York. While the murder was tragic – as all murders are – it wasn’t especially noteworthy. It wasn’t until two weeks after the murder, when the New York Times published an article about the incident, that the whole world lost its mind.

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Kitty Genovese was born in New York City on July 7, 1935. The eldest of five children, Kitty grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In what has to be one of the saddest ironies of all time, Kitty’s mother witnessed a murder on a street in 1954 and demanded that the family move to a safer place. And so, later that year, the family moved to Connecticut. But Kitty was 19 by then, and decided to remain in the city. By 1964, Kitty was managing Ev’s Eleventh Hour, a sports bar in Hollis, Queens and living in Kew Gardens with her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko.

At around 3:15 AM on the morning of March 13, Kitty drove home from the bar and parked her car at the Long Island Rail Road parking lot. The lot was on Austin Street across from an apartment building called The Mowbray, and approximately 100 feet from the entrance to her apartment, which was above some shops. Kitty had no idea that a man named Winston Moseley had woken up at 2:00 AM and quietly left his house. He had driven around Queens looking for a woman to murder, and Kitty was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Moseley approached Genovese in the parking lot. Genovese, frightened, ran across the lot towards towards her apartment, but changed her mind and turned to run up Austin Street towards Lefferts Boulevard, a street that was usually busy, even at 3:15 AM. Moseley caught up to her and stabbed her in the back twice. Genovese cried out “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!”. A neighbor named Robert Mozer leaned out his window and shouted for Moseley to “let that girl alone”.

Mozer’s shout frightened Moseley. He ran back to his car, a white Corvair, and drove around for several minutes. He came back, parked in a different location, and put on a wide-brimmed hat, which he pulled down low to hide his face. He scanned the LIRR lot, the street, and the area around the shops. Genovese had slowly walked towards the rear of the shops, where her apartment was, and Moseley found her there in an exterior hallway. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, and took $49 from her wallet (around $360 in 2012 dollars). He then walked back to his car and drove away.

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At the time, most crime reporters simply took the NYPD’s word on most cases. Sure, there was the occasional high-profile case in which reporters would interview neighbors or witnesses. But most of the time, the NYPD would simply hand out sheets with crime summaries on them, and the reporters would rewrite them and submit them to their papers.

On March 27, 1964, the New York Times ran an article by Martin Gansberg with the headline “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”. The article begins thusly:

“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.

Twice their chatter 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.”

The only problem is, almost everything in Gansberg’s article is wrong. In fact, there’s a huge factual error in the story’s very first sentence: there were only two attacks, not three. And the alleged “38 witnesses”? The District Attorney’s office searched high and low for witnesses prior to Moseley’s subsequent trial, and according to ADA Charles Skoller, only six credible witness were found. And, due to the layout of the crime, none of those people actually saw Moselely murder Genovese.

The crime took place in two parts: the initial chase and stabbing, and the final encounter in the exterior hallway. All credible witnesses saw only the first portion, and from their perspective, it looked as if it might have been a lover’s quarrel or drunken argument:  there was a popular bar called The Old Bailey at the corner of Austin and Lefferts, so drunken arguments weren’t uncommon in the area.

At most, witnesses reported seeing Genovese run from Moseley, Moseley punch her in the back a couple of times, a neighbor yelling at Moseley, Moseley running away, and Genovese stumbling towards her apartment. The second part of the crime, which no one witnessed, took place in the enclosed exterior hallway.

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The alleged number of witnesses – 38 – came about thanks to the NYPD’s then-antiquated emergency phone system. There were a total of 38 calls in the area at the time, but some weren’t related to the Genovese murder at all, while others simply reported a some sort of mild domestic or alcohol-related disturbance… because that’s what it looked like.

And the NYPD’s dispatchers heard from callers that Genovese had stumbled away and the incident appeared to be over, so they gave the calls a low priority. For the record, it was bitterly cold that night, so most of Genovese’s neighbors had their windows closed. Perhaps they heard the initial scuffle, but couldn’t make out what was going on, and by the time they got to their windows, the “incident” appeared to be over. But while no one rushed to Genovese’s aid, several calls were placed to the police.

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The outrage from the Times article was instant and nearly world-wide. People talked about it at home over the dinner table or at work over the water cooler. Social commentators decried the neighbors’ lack of help on TV and in newspapers. Thousands of preachers gave sermons which talked about the lack of empathy and moral decline of America.

But it wasn’t just the usual moral busybodies who spoke out about the crime. Harlan Ellison, famed sci-fi writer and social commentator, published an article in Rolling Stone in which he referred to the 38 alleged witnesses as “thirty-six motherfuckers” in an article (yes, 36). A 1965 episode of the Perry Mason TV show called “The Case of the Silent Six” was loosely based on the murder. In 1966, folk singer Phil Ochs wrote the song “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, in which the narrator describes several scenes in which he should help but doesn’t, because it would “only interest his small circle of friends”. Ellison’s 1974 short story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, was based on the incident. In the Dean Koontz novel Twilight Eyes, the protagonists are moved to action specifically because of the Genovese murder. In the graphic novel Watchmen, the murder is the basis of the entire story: the protagonist becomes a vigilante specifically because of the murder. The crime was mentioned in The Boondock Saints. The French writer Didier Decoin based his novel Est-ce ainsi que les femmes meurent? (Is This How Women Die?) on the incident. And that’s just scratching the surface: there are tons of songs, TV movies and novels based on the incident.

The murder had a huge impact in the world of sociology. It basically invented something called the “Bystander Effect”, which is sometimes called the “Genovese Syndrome” in Kitty’s honor. I’m not saying the Bystander Effect isn’t real – experiments conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968 certainly indicated that it does exist, and their results have been replicated a thousand times over. But I will say that Genovese’s murder is mentioned in hundreds of sociology and psychology textbooks as having happened more like how the New York Times reported it than how it actually happened.

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Moseley was an unlikely suspect. He was 28 years old, owned a house in Queens, and had a wife and two children. He had a steady job with Remington Rand as a “tab operator” (in the early days of computers, data entered via a paper punch card). He had no prior criminal record, and was, by all appearances, a stand-up guy. In fact, on his way home from the murder, Moseley was stopped at a traffic light, and when it turned green the car in front of him didn’t move. Moseley got out of his car and gently awoke the man in the car in front of him.

Here’s the most amazing thing about the entire Genovese tale: six days after the murder, Moseley was in Corona, Queens around 3 PM. He’d decided to rob a home, and as he walked out of the house with a TV set, a neighbor stopped him and asked what he was doing. Moseley cheerfully said that he was helping the home’s owners, the Bannister family, move. The neighbor went back to his own house and called another neighbor to verify that the Bannisters were moving. When the neighbor assured him that they were not, the first neighbor told the second neighbor to hang up and call the police. The first neighbor went to Moseley’s Corvair and tinkered with the distributor cap so that the car wouldn’t start. Moseley fled the area on foot, but police arrived shortly thereafter and caught him.

After his arrest, Moseley freely admitted to killing not just Kitty Genovese, but two other women as well. He also admitted to a string of unsolved rapes and dozens of burglaries. He was convicted of killing Genovese, and remains in prison to this day. He has been denied parole fifteen times, and will be up for parole again in November 2013.

But it’s just so amazing to me that the man who killed a woman, setting off a tidal wave of discussion about how her neighbors didn’t help… was arrested because a man wanted to help his neighbor.

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