Fifty years ago today, a horrific and infamous crime occurred in Queens. When Kitty Genovese was murdered while returning home from work in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, it was merely a blip on the local media radar, one of 636 homicides recorded in New York City that year, a random street crime that engages the tabloids for a day or two until the next lurid tale screams for attention. Five days later, after Winston Moseley was arrested and confessed to the crime, it seemed likely the story would follow the path of most murders, forgotten by all but family and friends.
The following week, however, New York Times city editor Abraham Rosenthal, who had only allotted the story four paragraphs, had lunch with Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, who mentioned a disturbing lack of response by eyewitnesses to Genovese’s murder. Intrigued, Rosenthal assigned a story to writer Martin Gansberg, and on March 27, 1964, a story appeared on the front page of The New York Times that began:
“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. Twice the sound of their voices 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…”
Overnight that local media blip, thanks to the imprimatur of the Gray Lady, became an international story, appearing in newspapers as far away as Russia and Japan. As Kevin Cook writes in his new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, “[T]he Kitty Genovese story prompted months of local and then national soul-searching.” The residents sounded like Romans watching Christians being fed to the lions in the Colosseum; for the first few anniversaries, someone reportedly showed up at the murder site and screamed, to remind the residents of their collective guilt. The story tapped into our growing paranoia and distrust, as well as our fear of the urban jungle, with its racial and sexual overtones. Many psychiatrists set up experiments of “the bystander effect,” which demonstrated that the more witnesses there were to an event, the less likely one would be to intervene. The outrage inspired novels, TV movies, short stories (Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”) and songs (Phil Ochs, of whom Genovese was a fan, wrote one titled “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”).
The problem was that much of the story was wrong. In the years that followed, many media outlets, including the Times itself, debunked most of the details of that lead paragraph, proving them either untrue or greatly exaggerated. The true story was much more ambiguous.
The “thirty-eight witnesses” referred to the number of witness statements taken by the police (they actually interviewed 49 people). The prosecuting attorneys, however, quickly determined that only six people had any relevant information, and only two knew that the victim had been stabbed. Nobody saw more than a few seconds of the assault; most saw nothing and assumed the noise was from a domestic quarrel from a couple leaving the neighborhood bar.
There were two attacks, not three. The first occurred on a dimly lit public street at 3:15 in the morning, with Moseley stabbing Genovese twice. One man, the superintendent of the apartment building there, had a clear view of the assault but did nothing. However, Robert Mozer, hearing Genovese scream, opened his 7th-floor window and yelled, “Leave that girl alone!” This startled Moseley, who fled. Moments later, Genovese got up and began walking, albeit shakily, toward her home. It was over in less than a minute and by the time many of the residents got to their windows, both attacker and victim were gone.
There was at least one immediate phone call during the first attack. Fourteen-year-old Michael Hoffman, who grew up to be an N.Y.P.D. officer, watched his father call the police after Genovese screamed. In those days, one had to call the precinct directly and the answering officer was often unresponsive, as Hoffman claimed it was in this case.
The second, more prolonged attack, which occurred 15 minutes later at the bottom of a stairwell, had only one witness, who did call the police, though belatedly after cowering in fear and crawling out his window into a neighbor’s apartment. One resident, after hearing about the attack from the witness, ran to the scene where she held and comforted Genovese until the ambulance arrived. (She died en route to the hospital.)
The facts are far more complicated than the Times article claimed. Two witnesses acted with clear cowardice, but some others tried to intervene. Most saw nothing and heard little. Still the legend persists. Cook notes, “Of the ten most popular social-psychology textbooks of 2005 [41 years after the murder], all carried accounts of the Genovese case, with all ten accounts maintaining that thirty-eight witnesses watched Kitty die without lifting a finger to help.”
Initial misinformation quickly becomes accepted as fact – see Dave Cullen’s book on Columbine for an incisive exposure of one such case – and corrections to front-page stories are typically buried in the corner of page 19, well after we’ve stopped paying attention. There are reasons why books and articles with titles like Lies My Teacher Told Me and “Everything You Know About American History Is Wrong” are popular – and often necessary.
The media has always been drawn to conflict and to outrage; ambiguity just muddies the water and only appears in the closing paragraphs, if at all. Even the best newspapers have agendas, of course, but so do readers. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in The New Yorker, “The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.” It’s always dangerous to blindly accept information from a single source. (Including this blog post. To keep it to a manageable length, I’ve made my own omissions and oversimplifications.)
Cook does a good job of explaining the revised narrative, though I wish he had presented a more straightforward chronology instead of jumping back and forth; it’s not until the final chapter that you get an uninterrupted account of the murder. One thing he does admirably, however, is discuss not just the death, but the life of Kitty Genovese: a Catholic girl who, after high school, insisted on staying in the city rather than moving to Connecticut with her family; a vivacious young woman who enjoyed the Greenwich Village folk music scene; a chatty woman who enjoyed arguing for LBJ’s civil rights agenda with the patrons of the Queens bar she managed.
Much of this insight comes from Cook’s interview with Genovese’s partner, Mary Ann Zielonko. It wasn’t revealed until many years later that Kitty was a lesbian and that her roommate was also her lover. (March 13, 1964 would have been the one-year anniversary of the day they met.) Zielonko, still alive and living in New Hampshire, gives a vivid account of what it was like to be in a same-sex relationship at a time when homosexuality was illegal in most states, including New York. Public displays of affection were unthinkable; gay bars had to be on constant alert for vice squad raids. Publicly, Kitty and Mary Ann had to maintain the fiction that they were both just young single gals sharing expenses until each met her Mr. Right.
The hostility toward gays was apparent in Mary Ann’s treatment after the murder. Within three hours of Kitty’s death, Mary Ann was considered the lead suspect – because detectives thought homosexual romances were more likely to trigger jealousy – and she was questioned aggressively about not just the nature of her relationship with Kitty, but about their sexual practices. The detectives brought these same invasive questions to neighbors, many of whom hadn’t known Kitty and Mary Ann were a gay couple, and to friends, many of whom were also gay and scared of exposure. As a result, many of Mary Ann’s acquaintances began to shun her. At the funeral, Kitty’s family insisted that Mary Ann remain in the background, where people would not see her grieve publicly for the woman she loved. After testifying in the murder trial, Mary Ann left New York for good.
It’s ironic that Rosenthal, who was later executive editor of the Times, made Kitty Genovese a household name because he was known for his hostility to the gay community; one story he approved shortly before the Genovese murder had the headline, “GROWTH OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN CITY PROVOKES WIDE CONCERN.” (His gravestone’s epitaph, “He kept the paper straight,” has a double meaning that is hopefully unintended.)
Even the revisionists, however, agree that the sensationalistic coverage of the Genovese murder had a positive outcome. It revealed the unreliability of the city’s crime reporting system and spurred the creation of the 911 system. Mayor John Lindsay installed brighter streetlamps in residential areas. The murder inspired Good Samaritan laws that compelled witnesses to help and often shielded them from potential lawsuits. It gave everyone an awareness of how groups respond to danger; Cook wonders if it played an indirect role in how Flight 93 passengers reacted on 9/11.
There was one more ironic twist to the story. The police did not apprehend Moseley through dogged investigative work. They had few clues and no suspects, and when they arrested Moseley for stealing a television five days after the murder, they had no idea he had a connection to the crime and when he confessed, they were surprised. In fact, Winston Moseley, a man who had murdered two women and would undoubtedly have murdered more, was captured during the robbery because he was spotted by, and confronted by, neighbors who called the police – exactly the behavior that, a few days later, the New York Times would accuse Kitty Genovese’s neighbors of not doing.