“I Didn’t Want to Get Involved”: the Lessons of the Murder of Kitty Genovese
A young woman is stabbed to death in the course of a long and brutal attack. Some people see it … more people hear it … and most of them do absolutely nothing.
Human monsters exist. Apologists cover for apathy. The helpless cannot stop violence. In situations like this, armed people can save lives when unarmed people can’t.
The year 2014 marked the half-century anniversary of a crime that shocked our nation to the depths of its soul. A little after 3:00 AM, a 28-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was returning from the bar she managed to her home in Kew Gardens — a Queens, N.Y., suburb considered quiet, upscale and relatively crime-free. She was targeted by a monster who had set out to rape and murder whatever young woman appeared in his sights. She screamed when he came at her with his knife.
People heard. Some looked and saw what was happening. One man opened his window and roared, “Get away from that girl!” The monster scuttled away. The young woman slowly, clumsily got to her feet and staggered away. Some who watched from their windows thought it was a fight between lovers. Others thought she might be drunk.
Lights went back out. People went back to bed. No one called the police.
And the monster realized that. He put on a different hat, and proceeded to track his victim again. By now she had made her way around the back of the apartment building, and inside.
He followed her. Found her. Stabbed her some more. One witness opened his apartment door, looked out and saw the monster savaging the girl in the hallway. He went back inside. The monster went back to work.
He plunged his knife into Kitty Genovese’s neck to silence her screams, cut her clothes open, had his orgasm on top of her body and left her to die from more than a dozen knife wounds. In his subsequent confession he said he finished by shoving his knife into her vagina. Her ordeal had lasted for half an hour or more.
At last, someone called the NYPD. Arriving police found her soaked in blood and cradled in the arms of her friend, Sophie Farrar. By then, the monster was long gone. Kitty Genovese died in the ambulance.
When police asked the man who had looked out, watched, and ducked back in behind a closed door why he hadn’t done something then, he replied, “I didn’t want to get involved.”
Those words became a catch phrase that would forever more describe a sick apathy in the culture of urban America.
A Scar In A Nation’s Soul
At first, the death of Catherine Genovese was just another statistic in a violent city. But then Abraham Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times, had lunch with then-Commissioner of NYPD Michael Murphy. They were discussing another matter when Murphy mentioned the murder in Kew Gardens, and how sickened he was by the fact some 38 witnesses had been aware of what was going on, and had done nothing. The autopsy listed Kitty’s death as bilateral pneumothorax: the puncture wounds in her back and chest from a serrated-blade hunting knife had violated the thoracic vacuum, and air pressure had slowly shut down her lungs. Had help been summoned in a timely manner, she would have most likely survived. But reconstruction showed the half an hour or more between the first thrust of the knife into her upper back and the arrival of the ambulance precluded her survival.
Rosenthal assigned Martin Gansberg to do the investigative reporting. What Gansberg uncovered exploded the case and forced it into the face of the nation and the world. It made Americans in general, and New Yorkers in particular, ask What is wrong with us? How could good people let this happen?
About 18 months after the killing, running for Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay gave a speech in Kew Gardens near the murder scene. He said, “What the Kitty Genovese story tells us is something has gone out of the heart and soul of New York. And who’s to blame? It’s people who say, ‘What’s the use?’ It’s people who say, ‘Why get involved?’” Lindsay won the election and became the new mayor of New York.
Change came from this national self-examination. Some believe that the 911 emergency call system, introduced in 1968, was born in the murder of Kitty Genovese. If so, it was about time. Police in Canada had been using a similar concept, their 999 emergency number, since 1956.
Curtis Sliwa was nine years old when it happened. He would say later the Genovese incident was what inspired the dream he later made real, the formation of a group of martial arts-trained citizen community watch members who became famous as the Guardian Angels.
From the beginning, there were people who did not want to believe 38 ordinary Americans could let something like this happen. Apologists followed quickly on the heels of the accusers. By the 20th century, people emerged who were the equivalent of Holocaust deniers: “This couldn’t have really happened,” they said. “It didn’t happen that way.”
One man, some 40 years afterward, emerged to insist his father had called the police and they hadn’t come. But there seems to be no concrete evidence of that.
Some people want to be the amateur detective who solves the case, and proves the authorities to be bungling fools. And there are those who insist anything too painful for them to believe — particularly if they might have to believe it about themselves — must be an “urban myth.” Sure enough, there emerged those who claimed the entire story of a young woman murdered because her neighbors heard her screams and did nothing, had to be an urban myth.
“There weren’t 38 people who actually saw him stab her,” they said, as if they had performed a “gotcha” on the NYPD and the Times.
In 2014, two heavily-researched books about this incident appeared. One is Kitty Genovese: the Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook, published by W.W. Norton & Co. The other is Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences by Catherine Pelonero, from Skyhorse Publishing. One reviewer suggested Cook was an apologist who supports the “it was an urban myth” view, while Pelonero was an apologist for the NYPD and the Times who supports the original narrative. In fact, a careful reading of both books shows neither author was so simplistic in their approach.
Known as “the gray lady,” the New York Times was one of the world’s most respected newspapers in the mid-20th century. Rosenthal was a highly regarded editor. Gansberg was known among his colleagues as a dogged seeker of truth, who had given up a high-level supervisory position at the Times to go back on the street and pursue his first professional love, investigative reporting.
The urban myth meme comes from people who belatedly realized the oft-quoted number of witnesses, 38, was questionable in some ways. The first major story on the case in the Times, datelined March 27, 1964, was under a headline reading, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” The story, however, spoke of 38 witnesses. The reason for that discrepancy was clear: one of those 38 witnesses, at the very end, finally did make the call to NYPD, leaving 37 who never did.
The headline itself, however, was incorrect. Nowhere near 37 or 38 actually saw the murder per se. According to the current Wikipedia entry on the murder, “Only one witness, Joseph Fink, was aware she was stabbed in the first attack, and only Karl Ross was aware of it in the second attack.” Does this mean there were only two witnesses, not the purported 38?
No. More witnesses than that saw her battered to the ground, they just didn’t see the knife enter her body. Moreover, there are eyewitnesses, and there are earwitnesses. There were far more of the latter. Kitty Genovese’s screams echoed throughout the quiet neighborhood.
“‘Oh, God, he stabbed me! Help me,’ she screamed. Her shouts were loud enough to wake people on both sides of the street.” (Cook, hardcover edition, page 1.) Some witnesses said they thought it was spouses or lovers fighting, as if that made everything just fine.
How many people heard her screaming, and knew or reasonably should have known she was in terrible danger? Charles Skoller was second chair prosecutor in the case against Kitty’s murderer. Writes Cook on page 107 of his book, “By Skoller’s count, no more than five or six neighbors saw and heard enough to know Kitty was in mortal danger.” But Cook also says on the same page, “The prosecutors believed there may have been 40 or 50 neighbors who heard Kitty’s cries that night. But how many were half asleep? How many rolled over and forgot what they heard? How many went to their windows but couldn’t be sure what they were seeing? How many paced their apartments, wondering what to do, and then returned to their windows and saw nothing but an empty street?”
Author Pelonero sees things differently. At Location 2956 in the Kindle edition of her book, she writes, “(Times reporter Martin) Gansberg had not included persons in his witness count who had heard Kitty’s screams but had not seen anything. This would have made the count much higher: the police reports show 62 people who heard the screams.” At Location 2967 she adds, “Gansberg’s story can also be compared against existing DD5’s (NYPD reports) from the police investigation. Police reports obtained via the Freedom of Information Act have redactions. A few pages are entirely or almost entirely blacked out. On others, most of the names of those interviewed are blacked out, but their statements of what they saw and heard remain. These reports show a total of thirty-three persons who saw part of the crime: either Kitty and her attacker on the street together, Kitty struggling away after the first attack, and, in some cases, the foregoing plus (the killer’s) return to hunt for her. All of these 33 had of course heard her screams. Gansberg’s count of thirty-eight witnesses is remarkably close to what appears in the police reports. It is impossible to say with certainty whether the heavily redacted pages of the police reports would reveal five more witnesses, therefore matching Gansberg’s count of 38. It seems unlikely, given Gansberg’s professional standing and background and how close the numbers are, that he would have invented five phantom witnesses.”
In an NPR interview, Kevin Cook said, “Over the course of many months of research, I wound up finding a document that was a collection of the first interviews. Oddly enough, there were 49 witnesses. I was puzzled by that until I added up the entries themselves.” (“NPR Books,” 3/3/14.)
And there we have it. “Urban myth”? No. “Oh God, he stabbed me! Help me!” More than three dozen people heard the screams. One, after dithering interminably, called another neighbor and asked her to call the police … altogether too little, too late.
Winston Moseley, married with two children, was also 28. Most of America, focusing on the “bad Samaritans” who failed to help, saw Moseley as a faceless demon. He was a married father of two small children, gainfully employed. He was also a serial burglar, a serial rapist and a serial murderer. Once in custody, he confessed to many rapes in which he used a knife or a screwdriver to intimidate his victims. He also confessed to two prior murders. One was a 15-year-old girl named Barbara Kralik whom he claimed to have stabbed to death. The other was a young mother named Annie May Johnson whom he shot six times with a single-shot .22 rifle, pausing to casually reload between shots. He then raped her corpse and set her genitals on fire.
When expressly asked if he had any remorse for what he had done, Moseley replied that he didn’t. Why did he prey on women? They were “easier” and “didn’t fight back.” Why did he flee from the initial attack when he heard the stern command “Leave that girl alone!” from witness Robert Mozer? Because he didn’t want to be hurt or captured. Why did he return and attack Kitty Genovese again? Because he saw the lights that came on go back out, and after no cops arrived, he realized no one had called them.
Moseley was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Kitty Genovese. The trial judge, famous for his opposition to the death penalty, refused to allow a psychiatrist to testify for the defense during the penalty phase. Many legal observers felt this was a “poison pill” dispensed deliberately by the judge, who knew that higher courts would overturn the death sentence for this reason. That is exactly what happened, and Walter Moseley at this writing is, at 79, the oldest inmate of Attica State Penitentiary, having been turned down for parole some 13 times.
In 1968, Moseley escaped from prison, having shoved a meat can up his rectum so he’d be taken to the hospital. The guard he overpowered there fired one shot as Moseley ran away. It had no effect; Cook considers it a warning shot, and Pelonero says simply, “He missed.” Stealing cars and a gun, Moseley embarked on a spree of home invasion, kidnapping and multiple rapes. Finally confronted by a brave FBI agent named Neil Welch, he meekly surrendered his stolen gun and was returned to confinement.
A Better Outcome
Countless psychological and sociological studies were born in the Genovese incident. Most concluded there was a herd mentality at work, and people who would normally intervene in such an atrocity if they were the only possible rescuer would sit back and “let George do it” if there were other people around upon whom they could shirk off the responsibility.
Most of the media blatantly ignored another huge factor: Unarmed people are largely helpless to stop violent armed criminals, and they know it.
Catherine Pelonero found a very similar case on the same street in Kew Gardens occurring only five weeks before the Genovese murder, reported belatedly in the 3/29/64 edition of the New York Journal-American. Beginning at Location 3109 in the Kindle edition of Pelonero’s book, that case involved a 17-year-old woman terrorized at knife-point inside an apartment building by a man who molested her until an elevator operator saw her plight. He pounded on the door of an attorney’s apartment for help, and then went to her aid barehanded. Quotes Pelonero, “The elevator operator began battling with the assailant out on the street in the snow … The lawyer came out with his shotgun but the assailant fled.”
In that incident, the young woman survived with relatively minor knife injuries.
Someone did get involved.
And then an armed citizen with a shotgun got involved.
And then it was over, and the victim was saved.
Amid all the countless words and the many studies of urban angst and social anomie the Kitty Genovese murder triggered, there is a lesson there. A lesson which has been sadly lost, for far too long.
By Massad Ayoob