Truth Overshadowed by Sensation

By Daphne Minks Daly

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1964 was the year that made Kitty Genovese a symbol of bystander indifference. Her murder only thickened New York's reputation for insouciance. It was a year the New York Police Department would probably rather forget. With over 625 murders perpetrated in the city, police were overwhelmed. The staggering number of killings also meant the press had grown apathetic in their crime reporting. Murders, no matter how gruesome, weren't front-page headlines anymore. 


Initially, Kitty Genovese's case was no different. The rape and stabbing death of the 28-year-old barmaid garnered little attention. That is, until The New York Times published a salacious front-page story titled, Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police. The report alleged that over three dozen of Kitty's neighbors either heard or witnessed her murder and chose to ignore her pleas for help. As one would expect, the nation was outraged, and the paper sold countless copies. 


The next day, the tale was followed by a report on the psychology of apathetic bystanders. The story's implications were far-reaching and spurned New York legislators to assist in developing the national 911 emergency system. The piece also set the stage for psychoanalysts Bibb Latané and John Darley to build a career on the phenomenon coined, the Bystander Effect, or 'Genovese Syndrome.' Their study claimed to prove that spectators are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other onlookers present. According to Latané and Darley, the likelihood someone will intervene is reduced with each witness present. 


Without questioning the story's validity, media and psychologists jumped aboard to promote the narrative that Americans are devoid of a moral compass and have little regard for each other. New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal even published a book titled, Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case. His book chastized the Queens, New York residents and ultimately blamed them for Kitty's death. His version of events captivated America and went largely unquestioned for decades.

Between 2004 and 2007, several reputable journalists and psychologists published their own opinions, debunking Rosenthal's claims. The New York Times was criticized for its sensationalized version of the Genovese case, citing various flaws, omissions, and outright lies. Kitty Genovese's brother Bill revisited his sister's murder case in the 2015 documentary The Witness. He found that the New York Times report was almost entirely fabricated. 


For example, far fewer people witnessed the attack than was reported initially. Most residents could only hear Kitty's screams and had no visual of the murderer or his victim. The Times stated Kitty spent her final moments alone and that no one had phoned the police. Upon further investigation, several calls were made to the authorities that night. Also, Kitty Genovese's neighbor was, in fact, with her when she expired. Today, many experts believe the studies are incorrect or incomplete upon reviewing the research used to prove the Bystander Effect phenomenon. 


Overshadowed by the sensationalism, journalists put minimal effort into finding out who the vibrant, young woman was before her untimely death. Few articles mentioned that Kitty was a popular student who was voted 'Class Cut-up' at her High School. By all accounts, Genovese was fun, outgoing, and gregarious. Choosing to blaze her own path, Kitty shrugged off college and instead began tending bar, a job she very much enjoyed. She worked her way up to the bar manager position at Ev's Eleventh Hour Sports Bar in Hollis. 

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Except for her family, most who knew Kitty knew she was gay. She held tight to the strong LGBT community of the pre-Stonewall era. In March 1963, she met Mary Ann Zielonko at the Swing Rendezvous in Greenwich Village. Eventually, the two moved into the apartment at 82-70 Austin Street, and what would be Kitty's last address. In the middle-class neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens, most believed the pair were roommates. In 2004, Mary Ann stated, "Being a gay woman in that society was very hard, so we were in the closet a lot... It was very hard then." 

It was 4 a.m. when policemen made Mary Ann aware of Kitty's death. Hours later, homicide detectives John Carroll and Jerry Burns began to question Mary Ann Zielonko and Kitty Genovese's relationship. According to Mary Ann, the interrogation lasted for several hours, and the questions focused heavily on Kitty's sex life. Initially, police believed Kitty's death was the result of a lover's quarrel. But as more details became apparent, the theory dissolved.

Further investigation would reveal, Kitty Genovese left work and drove home at roughly 2:30 a.m. on March 13, 1964. Parking her red Fiat approximately 150 feet from her front door, Kitty was noticed by Winston Moseley. He watched her walk toward the apartment building, exited his vehicle, armed himself with a hunting knife, and approached Kitty from behind. Moseley stabbed her twice in the back as his victim shrieked, "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" 

Considering the early morning hour of the crime, various neighbors heard the anguished cries for help, but few could identify them. One of Kitty's neighbors yelled down to the assailant, "Let that girl alone!" causing Moseley to run away. As Kitty lumbered slowly toward the building's rear entrance, she was out of the view of any potential eyewitnesses. Witnesses saw Moseley enter his car, drive away, and return ten minutes later. 

Systematically searching the area, he eventually found Genovese lying in a hallway at the back of the building, barely clinging to life. Out of view of the street, Moseley stabbed Genovese numerous more times before attempting to rape her before finally robbing her. The terrifying and unmerciful attack resulted in Kitty sustaining at least 14 stab wounds and lasted over 30 minutes. A neighbor and close friend, Sophia Farrar, discovered Kitty's horrific scene shortly after and held her friend in those last moments of her life.  

One bystander told detectives that his father phoned for help after the initial attack and stated, "a woman was beaten up, but got up and was staggering around." A few moments after the second attack, another person called the police, who then arrived at the scene a few minutes later. Kitty Genovese was transported by ambulance and died en route to the hospital. She was buried on March 16, 1964, in Lakeview Cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut.

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Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old resident of Manhattan, was caught committing a burglary six days after Kitty Genovese's murder. Under questioning, he admitted to killing the woman. Moseley told police he was looking for someone to attack but provided no rationale for the crime.


Married with three children, Moseley had no previous arrests. Winston Moseley confessed to several rapes and two other murders in subsequent inquiries. However, he would not stand trial for either. On June 15, 1964, Moseley was sentenced to death for Catherine 'Kitty' Genovese's murder. His sentence was reduced to life in prison in 1967, but Mosely died in jail at 81-years-old having served 52 years.

The legacy of Kitty Genovese is undoubtedly a poignant one that still resonates over 50 years after her shocking death. What should be remembered is Sophia Farrar's bravery and compassion for her neighbor. Miss Genovese's lasting impression on the world includes her contribution to the national emergency response system. Still, above all, Kitty's legacy should reflect the same warmth and love she gave for her family, friends, and her loving partner Mary Ann. 

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