If you saw someone being murdered, would you take action? Would you call the police or try to get involved?
These are the questions that the Kitty Genovese case has brought to the minds of anyone that hears about it. The story of this case is a rollercoaster - it involves power relations, media sensationalism, and the establishment of the 911 system. But it’s most known for its connection to The Bystander Effect.
Sometimes known as the Genovese Syndrome, the Bystander Effect has forced psychologists and people to take a hard look at how and when people make decisions about getting involved in conflict. But before we dive into the Bystander Effect, it's important to understand what happened in the Kitty Genovese case.
Who Was Kitty Genovese?
Kitty Genovese was a woman who death in New York City led to the development of the Bystander Effect in psychology. Her murder was unique in that, despite it occurring in a cramped neighborhood in Queens, no one felt compelled to call the police and report the attack.
How Did Kitty Genovese Die?
At 3 a.m. in the morning on March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese walked home to her apartment in Queens. On the way, she was approached by William Moseley, who had been following Genovese home. Moseley ran after Kitty, eventually catching up to her and stabbing her. She screamed for help, and a neighbor yelled toward Moseley to leave Kitty alone.
Moseley quickly fled the scene, and Kitty ran toward her apartment building. Moseley came back after a few minutes.
He found Kitty lying in front of a door to the back of her apartment building. He stabbed her multiple times, stole some money, and ran away again. In total, she was stabbed over a dozen times. The entire attack took place over 30 minutes, during which time multiple calls to the police. At 4:15 a.m, Kitty died as she was being taken to the hospital.
In the few days after the murder, Genovese’s death did not receive much attention. It took a week for the police to find the murderer - they originally named Kitty’s girlfriend as a suspect. So why has this case lived on as one of the most famous murders in America, 60+ years after it happened?
The New York Times Story
Word got around to the staff at the New York Times about Kitty’s murder. But the actual murder wasn’t what interested editor Abe Rosenthal - it was the witnesses to the murder. Police had interviewed 38 people in their investigations. Five of them gave testimony at Moseley’s trial.
Two weeks after Kitty’s murder, the New York Times published an article titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police.”
The article took the nation by storm. Media outlets called it a “failure,” casting the city of New York in a dark light. People saw it as a failure of humankind. Many called it a case of “urban apathy.”
That same year, editor Abe Rosenthal published a book called “38 Witnesses.” In the book, he called on us all to question how we act in the face of crime, and how the urban environment may impact our decisions. These questions still haunt many psychologists and academics today. Entire courses have been created based on this case. The search for answers has shaped the way many people look at decision-making and the way they go about their life.
But let’s go back for a minute to look at the New York Times article.
Uncovering The Truth
The story’s first paragraph reads,
“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.” Later, it mentions “Not one person telephoned ‐ the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”
Wait, you might be saying, didn’t you say people called the police?
Yes. In the 50+ years since the New York Times published this article, much criticism has come out against it. New details of the case have been revealed - that Kitty did not die alone, but in the arms of a friend. That multiple calls were made to the police before her death, and some witness statements to the police were disregarded because they “already got the call.” Certainly, 38 people did not see Kitty die - of the 38 people interviewed by police, many simply heard screams, looked out the window, saw nothing, and went back to bed.
The New York Times has gone back to review and correct information that was incorrectly shared in their original article.
If you want to learn more about uncovering the facts on this case, I recommend that you watch The Witness. The documentary follows Kitty’s brother, Bill Genovese, as he tracks down information on Kitty’s life and death. He talks to reporters involved in the case, witnesses who were shocked to learn that they were one of “the 38,” and more. It was nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy Award in 2018.
Kitty Genovese and LGBTQ Erasure
In the documentary, Kitty's brother discovers that Kitty Genovese was a lesbian as he goes through the reports of her death. Reddit users on the Sapphoandherfriend subreddit discussed how this impacted her murder and even the legitimacy of the Bystander Effect:
"For those who don't know, the story that was popularized is that there were 38 people who witnessed her murder, but nobody called the police because they didn't care. Her family then presumably mourned her, but it is usually left that the people who lived in her neighborhood didn't care, even her roommate. At best, you get a bit of debunking that there weren't actually 38 perfect witnesses, and somebody did call the police early on (though they ignored it because it seemed like a domestic dispute), but that there was a random guy who heard her, came out of his apartment, saw that she was being attacked, and then went back in and did nothing because he didn't care.
But that guy wasn't random. And he didn't do nothing. But he also didn't call the police. But that wasn't because he didn't care. He was a friend of Kitty's, and he called a friend of his to try and figure out what to do. Why didn't he call the cops instead? Well, first, nobody trusted the cops in the area, but second, because he was gay, and the cops would have been an even bigger issue, and third, because Kitty was a lesbian, which would have also made the cops even worse of an issue. The cops were finally called after he was able to get a hold of Kitty's neighbor, a nice straight lady who also rushed over and held her as she died."
You can read the whole conversation here.
The Impact of The Kitty Genovese Case
So the story put out by the New York Times wasn’t entirely accurate. But the impact of the Kitty Genovese case (and the story that came after it) is true. Sociologists, psychologists, and journalists have spent the past 50 years researching the Bystander Effect and the Diffusion of Responsibility, two phenomena in which people fail to act due to the amount of bystanders present. These phenomena seek to explain, “I thought you were going to do something,” or “I didn’t want to get involved.”
The case is also one of the reasons that the 911 system was put in place. Before Kitty’s death, you could only call the operator and asked to be connected to the local police station, or call the station’s number. Three years later, federal agencies put in a plan to create 911 as we know it today. The first 911 call was made in 1968.
There are a lot of stories within this one case. There is the story of witnesses who did fail to call the police. (Witnesses from the documentary claim that a mistrust of authority, or the hesitance to get involved in a supposed domestic violence case, may have offered an explanation.) There is the story of a falsely reported article that went on to be sensationalized in the media. And there is the story of how we as people react to the idea of the Bystander Effect and the Diffusion of Responsibility.