The Infamous Kitty Genovese Murder: Not What It Seemed!

The Infamous Kitty Genovese Murder:  Not What It Seemed!


If you ever took Psychology 101, you may have learned about the“bystander effect,” a psychosocial dynamic that often occurs when multiple witnesses view a traumatic (but not always) event happening to an individual. 

Essentially, because of social inhibitions, The more witnesses to an event, the less people are willing to become involved. 


Bystander effect cartoon

Why the inhibition? There's many factors that feed into it, but think if it this way as a diffusion of responsibility: how many times you were in situations where you assume others are either more able or just automatically will take care of a problem? Oh, I thought so and so should do it, because it is his job. Or, I just assumed someone else called the police. 

Now, much of the effect does depend on the context, especially if the environment is different or the the group isn't cohesive, but it's not just apathy, as many still believe, based on the supposed reaction of supposed to witnesses to the now infamous Kitty Genovese murder. 


The usual story, based on the New York Times story we have heard is that 37 or 38 people saw Kitty Genovese's brutal stabbing outside her apartment building on March 13, 1964, and did nothing, that is, no one called the police. The apathy of the world. The urban jungle. Being lonely in a crowd. People don't know their neighbors anymore in the big city. It all fits, all those social changes are destroying our sense of community. 

Austin Street photo

But I found out that what's really going on here is akin, but not completely, because something happened and there were witnesses, to those urban legends. In fact, my current “brain candy” television viewing (which, it turns out, in this case, ended up far from being that sweet), Investigation Discovery, basing their show on more recent research, pretty much establishes that the usual narrative we have grown up with is not an accurate depiction of what actually happened

Here's the rub: no one witnesses the actual stabbing. People heard screams but saw nothing. They saw nothing. Does hearing a scream make you a witness? 

One neighbor saw something and shouted out the window for Kitty's murderer, Winston Moseley, to leave her alone. He could not tell she was stabbed in the darkness. Moseley fled. The neighbor did see her stagger to the door of her apartment building across the street, but he assumed she was probably drunk and/or the victim of a domestic spat. 

It turns out another woman picked up the phone to call the police. She panicked and put the phone down. In those days, there was no 911 emergency service. You dialed the precinct directly. And in some cases, the person answering the phone might tell you to, basing his judgment (based on extensive experience) solely on your speech, to not get involved. Or, perhaps, the person at the precinct might even be led to believe that you were directly involved in the incident. Thus, calling the police during that period actually could be a risky venture. And also, because police departments had not developed the technologies of surveillance and tracking we now take for granted, you could expect to be questioned extensively and even be deemed a suspect just because you made a call. 

Someone else called the police: a female friend of Kitty's neighbor, Karl Ross. Kitty collapsed in the hallway of her apartment building and screamed Karl's name, crying out she had been stabbed. At first Karl did nothing. Winston by then had caught up with her in the hallway and finished killing his prey, inside. (There was no third attack, as the newspaper article claims). Karl by that point had opened the door and saw the attack, but shut the door in horror and fear. Moseley ran off, but soon after, Kitty's neighbor, and, it turns out, good friend, Sophie, had heard the commotion and ran toward the scene, yes, toward a murder (not exactly apathy). Sophie screamed for Karl to call the police. Karl was not there. He had fled the building via a window to his friend's house. 

But why did Karl do nothing, even after he saw the horror? 

Here's the rub, and it could show that the real issue is not apathy, but fear, and not a fear of “getting involved.” Karl Ross was gay. That night, he had also been drinking, alone. In 1964, gays were routinely harassed by the police, even in their own social spaces, which at that point were limited pretty much to gay bars. His fear about calling the police lost precious minutes. 

And Kitty Genovese was a closeted lesbian (well, pretty much anyone gay or lesbian during that period has to be closeted). Her roommate, Mary Ann, was questioned for six hours by the police after the murder, at one point focusing on why there was only one bed in the apartment for two women. Again, anyone considered to be sexually deviant was a target for police harassment. A grief-stricken Mary Ann moved out of the neighborhood soon after, understandably so. 


38 Witnessed Her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko (Kitty Genovese Story) by Lulu Lolo

Kitty herself, as far as we know at this point, was not persecuted for being a lesbian. In fact, she was popular with everyone. Her best friend, Sophie, a straight married woman, apparently knew Kitty was a lesbian, but respected Kitty's privacy in that matter. (Kitty also had dated men, not just because it was the norm, but because she worked as a bar manager, and dating men would be pretty much a required “social” dynamic of the job.) 

There's another issue going on here, and I think it could tie into sexism. One of the neighbors assumed the screams were the result of a domestic dispute, and they thus thought it best to not get involved. According to psychologist Frances Cherry, people during that time period were unlikely to intervene if they assumed a man was attacking his wife and girlfriend. 

And there's something else going on here. The values (or lack thereof) that the article was trying to read into the incident, that is, we live an urban jungle where neighbors don't know each other and everyone is a potential enemy, and this distrust and isolation results in apathy, don't really seem to apply on a literal level in this situation. Kitty knew many of her neighbors. She knew Karl, at least enough to call him by name while she was being murdered. And she died in the arms of her best friend, also a neighbor. In this day and age, how many people can even claim they know even the name of a neighbor? 

What's really a shame is that she had to keep the most basic part of her identity a secret. But that didn't prevent her from loving and being loved by her neighbors. And this loving person was brutally murdered by a psychopathic killer who to this day shows no remorse for his action



Article - Moseley Tells How He Killed 3

Kitty should be remembered for her love, not as a victim of apathy. You could say, though, if she's a victim of anything, it's of the sexism and homophobia of the culture at that time. But I don't think Kitty ever saw herself as a victim of anything while she lived, because she loved her neighbor as herself.

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