Of the thousands of killings that took place in New York in the 1960s, none drew more attention that the murder of Kitty Genovese.
On March 13, 1964, the 28-year-old woman was attacked on her way home to a respectable, middle-class neighborhood in Queens. While walking up to her apartment building, Winston Moseley, a total stranger to her, stabbed her in the back.
Genovese screamed, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me, please help me!” Lights went on in a window above and a man leaned from his window to shout, “Hey, get out of there. What are you doing?” and Moseley fled.
Genovese staggered to her nearby apartment building. Once inside, she collapsed in the hallway, just 50 feet from her door. She was still calling out for help when Mosley returned to resume his attack.
What set this murder apart from the thousands of other homicides was the chilling loneliness of her death. None of Genovese’s neighbors came to her aid. No one even phoned the police until a half hour from her first cry for help. As the Post later reported, “In what has become a celebrated example of good reporting, The New York Times discovered and disclosed that 38 otherwise respectable and law-abiding citizens either saw or heard a part of the Kitty Genovese murder in progress, yet only one bothered to call police for help, and that wasn’t until the killer had fled” (“Who Didn’t Kill Barbara Kralik,” January 16, 1965).
The story prompted a wave of self-examination across the country. Americans wondered how their countrymen could stand by and watch a woman being brutally murdered, screaming for help that over three dozen people refused to give.
Such callous indifference seemed unbelievable, but it was consistent with the rising violence Americans were seeing. In the past year, they had read of the murders of both President Kennedy and his assassin, as well as the beatings and killings of civil rights activists. Genovese’s brutal murder and abandonment seemed consistent with this dangerous new age.
Her murder prompted editorials across the country and around the world. Journalists denounced the increasing depersonalization of America.
Psychologists came up with explanatory theories, like the “Bystander Effect” (the theory that the greater the number of people witnessing an emergency, the less likely any one person is to act) and the “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”(the tendency of people in big cities to avoid social commitment.) The oft-repeated remark of one witness–“I didn’t want to get involved”–became emblematic of the times.
In 2004, a lawyer and resident of Genovese’s old neighborhood began to question the Times’ version of the murder. Joseph De May, Jr. thought the story was exaggerated. After studying the investigators’ reports and the crime scene, he concluded that 38 people simply could not have watched “a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks,” as the Times claimed.
We might feel more comfortable questioning the story today since the incident seems so out of character in America. In the half century following Genovese’s murder, we haven’t seen a trend of bystanders coldly watching somebody being attacked. On the contrary, Americans appear ready to help in emergencies ranging from traffic accidents to the Twin Towers on 9/11. Moreover, the annual murder rate in New York City has dropped significantly in 50 years, from 646 to 333. So, perhaps, the murder was not an example of New Yorkers’ growing indifference and fear as the 1964 Times article made it appear.
Genovese’s murder was exceptional in many regards, particularly its connection with another murder in Queens.
In July of the previous year, the parents of 15-year-old Barbara Kralik had found her, alone in her bedroom, stabbed repeatedly and close to death. Before dying at the hospital, Barbara gave a vague description of her attacker, which seemed to resemble Alvin Mitchell, a troubled teenager who had had known and often visited the girl.
Police interrogated Mitchell for 50 hours, until he confessed to killing Kralik. He then repeated the confession on camera.
“Alvin recanted the confession the next day,” the Post reported, “but the damage to his defense was already done. He insisted to his parents, his lawyers, and an examining psychiatrist that he was slapped, hit over the head with a phone book, threatened and frightened into making the admissions, but the protests were considerably weakened by the fact that he repeated the confession in front of a television camera….His defense would be that the confession was coerced. It was all the defense he had—until Winton Moseley confessed that he had killed Barbara Kralik.”
Moseley had been arrested when he was caught in the act of stealing a television. While detectives questioned him about the burglary, they noticed his resemblance to the neighbors’ description of Genovese’s attacker. One of the detectives abruptly asked him “Why did you kill Catherine Genovese?” Moseley replied, “I don’t know. I just had an urge to kill someone.”
He began to tell the detectives about the murder. After this confession, he admitted to a second killing. One of the detectives then said, “I suppose you’re going to tell us you killed Barbara Kralik too.”
“Yes, I killed her,” Winston Moseley said. “I stabbed her…six times…with a steak knife.”
Despite Moseley’s confession, and his obvious guilt in the Genovese stabbing, detectives didn’t believe his story. It had too many errors and inconsistencies. But Mitchell’s confession was also flawed. Both confessions seemed to carry weight, but neither fit exactly.
In the end, investigators in the Kralik case kept Mitchell as their prime suspect. And so, a week after Moseley went on trial for killing Genovese, Mitchell was tried for murdering Kralik.
In the Moseley trial, according to the Post, “There was never much doubt as to the…outcome. The jury found him guilty and then recommended the death penalty…a half-dozen women spectators suddenly began to applaud. Judge Shapiro angrily pounded for order and then, peering over his half glasses, delivered his own invective. “I don’t believe in capital punishment,” he told the jury solemnly, “but I feel this may be improper when I see this monster. I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the switch on him myself.” Moseley was sentenced to 20 years to life. (In November 2013, he was denied parole for the 16th time.)
Alvin Mitchell’s trial ended with a deadlocked jury. He was retried and found guilty, not of murder but of manslaughter.
A psychologist studying the cases noted that the Genovese and Kralik cases were highly unusual. They didn’t follow the expected pattern of homicide prosecutions. All the key players in the case, he said–the investigators, judge, court spectators, and defendants–“just didn’t act the way they are supposed to behave.”
50 years later, questions still remain regarding the accuracy of the New York Times story. Several investigations of the murder have concluded that it was a slow-to-respond police department that failed Ms. Genovese that night. Other reports say that many neighbors did in fact contact police after hearing the first attack, and later even tried to comfort Kitty as she lay dying.
While the actions–or lack thereof–of Genovese’s neighbors may still be in question, the narrative of an apathetic America took root. Neighborhood watch programs formed, an emergency telephone line (9-1-1) was established, and Good Samaritan laws were passed all at least in part as a result of the legend of Kitty’s unthinkable murder.