An Infamous Murder Case Still Shrouded in Confusion
Around 3:30 the morning of March 13, 1964, one of the most infamous murders in American history occurred when Winston Moseley stabbed Catherine “Kitty” Genovese to death in Queens, New York. While the murder was awful enough, what shocked America were reports that 38 neighbors witnessed the assault and heard her screams—yet no one lifted a finger to help her or even bothered to call the police. Nearly 50 years later, there is still a great deal of confusion surrounding this murder case.
The basic facts are clear enough. Around 3:15 the morning of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Genovese returned from her job managing a bar, parked her car about 100 feet from the door to her apartment building, and began walking home. Moseley (who later confessed to killing her and two other women) was a mentally unstable 29-year-old who was driving around that night looking for a victim because he had “an urge to kill.” He came upon Genovese at random and attacked her—three times, actually.
The first time he stabbed her twice in the back, but ran off when a neighbor opened his window and shouted “Let that girl alone!” Genovese staggered to her feet and headed toward her apartment, but Moseley returned and resumed stabbing her—but again ran off when neighbors turned on their lights. He drove away in his car while Genovese, bleeding heavily, slowly approached the door to her apartment, located in the back of her building.
She got inside the doorway but collapsed at the foot of the stairs. That’s where Moseley found her when he returned yet again, this time raping and robbing Genovese before stabbing her with a fatal blow. Only after the murderer fled did someone finally call the police, at 3:50. The police arrived in just two minutes, but there was nothing they could do. An ambulance arrived, but Genovese died around 4:15 before reaching the hospital.
Two weeks after her murder the Genovese case shocked America when New York Times reporter Martin Gansberg wrote a story headlined “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” That March 27, 1964, story began with this chilling opening sentence: “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.”
The uproar greeting this newspaper article was enormous, and the media jumped all over this story—as seen in the three newspaper articles reprinted below. Psychology experts wrote elaborate articles and conducted studies, coining the phrase the “bystander effect” or the “Genovese Syndrome” to explain why people in a group don’t perform actions during an emergency that they would if they were alone—such as helping someone in need. Others deplored the degenerating human condition, especially the apathy of city dwellers. Still others insisted that television had desensitized society to violence.
It is very difficult to know exactly what happened the night Catherine Genovese was murdered, but later studies cast doubt on the story first reported in the New York Times that caused the media sensation. It is quite clear now that 38 people did not witness Genovese being murdered. For one thing, many of those witnesses actually only reported hearing cries or screams that night—sounds they attributed to a lovers’ quarrel or a drunken fight. The few who did see her attacked in front of her building may not have realized she was stabbed—and they saw her get up afterward and walk away, albeit slowly, and may have assumed she was okay.
Most certainly, no one witnessed the third—and fatal—assault inside the doorway, when Genovese was raped, robbed, and given the knife wound that actually killed her.
But clearly many people heard sounds of a struggle that night, and some witnessed a man assaulting a woman around 3:15—yet no one called the police until 3:50, when it was too late to help the victim. Of all the confusing elements to this story, that lone fact of no one reaching out to help Catherine Genovese in time to save her life—whether it was due to apathy, fear, or uncertainty—remains disturbing to this day.
This copyrighted article was published by the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) on March 27, 1964:
She Cries for Help in Vain
38 View Morning Murder Silently
New York (AP)—Thirty-eight respectable citizens—according to a police count—looked on but did nothing as a killer stalked and stabbed a woman in three separate attacks spread over more than half an hour in the Kew Gardens section of Queens.
The sound of the householders’ voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted the slayer twice and frightened him off. He returned each time, sought the woman out and stabbed her again.
No one telephoned police during the assaults. One witness phoned after the woman was dead.
Frederick M. Lussen, assistant chief inspector in charge of police detectives in Queens, says he still is shocked by the events of two weeks ago today.
Lussen, a veteran of 25 years of homicide investigations, told a New York Times reporter:
“As we have reconstructed the crime, the assailant had three chances to kill this woman during a 35-minute period.
“He returned twice to complete the job. If we had been called when he first attacked, the woman might not be dead now.”
The victim was Catherine Genovese, 28, a bar manager, who was stabbed to death as she returned home from work at 3:20 a.m. She lived on a quiet, middle-class, tree-lined street.
Six days after the slaying, police arrested Winston Moseley, 29, a Negro, and charged him with homicide. They said he admitted he killed Miss Genovese because he had an urge to kill. Two days ago, a judge committed him to a hospital for mental observation.
The Times, which published a detailed account of the case today, said in part:
Miss Genovese noticed a man at the far end of a parking lot where she had left her car. She headed up the street. The man grabbed her. She screamed. Lights went on in a 10-story apartment house. Windows were opened and voices punctured the early-morning darkness.
Miss Genovese screamed: “Oh, my God! He stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!”
From one of the upper windows in the apartment house, a man called down: “Let that girl alone.”
The assailant looked up at the man, shrugged and walked down the street. Miss Genovese struggled to her feet.
The lights went out. The killer returned to Miss Genovese—now trying to make her way to her apartment. The assailant stabbed her again. “I’m dying! I’m dying!” Miss Genovese shrieked.
Windows were opened again and lights went on in many apartments. The assailant got into his car, parked nearby, and drove away. Miss Genovese staggered to her feet.
Miss Genovese crawled to the rear of an apartment building and sought safety by entering one of the doors. The returning assailant, after trying two doors, found her slumped on the floor at the foot of the stairs. He stabbed her a third time—fatally.
It was 3:50 a.m. by the time the police received their first call. It was from a male neighbor of Miss Genovese. Police were on the scene in two minutes.
“I didn’t want to get involved,” the man told the police.
Two weeks after the crime, witnesses in the neighborhood—made up mostly of homes in the $35,000 to $60,000 price range—find it difficult to explain why they didn’t call the police.
Police said most told them they had been “afraid” to call.
This copyrighted article was published by the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on March 29, 1964:
37 New Yorkers Watch Woman Killed, Do Nothing to Stop Attack
New York (AP)—The city police department—spurred on by a grisly example of human apathy—will re-issue a pamphlet reminding New Yorkers that “law and order is a two-way street.”
Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm said the pamphlet will be distributed to the public in an effort to point up the importance of citizens reporting all crimes or suspicions to police immediately.
The pamphlet re-issue was decided upon after it was learned earlier this week that 37 citizens witnessed a brutal murder in Queens without taking any action to halt it.
The murder was committed two weeks ago in the Kew Gardens area of Queens. Miss Catherine Genovese, 28, was attacked three times over a period of 35 minutes by a man with a knife.
During the attacks, which took place in three separate locations outside apartment buildings, the victim screamed for help. She finally collapsed and died of stab wounds as some of her neighbors watched in horror from their apartment windows.
Winston Moseley, 29, was arrested and charged with the murder.
A police investigation showed that 37 persons heard the woman scream during the assault, and some actually saw the attacker grappling with his victim.
None of the 37 went to the assistance of the woman and only after her assailant fled the scene did one finally notify the police by telephone.
This copyrighted editorial was published by the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on April 1, 1964:
Sins of Omission
Murders in leading cities seldom come—for various reasons—to public note. That of Catherine Genovese of New York, two or three weeks ago, does so now chiefly because a police official has been too shocked to let it pass unpublicized. The shock to him in this case was not so much that the murderer—supposedly demented—waylaid and stabbed his victim in the early hours, and returned twice more within 35 minutes to complete the unfinished deed. The shock was that 38 “respectable” men and women of the vicinity knew some attack was being made but did nothing save turn on bedroom lights and talk.
None ventured out and none telephoned police—until much too late. The crime itself seems to have been one of those senseless ones whose proportion seems to be on the rise. The mild interruptions represented by the lights and sounds served only to prolong it. Just a call to police might have saved the woman’s life. It took six days thereafter to trace down the killer.
So much fine talk is heard today of morality, and so much talk of finespun morality, that the homespun kind gets the short end of the attention and promotion. It’s a gloomy but all too pressing thought, that the 38 “respectables” who retired to slumber from a call for action from less than 1,000 feet away, have done their share of moralizing concerning people and events 1,000 miles away and more. Also, that they’re not necessarily “unrepresentative,” in apparent resolve to stay by all means out of any kind of trouble affecting a fellow-being too close at hand.
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