Murder, Apathy and Urban Legends

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964. So here I rerun my post from two years ago on this landmark episode in American culture.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, forty-eight years ago today. It rocked the nation. The New York Times article about the incident famously began, “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.”

It became a scandal. The national outrage and soul-searching began. Were we that jaded?

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That apathetic? Were our cities that corrosive to human character? Was TV making us a nation of mere watchers who refused to “get involved”? Psychologists and sociologists joined in the discussion, with studies showing that people are less likely to help in a crisis when there are more bystanders. Kitty Genovese and those who watched became a staple of every major psychology textbook discussing “the bystander effect” and “the Genovese syndrome.”

Enter Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and their book SuperFreakonomics. What they reconstruct piece by piece, giving credit for much research to Joseph De May, is a very different story from the one that has risen to the level of urban myth.

Yes, there was a terrible, brutal murder that night. But thirty-eight people in an apartment building across the street did not stay transfixed at their windows doing nothing for half an hour. To begin with, they were all asleep. Some, perhaps a dozen, were awakened by screams, and some of those came to their windows. But the street was dark and poorly lit; it was very difficult to tell what was going on. Nonetheless several witnesses opened their windows and screamed at the attacker, Winston Mosley, who then ran away. Kitty Genovese struggled to get up and staggered out of sight. In the dark and at a distance, no one knew she had been stabbed. All this took perhaps ten minutes.

One apartment dweller (these were the days before 911) then called the police to report an attack but that the victim had gotten up and stumbled away. That probably didn’t sound important enough to the police to arouse their urgent attention.

Mosley returned ten minutes later and followed a trail of blood to the vestibule of Genovese’s apartment where she was hidden from view. There he attacked her a second time, robbing her, raping her and killing her. And then he left.

Not three attacks but two. Not thirty-eight people but a few. Not uninvolved zombies but citizens yelling at the perpetrator and calling the police.

How had so reputable a newspaper as the New York Times got it so wrong? In that era reporters relied heavily on the police for information. The police provided the number of witnesses–thirty-eight–though later a prosecutor could only find a half-dozen. The police also said there were three attacks; they later corrected it to two, but we rarely hear about that.

Why such bad information? We don’t know for sure, but the police may have been trying to cover for not responding more promptly to the call they received.

We also don’t hear about the fact that shortly after the murder, Mosely was arrested–as a result of someone in another neighborhood who got involved by calling the police to finger him for another crime–leading eventually to his conviction for murdering Kitty Genovese.

Moral: Don’t believe everything you read. But keep reading.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

3 thoughts on “Murder, Apathy and Urban Legends”

  1. This is a very important lesson all writers need to learn–and be reminded of on a regular basis. It seems to me that, in our ever-faster world, it’s even more crucial that we take the time to verify details. The temptation to see what’s on the surface, and make a hasty assessment of what appears evident, is always lurking. But, as you say, the key is to keep reading, researching and thinking.

  2. I lived in Queens not too far from where this happened (I was 10 years old).
    I can remember the impact of this horrible crime.
    To this day hearing her name gives me the chills. She has become an icon of gritty urban violence, anonymity, soulless indifference and Giocometti -like isolation. It is heartening to read the truth after all these years because I know most New YOrkers from Queens would have run down and beat his head in with a baseball bat. In the apartment building I lived in I KNOW this would have been true.
    Thanks for the prompt and reminder to approach what we read with humility and skepticism!!!!

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