The Kitty Genovese murder in Queens, New York, in 1964 is one of the most famous murder cases to come out of New York City and into the national spotlight. What propelled it wasn’t the crime or the investigation, but the press coverage that alleged the murder had many witnesses who refused to come to the Kitty Genovese’s defense. This has been disproved over time, but not before it became part of the accepted lore of the crime.
KITTY GENOVESE MURDER
Kitty Genovese was returning from work home at around 2:30 a.m. on March 13, 1964, when she was approached by a man with a knife. Genovese ran toward her apartment building front door, and the man grabbed her and stabbed her while she screamed.
A neighbor, Robert Mozer, yelled out his window, “Let that girl alone!” causing the attacker to flee.
Genovese, seriously injured, crawled to the rear of her apartment building, out of the view of any possible witnesses. Ten minutes later, her attacker returned, stabbed her, raped her and stole her money.
She was found by neighbor Sophia Farrar, who screamed for someone to call the police. Police arrived several minutes later. Genovese died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
The murder elicited a brief news item in The New York Times.
WHO WAS KITTY GENOVESE?
Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 7, 1935, to parents Vincent and Rachel Genovese. The oldest of five children, Genovese was a graduate of Prospect Heights High School and remembered as a very good student and voted “Class Cut-Up” in her senior year.
Following her graduation in 1953, Genovese’s mother witnessed a murder on the streets, which motivated the family to move to New Canaan, Connecticut.
Kitty Genovese, however, remained in New York City, working as a secretary at an insurance company and working nights at Ev’s 11th Hour, a bar in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, first as a bartender then as the manager, prompting her to move to Queens.
A decade later, Genovese met her lesbian girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko, in a Greenwich Village nightclub. The two found a second-floor apartment together in Kew Gardens in Queens, considered a peaceful, safe area to live.
It was 4 a.m. when police knocked on the apartment door and informed Zielonko about the stabbing and Genovese’s death.
It wasn’t until around 7 a.m. that Detective Mitchell Sang arrived to question Zielonko, who was being consoled with liquor by neighbor Karl Ross. Sang found Ross intrusive to the questioning and arrested him for disorderly conduct. Sang also knew that Genovese’s body was discovered lying at the bottom of the stairs leading to Ross’ apartment.
Later, homicide detectives John Carroll and Jerry Burns arrived and grilled Zielonko on her relationship with Genovese. The questioning took an inappropriate turn, focusing on their sex life, and lasted for six hours.
Much of the police questioning of neighbors revealed a preoccupation with the gay lifestyle. Zielonko was considered a suspect.
MURDER OF KITTY GENOVESE SOLVED
Later that week, police got a call about a suspected robbery. When police showed up, they found a television in the trunk of the suspect’s car. The man, Winston Moseley, was arrested and taken to the station, where he confessed to stealing appliances dozens of times.
Moseley drove a white Corvair, and this struck Detective John Tartaglia, who remembered that some witnesses to Genovese’s murder had reported seeing a white car. This was mentioned to Moseley, who said nothing.
Tartaglia called in detectives John Carroll and Mitchell Sang. They noticed scabs on Moseley’s hands and accused him of killing Genovese. Moseley replied that he had and confirmed information that only the murderer would know.
Moseley had spotted Genovese at a traffic light while he sat in his parked car and then followed her home. He had been driving around Queens looking for a victim but gave no motive for the attack. Moseley was married with three children and had no prior record.
Later interrogations would have Moseley confess to several other rapes and two other murders, those of Annie Mae Johnson and Barbara Kralik. Moseley was sentenced to death on June 15, 1964—it was reduced to a life sentence in 1967.
He would later claim that a mobster executed Genovese and he was only the getaway driver. Moseley’s son has stated that he believes Moseley attacked Genovese because she yelled racial slurs at him. Moseley died in jail on March 28, 2016 at 81 years old.
NEW YORK TIMES COVERAGE
On March 27, 1964, The New York Times ran an article titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call The Police,” alleging that multiple neighbors heard or witnessed Genovese’s murder but did nothing to help her.
The report was prompted by a conversation between Times editor A. M. Rosenthal and Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, during which Murphy made the claim that was the basis for the article.
The newspaper followed it up the next day with an analysis speaking to several experts on the psychology of why people would choose not to get involved.
Later in the year, Rosenthal adapted this information into a book called Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case.
The New York Times coverage has been criticized for numerous factual errors and accused of contriving a social phenomenon for sensationalistic purposes.
The phenomenon, called the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Syndrome, attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime would not help the victim.
Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley made their careers studying the Bystander Effect and have shown in clinical experiments that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely any one person will intervene.
The Bystander Effect was used by the press as a parable of a morally bankrupt modern society losing its compassion for others, particularly in cities.
NEW YORK TIMES DEBUNKED
Decades following the murder, a journalistic movement began to correct the misinformation perpetuated by The New York Times stories.
In 2004, journalist Jim Rasenberger wrote an article for the Times debunking the claims of the 1964 reporting. A 2007 article in American Psychologist by Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins further deflates Rosenthal’s claims.
In 2015, Genovese’s younger brother Bill produced and narrated the documentary The Witness, which lays out the case against the Times reporting in strong terms.
‘I DIDN’T WANT TO GET INVOLVED’
Only two neighbors have been shown to behave at the time of the murder in the way the Times claimed 38 people did. One of those was Karl Ross.
Intoxicated that night, Ross heard noises and after deliberation, cracked open his door to investigate. He saw Genovese laying on the ground, still alive and attempting to speak, and Moseley stabbing her. He shut the door and called a friend to ask what to do. The friend said not to get involved.
Ross eventually climbed out of his window and went to a neighbors apartment. He called the police after hearing Sophie Farrar call for someone to do so. Ross’ explanation—“I didn’t want to get involved”—became the famous rejoinder of the Bystander Effect.
THE BIRTH OF 911
The murder of Kitty Genovese is credited as one of the factors that pushed the emergency 911 system into place, after New York City officials joined in a national effort involving officials in other cities. It became the national emergency number in 1968.