- On March 13th, 1964, Kitty Genovese was arriving home from work in the middle of the night when she was brutally stabbed to death by Winston Moseley.
- This horrific incident led to the coining of the term “bystander effect” – a phenomenon within social psychology that describes how people are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present.
- Although Genovese’s case sparked a widespread public discourse about bystander intervention, it has since been revealed that the number of witnesses who actually heard or saw the events was largely overstated.
- The story of Genovese’s death continues to be told in pop culture today, through movies, television shows, books, and music.
If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology course or scanned any psychology textbook, then it is likely that you have encountered the term “ bystander effect .”
This term was coined after the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 where it was reported that 38 bystanders watched or heard the attack occur but instead relied on others to intervene or call the police.
Although it has since been revealed that the number of bystanders was likely to be much lower than the staggering number that was initially reported, Genovese’s story still serves as an illustration for this phenomenon, and her legacy continues to live on in popular culture today.
In This Article
Who Is Kitty Genovese?
Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was born on July 7th, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York to Italian-American parents. The oldest of five, Genovese and her siblings were raised in a four-family row house in Park Slope, a neighborhood known for housing Italian and Irish families.
As a teenager, Genovese attended Prospect Heights High School, an all-girls school, where she thrived in her English and music classes and was elected “Class Cut-Up” among her graduating class of 712 students.
She was always known as a talkative and energetic person who was very popular in school (Worthen, 2019).
In 1954, her mother witnessed a horrifying murder that prompted the family to move out of the city and to New Canaan, Connecticut.
Genovese, having just graduated from high school, decided not to follow her family to the suburbs and instead remained in the city with her grandparents to prepare for her upcoming marriage to Rocco Anthony Fazzolare.
Fazzolare, an army officer and engineer, dated Genovese while he was in college and she in high school. And although the couple did marry on October 31st, 1954, the marriage was soon annulled and the two divorced in 1956 (Worthen, 2019).
In the late 1950s, Genovese moved to an apartment of her own in Brooklyn and began working as a bartender after she found her work as a secretary to be too unappealing.
But in August of 1961, Genovese was arrested for bookmaking – she and her friend, Dee Guarnieri, had been taking bets on horse races from bar patrons and were fined $50 and she lost her job (Worthen, 2019).
Genovese was a headstrong and hardworking individual, so she soon found a job at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar in Hollis, Queens. She eventually became the manager, filling in for the absentee owner.
Genovese’s extremely reliable and positive attitude was even reflected in her salary (she made roughly $750 a month which is about $6,800 a month today), and she was saving this money to fulfill her dream goal of opening her own Italian restaurant (Worthen, 2019).
On March 13th, 1963, Genovese met Mary Ann Zielonko at Swing Rendezvous, an underground lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. The two fell fast for one another and ultimately decided to move in together.
They found an apartment on the second floor of a two-story building next to the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) in Kew Gardens, Queens (Worthen, 2019).
This new apartment in Kew Gardens would be the last place Genovese ever lived.
On March 13th, 1964, exactly a year after she met Zielonko, Genovese was brutally stabbed to death as she was coming home from a late-night shift at the bar.
Her brutal murder left the entire community devastated and after startling reports came out that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and failed to act, Genovese’s story gained widespread attention.
Her legacy lives on in movies, books, music, and psychology textbooks, as scholars try to understand the later-termed “bystander effect” and piece together the events that transpired on that awful March night (Worthen, 2019).
The Murder of Kitty Genovese
Around 2:30 in the morning on March 13th, 1964, Genovese began to drive home to her Kew Gardens apartment, eager to get home to see her girlfriend on their first anniversary.
At a traffic light on Hoover Avenue, Genovese was first spotted by Winston Moseley as he sat in his parked car. Moseley, a 28-year-old man who punched data cards for a business machine company, had left his wife and two sons asleep in their home in South Ozone Park, Queens at around 1 a.m.
He drove around for hours, with a sharp hunting knife in his pocket, looking for a victim. And just as he was about to give up, he spotted Genovese at around 3 a.m. (Skoller, 2008).
Roughly 45 minutes from the time she departed the bar, Genovese arrived home and parked her car in the Kew Gardens LIRR parking lot, in an alleyway just feet from the front door to her building. In the few steps that it took her to walk toward the apartment complex, Moseley exited his vehicle, which was parked at a bus stop on Austin street (see diagram below).
Moseley approached Genovese with a hunting knife in his hand, and as she tried to run toward the front of the building he quickly overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back (Skoller, 2008).
Diagram produced by Joseph De May based on the map used during the 1964 trial of Winston Moseley to trace the route of his attack on Kitty Genovese and the location of witnesses to the crime, 2004
Being three in the morning, the area was completely desolate – Franken’s Pharmacy and Interlude Coffeehouse were both closed and most people were asleep. However, Robert Mozer, one of Genovese’s neighbors, awoke and saw the struggle occurring down below and called out to “Leave that girl alone!” (Krajicek, 2019).
Realizing that residents had awoken after Genovese screamed “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” and in fear of being identified, Moseley quickly fled from the scene and back into his car.
Genovese got to her feet, not having suffered any fatal wounds, and tried to make it to her building’s entrance. Finally inside, she collapsed in the vestibule right before the stairs.
Meanwhile, Moseley had driven away, covering his face with a wide-brimmed hat, but he returned 10 minutes later after having found Genovese lying barely conscious in a hallway at the back of the building. Now out of sight from any neighbors or people on the street, Moseley repeatedly stabbed Genovese before raping her and stealing $49 from her (Krajicek, 2019).
Approximately 30 minutes after Moseley first approached Genovese, he fled from the scene, leaving an unconscious Genovese to be discovered by Sophia Farrar, her close friend, who held her in her arms until an ambulance arrived (Lemann, 2014).
Records of the calls to the police are unclear, with multiple neighbors claiming to have called the police or called friends who called the police. It is reported that at 4:15 a.m. Genovese was picked up by an ambulance.
The stab wounds she sustained proved to be fatal, and Genovese died before making it to Queens General Hospital. She was buried three days later in Lakeview Cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut (Pelonero, 2016).
Following the incident, the coroner’s report revealed that Genovese suffered from 13 stab wounds and several other defense wounds, indicating that she tried to fight back.
Homicide detectives began the search for her attacker, initially interviewing Zielonko, Genovese’s girlfriend. They quickly dismissed her as a suspect but only after having grilled her for six hours about her relationship with Genovese.
Just six days after the brutal murder, Winston Moseley was arrested for suspected robbery in Ozone Park, Queens after a television set was found in the trunk of his white Chevrolet Corvair.
A detective remembered that the same color car had been reported by witnesses to Genovese’s murder. During questioning, Moseley admitted to having murdered Genovese and two other women, Annie Mae Johnson and Barbara Kralik.
He was found guilty of all three murders and sentenced to death on June 15th, 1964. However, his sentence was later reduced to 20 years to life.
After escaping from Attica Prison in 1968 which added an additional 30 years onto his sentence and being denied parole 18 times, he died in prison on March 28th, 2016 at 81 years old (Kassin, 2017).
Other than a short blurb titled “Queens Woman Is Stabbed to Death in Front of Home” that appeared in the New York Times on March 14th, Genovese’s murder did not receive much media attention in the initial few days following the brutal incident.
Two weeks later, New York City Commissioner Michael J. Murphy told Times editor Abraham Rosenthal about the murder, which finally motivated the major news outlet to produce a story.
The article, written by Martin Gansberg and titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police,” was published two weeks later and discusses in detail how 38 people stood idle as Genovese was ruthlessly stabbed 13 times.
The article made national headlines and the presumed lack of public apathy sparked widespread discussion about bystander intervention.
The Bystander Effect
Although 38 witnesses has since been determined to be an overestimate of the number of people who were actually aware that Moseley was attacking Genovese, this gruesome attack continues to represent a common psychological phenomenon: the bystander effect.
This concept refers to the tendency to be less likely to assist a victim when other people are present.
It can be difficult to know how to act in a high pressure situation in which an individual appears to be in danger.
To help guide the course of action, psychologists have devised multiple decision models of bystander intervention . According to social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane (1968), who pioneered the empirical research on this effect, a bystander progresses through a five-step decision-making process before intervening in any emergency situation.
The five steps are: 1) notice that something is wrong; 2) define the situation as an emergency; 3) decide whether they are personally responsible to act; 4) choose how to help; 5) implement the chosen helping behavior.
Another decision model is the common cost-benefit analysis. Here, bystanders weigh the costs and benefits of helping the victim, justifying their decision based on which course of action will provide the best outcome for themselves (Blagg, 2019).
There are also several factors that affect the magnitude of the bystander effect. The extent to which the situation is labeled as an emergency will affect how likely an individual is to act.
In a study done by Latane (1970), a student asked participants in one condition if they could spare a dime and participants in another condition if they could spare a dime because their wallet had been stolen.
Only 34% of people who were simply asked to give a dime did so, but 72% of people did when an explanation was given. Another study that collected data from EMS officials revealed that the response of bystanders was directly correlated to the health severity of the situation (Faul et al., 2016).
Together, these studies demonstrate that when a situation is perceived to be particularly threatening or unusual, bystander intervention is more likely.
Another factor that contributes to the severity of the bystander effect is group membership.
In other words, although when the number of bystanders increases, the effect increases, when the victim is of an individual’s same group, they are more likely to act (Rutkowski et al., 1983).
These are just two of many different factors that can impact the extent to which the bystander effect occurs.
Ultimately, it is important to try to prevent factors that hinder an individual’s likelihood of intervening in a dangerous situation.
Despite initial reports claiming that 38 witnesses were there on the night Genovese was stabbed to death, articles and documentaries have since been made to show another side of the story.
Specifically, a 2004 article in The New York Times questioned several claims about the initial report made just two weeks after the incident.
And a 2007 study also demonstrated that there was no actual evidence that 38 witnesses observed the murder and remained inactive (Manning et al., 2007).
In reality, because of the layout of the apartment complex and because there were two separate attacks on Genovese, nobody saw the entire sequence of events.
And although approximately a dozen individuals (not 38) heard or saw parts of the attack, many of these individuals assumed it to be a domestic quarrel or a drunken brawl (Rasenburg, 2006).
Additionally, because the initial attack punctured Genovese’s lungs, it is unlikely she was able to scream at any volume.
A 2015 documentary called The Witness, directed by James Solomon, also revealed that investigators were aware of the errors in the initials New York Times article back in 1964, but the author did not want to state that witnesses did not think a murder was happening so as to not ruin the story.
It is clear that some individuals were more concerned with constructing a certain narrative that would optimize the story’s attention rather than report on what actually happened.
In Pop Culture
In addition to the documentary, Genovese’s story has been the subject of many television episodes, books, and songs.
Both the Law & Order episode “Remand” and the Law & Order: SVU episode “41 Witnesses” were based on the case as is season 2, episode 1 of the Investigation Discovery Channel’s A Crime to Remember series.
Harlan Ellison’s short study “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and Ryan David Jahn’s novel Good Neighbors are based on the story.
It also inspired folk singer Phil Ochs to write the song “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” and singer Ruby Lynn Reyner to write the song called “Kitty.”
Although there are many controversies surrounding this brutal murder, Genovese continues to live on through many avenues of society today.
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