On March 27, 1964, the New York Times published a headline of a murder two weeks earlier of 28-year-old, Kitty Genovese, titled:
“37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICE
Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector”.
The Kitty Genovese case became part of almost every psychology textbook and introductory psychology class as the prototypical example of the bystander effect — the fact that the presence of others inhibits our ability to help someone in desperate need.
Of course, when I first read about the Kitty Genovese case and the fact that 37 people who saw the murder did absolutely nothing, I accepted the fact as truth and dogma, as proof of the bystander effect and that most people will usually do not extend any help in an emergency if the bystander believes he or she is alone. The more bystanders around, the less likely someone is going to do something to intervene.
The story goes like this — Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman from Queens, New York, left the bar she worked at and returned home at 2:30 a.m. She left the bar, went home, and arrived at 3:15 a.m. and parked her car near a train station. On her way home, she was followed by a man named Winston Moseley, who approached Genovese with a hunting knife.
Genovese started running towards her building, but Moseley caught up to her and stabbed her in the back twice. Genovese screamed “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!”
Several neighbors heard her cry for help, and one of them tried to confront Moseley. Neighbor Robert Mozer, yelled to him to “leave that girl alone!” and then Moseley ran away, and Genovese would make her way to the rear of the building, seriously injured and out of sight of any witness.
According to witness testimony, Moseley fled, but then returned 10 minutes later. Hiding his face with a hat, he searched the area and found Genovese, barely conscious, lying in a hallway indoors and outside a locked door preventing her from going inside her apartment.
Moseley would stab Genovese several more times, rape her, steal $49, and then run away, doing all these things away from the street and away from any initial witnesses. These attacks lasted about half an hour. Knife attacks on the hands of Genovese suggest that she tried to defend herself, and a neighbor, Sophia Farrar, would find her and hold her in her arms.
Two people called the police number while Farrar helped a dying Genovese, not knowing whether the murderer had fled or not. Genovese would die that night after the ambulance came.
Clearly, one witness tried to stop Moseley, while another held a dying Genovese in her arms. But that’s not the message the American public got.
According to Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker, The New York Times metropolitan editor, A.M. Rosenthal, used the Genovese murder to gain power in the Times newsroom. Ten days after the murder, he went to have lunch with Michael Murphy, the then NYC police commissioner, and towards the end of their lunch, Rosenthal and Murphy talked about Genovese and the fact that tabloids reported that two men confessed to the same murder.
Murphy would tell Rosenthal that one confessor, Winston Moseley, definitely murdered Genovese. The New York Times reported on the murder with a four-paragraph piece that didn’t get that much traction. However, Murphy would tell Rosenthal that what struck out to him was the behavior of the thirty-eight witnesses.
“Over a grisly half-hour of stabbing and screaming, Murphy said, none of them had called the police,” Lemann wrote.
Rosenthal would get reporter, Martin Gansberg, to write the story from the apathetic 38 witnesses angle. After publishing the famous headline under its front page, the Times ran a reaction story where experts offered reactions to what happened — and the story went viral.
Lemann calls Rosenthal’s decisions acts of “editorial genius”. While tabloids simply treated the murder as a sensational story of urban violence — the Times sensationalized the apathetic witness narrative and displayed the story on the front page.
I notice a disconnect — it’s often stated that there were 38 witnesses in the case. However, the headline says that 37 didn’t call the police — which means that one witness tried to call the police. The phrasing of the headline, then, was an omission of genius.
Gansberg’s story itself didn’t include the names of any witnesses. One witness said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” The tropes of racial sexual violence were also present in the piece. Photographs showed that Genovese was a white attractive woman. Moseley, a repeat rapist, was black, and the story definitely exploited anxieties about the dangers of urban life, racial unrest, and the breakdown of the family structure of the fifties.
The first two lines of Gansberg’s story read as follows:
“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. . . . Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”
Rosenthal himself would profit off a book about the Kitty Genovese case, using the language of outrage that pushed the narrative of witness apathy: “every man must fear witness in himself who whispers to close the window.”
The Times piece by Gansberg and edited by Rosenthal would turn the murder of Kitty Genovese into a sensational, viral example of the bystander effect and the apathy of witnesses.
But the Times version of the events was wrong. Journalist Jim Ransenberger would unravel the Genovese case and reveal the true details — that the Times story was inaccurate.
The Times account said that there were three attacks — but there were only two. Only a couple of people saw the first attack clearly, and only one person saw the second attack since it happened indoors. Mozer yelling at Moseley during the first attack was not an act of a “silent witness,” but an action that drove Moseley away.
Two people called the police, and by the time the ambulance arrived, Farrar had left her own apartment and was holding Genovese in her arms, still alive, which was an act of bravery since Farrar had no way of knowing where Moseley was at the time.
Of course, there were witnesses that did do nothing. Joseph Fink, a man who lived in the apartment building across the street, saw the first attack, did nothing, and then took a nap in his basement. Karl Ross, a friend and neighbor of Genovese, was drunk on that night, saw the first attack, and did nothing. The second attack happened just outside his apartment door, and he would open his door to see Moseley stabbing Genovese, then called two friends for advice on what to do, and then left his window and fled the apartment.
The Kitty Genovese case had many ripple effects and consequences. In 1964, there was no 911 number to dial the NYPD — you had to call the NYPD’s seven-digit main number, 440–1234. Within four years of the attack, New York would adopt the 911 system as an easy-to-remember number that would spread to the rest of the country. Psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley created a realm of research into the bystander effect.
Moseley himself would write in a Times op-ed that he deserved parole because his crime ended up making the world a better place:
“The crime was tragic, but it did serve society, urging it as it did to come to the aid of its members in distress or danger.”
But the premise behind the bystander effect was essentially a lie and very irresponsible journalism. Rosenthal sensationalized the story and defended his approach to the Genovese story, implying that the purpose of news was to entertain and gain attention:
“News is not philosophy or theology but what certain human beings, reporters and editors, know will have meaning and interest to other human beings, readers.”
When Rosenthal heard Murphy’s account of what happened, he expressed the “vicarious shock” that what he heard and read would also shock the reader. According to Lemann, he was deeply emotionally touched by the idea of silent witnesses:
“Rosenthal’s convictions about the crime were so powerful that he was impervious to the details of what actually happened.”
Not only did Rosenthal attach a lot of instinctual emotion to the story, but his handling of the story would is a cautious sign to journalists today, that blending the power of instinct (whether something feels true versus whether it is actually true) and the respectability of science is a very dangerous thing.
Rosenthal, in his book, didn’t think that the social science around the Kitty Genovese murder contributed anything helpful, and yet without collecting quotes from social science experts, the story wouldn’t have gone viral.
“The experts transformed a crime into a crisis,” Lemann says.
Lemann ends by noting that while the Kitty Genovese sensationalism had somewhat benign effects, other examples of public renderings of violence, like the local press legitimizing the rage around alleged crime in the South, set off even worse violence like lynching.
For Lemann, the real bystander effect is when we don’t question the narratives that dominate our preconceptions and anxieties. Perhaps, journalists shouldn’t trust their guts like Rosenthal but use their heads.
Well, if the fact that the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment were manipulated and acted out didn’t give me whiplash, the reality behind the Kitty Genovese case certainly did.
Part of why Rosenthal went unchallenged for so long is because reporters less powerful than him were afraid to challenge him. A 2015 documentary that featured William Genovese, Kitty Genovese’s brother, found that many crime reporters knew of the problems with the story in 1964.
WNBC report Danny Meehan discovered a lot of the inconsistencies in the original article. Meehan would speak to Gansberg, the original reporter, about why witnesses didn’t feel like a murder was happening.
Gansberg said, “it would have ruined the story.”
Leaking such information would have meant attacking Rosenthal, a powerful editor, and Gansberg’s boss, possibly ruining Gansberg’s career. Meehan would keep his findings secret until he showed his notes to fellow WNBC reporter, Gabe Pressman, who taught a journalism course where his students confronted Rosenthal with the evidence. Rosenthal, flustered from being questioned by journalism students, berated Pressman on the phone.
In 2016, the New York Times made an editors’ note about the original article that “Later reporting by The Times and others has called into question significant elements of this account.”
I learned about Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect in my psychology textbooks in high school and college. I even read about Kitty Genovese when I was studying for my medical school admissions exam (the MCAT). The case has such notoriety and infamy in the world of social science and psychology that it’s essentially dogma, much like the problematic Stanford Prison Experiment is.
I never questioned it. I never had any reason to — I was just trying to pass my exams. But now, again, I feel duped and confused as to why the original story was never questioned.
How many opinions do we take as fact today that we don’t question? I don’t regret the fact that I so readily believed the Genovese story — but I do wish I learned the full story earlier before jumping to conclusions about the cowardly nature of witnesses and bystanders.
The Genovese story, as well as other viral stories that push an instinctive, primal emotional narrative, must be questioned and scrutinized, in today’s age of outrage more than ever.
Originally published at CrimeBeat on June 15, 2020.