How the False Story of Kitty Genovese’s Murder Went Viral

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View of scene where, on March 13, 1964, Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was murdered at 82-70 Austin St., Kew Garden, Queens.Photo: Dennis Caruso/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Winston Moseley, the man who killed Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in 1964, died last week in prison, the New York Times reported yesterday. Moseley’s murder and rape of Genovese was one of the most famous crimes in New York history because of the specific story that took hold: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” went the headline of the Times article by Martin Gansberg. In the article, Gansberg laid out a horrifying scenario in which dozens of witnesses watched Moseley stalk, murder, and rape Genovese over the course of three separate attacks.

As Robert D. McFadden writes in the Times’s obituary for Moseley, the murder had a major impact on people’s basic ideas about human nature — but it was based mostly on misconceptions and misreporting about Genovese’s murder (a point also made in a New York article on the subject by Claude Brodesser-Akner):

While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.

But the account of 38 witnesses heartlessly ignoring a murderous attack was widely disseminated and took on a life of its own, shocking the national conscience and starting an avalanche of academic studies, investigations, films, books, even a theatrical production and a musical. The soul-searching went on for decades, long after the original errors were debunked, evolving into more parable than fact but continuing to reinforce images of urban Americans as too callous or fearful to call for help, even with a life at stake.

Psychologists and criminologists called the reluctance of witnesses to involve themselves the “bystander effect,” or the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.” Studies discerned a “diffusion of responsibility,” finding that people in a crowd were less likely to step forward and help a victim. Some communities organized neighborhood-watch patrols. In New York, an emergency call to the police was simplified later in 1964 — from dialing “O” for operator or a precinct or a borough headquarters, to a central police number. The unified 911 system was not established until 1968.

None of this would have taken place if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting between A. M. Rosenthal, the Times’s metro editor, and then-police chief Michael Murphy. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, ten days after Genovese’s murder, which had initially gotten only a brief squib in the Times during a year which saw 636 murders in New York, the two had lunch. “Murphy spent most of the lunch talking about how worried he was that the civil-rights movement, which was at its peak, would set off racial violence in New York,” wrote Lemann, but the conversation eventually shifted, through happenstance, to the recent murder of a woman named Kitty Genovese. Murphy told Rosenthal there had been 38 eyewitnesses: “Over a grisly half hour of stabbing and screaming, Murphy said, none of them had called the police. Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to pursue the story from that angle.”

As a result of Gansberg’s subsequent, less-than-skeptical article — and, perhaps as important, a follow-up story which ran the next day in which “a procession of experts offered explanations of what had happened, or said that it was inexplicable” — the narrative took hold and the case eventually found its way into psychology textbooks. As Lemann writes, “Stories like that of the silent witnesses to Genovese’s murder represent the real danger zone in journalism, because they blend the power of instinct — which is about whether something feels true, not about whether it is true — with the respectable sheen of social science.”

Today, of course, there is exponentially more news coverage than there was in 1964 — not to mention exponentially more attempts to slot attention-getting events into simple, truthy stories about human nature. The gap between the famous version of the Genovese story and the true one, then, is worth remembering, if only as a check on our natural tendency to hear a story and then nod along and say, “Of course that’s what happened!”