Kitty Genovese, 50 Years Later

The murder, the murderer, and how erroneous reporting by the New York Times inspired a sociological theory known as the Bystander Effect—aka Genovese Syndrome.

Kitty  Genovese Book

Kitty Genovese died because thirty-eight heartless neighbors “didn’t want to get involved.” At least that’s how people remember the crime, thanks to a New York Times article which reported how “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens … watched [emphasis added] a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks” over the course of thirty-five minutes. That misleading and erroneous front-page story—along with a popular book by New York Times city editor Abraham Rosenthal titled “Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case”—inspired new avenues of social psychology research, and led to the reform of the emergency phone system and the development of Good Samaritan laws.

But in “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America” (W.W. Norton), author Kevin Cook makes a convincing argument that the case should be remembered differently, reconstructing the crime to illustrate that only a handful of people hesitated to help Genovese, and that at least one individual called the police in the wake of the initial assault. Moreover, only one person—an acquaintance of Genovese—was in a position to see that the killer returned to attack her a second (and final) time, as the initial assault occurred on the street, but the fatal blows were struck inside, in the back of an apartment building.

Kitty Genovese’s Murder

March 13, 1964, 3 a.m.: Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese, 28, leaves Ev’s 11th Hour—the hole-in-the-wall neighborhood tavern where she works—in Hollis, Queens, and begins the ten-minute drive home to the small, middle-class town of Kew Gardens and the apartment she shares with her girlfriend and lover Mary Ann Zielonko. Unbeknownst to Genovese, Winston Moseley—a slight, effeminate-looking, light-skinned black man—is cruising around in his white Corvair looking for a woman to assault, and spots her getting into her cherry-red Fiat. Moseley follows Genovese home and begins stalking her after she parks at the Long Island Rail Road station just a few hundred paces from her apartment. Hearing footsteps, Genovese tries to run, but Moseley jumps on her and stabs her in the back twice, prompting her to scream and cry out: “Oh, God, I’ve been stabbed…. Help me!”

Neighbors on both sides of the street hear her cries, and some come to their windows, including Robert Mozer, who opens the window on the seventh floor of his building and yells out, “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley flees the scene while Genovese gets up and silently staggers around a corner toward the door that leads to her apartment, out of sight of Mozer and fellow bystanders. Genovese doesn’t make it home, however; she passes through a street-level door twenty steps from her apartment, and collapses at the base of a flight of stairs just beyond the vestibule, the assault seemingly over.

But Moseley, sitting in his car a hundred yards distant, makes the decision to go looking for her. He swaps his stocking cap for a wide-brimmed hat (expecting to confuse observers), and begins systematically trying the doors at street level until he opens the one between him and Genovese. Moseley resumes his attack and stabs Genovese repeatedly, prompting her to call out for help yet again—loud enough to draw the attention of an intoxicated neighbor, Karl Ross, who peeks out from behind his door at the top of the stairs, only to shut it without taking immediate action. Moseley goes on to sexually assault Genovese and take her billfold (with forty-nine dollars inside) before leaving her to die.

Later, while being questioned, Ross utters the notorious quote, “I didn’t want to get involved,” which helps explain why five decades later, the name Kitty Genovese conjures up an image of urban indifference. Never mind that Genovese was no stranger to Ross, who was known to drink with Zielonko—and did so for three hours after police arrived to investigate the crime. Fact is that Ross was a meek, scared-of-the-world individual. “The man was afraid of everything,” says Zielonko. “He was the last person who should have been behind that door.”

The Murderer, Winston Moseley

Five days after the murder, Moseley was arrested for burglary—caught in the act by two attentive neighbors—after which he confessed to killing Genovese, and admitted to burglaries, several rapes, and another sexually-violent murder (of 24-year-old Annie Mae Johnson, on February 28, 1964). He went on trial June 8, 1964, and was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. (His sentence was later commuted from death to life in prison.)

At first glance, Moseley seemed an unlikely killer. He was gainfully employed at a business-machine company in Mount Vernon, New York, and lived with his wife Betty, their two sons, and five German shepherds in South Ozone Park, Queens. But as Moseley approached the age of thirty his wife began to worry about her husband’s sudden inattention to hygiene, his sleeplessness, and another new problem—impotence—which caused their sex life to suffer. Moseley would drive around at night (while his wife worked the night shift at a local hospital) looking for women to assault, which is how he came to be in Hollis—and then Kew Gardens—in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964.

Winston Moseley’s Escape from Attica State Prison

After being convicted Moseley was incarcerated at the super-maximum-security Attica State Prison in Attica, New York, where he was considered a model prisoner. Yet he fantasized about escaping, and was prepared to do anything that might provide him the chance to break out, which explains why, on March 12, 1968, he shoved a meat tin (think: the kind that holds Spam) into his rectum.

As Moseley envisioned, the doctors at Attica could not remove the three-inch wide and inch-and-a-half high can and sent their patient to E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital in Buffalo, where the tin was successfully extracted by surgeons. Moseley spent six days recovering, after which two prison guards arrived to escort the wheelchair-bound Moseley back to Attica. But his labored movements were an act. Unshackled, Moseley made a run for it and escaped his guards, ultimately holing up in an unoccupied house nine hundred yards from the hospital, where he found a loaded .45-caliber revolver. He laid low for three days, then called the New York State Employment Service and requested a maid. After a young black woman, Zella Moore, cleaned the house, Moseley threatened her with the gun and raped her before letting her go.

But that was only the beginning of the saga. Instead of calling the police Moore called the homeowner, Janet Kulaga, who proceeded to the house with her husband, Mathew, only to be confronted by a gun-wielding Moseley, who raped Janet and then drove away in the couple’s car, wearing Mathew’s pants, shirt, sport jacket, and tie. Moseley went on to pull over outside a nearby garden apartment, then went inside and took hostages, one of which he let go after ordering her to return with a vehicle better suited to his fugitive status. True to her word, she returned with a getaway car, not to mention federal, state, and local lawmen. A standoff ensued, though Moseley ultimately surrendered without a fight.

“Moseley’s escape led the New York State Commission of Correction and the warden at Attica to reform the way they moved convicts from place to place. From then on, teams of armed guards transported inmates to and from hospitals, and the inmates were handcuffed,” notes Cook in his book. 

The Legacy of Kitty Genovese

The same year Moseley made his escape (1968) saw the publication of a landmark report titled The Unresponsive Bystander, by sociologists Bibb Latané of Ohio State University and John Darley of Princeton University—an early example of the kind of social psychology research the Genovese case would inspire.

According to Latané and Darley, the number of witnesses to an event “determines to a very important degree what they will do, [though] in a way opposite to what is usually assumed. The presence of others serves to inhibit the impulse to help,” they wrote. This may explain why Marjorie Koshkin “didn’t let” her husband dial the police after he observed the first attack on Genovese from his sixth-floor window. “I told him there must have been thirty calls already,” recalls Koshkin, a shining example of what would become known as the bystander effect, which says: the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

In fact, there was one call already in progress by the time Koshkin dissuaded her husband from dialing the operator (who would have connected him with a police dispatcher). In 2003, Michael Hoffman (14 at the time of the incident) gave a sworn statement detailing how he saw Moseley attack Genovese, prompting his father Samuel to call the police. “The way she walked made us think she was either drunk or had been beaten up. Dad decided to call the police in case she was hurt badly,” he recalled, noting that it took three or four minutes before a dispatcher took the call. Meanwhile, attacker and victim disappeared from view—and both father and son went back to bed.

“The uproar over Kitty’s murder brought demands to reform the way distress calls reached the police,” reminds Cook. “Three years later the Federal Communications Commission and the Bell System announced that they would team up to select a number all Americans could remember and dial in a hurry.” In January 1968, Bell declared that the national emergency number would be 9-1-1.

But the reforms didn’t stop with a new emergency phone system. “In the years after the Genovese case, many states enacted ‘Good Samaritan’ laws encouraging witnesses to stop crime or at least report it. California, Florida, Massachusetts, and seven other states passed duty-to-aid laws obliging citizens to help others in need if they could do it without putting themselves in danger,” offers Cook. 

Winston Moseley Still Alive, Still in Prison

Meanwhile, Moseley went on with his life in prison. In 1977, he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Niagara University, becoming the first convicted murderer in state history to earn a college degree from his cell. His first parole hearing took place in 1984, and he has since appeared before the parole board every two years, without any indication he will ever be released. “Today he is prisoner number 64A0102 at Clinton Correctional Facility, a 169-year-old super-maximum penitentiary in the state’s snow-swept northeast corner,” advises Cook. “As of late 2013 no living inmate had served more time in New York’s prison system.”