We are not all monsters………..
At 3:15 on the morning of March 13, 1964, a 28-year-old bar manager named Kitty Genovese drove her red Fiat into the parking lot of the LIRR station by her Kew Gardens home.
As she walked home — she was only about “a hundred paces away” from the apartment she shared with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko — she heard a man’s footsteps close behind her. She ran, but the man, Winston Moseley, was too quick. He caught her, slammed her to the ground and stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed twice, once yelling, “Oh, God! I’ve been stabbed!”
Across the street, a man named Robert Mozer heard Genovese from his apartment. Looking out his seventh-floor window, he saw a man and a woman, sensed an altercation — he couldn’t see exactly what was happening — and yelled out his window, “Leave that girl alone!”
Moseley later testified that Mozer’s action “frightened” him, sending him back to his car. At this point, Genovese was still alive, her wounds nonfatal.
Fourteen-year-old Michael Hoffman, who lived in the same building as Mozer, also heard the commotion. He looked out his window and told his father, Samuel, what he saw. Samuel called the police, and after three or four minutes on hold, he reached a police dispatcher. He related that a woman “got beat up and was staggering around,” and gave them the location.
Other neighbors heard something as well, but it wasn’t always clear what. Some looked out the window to see Moseley scurrying away, or Genovese, having stood up, now walking slowly down the block, leaning against a building. From their vantage point, it wasn’t obvious that she was wounded. Others who looked didn’t see her at all, as Genovese walked around a corner, trying to make her way home at 82-70 Austin St.
But the police did not respond to Samuel Hoffman’s call, and Moseley, seeing no help was imminent, returned. He hunted down Genovese — who had made it to a vestibule in her building before collapsing — stabbed her several more times, then raped her.
Word of the attack spread though the building. A woman named Sophie Farrar, all of 4-foot-11, rushed to the vestibule, risking her life in the process. For all she knew, the attacker might have still been there. As luck would have it, he was not, and Farrar hugged and cradled the bloodied Genovese, who was struggling for breath.
Despite the attempts of various neighbors to help, Moseley’s final stab wounds proved fatal, and Farrar did her best to comfort Genovese in the nightmarish final minutes of her life.
The murder of Kitty Genovese shifted from crime to legend a few weeks later, when The New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of her neighbors had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.
The Times piece was followed by a story in Life magazine, and the narrative spread throughout the world, running in newspapers from Russia and Japan to the Middle East.
New York became internationally infamous as a city filled with thoughtless people who didn’t care about one another; where people could watch their neighbors get stabbed on the street without lifting a finger to help, leaving them to die instead in a pool of their own blood.
The people of Kew Gardens — before that, a relatively crime-free neighborhood where few bothered locking their doors — were referred to in the press as monsters.
But as journalist Kevin Cook details in his new book, “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America” (W.W. Norton), some of the real thoughtlessness came from a police commissioner who lazily passed a falsehood to a journalist, and a media that fell so deeply in love with a story that it couldn’t be bothered to determine whether it was true.
The account of the murder at the top of this story is accurate, based on Cook’s reporting. Instead of a narrative of apathy, the media could have told instead of the people who tried to help, and of the complex circumstances — many boiling down to a lack not of compassion, but of information — that prevented some others from calling for aid.
One could argue that Genovese became a legend not on the day she was killed, but 10 days later, when New York City Police Commissioner Michael “Bull” Murphy had lunch with The New York Times’ new city editor — later to become the paper’s executive editor — Abe Rosenthal.
After Rosenthal brought up a case Murphy wished to avoid discussing, the commissioner pivoted to the Genovese case.
“Brother, that Queens story is one for the books. Thirty-eight witnesses,” Murphy said. “I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.”
“Rosenthal felt a spark running up and down the back of his neck,” writes Cook, “the spine-tingling sense that he was onto a story readers would never forget.”
By this point, coverage of the murder had been minor, mostly stories buried deep inside the paper.
Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to dig deeper, and Gansberg interviewed Genovese’s neighbors for three days before the Times ran his front-page story on March 27.
The article began 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.”
Cook and others speculate that the story’s first paragraph was written by Rosenthal.
The story made the Genovese murder front-page news around the world. People began wondering aloud how society had fallen so far, and letters to the editors at various newspapers blamed everything from television to the “women’s-lib movement.”
But while journalists welcomed to opportunity to moralize, pontificate, and cement New York City’s reputation as the new hell on earth, not one could be bothered to check the facts.
Cook’s research for this book included reading the detectives’ report on the Genovese investigation. The report had 38 entries.
“The document lists 49 witnesses who saw or heard something on the night Kitty died. Sixteen were eyewitnesses,” he writes.
Cook notes that neither of these numbers are complete, as key witnesses are missing. “It was a roundup of interviews with many of Kitty’s neighbors,” he writes, “not a definitive account of anything.” And each individual entry in the report was structured differently, with some containing a detective’s interviews with multiple witnesses.
“In all likelihood,” Cook writes, “someone in the Police Department counted the entries and passed the total on to Commissioner Murphy, who passed it on to Rosenthal. An innocent mistake, possibly made in a hurry. A clerical error.”
While this “clerical error” turned the world on its head, leading to a neighborhood being ostracized and a major city redefined, the number, 38, was “so arbitrary that Murphy may as well have picked it out of a hat.” (The Times also erred in citing three separate attacks, as there were only two.)
As for the other mistaken belief that was treated as fact — that none of Genovese’s neighbors tried to help in any way, including calling the police — this information was fed to a Life magazine reporter by a New York City police lieutenant. There’s no telling why the lieutenant believed this was true.
The tale of uncaring neighbors was not completely false. There are two men who certainly watched the crime happen and did nothing.
Joseph Fink was an assistant superintendent at the building across the street from Genovese’s. Stationed in the building’s lobby, he had a clear view of the first stabbing, and later told prosecutors that he “thought about going downstairs to get my baseball bat,” but took a nap instead. When asked by the prosecutor why he didn’t help, he shrugged. Another prosecutor later said, “It made me sick to my stomach dealing with this man.”
The other thoughtless witness was Karl Ross, a dog groomer who lived two doors down from Genovese and Zielonko. Ross was a friend who would often care for Genovese’s dog, which he had sold her, and also frequently came by to drink and chat.
Ross was, according to Zielonko, a “very nervous, frightened person.” He was also usually accompanied by a bottle of vodka. When Genovese and Zielonko spoke of him, they thought of him as “scared of his shadow, trying to drink his fears away.”
Genovese would learn the hard way just how true this was.
As was his habit, Ross had been drinking the night of the murder. At 3:30 a.m., he heard a noise outside his window that sounded like a woman screaming.
“Skittish by nature, the groggy Ross wasn’t eager to find out what was happening,” Cook writes. “He stayed where he was. He waited, hoping the noises would stop. Soon they died down. He relaxed.”
But a few minutes later, a similar noise arose, this one closer, possibly “a scuffling” or “a muffled cry.”
“Ross stood by his door but didn’t open it,” Cook writes. “He paced behind it, wondering what he should do. At last his curiosity got the best of him. He opened the door a crack.”
What he saw was Genovese, his friend, “lying flat on her back . . . trying to speak” as Moseley continued stabbing her. Suddenly, Moseley stopped — and looked directly at Ross, who retreated into his apartment as quickly as possible.
Instead of calling the police, Ross wasted time calling other neighbors for advice, and they, for reasons unclear, then called others. It was a fatal game of telephone that wasted precious minutes, until Farrar finally yelled at Ross to call the police while she rushed to comfort the victim. Ross called at 3:55, too late to save Genovese’s life.
When the police questioned him about why he didn’t help, Ross inadvertently invented a phrase that would come to symbolize civic apathy, telling them, “I didn’t want to get involved.”
Disgracefully, after his questioning, Ross brought a bottle to a heartbroken Zielonko and drank with her, mentioning nothing of how he could have saved her girlfriend’s life.
But there were not 38 witnesses who did nothing. Not even close. For the reprehensible actions of Fink and Ross, an entire city was tarred.
The effects of the Genovese murder were vast, including the adoption of good Samaritan laws nationwide, and the discovery of the bystander effect, which showed that people are unlikely to help someone if they think others are available to do so.
Winston Moseley was found guilty of Genovese’s murder. He was initially sentenced to death, but that was commuted several years later and changed to life in prison, where he remains today. At 78, no living inmate has spent more time in the New York prison system.
Today, the Genovese case is remembered, correctly or otherwise, as a touchstone for the decline of polite society, and for igniting several of the darkest decades in New York City history.
As one Kew Gardens resident said on the crime’s 25th anniversary, “No death that has come since can compare to it. That’s where things changed — the beginning of the end of decency.”