The Kitty Genovese Syndrome
Catherine Susan Genovese was an average American girl growing up in Queens, New York in the 1940s. Kitty, as she was called by friends and family, was the eldest of five children. Her parents moved to Connecticut when she was a young woman, but Kitty stayed in the city with her grandparents. After a failed marriage and a succession of uninteresting clerical jobs, Kitty got a job as a bartender at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar. She worked the night shift, returning home to the apartment she shared with her girlfriend at Kew Gardens around 3am each night.
Winston Moseley seemed to be living an average American life as well. He was married with two children and had a job and a home. He did have the penchant for breaking into homes and stealing television sets, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Winston had psychotic urges, and it was these urges that had him driving around at 2am on the morning of March 13, 1964 while his wife and children slept. He spied Kitty getting out of her car and his darkest self took over. He ran over and stabbed Kitty in the back twice while she screamed. Robert Mozer later testified he heard Kitty screaming, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Help me! Help me!” He called out his window and the man ran away and the girl walked around the corner out of sight. Mozer thought no more of it and went to bed. As the did the other people in the other apartments. However, no one thought to check if anyone was hurt. Since he heard no sirens, Winston returned to stalk his prey.
By this time Kitty had made it to the lobby of her apartment building, although badly hurt. He cornered her in the lobby and stabbed her again. Winston then raped her and stole the little money she had, about $49. Then he escaped into the night. The attack itself took a half hour. Kitty was certainly not quiet, and neither was Winston. It was in apartment hall in the middle of a crowded city. Why were the police not called?
The manhunt for the murderer was on, and Winston was caught initially for stealing a television set. When he was taken into the police station, he confessed to Kitty’s murder saying he just wanted “to kill a woman”. He was convicted of murder, attempted kidnapping and robbery and died in prison. Not before orchestrating an escape attempt from Attica and raping another victim and taking five hostages. He was the longest serving inmate in the New York prison system.
Through later police interviews, they found a dozen people who had heard Kitty Genovese screaming and fighting for her life. The police were not called until Kitty was dying in the hallway by a neighbor, Karl Ross. Don’t call Karl Ross a hero, as he opened his door and saw the attack going on and slammed his door shut. The police were not called until the attack was over. Only one neighbor, Sophia Farrar, left her apartment to help Kitty, and the young woman ended up lying in Sophia’s arms until the ambulance came. The most common excuse the police heard for not calling the police? “I didn’t want to get involved.” The New York Times ran with the story, and sited the number of witnesses who did nothing as thirty-seven. The headline screamed “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”. In a later book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, author Kevin Cook brought that number up to forty-nine. These numbers have been disputed.
No matter how many people were involved, not one of them stepped into help. Most of the public was shocked that a young woman was brutally murdered with no one lifting a finger to help. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley studied this case, and put their findings into a theory called The Bystander Effect. This hypothesizes that the more witnesses there are the less likely it is for anyone to take action. They will take cues from the group and assume someone else will take care of it.
Another movement that came out of this tragedy is the creation of a universal emergency phone system. The three digit emergency number of 911 was instituted in 1964 as an easy to remember way to get a hold of emergency services. Prior to this, all calls for police were sent to an individual precinct and not always prioritized. If you called the wrong precinct, then you were just out of luck. The 911 system has saved countless lives over the years. So some good came out of the terrible death of the young woman that early Friday morning. May she rest in peace.