Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America

I have long known about the story of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered on the streets of Queens in New York City in 1964 while 38 people watched and did nothing. The story, when I first heard it, shocked me. I thought about it for days afterward, and could only wonder what riveted three dozen people to their windows without so much as picking up the phone to call the police. Over the years I read more about the murder, yet trickles of information seeped into the story that told me that the reality was tainted by sensational urban mythmaking. On the fiftieth anniversary of Genovese's death, Kevin Cook published Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. Cook retold the story marking Genovese's last minutes. The most shocking aspect of her story will always be the number of people who were said to have witnessed her murder: 38. Cook found the sources that first revealed the number of "38" witnesses and he spoke to those who, half a century later, were there on that early March night at 3 a.m.

Cook described New York life in the early sixties and set the scene for the brutal crime that would fall upon its streets. I felt that Cook went overboard in providing the historical context, as sometimes there would be pages devoted to the music scene, such as the folkies versus Bob Dylan. In spite of this, Kitty Genovese was a rapid read, as Cook delineated the final actions of Genovese as well as those of her killer. The reader followed Genovese home after her late shift tending bar. We knew what was about to happen--a savage stabbing of a young woman, followed by a second attempt after the first stabbing didn't kill her--and then we waited for nothing to happen in response:

"After going viral, 1960s-style, through newspapers, magazines, television and radio editorials, Sunday sermons, dinner-party conversations, schoolyard rumors, and back-fence gossip, the Kitty Genovese story prompted months of local and then national soul-searching. Over the years the story became a fixture in thousands of high school and college psychology classes despite the fact that the version of it taught in those classes, the version almost everyone accepts, isn't true. Maybe that view of the crime endures because it isn't true, because it boils a complex, troubling story down to a single simple question: How could all those people watch what happened to her, and do nothing?"

Fifty years ago, the truth obscured the facts from coming out. The murder was so shocking yet the reaction of the witnesses--their non-reaction--occupied the news media. How could the media resist such a story about witness apathy 38 times over? What was going on in the witnesses' minds to stand there and do nothing? The truth didn't matter when the witnesses were the story. The press descended onto the area where Genovese was killed, asking the residents if they had been witnesses. Residents were interrogated and harassed, and some moved out because they felt like criminals by the press as well as by onlookers who came to gawk. Decades would pass before the truth came out about the actual number of witnesses and their calls to police. Genovese did not die while a roomful of bystanders watched:

"Wainwright [a columnist for Life magazine] portrayed Kitty as dying in full view of more than three-dozen neighbors who watched like a crowd in an auditorium. In his column the number of witnesses the Times' Gansberg got from Commissioner Murphy returns as exactly 'thirty-eight heedless witnesses.'"

Yet where did this magic number of 38 come from? Cited so often, but from what original source?

"Within days of starting work on the case, the prosecution team had doubts about the now-famous number thirty-eight. Thirty-eight was the number of people the police considered witnesses in the days following the crime. It was the number Commissioner Murphy cited over lunch at Emil's, the number that shocked editor Rosenthal, Times readers, and the world. Martin Gansberg had followed up on the work Murphy's detectives did, but neither Gansberg nor anyone else spent time ferreting out the source of the official number. The number thirty-eight came from the police; that was enough. Nobody identified the thirty-eight witnesses or counted the witnesses in the detectives' reports."

The number of 38 most certainly did not refer to people who stood by their windows watching Genovese die, as Wainwright wrote. That is the myth that will not go away. Yet there were witnesses, weren't there? How many? Cook's investigation found out that among all the 38 people who were reported to have seen the stabbing, only two had actually witnessed it. Two. Many more heard Genovese's screams. Yet at three-thirty in the morning, these were people who had been roused from sleep to the point of awakening. In their groggy state they had heard something, yet they could hardly be called witnesses as Wainwright reported. Most were earwitnesses roused from sleep, versus those who had already been awake and had heard screaming. Those that did get up to look out their windows saw nothing, as the first stabbing had already ceased, and the killer had fled (only to return later) and Genovese had by then staggered around the corner, away from street view. It was not unreasonable for these earwitnesses to dismiss the murky sounds that roused them from their sleep, which upon further investigation from their windows yielded nothing that could have been their source. It would not be surprising if most of these witnesses went back to bed. When Genovese was attacked a second time, it was within an apartment vestibule, away from the open street. Cook devotes chapters to debunking the 38-witnesses myth, and by interviewing those who did hear the screams and asking what they had thought at the time.

The two witnesses who saw the attacks take place did not take direct action towards the assailant. One simply went back to sleep, and the other, who witnessed the second stabbing in his vestibule when he opened his front door a crack, panicked and crawled out his window to take cover with a neighbour. The second witness, or rather his neighbour, did call the police, as did another who had heard the screaming. So the myth that 38 people witnessed the murder yet none of them called the police is not true, as Cook uncovered police records that showed when both telephone calls were logged, and acted upon.

The state of urban sociology would not have evolved--if such a concept was even in existence fifty years ago at all--if this murder hadn't occurred. If there was one watershed moment in urban sociology, or even in social psychology, the Genovese murder was it. Sociologists Bibb LatanĂ© and John Darley, in response to Genovese's murder, wrote The Unresponsive Bystander in 1968:

"According to The Unresponsive Bystander, 'The number of people who stand and watch is what shocks us; it also may be the key to their behavior.' While the number of witnesses 'determines to a very important degree what they will do, it does so in a way opposite to what is usually assumed. The presence of others serves to inhibit the impulse to help.' Rather than strength in numbers, weakness."


"Their work suggested a social dynamic that may have worked against Kitty on her final night. Diffusion of responsibility, they called it--a phenomenon that distributed guilt like a firing squad in reverse. If one person sees trouble, 'he will feel all the guilt for not acting. If others are present, responsibility is diffused, and the finger of blame points less directly at any one person.'"


"The Unresponsive Bystander suggested that the tragedy of the Genovese case wasn't that dozens of people witnessed Moseley's attack on Kitty, but that more than one or two did. If the psychologists were right, most of us can summon the courage to act if there is no one else who could do so, but not when there are others who might take action. If somebody else is in a position to help--someone who might be stronger, braver, or more level-headed--we want him or her to go first. Even if we only think or hope others might help, we expect them to go first."

Fifty years have passed since Genovese's murder yet Kitty has never been forgotten. She was never yesterday's news. Her death led to the development of Good Samaritan laws throughout the United States and a rethink of crowd dynamics in urban sociology. I am troubled by the points raised by LatanĂ© and Darley about crowd apathy, and know that over the past half century history has repeated itself on the late-night streets of Anytown.

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