Fifty years ago today the New York Times made Kitty Genovese the archetypical victim of urban apathy and violence. Now we know just how wrong they were
The original story of Kitty Genovese’s death, first promulgated by the New York Times in a front-page article 50 years ago today—young single woman brutally murdered while 38 strangers watched and did nothing—was incorrect in almost every particular.
The murder itself was horrifying, of course. The Times got that right. But the story that made Genovese a household name and a symbol of modern social dysfunction got nearly everything else wrong. From the number of witnesses to the details of the crime to the timing of the police response, there are by my count no fewer than 29 significant errors in the original Times story, five of them in its very first sentence.
Many of these mistakes have been public knowledge for years, and as the errors in the narrative have been tabulated the incident’s supposed meaning has been subject to ongoing revision. (In recent years the “bystander effect” has replaced “apathy” as the hook of choice.) But with the publication this month of Kevin Cook’s masterful Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, our understanding of the case, and of Genovese as an individual, is immeasurably enriched. Now, for the first time, we can move beyond mere debunking to construct a full and complex narrative of her life and death, and that new narrative reveals the old one as not merely deficient but fundamentally fraudulent. Some of the biggest flaws in the story, it is now clear, come less from what it got wrong than from what it left out.
Over the last 50 years, as the question of how much blame to assign to Genovese’s neighbors has been endlessly reargued, the broader framing of the case as a parable about urban anonymity and social malaise has stood largely unchallenged. The question at the heart of the original Times piece—how could this young woman’s neighbors have let her die when the police stood ready to help—has been answered in different ways, but the question has remained the same. The Times reporting, however, notoriously overstated the culpability of the witnesses—what they saw, what they knew, what they did.
Though the paper portrayed the neighborhood as gawking from their windows while Genovese was attacked again and again, in reality the vast majority of the witnesses saw little or nothing and heard only isolated screams. (On a working-class block that hosted a sometimes rowdy bar, late-night screams were hardly unusual.) Among the neighbors who saw or heard something that night (38 in the Times’ account, but 33 according to police records), only two witnessed enough of the incident to develop a clear and coherent understanding of what was happening.
One of those two, Joseph Fink, fit the Times’s witness profile perfectly. An assistant super and doorman at an apartment building across the street from where the first attack occurred, Fink sat at his post for several minutes watching serial rapist Winston Moseley attack Genovese. He saw Moseley’s knife. He saw Genovese stabbed. And then he got up and went to bed.
When Fink left the scene Genovese was still alive, and Moseley would soon be temporarily scared away by another neighbor’s intervention. But Moseley would return a few minutes later, and it was his second attack that killed Genovese. That attack had only one witness — a witness whose relationship to the victim turns the Times’s thesis of urban anonymity on its head.
Karl Ross heard the first attack — at least he heard screaming. Then the screams died down and for a few minutes he heard nothing. But soon he heard other sounds, sounds coming from the lobby of his own building. Genovese had staggered there after Moseley had been scared off, but he had tracked her down. In the foyer, away from the eyes of the community, he was attacking her again. Now Ross was the only one who could hear. He hesitated, then opened the door to his apartment. He saw Genovese being attacked, just a flight of stairs away. He looked into her eyes, and those of her attacker. And then he closed the door.
Unlike Fink, Ross didn’t go to bed after witnessing the attack. He called a friend, asking for advice. When that friend told him to stay out of it, he called another. That friend told him to come over to her house, and he did — climbing out his window to avoid the scene in the lobby. When he got there that friend called a third, who called the police. The cops arrived a few minutes later.
When the Times reported on the murder, it was Ross’s feeble explanation to the police — “I didn’t want to get involved” — that summed up the story. His reaction was portrayed as nonchalant, brazen. But what the Times didn’t say was that Ross was involved. He knew Kitty Genovese. They were friends. He had recognized her when he saw her being stabbed in his lobby. By one account, she had called him by name.
So why didn’t he act more quickly?
We don’t know for sure. Ross never gave a detailed public account of his actions, and was never called to testify at the trial. He moved away not long after the murder, and soon disappeared entirely. But we do know a few things about Ross. We know that he was a drunk, and that he was drunk that night. We also know that he was gay, that he was closeted, and that he was afraid of the police. For Ross, cops weren’t just a potential source of assistance. They were also a potential threat.
In New York City in 1964 homosexuality was illegal, as it was in 49 of America’s 50 states. Gays and lesbians were subject to pervasive, intense persecution, abetted by the same New York Times that now professed mystification that any of the presumptively “respectable, law-abiding” witnesses to the Genovese murder would decline to call the authorities. In a major article published just three months before Genovese’s death, the Times had sounded alarms about the “growth of overt homosexuality” in the city, calling the “increasing openness” of the city’s gays and lesbians a major moral, psychiatric, and law-enforcement crisis.
It’s unclear whether the police or the Times ever learned that Ross was gay, or that his fear of exposure and persecution may have played a part in his hesitancy that night. What they did know, however, and chose to keep secret, was that Genovese was gay as well.
Today, the tale of Genovese and Mary Ann Zielonko’s courtship would be a central, heart-rending component of the case’s media coverage. They had met briefly at a bar, and Kitty had been smitten enough to track Mary Ann down weeks later and pin a note to her apartment door, telling her to wait at a payphone downstairs at a specified hour for her call. The two went home together at the end of their first real date, found a shared apartment within weeks, and shared their first Christmas together three months before the murder, staying with Genovese’s family in Connecticut over the holidays and exchanging wallets — one black and one brown, otherwise identical — as gifts. Zielonko was waiting at home for Genovese on the night of the murder, and the cops knocked on the couple’s door to tell her Kitty was dead at four in the morning of the day that would have been their first anniversary.
This story is heartbreakingly sweet, but in 1964 it was buried. The Times described Zielonko as Genovese’s “roommate” throughout its coverage of the case, and the cops and prosecutors made sure that the Moseley jury would never hear about the relationship, even as they called Zielonko as a witness at trial. Genovese’s lesbianism was deemed a distraction—homosexuality was relevant for defendants, not victims, back then. (An indication of the authorities attitudes toward sexual nonconformity can be seen in the fact that Moseley’s prosecutor cited the defendant’s willingness to perform cunnilingus on a menstruating woman as perversion on par with his confessed necrophilia.)
Just as the possibility that her neighbors might have had reason to fear the cops had to be erased to render their hesitancy to pick up the phone incomprehensible, Genovese’s biography had to be erased for fear of complicating the narrative. This erasure was literal as well as figurative, and it extended beyond Genovese’s romantic life. The most famous photo of Genovese, one which the Times has run innumerable times over the last fifty years, is actually a crudely-cropped mugshot, a memento of a 1961 incident in which an undercover cop had induced her to place a $9 horse-racing bet on his behalf at her bartending job.
Kitty Genovese’s lesbianism was not directly relevant to the case, and neither was her own complicated relationship to the police. She never had the chance to decide whether to call on them that night and they never had the chance to interact with her before she died. It’s worth noting, however, that while the Times asserted that she changed her route from her car to her apartment in order to put herself in the path of a police callbox, it’s at least as likely that she was seeking the safety of the pub on the corner.
Genovese, her friends, her neighbors—all had real reasons to distrust the cops. We’ll never know for sure whether those fears contributed to the loss of Kitty’s life, but neither do we know whether the police would have successfully intervened to save it had they been called earlier. One witness to the crime, in fact—then a teenager, now a retired police officer—says his own father did call the police early on in the attack, but that the call was never followed up on. That claim is unverifiable, but it’s lent credence by a horrifying incident that took place a few years later.
Winston Moseley was convicted of Genovese’s murder in the summer of 1964 and imprisoned upstate. In early 1968 he was transferred temporarily to a local hospital for treatment of a self-inflicted injury, and while there he was able to take advantage of lax security and escape.
Upon his escape Moseley broke into an unoccupied house and called a cleaning service to send a maid over. When the woman arrived, he raped her several times before letting her go. Scared of, and threatened by, Moseley, the woman did not call the police, but she did manage to get contact information for the homeowners and warn them that someone was there.
Those homeowners, a married couple, called the police, but when they did they were rebuffed. There was a shift change coming up in an hour and a half, they were told, and no officers were available. They should call again later. Nervous about their property, and a gun they knew was on the site, they decided not to wait. When they arrived they were confronted by Moseley, who had found the gun. They were tied up and robbed. She was raped. Moseley left in their car. It was not until after Moseley broke into another house and took more hostages that he was finally apprehended.
From the moment the New York Times took it up as a cause, the Kitty Genovese story has counterposed police rectitude against community violence, cowardice, and confusion. Genovese’s murder is a parable in which the absent cops are the heroes and her neighbors eclipse even her killer in their culpability for the crime. Subsequent debates over the story’s meaning have centered almost exclusively on that claim of culpability, and on the question of to what extent those neighbors can or should be exonerated.
But Genovese herself lived in fear of police persecution, both at work and in her personal life. At least one witness to the crime, a friend of Kitty’s, also had good reason to be wary of law enforcement. And once the cops did engage with the case, they failed spectacularly to provide the kind of assistance the legend assumes they stood poised to offer that night. The Genovese story isn’t just a story of individual moral culpability, it’s also a story about malign and corrupt institutions and the corrosive effects those institutions have on our lives, and one of the real services Cook’s new book provides is the restoration of those effects to the broader narrative of the case.
Abraham Rosenthal had been the Metro Editor of the Times for less than a year when Genovese was killed. It was Rosenthal who was told the parable of the Genovese killing by a source in the police department, and Rosenthal who assigned the story that made Genovese famous. It was Rosenthal, too, who had been the engine behind the paper’s campaign against the city’s gay menace—a campaign that continued well into the age of AIDS.
Rosenthal wrote an early, slender book on the murder. In it, he posed the dilemmas posed by the Genovese case as fundamentally personal, internal ones—questions about how each of us responds to moral challenges, about the human impulse to turn away from suffering. This was a story, he wrote, about “the disease of apathy”—a disease which, almost by definition, has no cure.
In a new edition to his book, published three and a half decades later, Rosenthal returned to this theme, presenting the witnesses’ motivation as simultaneously self-evident and unknowable. If we knew more about them, he asked, “Would it tell us what we wanted to know?” No. He was pretty sure it wouldn’t. What they had done, he concluded, was as inevitable as it was incomprehensible, as predictable as it was monstrous.
And with that he turned away.