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Thriller Thursday: Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect

On a dark spring morning in 1964, Catherine Susan Genovese arrived home from her job as a bar manager at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Sports Bar in Queens. She parked about one hundred feet from her apartment door, located in an alley way at the back of the building. As she walked, she was approached by an unfamiliar African-American male. Genovese ran across the parking lot toward the front of her building, but the man quickly overtook her, stabbing Genovese twice in the back.

Stunned and in pain, Genovese’s scream cut through the quiet night. “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Several neighbors heard the cry but with the windows closed, only a few recognized it as a cry for help. A neighbor shouted at the attacker to leave the girl alone, and the man took off.

The apartment on Austin Street, Queens.

Irene Front heard Catherine’s screams. “There was another shriek,” she testified in court. “And she was lying down crying out.”

The night was once again quiet, the only sound Catherine’s sobbing as she struggled to her feet. Blood streaming from her wounds, Catherine staggered to the side of her building and fought for consciousness. Within five minutes, her attacker had returned and stabbed her again.

“I’m dying, I’m dying,” Catherine cried out. Lights again flashed on, windows opened as tenants peered into the night. The attacker was spotted racing to a white Chevy Corvair and driving away.

From the sixth floor of the apartment building, Marjorie and Samual Kroshkin witnessed the attack from their window.

“I saw a man hurry to a car under my window,” he said later. “He left and came back five minutes later and was looking around the area. “Mr. Koshkin wanted to call the police, but Mrs. Koshkin thought otherwise. “I didn’t let him,” she later said to the press. “I told him there must have been thirty calls already.”

Another witness later said at trial that she heard a scream for help three different times. “I saw a girl lying down on the pavement with a man bending down over her, beating her.”

Determined to live, Catherine made her way to the rear of her building and tried to enter through a back door. It was locked. She slid along the wall until she reached a hallway leading to the second floor, but lost her footing and fell. The man returned.

The alley where Catherine was stabbed.

“I came back because I knew I’d not finished what I set out to do,” the man later told cops. He searched for Catherine until he found her slumped in her own blood and semiconscious. He cut off her bra and panties and sexually assaulted her, then took $49 from her wallet.

“Why would I throw money away?” He asked the court at trial.

He finished the job, stabbing Catherine to death, and then left the scene. The entire event lasted 32 minutes.

Karl Ross, a neighbor on the second floor, finally called the police at about 3:50 a.m., but only after calling a friend and asking his opinion about what he should do. A squad car arrived within minutes and discovered Catherine’s body. She’d been stabbed 17 times. A neighborhood canvas churned up 38 people who had heard or seensome part of the assault on Catherine.

38 people. 32 minutes. Anyone could have saved her.

A myriad of excuses followed: one tenant thought it was a lover’s quarrel, others were afraid, some women didn’t want their husbands involved. Some claimed they couldn’t see what was happening. One witness said he was too tired.

The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was just one of many in NYC in 1964. It wasn’t until the New York Times published “38 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call The Police” by Martin Gansberg that the killing became real news. Press flocked to the KewGardens in Queens, the residential neighborhood where the murder had taken place. The witnesses were chewed up in the press, but many now claim the article was misleading. No neighbor witnessed the entire attack, as it was spread out over three different areas. But the fact remains that an early call to the police could have changed everything.

Kitty’s murder jumpstarted a new line of psychological research into the phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. Experts found the probability of help is related to the number of bystanders; the more people watching, the less likely they are to intervene. In a world full of apathy and self-preservation, most people assume someone else will make the call or step in to help.

Television was also blamed for the inaction.

“We underestimate the damage that these accumulated images do to the brain. The immediate effect can be delusional, equivalent to a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion. The witnesses became confused and paralyzed by the violence they witnessed outside their window. They were fascinated by the drama, by the action, and yet not entirely sure that what was taking place was actually happening.”
–Psychiatrist Ralph S. Banay

Winston Mosely

The attacker was identified as Winston Moseley. He was later arrested in connection with burglary charges and confessed to the murder of Kitty Genovese and two others. His confession details the attack, and he stated his motivation was to kill a woman. He chose Kitty at random.

Moseley showed no remorse and was given the death sentence. But in 1967, the New York Court of Appeals found that Moseley should have been able to argue he was medically insane at the sentencing hearing, and the sentence was reduce to life.

During a 1968 trip to the hospital for surgery, Moseley attacked a guard and beat him, then took a bat and started swinging at those around him. He took five hostages, raping one in front of her husband. He was recaptured after a two-day manhunt. Moseley has been denied bail thirteen times. His next hearing is in November.

Kitty’s murder is a sad representation of some of our worst traits: apathy and selfishness. What would you have done? Do you know of any other murders affected by the Bystander Effect.

20 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect”

  1. I have heard of this case before but not in such grizzly detail! Ugh. It's so, so sad. I think this case it what started people really talking about this bystander effect isn't it? Everyone talks about it now and I think most of us would say we would have called the police. I can't imagine NOT calling the police. But it sure makes you think. Out of all those people NO ONE called. What was the deal? I still don't understand it.

  2. That's simply horrifying. I definitely would've called the police and yelled out my window at the guy. I wouldn't have gone outside and taken him on though. But still, I would've tried to get help for her.

  3. Michael AnnIt's really sad. From my understanding, it is what started the big discussion of the bystander effect. I can't imagine not calling the police, either. It's one thing to be scared get involved, but to sit in your apartment and not pic up the phone blows my mind.AngelaNo, I can't. 32 minutes that poor girl spent fighting for her life must have been awful. I'm sure she kept thinking that at any moment someone would show up. The reports are a bit confusing, but from what I read, one woman did try to call the police but was so scared she couldn't get the words out.KellyI would have, too. I wouldn't have gone outside, but I damn sure would have called the cops. Couldn't have lived with myself if I hadn't.

  4. Keep in mind, these were the days before 911 – you probably had to get out the phone book and look up the number. And I just read another article on this, testing at what number of people the bystander effect happens, only I can't find the link (five or more people, I think.) I'd like to think I would do something – and also hope I never have to.

  5. Beverly – that's a good point and one I hadn't thought of. Calling them wouldn't be as easier as it would be today. The effect of a crowd is fascinating to me. It's amazing how much our mentality can change. Thanks!

  6. Chilling, Tracy. I felt the hair rise on my head as I read this. That poor woman! I know I would do something. I stopped three people fighting outside in an alley behind my townhome in Virginia when I lived there. You do have to be careful. But being careful doesn't mean there's nothing to be done.Lovely writing, Tracy. Very polished style.

  7. Thanks, Cynthia. It's very sad. Wow, good for you on stopping that fight. That would be scary as a woman. Appreciate the compliments!

  8. I don't think I could have done nothing. However, I've seen some interesting things happen with people as a group. Peer pressure, even if it's unspoken is amazing. If one man had run out there and hollered at the guy, another man would have probably joined him. Then, the meanest woman on the block would have gotten in on the action. It's like people need someone to act first. I'd heard the story before, but you renewed the horror of it for me. Good job. 😉

  9. Wow, that is chilling. Very sad to know that poor girl needed help and no one even took the chance to save her. A sobering reminder to NOT just be a bystander.

  10. CatiePeer pressure is definitely amazing. It goes hand in hand with the mob mentality and the development of cults. I can't imagine being swayed so strongly, yet it happens a lot. You're right, people always wait for someone to act first. And thanks, glad you enjoyed it.LauraI'm sure it does, too. Apathy isn't something that's gone away, especially in the big cities. Thanks for your comment!JessicaI wonder what it was like for those witnesses after the fact? I would hope they had some guilt and a lot of prayer. Thanks for commenting!

  11. Finally was able to get a moment to read your blog; which I always enjoy, btw. :)As I sat here reading it, all I could say over and over was "oh my god. oh my god." How horrific! That girl; I can only imagine how she fought so hard to live.The by-stander effect is (to borrow an already used above word) chilling. I hope to never be in that situation because I don't know what I'd do. I'd like to say I'd call, but would shock and horror render me unable to move? Would fear freeze me in place? If terror immobilized me, would I then become just as guilty of murder as the man wielding the knife? That, I can say with confidence- if I didn't call, the self-accusations would eat away at me for life.Human psychology is fascinating. Thank you again for these things to mull over; it actually is very inspiring for what I like to write.

  12. Thanks, Tressa! I know, the idea of what must have went through her mind really gets to me. It is incredibly chilling. I think in a situation like the above, most of us would at least call the police. I can't say that I would go down there and try to do something physically, but I'd have to do something. Like you, the self-accusations would make me crazy.You're very welcome. Thanks for commenting!

  13. That is terrible. I want to be disgusted–am disgusted–but I have to admit that there have been times where neighbors have been screaming and cursing and I haven't done anything. I've been too scared, knowing what those people were capable of and not wanting to become a target for retaliation. Sometimes it's hard to know what exactly is happening. I would like to think that if I knew or saw an actual attack, I would call 911, though probably after locking myself in the bathroom.

  14. AngelaYou know, I can empathize with that. And you probably never think someone's getting killed, just yet another bad fight. Would be a tough position to be in.Thanks for commenting!

  15. I love true crime stories and I had never heard of this one. Absolutely awful! I am not a fighter, so I wouldn't throw myself in the middle of a violent crime, but I would YELL and call 9-1-1 if I ever saw anything like this. Of course, I'd feel better with a taser in my purse….

  16. Me, too, Annie. So sad.Tiffany, I love true crime stories and hadn't heard of this one, either. I wouldn't throw myself in the middle either, but like you, I'd have done something. Thanks, ladies!

  17. Anonymous

    If she had a licensed handgun she could saved herself. Police are first responders, having a gun is an instant responder.

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