The Rape and Murder of Kitty Genovese: When Witnesses Don’t Help (The Bystander Effect)

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A Brief History

On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, a 28-year-old resident of Queens, New York City was stabbed to death near her neighborhood.  The media reported that at least 38 people in the vicinity witnessed the attack but had done nothing to help, even failing to call the police, which allowed the attacker to return to the scene and finish his killing.

Digging Deeper

These reports were repeated in nearly all major media outlets, creating an uproar and outrage about the “bystander effect” in which citizens witness a crime but offer no assistance.  Americans became disgusted with one another, and the country engaged in soul searching on a massive scale.

The problem is that although Kitty was indeed murdered, the circumstances were not as reported.  In fact, one person did yell at the attacker from his window and several others had called the police, but no one realized that Kitty had been stabbed as she had staggered out of sight, and for some reason, the police were slow to respond.

The attacker returned a short time later and continued his assault.  Again the police were called, this time responding in a timely manner, but it was too late.  Kitty had suffered fatal wounds and died in the arms of a local witness, Sophia Farrar, who had left her apartment and gone to the stricken woman’s aid.

The attacker, Winston Moseley, had also raped the wounded woman before finally leaving her to die, with the entire incident spanning about 30 minutes.  Genovese’s death seems more a result of slow police response than uncaring witnesses, but in any case, only 1 or 2 witnesses realized what was really happening.  The others heard or only saw bits and pieces of the incident and did not realize a rape/murder was taking place.

Moseley had, in his words, been on a mission to “kill a woman,” and was apparently a twisted, evil goof.  After being sentenced to death and having his sentence changed to life in prison upon appeal, Moseley managed to escape from prison in 1968 and went on a crime spree, taking people hostage and raping a woman.  He was given 2 more 15-year sentences for those crimes, and, in 1970, was part of the infamous Attica prison riot.  While in jail, this miserable creep managed to get a B.A. in Sociology. Having already been turned down for parole 17 times, Moseley continues to rot in prison right where he belongs.

Martin Gansberg of the New York Times is apparently the source of the misinformation about the event, when he wrote an investigative report blaring “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.” First off, only about a dozen people saw any part of the event, and people did call the police.  Gansberg quoted the apocryphal “unidentified” neighbor who did not call the cops because he “didn’t want to get involved.” 

Despite the fact that the lack of witness response has now been discredited, the tale of Kitty Genovese remains a tale of uncaring, gutless citizens and a sign of the decline of America as a society.  It is true though that people often decide to “not get involved” and thereby allow the triumph of evil through their inaction.  With the proliferation of cell phones, hopefully more folks will be encouraged to call the police and record any crimes they witness.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever helped a victim when he or she was being assaulted?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cook, Kevin.  Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.