Who Was Kitty Genovese?

Murder, Bystanders, and How One Crime Influenced Psychology

On an early morning in the spring of 1964, Catherine ("Kitty") Genovese drove home from her job as a bar manager in New York City. As she made her way back to her apartment, she was attacked and murdered by a man named Winston Moseley.

A terrible crime, certainly, but what was it about this particular murder that made Genovese's name so known 50 years later. Because as reported in a now-famous (and somewhat inaccurate) story published after the attack in The New York Times, 37 neighbors witnessed at least part of the attack, but did not help.

The story prompted psychological investigations into the phenomenon that has since become known as the bystander effect as well as what is known as the diffusion of responsibility. As a result, Genovese's name made its way into history, now familiar to virtually anyone who has ever taken an introductory course in psychology.

The Attack

At 3 in the morning, Genovese drove home from her job at began to walk toward her apartment. When a strange man approached her, she became frightened began to run away. The man rushed after her and proceeded to stab Genovese twice in the back.

"Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" she screamed.

While the original article published in The New York Times implied that all of the neighbors had clearly heard her calls for help, the reality was that most of the neighbors could not clearly hear what was going on and the vast majority were unaware that the noises they heard were pleas for help.

One neighbor opened his window and shouted for the man to "Let that girl alone!" Moseley fled as a result, and the injured Genovese began to slowly make her way toward the rear entrance of her apartment.

At this point, Genovese was seriously hurt and in need of help, but had now moved out of view of any witnesses.

Moseley then returned about ten minutes later, located the barely conscious Genovese, and stabbed her several more times. Those who originally heard the attack were no longer witness to the murder. Moselely then raped her, stole approximately $50, and left her in the hallway to die.

The attack spanned a period of approximately 30 minutes. Shortly after the final attack, a neighbor called authorities and police arrived within a few minutes. An ambulance arrived to take Genovese at around 4:15am, but she died before reaching the hospital.

The Aftermath

The original story reporting the attack appeared in The New York Times two weeks after the murder. "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" the title proclaimed. While the original story suggested that the neighbors had heard the attack and simply failed to respond, the reality was that only one neighbor was aware that Genovese had been stabbed in the first attack and only one other neighbor was aware of the second attack. The majority of the other witnesses had no idea that the commotion that they heard outside their windows was a murder.

Most assumed that what they had heard was either a drunken argument or a lover's quarrel.

The story caused a public furor and neighbors were vilified for their inaction. One comment published in the story - "I didn't want to get involved" - became famous for typifying bystander behavior.

A 2007 study reported that many of the initial claims made by the original story that appeared in The New York Times were quite simply false. None of the 37 people nearby witnessed the attack in its entirety and most had no idea that a murder was occurring outside. The complexity and layout of the street meant that most of the neighbors did not have a clear view of what was going on.

The Impact on Psychology

Regardless, the story prompted a large amount of psychological research into the bystander effect. Researchers discovered that when a large number of people are present, it becomes less likely for any one person to come forward to offer assistance. A number of factors can increase the likelihood that this will happen, including situations that are ambiguous or fear of helping when other people are watching.

Learn more about the bystander effect and related topics:

References

Gansberg, M. (March 27, 1964). 37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police. New York Times.

Manning R., Levine, M. and Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.

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