|Kitty Genovese behind the bar at Erv's.|
Fifty years ago today, the grisly murder barely attracted much notice in the press. Then, as now, street crime in New York and other big cities was too common to make front page headlines, even when the victim was a pretty young white woman. If it hadn’t been for an offhand comment by Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy to a New York Times editor “That Queens story is one for the books” the paper would not have launched an investigation that two weeks later splashed across the front page and seared the conscience of a nation.
The sensational account of the crime by Martin Gansberg claimed “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” That account was repeated and accepted as gospel for decades until a careful investigation, interviews with witnesses, sifting through old police files, and trying to make sense of chaotic police telephone records showed that much of that account was dead wrong and a lot else misleading.
But that may be beside the point. The murder of Kitty Genovese entered the American consciousness entirely separate from the reality of her life and death and became a touchstone for anxiety about a society that just did not give a damn or bother to bestir itself for fear of “getting involved.”
Genovese herself was much like many young women of that day—or this. Born in Brooklyn the eldest of five children in a typical working class Italian-American family in 1939, she had elected to stay in New York after her parents fled to the Connecticut suburbs shortly after she graduated from high school. Her mother had witnessed a street killing prompting the move.
But Kitty wanted the life and excitement of the city. She found it. Starting as a waitress and then a cocktail waitress she had worked her way up in the bar business. She now had a good job as manager of Ev’s Eleventh Hour Sports Bar.
She also found romance and a relationship, albeit one that she kept from her parents. She lived in an apartment in the middle class neighborhood of Kew Gardens in central Queens with her lover and life partner Mary Ann Zielonko. The nature of their relationship was not revealed for years until Zielonko was interviewed for an NPR radio documentary in 2004.
Early Friday morning Genovese finished her shift at the bar. After locking up she drove the several blocks to her apartment arriving after 3 am. She parked in a Long Island Railroad station parking lot near her building and was walking to the entrance in the alley for her rear-facing unit. Before she got there she was frightened by a menacing man. She began running seeking shelter in the front entrance to the building. The man easily caught up to her and overpowered the barely 5 foot tall woman. He stabbed her twice in the back. Genovese screamed “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!”
Several residents of the apartment building heard something outside. But windows were shut in the cold spring night and almost everyone was asleep. Most rolled over without investigating assuming it was a domestic argument or just rowdies returning from a bar. A couple went to their windows but could not get a clear look at what was happening. Robert Mozer, however threw open his window and shouted “Hey! Let that girl alone.” Frightened, the attacker dropped Genovese and fled.
One or two others apparently called police. In those days calls to police were often made directly to local precinct houses or to other numbers. In a precinct a desk sergeant or a civilian operator without specialized training would take the calls. Whoever received calls about the attack evidently dismissed them as a minor street row and dispatched no car. The surviving son of one caller reported that his dad told the cops that a woman had been beaten but was now “up and staggering.”
Kitty was indeed staggering. She was wounded but alive. She tried to reach her own doorway in the ally, but collapsed outside, away from the view of any witness from the front of the building. Those on the back side had never been aroused by street clamor.
The man Genovese encountered that night was Winston Moseley from South Ozone Park in Queens. Like her he was 29 years old. About 2 am he had risen from his bed and snuck out of his apartment leaving his wife and two children asleep. He was on a mission. He intended to kill a woman because, he later told police, “they were easier and didn’t fight back.” He also told them that it was not his first such attack. He had already killed two other women. He also had committed a string of at least 30 burglaries, all undetected.
Mosely wandered around until he spotted Genovese, the perfect target.
After being frightened away Moseley returned to his car and drove around for a few minutes, driving by the scene until he was sure the police were not responding. He parked, put on a hat, and got out of the car beginning a meticulous search of the area for Genovese. Almost 30 minutes after the original attack he found her, weak but still conscious. He stabbed her seven more times, raped her, and took $45 in cash from her purse before fleeing on foot.
The second commotion awoke neighbors in the back of the building. Sophia Farrar threw on a robe and emerged from the building to find Genovese lying, moaning in pool of blood. She cradled the injured woman in her arms trying to comfort her. Meanwhile another neighbor, Joe Ross, investigated and then returned to make a phone call to police that they finally responded to. In the upstairs apartment she shared with Kitty, Mary Ann Zielonko, had slept through the entire attack and was only roused by sirens when the cops finally arrived shortly after 4 am.
Kitty Genovese died of her wounds in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Moseley got away from the murder scene cleanly. No witness had gotten a clear look at him. None even noted that he was Black.
Six days later, his luck ran out when he was nabbed in the commission of a burglary. Once in custody he began blabbing. He confessed to the Genovese murder, providing details only the killer would know and evidence was retrieved from his car. He also fessed up to the other killings and burglaries. Given a psychiatric exam, he was described as a necrophiliac.
All of this transpired before the Times article transformed the story into a nation-wide sensation. Clearly that story was wrong from the beginning. There were not 37 or 38 do-nothing witnesses. At most twelve saw or heard a portion of the attack. None saw or heard both attacks. Most could not identify the commotion, and of those who did only one realized that Kitty had been stabbed. Phone calls were made to police. One man had intervened in the first attack, and at least two had come to her aid afterwards.
But at least one witness did tell Timesman Gansberg that she didn’t report the “scuffle” she heard outside because, “she didn’t want to be involved.” That phrase would stick in public minds and eventually be applied to all of the 38 supposed witnesses.
Justice was swifter in those days. During the trial Moseley took the stand and calmly related all of the details of the murder and his other crimes. He was easily convicted of murder on June 11 despite an insanity plea. Four days later he was given the death penalty. Judge J. Irwin Shapiro remarked, “I don’t believe in capital punishment, but when I see this monster, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the switch myself.”
That was not to be. Two years later the New York Court of Appeals overturned the sentence on the grounds the Moseley should have been allowed to present testimony that he was medically insane in the sentencing hearing. The sentence was changed to “indeterminate sentence/lifetime imprisonment.”
On March 18, 1968 Moseley escaped while being transported back to prison from a hospital in Buffalo, New York where he had minor surgery for a self-inflicted wound. He attacked the transporting officer and stole his service revolver. After fleeing the scene he hid in a vacant house in near-by Grand Island for three days until the couple who owned it came to check on their property. He bound Matthew Kulaga and raped his wife then took off in their car. He went to another local house where he took a woman and her daughter hostage before releasing them. He surrendered to police on March 22.
Convicted of a slew of new crimes, Moseley was returned under heavy guard to prison. Moseley participated in the Attica Prison riots in the ‘70’ and later in the decade, obtained a B.A. in Sociology Niagara University while studying behind bars. Since first becoming eligible for parole he has been rejected 17 times, the latest last December. Moseley will never be released.
In the weeks, months, and years after the Times article appeared, the story of the uninvolved witnessed gripped the American imagination and stirred endless outrage. Back in those innocent times, conservatives and liberals were united in that outrage. Preachers and pundits roared. Liberal artists made the event a symbol for an uncaring society.
Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison became obsessed with the case and attacked the “thirty-six motherfuckers…[who] and stood by and watched Genovese get knifed to death right in front of them, and wouldn’t make a move” in articles in the Los Angeles Free Press and Rolling Stone. In 1984 he revisited the story with the same outrage in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In between he penned a novella based on the incident.
Protest singer/songwriter Phil Ochs made the killing the lead in his searing indictment of society, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends:
Oh, look outside the window
There’s a woman being grabbed
They’ve dragged her to the bushes
And now she's being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops
And try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun
I’d hate to blow the game
And I’m sure
It wouldn’t interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.
Unfortunately that unanimity of left and right, even if based on a skewed narrative of the event, could never happen today. It would quickly break down with claims that Genovese or those bystanders should have pulled a gun—an idea that did not surface at all in 1964. Back then, surprisingly, race was not an issue in the case. Today it would be front and center. And finally Genovese’s lesbianism would have erased her victim status for many on the right and the left might have lifted her up as a victim of a hate crime.
There were long lasting effects of the Genovese case. It became endlessly analyzed and led to the development of a popular psychological theory on the diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.
In New York City the case provoked reforms in the Police telephone reporting and dispatch system, eventually being instrumental in the development of the 911 universal emergency number and highly trained dispatchers. It is also credited with being the inspiration for the development of neighborhood watch programs which have spread across the country.
Fifty years after the fact, we can sort the facts from the legend. But let neither the lurid crime story nor sociological fable that grew out of it obscure the memory of the young woman who actually died.