Kitty Genovese, Revised

Kitty Genovese, Revised

The New York Times account of Kitty Genovese's murder--and the 38 citizens who supposedly watched and did nothing--shocked the world. Much of the story, it turns out, was untrue.

Read Time:
2m 44sec

THE SOURCE: “Nightmare on Austin Street” by Jim Rasenberger, in American Heritage, Oct. ­2006.

The story appeared at the bottom of the front page of The New York Times on March 27, 1964. It began, “For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, ­law-­abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew ­Gardens.

“Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

The killing of Kitty Genovese by a mentally ill machine operator named Winston Moseley led to more than 1,000 books, articles, plays, scripts, and ­songs—­not about the crime, but about the Bad Samaritans, the 38 ordinary Americans who watched their neighbor ­die.

But the story wasn’t quite true, writes Jim Rasenberger, an author and screenwriter. It is true that neighbors should have done more to help Genovese when she was chased and stabbed after return­ing at 3 am from her job as a bar manager. And it is true that some people, perhaps as many as seven, saw something of an attack, and a larger number heard her call for ­help.

Other conclusions and facts, however, were exaggerated or wrong, Rasenberger writes. Moseley didn’t attack her three times, but two. The police got that wrong. ­Thirty-­eight people could not physically have watched the murder because of the geography of the site. After Genovese was first stabbed on the street, she stumbled around the back of a building and into a foyer, out of view and earshot of nearly all potential witnesses. That is where Moseley found her the second time, tried to rape her, stabbed her, and left her to bleed to death. Someone called the police after the first ­attack.

The story triggered nationwide soul-searching about callous, inhuman New Yorkers who would stand by during a murder because, as one witness explained in the story, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Subsequent psychological research sug­gested that the reason was more likely to be confusion, fear, misap­prehension, or uncertainty. Some neighbors may have thought that it was a lover’s quarrel, or that Genovese was drunk when she staggered from the scene of the first attack. An account pieced together from court testimony by lawyer and Kew Gardens resident Joseph De May (at suggests that some of the elderly residents of the apartment complex thought the fight may have spilled out of a bar near where the first stabbing occurred. Only one person admitted seeing a ­knife.

The late New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal stood by the newspaper’s account until his death last May. “In a story that gets a lot of attention, there’s always somebody who’s saying, ‘Well, that’s not really what it’s supposed to be,” he told Rasenberger. “There may have been 38. There may have been 39.”

More From This Issue