Kitty Genovese,
picture from
The New York Times article:
"Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder
Didn't Call
the Police"

Like Richard Nixon, Kitty Genovese actually existed. Today she is only half-remembered (if at all) as a story which has passed into the realms of urban legend lore . . .

In short: Kitty Genovese – or Catherine Susan Genovese – was a New York City woman who was stabbed to death near her home in Queens, New York. According to media reports of the time as many as forty of her apartment block neighbors heard her cries for help, but not one of them bothered to help or even so much as phone the police. According to one report (repeated by sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison in one of his books) one man even cranked up the volume of his radio so that he couldn’t hear her screaming. At the time the incident was seen as yet another example of the callousness or apathy prevalent in urban America, or humanity in general. The much-publicized event also gave birth to a psychological theory called the “bystander effect”.

An article in Wikipedia elaborates:

Social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latané started this line of research, showing that contrary to common expectations, larger numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim. The reasons include the fact that onlookers see that others are not helping either, that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.

Thus the Kitty Genovese became a classic feature of social psychology textbooks. In Watchmen Rorschach retells the story as follows in his own inimical staccato style:

Kitty Genovese. I’m sure that was the woman’s name. Raped. Tortured. Killed. Here. In New York. Outside her own apartment building. Almost forty neighbors heard screams. Nobody did anything. Nobody called cops. Some of them even watched. Do you understand? Some of them even watched.

Dave Gibbons melodramatically illustrates the panels in question showing people standing in hallways looking down (see on this page) or out of their open windows. Yet the real incident was nothing of the sort . . .

Wikipedia recounts the events of the attack itself:

At the time of her death, [Genovese] was working as a bar manager […] [She] had driven home in the early morning of March 13 1964. Arriving home at about 3:15 a.m. and parking about 100 feet from her apartment's door, she was approached by Winston Moseley, a business machine operator. Moseley ran after her and quickly overtook her, stabbing her twice in the back. Genovese screamed, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” It was heard by several neighbors; but on a cold night with the windows closed, only a few of them recognized the sound as a cry for help. When one of the neighbors shouted at the attacker, “Let that girl alone!”, Moseley ran away and Genovese slowly made her way towards her own apartment around the end of the building. She was seriously injured, but now out of view of those few who may have had reason to believe she was in need of help.

Records of the earliest calls to police are unclear and were certainly not given a high priority by the police. One witness said his father called police after the initial attack and reported that a woman was ‘beat up, but got up and was staggering around.’

Other witnesses observed Moseley enter his car and drive away, only to return ten minutes later. In his car, he changed his hat to a wide-rimmed one to shadow his face. He systematically searched the parking lot, train station, and small apartment complex, ultimately finding Genovese, who was lying, barely conscious, in a hallway at the back of the building. Out of view of the street and of those who may have heard or seen any sign of the original attack, he proceeded to further attack her, stabbing her several more times. Knife wounds in her hands suggested that she attempted to defend herself from him. While she lay dying, he sexually assaulted her. He stole about $49 from her and left her dying in the hallway. The attacks spanned approximately half an hour.

A few minutes after the final attack a witness, Karl Ross, called the police. Police and medical personnel arrived within minutes of Ross' call; Genovese was taken away by ambulance and died en route to the hospital. Later investigation by police and prosecutors revealed that approximately a dozen (but almost certainly not the 38 cited in the Times article) individuals nearby had heard or observed portions of the attack, though none could have seen or been aware of the entire incident. Only one witness (Joseph Fink) was aware she was stabbed in the first attack, and only Karl Ross was aware of it in the second attack. Many were entirely unaware that an assault or homicide was in progress; some thought that what they saw or heard was a lovers' quarrel or a drunken brawl or a group of friends leaving the bar outside when Moseley first approached Genovese.

So what was it that catapulted Kitty Genovese into the pages of history, or at least Alan Moore’s Watchmen? A New York Times article headlined “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police” published two weeks after the attack. The bit that stood out most for the public in the article was a quote by an unidentified neighbor who saw part of the attack but deliberated, before finally getting another neighbor to call the police, saying “I didn’t want to get involved.”


The real Kitty Genovese incident was nothing as depicted
in the Watchmen graphic novel . . .


But if Kitty Genovese’s neighbors aren’t enough to make one ashamed for humanity and share Rorschach’s “negative world view” (as his shrink puts it) then surely her attacker, Winston Moseley, would do the trick.

Wikipedia recounts:

Winston Moseley [. . .] was later apprehended in connection with burglary charges; he confessed not only to the murder of Kitty Genovese, but to two other murders, both involving sexual assaults. Subsequent psychiatric examinations suggested that Moseley was a necrophile. [Someone who has an erotic attraction to or sexual contact with corpses.]

He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Moseley gave a confession to the police in which he detailed the attack, corroborating the physical evidence at the scene. His motive for the attack was simply “to kill a woman.” Moseley stated that he got up that night around 2:00 a.m., leaving his wife asleep at home, and drove around to find a victim. He spied Genovese and followed her to the parking lot.

Moseley also testified at his own trial where he further described the attack, leaving no question that he was the killer.

The initial death sentence was reduced to an indeterminate sentence/lifetime imprisonment on June 1 1967. […] In 1968, during a trip to a Buffalo, New York hospital for surgery (precipitated by a soup can he placed in his own rectum as a pretext to leave prison), Moseley overpowered a guard and beat him up to the point that his eyes were bloody. He then took a bat and swung it at the closest person to him and took five hostages, raping one of them before he was recaptured after a two-day manhunt. He also participated in the later Attica Prison riots.

Moseley is in prison to this very day after being denied parole a thirteenth time in 2008. It would appear that Moseley, a business machine operator, has missed his true calling though. During a previous parole hearing he said in his defense that “for a victim outside, it’s a one-time or one-hour or one-minute affair, but for the person who’s caught, it’s forever.” Moseley should have been a lawyer!

(Update: The Kitty Genovese episode didn't make it to the movie version of Watchmen incidentally. Watchmen will be released on 6 March 2009 in the States and elsewhere. All images are used without permission for the purpose of review; no copyright infringement or trademark violation is intended, nor should any be construed under the "fair use" doctrine.)



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