Kitty Genovese and the Myth of the 38

Kitty GenoveseKitty Genovese was the young woman who was stabbed to death in New York in 1964. She became famous in death because of reporting by The New York Times and later by Times‘ editor AM Rosenthal’s book, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case. The story was that as she was attacked 38 neighbors watched and did nothing. I’ve long known that the story was largely a myth, but it was only today when I listened to CounterSpin that learned just how much of a myth it was.

The show interviewed Marcia Gallo, who last year published the book, “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy. The main thing I knew about the case was that when Genovese was first attacked by Winston Moseley, a man opened his window and yelled at the perpetrator — who then ran away. It’s just that she had already been stabbed; Moseley came back later and finished her off.

What I did not know was that after Moseley first ran away, she then went around the corner and collapsed inside a vestibule where the door was locked. When Moseley again attacked and attempted to rape her, she was yelling for help, but feebly (for obvious reasons) and out of sight. A friend of her’s in the building opened his door, scaring away Moseley again. As the friend called for help, another neighbor held Genovese in her arms until the ambulance arrived. It’s actually a touching scene all around with tenderness as well as the horror of it all with neighbors trying to hold themselves together enough to be helpful. Unfortunately, Genovese died of her wounds on the way to the hospital.

All of us can get behind the idea of individuals being nice to each other. But this is a traditional conservative dodge — used effectively to limit solidarity.

So where does the this notion of 38 witnesses who did nothing come from? Well, the police. In trying to find her murderer, the police were frustrated by neighbors’ lack of interest in helping them — in many cases, refusing even to open the door. But this got morphed into the idea that there were all these people who just sat by and watched Kitty Genovese be murdered. It’s certainly true that some number of people saw or heard some part of one or the other of the attacks. But as we see: at least three of them did do something.

Kitty Genovese’s Murder as Ideological Fodder

What I got from the interview with Gallo was how the case was used for other purposes. In particular, AM Rosenthal was very interested in how individuals allow bad things to happen by not speaking up. He was particularly interested in the rise of Nazism and so on. But he also seems to have been fundamentally conservative. He did not like the social movements that were rising at the time. So he used the case (probably without knowing it) as a way of putting down social movements in the name of individuals treating each other well.

Now, all of us can get behind the idea of individuals being nice to each other. But this is a traditional conservative dodge — used effectively to limit solidarity. It is very curious in the Kitty Genovese case, however, because even had he been right, the issue wouldn’t have been the lack of one-on-one care, but the lack of social cohesion — the lack of solidarity.

Interestingly, we know Rosenthal to be conservative in a couple of ways. For one, he was very keen on the Iraq War. But the other is that he was highly homophobic and this resulted in The New York Times being slow to report on the AIDS epidemic. But Kitty Genovese was a lesbian herself. And I wonder if that fact didn’t contribute to his more easily using Kitty Genovese as simply a means to his ideological ends.

Afterword

Winston Moseley was caught six days after the attack, because his neighbors turned him in for a burglary they had witnessed. This whole idea that city people lose their sense of community is just ridiculous.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Kitty Genovese and the Myth of the 38

  1. Very interesting, I never knew the true story. AM’s attitude seems to be that without strict conformity, chaos and destruction await civilization. It’s an old conservative bugaboo, how we had less crime before society became so “permissive.” But we’ve always had deranged sex killers; liberalism didn’t invent or inspire them.

    And given what we know about the state of the NYPD in 1964 (I’m sure it’s FAR better now) I can’t blame people in an apartment building for avoiding all contact with the cops whenever possible.

    • I’d be interested to see long-term crime stats. Because in the 19th century, a lot of crimes were never noticed, much less investigated and solved. Look at HH Holmes! People just disappeared. I think liberalism has brought less crime. It has certainly brought less war, although it can be hard to see.

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