At 3:15am on March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was sexually assaulted and killed in front of her home in Kew Gardens, Queens. According to the police report, her attacker, Winston Moseley, assaulted Genovese three separate times over the course of a half hour, while dozens of her neighbors looked on and did nothing.
Two weeks after the murder, Martin Gansberg reported the story for The New York Times. “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector” was the headline of the now famous March 27, 1964 piece. “For more than half an hour,” the article began, “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” Relying largely on the police’s reconstruction of the incident, Gansberg went on to describe the gruesome details of the attack, and the disturbing indifference of Genovese’s neighbors, who ignored her repeated cries for help.
The article sparked national outrage over the apathy of the 38 bystanders. Writers and artists blasted the heartlessness of urban society and wailed over the “callous, chickenhearted and immoral people” we were becoming. The Genovese murder led social psychologists to coin the term “bystander effect,” or “Genovese syndrome,” which describes the diffusion-of-responsibility phenomenon that occurs when more than one bystander is present during an emergency situation. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one will intervene.
For decades, Gansberg’s story was the definitive account of the incident; and “Genovese syndrome”—based on the facts reported in the Times—has been an entry in social psychology textbooks for at least two generations. But in recent years, a number of people—in particular Joseph De May, a lawyer and Kew Gardens resident—reexamined the court transcripts and other legal documents of the case and have argued that Gansberg’s account of the murder was inaccurate.
Genovese was attacked by Moseley twice, not three times. Genovese was out of sight for most people in the apartment building, and it seems unlikely that she’d would’ve been able to call for help, because Moseley had punctured her lungs. Rather than the 38 uncaring witnesses to the crime, the assistant prosecutor of the case told De May that there were “only maybe five or six people who saw anything that [we] could use.”
According to these more recent studies, none of the bystanders witnessed the attacks in their entirety, due to the layout of the apartment complex and the fact that the two attacks took place in different locations. Moreover, few were aware that anything as serious as an assault was occurring. A 2007 review of the case, published by the American Psychological Association, found that “there is no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive.”
The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.
Tags: bystander effect, Genovese syndrome, Kew Gardens, Kitty Genovese, Martin Gansberg