Kitty Genovese: The Murder With 38 Witnesses

Kitty at the bar she managed
Kitty Genovese’s mug shot from 1961
Behind Kitty Genovese’s apartment building

You’re in high school walking down the hall on the way to your next class. Another student walks by and they don’t realize their backpack is open. One of their books falls out and lands on the floor but in the crowded space they don’t hear the telltale thud; signaling that they had dropped something. You pause for a moment and consider telling them but shrug your shoulders and think about how you don’t want to be late for your next class. Besides another person will pick up the book and let them know. But do they? You don’t know if the student got their book back any more than you know if they didn’t.

We all do it. We want to be good people, good Samaritans, and like to think that we would help someone in danger without a second thought; even if they are a stranger. And if we are the only person around to witness the event, we most likely will. But if we are in a crowded space and others have seen what had happened too, we automatically assume that someone else will handle things and decide it’s best not to get involved.

Please don’t assume that it’s our fault (unless you’re a horrific person). We aren’t bad people. Our brains have just been wired to follow what has come to be known as the “bystander effect”. One of the most well-known examples of this effect is Kitty Genovese. A young woman who was murdered in front of 38 people and out of those 38 people only 3 people took some kind of action. But it was all in vain because help would arrive too late for poor Kitty.

Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese (no relation to New York’s Genovese crime family) was born in Brooklyn, New York City on July 7, 1935, to Rachel and Vincent Genovese. She was the eldest of five children in her Italian American family. Kitty attended the all-girl Prospect Heights High School and was described as “self-assured beyond her years” and having a “sunny disposition”. After Rachel became an unlikely witness to a murder, her family moved to New Canaan, Connecticut in 1954. Genovese remained in Brooklyn with her grandparents to prepare for an upcoming marriage. She married later that year, but the marriage was eventually annulled before the end of 1954 due to Genovese’s sexuality as a lesbian. 

Around 2:30 a.m. on March 13,1964, Kitty drove home from her job at the bar. She was noticed by Winston Moseley, who was parked in his car when she stopped at a red light on Hoover Avenue. She arrived home around 3:15 a.m. and parked her car in a lot approximately 100 feet (30 meters) from her apartment building. She decided to enter the building from the back alley since she believed it was safer than entering in the front. It’s funny how people think differently. I would have parked in front of the building because I would have assumed there would be more lighting and in my mind that would have been safer than walking down the dark back alley. Unbeknownst (great SAT work, right?) to Genovese; Mosely had followed her home. Always keep your head on a swivel because there are crazy people out there.

He quickly exited his car, which he had parked at a corner bus stop on Austin Street and approached Kitty with a hunting knife in his hand. This of course scared the hell out of Kitty, and she began to run towards the front of her apartment building, but Mosley chased her. Once he caught back up with Genovese he overtook and stabbed her twice in the back. The terrified and wounded woman screamed, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Many neighbors who had been woken from their slumber heard her cry, but only a few recognized the sound as a cry for help. One of Kitty’s neighbors, Rober Mozer, leaned out his window and shouted, “Let that girl alone!”. Moseley ran away and Genovese slowly made her way to the rear entrance. She was seriously, but not fatally injured. 

Witnesses saw Mosely get into his car, drive away, and return ten minutes later. He had put on a wide-brimmed hat to shadow his face. Isn’t it a little too late for that? He began to strategically search the parking lot, train station, and an apartment complex, eventually finding Kitty lying in a hallway towards the back of the building, where a locked door had stopped her from being able to go inside further. Moseley stabbed Genovese several more times before raping her, stealing $49.00, and running away again. In total, the attack spanned approximately 30 minutes. Kitty’s close friend and neighbor, Sophia Farrar, found her shortly after the second attack. She stated that the knife wounds on her hands suggested that she had tried to defend herself against her attacker. Farrar held her friend in her arms and tried to comfort her until an ambulance arrived, even though she knew it would arrive all too late. Another neighbor came out of his apartment building upon hearing the commotion but fled back inside and shut the door stating that “he didn’t want to get involved.” I’m sorry sir but all I heard was ‘I’m a little bitch and was too scared to help.’

The murder occurred four years before New York City implemented the 911 emergency call system. So, records of the earliest calls to the police are unclear and were not given a high priority. One witness who was a teenager at the time heard Kitty’s cries for help and woke up his father, telling him that he thought something bad was happening outside. He told reporters that his dad called the police after the initial attack and reported that a woman was “beat up but got up and was staggering around.” A few minutes after the second attack on Kitty had taken place another witness, Karl Ross, called friends for advice on what to do before calling the police. An ambulance arrived around 4:14 a.m. Kitty Genovese passed away en route to the hospital. She was only 28 years old. She was laid to rest on March 16, 1964, in Lakeview Cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut.

To recap, there were 38 people inside the apartment building, 38 witnesses to a murder. One person yelled out a window during the attack, one called the police, and another called the police after chatting with his friends. What the hell were the other 35 people doing? Why didn’t more people call the authorities during the initial attack? Why didn’t one single person go outside to assist Kitty? Why did they basically hear someone dying and act like nothing had happened? My parents raised my brother and me to be good people. I’d like to say that we are good, kindhearted people. I would like to think that we would both go outside and throw hands to try and save the person being attacked. I’m not saying these were bad people or anything because chances are most of them weren’t.

Mary Ann Zielonko was questioned by Detective Mitchell Sang (sang what? Dude, I’m hilarious) at 7:00 a.m. She was interrogated for six hours by two homicide detectives, John Carroll and Jerry Burns, whose questioning centered around her relationship with Genovese. You have to remember during that time same-sex relationships were not something welcomed in society. Their relationship was also the police’s focus when they questioned neighbors. At the start of the investigation, Zielonko was considered to be a suspect. On March 19, 1964, Winston Moseley was arrested for suspected robbery in Ozone Park after a television was discovered in the trunk of his car.

Moseley’s car was searched after Raoul Cleary, a local man, became suspicious when he saw Moseley removing the television from a neighbor’s house. Cleary confronted Moseley who claimed to be a removal worker. However, after talking to Jack Brown, another neighbor, who confirmed that the homeowners were not moving, Cleary called the police. Brown disabled Moseley’s car to make sure he could not get away before the authorities arrived. An officer at the scene recalled that a white car like Moseley’s had been reported by some of the witnesses to Genovese’s murder, and he informed Detective Carroll and Detective Song. During his interrogation Moseley broke down and confessed to Genovese’s murder. He also confessed to the murders of two other women, Annie Mae Johnson, who had been shot and burned to death in her apartment in South Ozone Park a few weeks prior; and 15-year-old Barbara Kralik, who had been killed in her Springfield Gardens home the previous July. 

Winston Moseley:

29-year-old Winston Moseley was from Ozone Park, Queens, New York, and worked at Remington Rand as a tab operator. He prepared the punched cards used at that time for data input in computers. He was a married father of 3 with no prior criminal record. During his confession Moseley gave a detailed account of his attack on Kitty Genovese, corroborating the physical evidence found at the scene. When asked for a motive Moseley simply replied, “to kill a woman”. He told police that he preferred to kill women because “they were easier and didn’t fight back”. He woke up around 2 a.m. when his wife was working nights as a registered nurse and drove around Queens until he found a victim.

Moseley saw Kitty on her way home and followed her to the parking lot of her apartment building before ultimately killing her. Winston Moseley would eventually confess to the murder and sexual assault of three women (including Kitty) and to committing between 30 and 40 burglaries. Moseley underwent psychiatric examinations and was found to be a necrophile (someone who is aroused by performing sexual acts on a corpse). So basically, they like banging dead people.

Moseley was charged with the murder of Kitty but was not charged with the other two murders he admitted to. A big factor that played into him not being charge was the fact that another man, Alvin Mitchell, had also confessed to the murder of Barbara Kralik. So, the police were like, why confuse things? Let’s just make it easy and keep it as is. Ya know?

Winston Moseley’s trail started on June 8, 1964. He initially pleaded not guilty, but his plea was soon changed to not guilty by reason of insanity. While on the stand Moseley described the events of the night he murdered Kitty Genovese, along with the two others murders he confessed to and numerous other burglaries and rapes. The jury deliberated for only 7 hours before returning with a guilty verdict on June 11, 1964. That sure was a short trial. Winston Moseley was sentenced to death on June 15th. He showed no remorse for his actions and had a blank expression as he was handed down his punishment. Judge J. Irwin Shapiro stated, “I don’t believe in capital punishment, but when I see a monster like this, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the switch myself.” (referring to the common method of execution at the time, electrocution).

Moseley appeared as a witness for the defense at the trial of Alvin Mitchell for the murder of Barbara Kralik on June 23, 1964. After he was granted immunity from prosecution, he testified that he had killed Kralik, and that Mitchell had nothing to do with the murder. The trial produced a hung jury, but Alvin Mitchell was later convicted of the murder at a second trial. Well, that’s that, right? Wrong! On June 1, 1967, the New York Court of Appeals found that Moseley should have been able to argue that he was medically insane at the sentencing hearing when the court found that he had been legally sane. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

On March 18, 1968, Moseley escaped from prison while being transported from Meyer Memorial Hospital in Buffalo, New York, where he had undergone minor surgery for a self-inflicted injury. He attacked the correctional officer, stole his weapon, and ran to a nearby vacant house, where he managed to stay undetected for 3 days. On March 21st, the owners of the home Mr. And Mrs. Matthew Kulaga went to check on the property. They encountered Moseley, who held them hostage for more than an hour. He restrained and gagged Mathew before raping his wife. After the attack, he stole the couple’s car and drove off.

On March 22, 1968, Winston Moseley traveled to Grand Island, where he broke into another home and held a woman and her daughter hostage the next day. After 2 hours he released both females unharmed. He surrendered to police shortly afterward and was charged with escape and kidnapping, to which he plead guilty. He was given 2 additional 15-year sentences to run concurrently with his life sentence. In September 1971, Moseley took part in the Attica Prison riot. He sure was a busy dude. He first became eligible for parole in 1984. During his parole hearing, he told the parole board that the notoriety he faced due to his crimes made him a victim, claiming, “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.” Bitch….WHAT!?

At the same hearing, Moseley told the board that he never intended to kill Kitty Genovese and that he considered her murder to be a mugging because “people do kill people when they mug them sometimes.” This man clearly isn’t playing with a full set of bocce balls. Does he hear the words coming out of his mouth when he speaks? His request for parole was rightfully denied. On March 13, 2008, the 44th anniversary of Genovese’s murder, he went up for parole again. He showed little to no remorse for his crime and was denied again.

Moseley went in front of the parole board for the EIGHTEENTH and final time in November 2015. Surprise, surprise he was denied. Do not pass go, and do not collect $200.00. There is not get out of jail free card you mother loving son of a bitch. Winston Moseley died in prison at the age of 81 on March 28, 2016. He had served a total of 52 years, making him one of the longest-serving inmates in the New York State prison system.

The murder of Kitty Genovese did not receive much immediate media attention. It took a remark from New York City Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy, “That Queens story is one for the books.”, to motivate the Times into publishing an investigative report. The article was written by Martin Gansberg and was published on March 27, 1964, 2 weeks after the murder. The article claimed that 38 witnesses saw the murder, but an error reduced the number of witnesses by one in the headline, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”. The headline was eventually corrected and has been quoted as being 38 witnesses ever since. Many saw the story of Genovese as symbolic of the callousness of life in big cities, and New York in particular.

Public reactions to murders happening in the neighborhood allegedly did not change. According to a December 28, 1974, New York Times article, 25-year-old Sandra Zahler was beaten to death early Christmas morning in an apartment building that overlooked the site of the Genovese attack. Neighbors again said they heard screams and “fierce struggles” but did nothing.

The lack of reaction by multiple neighbors who watched the scene or heard Genovese’s cries for help, prompted research into diffusion or responsibility (a sociopsychological phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when other bystanders or witnesses are present.) and the bystander effect (a social psychological theory that states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present.) Social psychologists John M. Darley and Bibb Latane conducted a study that concluded that larger numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim.  

Reasons for this outcome included the onlookers assessing the situation and seeing that others are not helping either, that the onlookers believe others will know how to better assist the person in distress, and that the onlookers feel uncertain about helping someone while others are watching. After this study, the Kitty Genovese case became a common feature in social psychology textbooks across the United States and the United Kingdom. I know that’s true because I read and learned about this case when I took AP Psychology in 11th grade.

In September 2007, American Psychologists published an examination of the factual basis of coverage of the Genovese murder. Three different authors concluded that the story was more fiction and fact, largely because of the inaccurate newspaper coverage at the time of the murder. Despite the questions surrounding the story’s validity, it is still featured in psychology textbooks across high schools and universities. In 2004 Jim Rasenberger, published an article in the New York Times, on the 40th anniversary of Genovese’s murder. His story raised numerous questions about the claims in the very first Times article published about the attack.

A 2007 study found that many reported facts about the case were unfounded, stating there was “no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive.” This study was confirmed in 2014. There is no question that the attack on Kitty Genovese occurred, and that some neighbors ignored her cries for help, but that the number of witnesses had been exaggerated and what they had seen had been misconstrued since none of the witnesses saw the attack in its entirety.  

The layout of the complex and the fact that the attacks took place in different locations made it difficult for any of the witnesses to see the full crime. Many thought that what they heard were lovers or drunk people arguing. One witness, Joseph Fink, was aware Genovese was stabbed in the first attack but not in the second. Another witness, Karl Ross, was aware that Genovese was stabbed in the second attack but not in the first. It is also thought that after the initial attack punctured her lungs, Kitty wouldn’t have been able to scream at any volume. 

Kitty Genovese’s brother, William, took part in a 2015 documentary about the attack that discovered that other crime reporters knew of many problems with the Genovese story even in 1964. Shortly after the story broke, WNBC reporter, Danny Meehan, discovered numerous inconsistencies in the original article published in the Times. Meehan approached Martin Gansberg and asked why his article hid the fact that witnesses did not feel that the murder was happening. Gansberg replied, “It would have ruined the story.” Not wanting to jeopardize his career by calling out Gansberg, Meehan kept his finding secret and passed whatever notes he had to fellow WNBC reporter Gabe Pressman. 

On October 12, 2016, the Times added an Editor’s Note to the online version of its 1964 article, stating that, “Later reporting by the Times and others has called into question significant elements of this account.” 

Whether the story of Kitty Genovese’s untimely death is accurate or not it still proved that the bystander effect is a real thing that happens in people’s minds. So, the next time you see someone in distress maybe help them out. Even if a bunch of people are around. 

Sources: “A Crime to remember: 38 Witnesses” – Investigation Discovery

“Murder of Kitty Genovese” – Wikipedia

“Kitty Genovese” – HISTORY

“The Legend of Kitty Genovese” – LA Times


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