Forty-five years ago, Kitty Genovese was murdered in Queens and, as the story goes, 38 witnesses watched the assault for half an hour but no one intervened. Historian Joseph De May says the truth is a bit more complicated.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bystander Effect is sometimes called The Genovese Syndrome, named for Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York 45 years ago this month. Her death wasn't just tragic. It was an indictment of humanity, as issued in the lead of The New York Times story. Quote: “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.” That story set the template for the tale of Genovese, irrefutable evidence of the dehumanizing effects of urban life. But subsequent investigations have shown that story to be greatly exaggerated, and one of the most indefatigable investigators of the Genovese murder is Joseph De May, a lawyer, historian and resident of Kew Gardens. He’s studied the legal briefs and the court transcripts. He’s walked the scene of the crime. And he’s convinced he knows what really happened.
JOSEPH DEMAY: Kitty Genovese was returning that night from a night out, and she parked her car in the parking lot of the Long Island Railroad Station. What she did not know was that she had been followed by a man in a white car, a man by the name of Winston Moseley, and his aim that night was to find a woman that he could kill. As soon as Winston Moseley saw her lock the door to her car, he pulled a hunting knife out of his pocket and he started running toward her. According to his testimony, he chased her about half a block down the street towards Lefferts Boulevard, caught up with her, jumped on her back and stabbed her two to four times in the back with the hunting knife. She started screaming bloody murder, and her screams started to wake people who were asleep in an apartment building across the street and in a two-story Tudor-style building which was on the same side of the street, remembering, of course, that the attack took place about 3:15 in the morning on what was supposedly the coldest night of the year, so people had their windows shut. Moseley said he was standing over Kitty, trying to figure out a place he could take her to work on her, when he heard someone call out from the building across the street, “Leave that woman alone.” He then realized that his car was parked where it could be identified. So he ran off, got into his car, backed it around 82nd Road, about half a block up, parked, and waited. In the meantime, Kitty walked, however unsteadily, around to the back of the building. She collapsed inside a small foyer in the back of that two-story Tudor building. And 10 minutes later, Mr. Moseley came back, found her there, and that’s where she suffered the wounds that would eventually kill her. There was only one person who was in a position to witness that second attack, and that was a man who had an apartment, the entrance to which was at the top of the stairwell to that vestibule. He said that he didn't want to call the police because he didn't want to get involved. Apparently, his problem was that he was inebriated; he had been highly intoxicated. So he contacted a woman who lived in the building and she eventually did call the police.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wasn't she screaming during the second attack?
JOSEPH DE MAY: The wounds that she apparently suffered during the first attack, the two to four stabs in the back, caused her lungs to be punctured, and the testimony given at trial is that she died not from bleeding to death but from asphyxiation. The air from her lungs leaked into her thoracic cavity, compressing the lungs, making it impossible for her to breathe. I am not a doctor, but as a layman my question is, if someone suffers that type of lung damage, are they even physically capable of screaming for a solid half hour?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This article in The New York Times was written by a longtime copy editor named Martin Gansberg. Editor Abe Rosenthal gave Gansberg the story. How did the misreporting happen?
JOSEPH DE MAY: According to Abe Rosenthal, he first learned of the story when he had lunch with the New York City Police Commissioner. He had just been appointed metropolitan editor. And he was questioning the commissioner about a story that had been published in recent days where apparently two men who did not know each other had confessed to the same murder. And, of course, Rosenthal’s question was, how could such a thing have happened? And it was at that point that the commissioner said, never mind that. I've got to tell you this story about what happened in Kew Gardens. And he related the story of apparently these witnesses who witnessed a murder and wouldn't report it. And suddenly Mr. Rosenthal was off on that tangent. He decided that that was a story that he needed to run. If you look at The Times article, it looks like there were two hands there. The first paragraph takes an entirely different tack than the rest of the story and the accompanying picture. What I think happened is that Mr. Gansberg turned in probably what he thought was a very carefully written article, and Mr. Rosenthal, who still knew about the story from what the commissioner told him, rewrote that first paragraph and tacked it onto the story. And it was that paragraph that people remember.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do you think the number 38 came from?
JOSEPH DE MAY: No one knows. All I can tell you is that there’s a man named Charles Skoller, and he was the assistant prosecutor. He helped prosecute Winston Moseley. And he said he doesn't know where the 38 witness number came from. He said that the District Attorney’s Office found only maybe five or six people who saw anything that they could use, and of the people he identified, there are only really two that I know of who actually saw any part of the physical attack.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the only person who could be said to have ignored the plight of this young woman was that man at the top of the stairs.
JOSEPH DE MAY: Well, let me tack on that word “ignored.” The rap against the witnesses is not that they sat there and watched what was going on. It was that they heard a scream and did not act upon it. Now, why didn't they act upon it? The common belief is that they didn't want to get involved, and, of course, that quote comes from the one guy at the top of the stairs who said that. But if you look at the Rosenthal book, the people who were interviewed later on said they didn't know why. I think a number of them were uncertain about what was going on. Others truly thought that other people would call. Others thought that whatever the crisis was, the fact that the attacker had left and Kitty had left the scene under her own power meant there wasn't a problem any more. And I have to tell you that I do not by any means accept that no one called the police. One of the people who contacted me is a retired New York City police officer who said that he was an eight-year-old boy whose bedroom was on the second floor of that apartment building on the night of the murder. And he said his father did call the police because he was there in the living room when he did. I've heard second- or third-hand about two other people who also said that they called the police.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think the wrong story was so iconic?
JOSEPH DE MAY: The Kitty Genovese murder happened four months after the assassination of President Kennedy. In the aftermath of John Kennedy’s assassination, there was a school of thought that said we all killed President Kennedy. Now, four months later, Kitty Genovese is killed, not by a man whose psyche and life experience is not in any way reflective of ordinary Americans. These were 38 respectable law-abiding citizens. These – that was us. And I think it was a tremendous blow to the American psyche to think that such a thing could happen here, anywhere here. I think that that’s what gave this story legs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After all the research you've done on this case, do you still believe in the Bystander Effect?
JOSEPH DE MAY: I don't think it’s a question of my belief. We have seen over the past year a number of news stories in which a parallel has been drawn with the Kitty Genovese case. There was the incident back in January where a poor worker was trampled at the Green Acres Shopping Center by shoppers anxious to get to an electronics sale. There was the poor man in Toronto who was run over by a car and lay dying in the street while, according to the story, people simply stood there and watched. There was the woman in the Kings County psychiatric ward who collapsed on the floor. The staff simply left here there to die four hours later. So you can look in the newspapers and you can see, almost on a daily basis, incidents occur which are reflective of what’s known as the Bystander Syndrome and diffusion of responsibility, and it’s impossible to say that such a phenomenon of some sort does not exist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you can't tie that syndrome directly to the murder of Kitty Genovese.
JOSEPH DE MAY: Interesting point. Usually the bystander syndrome theory says that when you have a group of people, everyone is looking to someone else to take action. But in this particular case, you didn't have a group of people. You had individuals. You know, I think there were probably a number of people who knew that there was something more than just a, you know, a lovers’ quarrel at stake, and they may not have taken any action. You can justly criticize them for that. My point is that we didn't have what The Herald Tribune, I think, described at the time as being a scene reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum with the Romans watching the Christians being slaughtered while they cheered them on. It’s that scenario that didn't happen, not that the witnesses were not blameless.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
JOSEPH DE MAY: Well, my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joseph De May is a lawyer, historian and resident of Kew Gardens.