How JFK’s Death Helped Inspire the Kitty Genovese Myth

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One of my favorite OTM interviews is one from a few years ago between Brooke and a Queens historian named Joseph De May

De May’s devoted a lot of time to the Kitty Genovese murder. Genovese was a twenty-eight year old woman stabbed to death in a Queens apartment complex in 1964. The myth is that 38 witnesses watched her die without calling the police. People cite the Genovese story as one about apathy among large crowds. The psychological term for this is the “bystander effect,” the idea that a mob of people will act less morally because every person assumes someone else will do the right thing.

Whether or not the Bystander Effect is real, the Genovese myth doesn’t seem to be. De May says that the idea that 38 witnesses ignored a woman being murdered seems to be a myth born mostly out of bad reporting. But interestingly, he thinks the reason it took off was because of the JFK assassination. Genovese's murder happened soon after Kennedy's. De May thinks we were primed for a story about our national amorality.

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. 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.

Anyway, if you’re feeling exhausted by all the JFK historical posts out on the internet today, my apologies. This certainly doesn’t help. But I think about that interview a lot, and today seemed like an OK day to point you toward it if you haven’t heard it. The full thing’s below.