Kitty Genovese's murder inspired a psychological theory that is present in virtually every psychological textbook to this day.
At approximately 3:15 AM on March 13, 1964, a woman was murdered.
Her name was Kitty Genovese. She was 28 years old, “self-assured beyond her years,” and had a “sunny disposition.” However, on that Friday evening, none of that mattered.
As Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in an alleyway outside her home, the friends and neighbors she had lived next to for several years stood by, choosing not to get involved as she lay there dying. The actions of these neighbors thrust a small town crime into the international spotlight, sparking a highly public discussion, and coining the term for what they had done, “the bystander effect.”
Around 2:30 AM on the night of her attack, Kitty Genovese left the bar she worked at and headed for home. She had been working as the manager at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar in Hollis, Queens for the past few years. Her home, an apartment she shared with a friend, was in Kew Gardens, roughly 45 minutes from her apartment, a commute she took via car.
A few minutes after she left, she stopped at a traffic light. As the light changed and she pulled away, she never noticed a car pull out of a nearby parking lot, and onto the road behind her. She also never noticed that it followed her all the way home.
At 3:15, Genovese pulled into the parking lot of the Kew Gardens Long Island Rail Road station parking lot, which was about 100 feet from her front door. The car that had been following her pulled into a bus stop parking lot down the street.
The man inside was named Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old man with a wife and three kids, and no criminal record. Until that night.
As Kitty Genovese made her way the 100 feet to her apartment, Moseley approached her, armed with a hunting knife, and stabbed her in the back, twice.
Upon being stabbed, Genovese screamed, running toward her home. Several neighbors heard her scream, though only one, Robert Mozer, recognized it as a scream for help, and he didn’t do more than tell Moseley to “leave that girl alone.”
After stabbing her, Moseley ran away, leaving Genovese to crawl to the door of her building alone. However, though witnesses claimed to have seen Moseley get in his car and drive away, within ten minutes, he was back, searching for Genovese.
He eventually found her, half-conscious, lying in a hallway just inside her apartment building. Before anyone could see her, Moseley stabbed Genovese several more times, raped her, robbed her, and ran away, this time for good. An ambulance arrived at 4:15 a.m. to take her to the emergency room, but Kitty Genovese died before she made it to the hospital.
The entire series of attacks took half an hour, but the first calls to police weren’t until after 4:00 a.m. A few witnesses claimed that they had called the police, but that their calls weren’t given priority. Others claimed to have called, but not reported on the severity of the crime.
Others stated simply that they’d thought of calling the police, but assumed someone else would instead.
Moseley was picked up six days after the attack, during a burglary. While in custody, he confessed to the murder of Kitty Genovese, describing in detail the attack and the motive — which he claimed had been “to kill a woman.”
Moseley was tried and convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. He died in prison in 2016.
Despite the gruesome nature of the crime, it took almost two weeks for anyone to take notice. Then, The New York Times ran an article with the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police,” and a quote from an unidentified neighbor that claimed he didn’t call the police because he “didn’t want to get involved.”
Suddenly, Genovese’s murder rocked New York City. Hundreds of people viewed the murder as a sign of the callous and impersonal lifestyle that came from living in a big city, while others mourned the loss of empathy in the citizens of New York.
While the public mourned the victim, psychologists became fascinated with the neighbors. How was it, they asked themselves, that someone could see an attack, or witness a crime take place, and do nothing? Social psychologists began researching the effects of groupthink, and diffusion of responsibility, and coined the neighbors’ actions “the bystander effect.”
Before long, the case made its way into virtually every psychological textbook in the United States and the United Kingdom, using the neighbors as an example of bystander intervention.
However, in recent years, the very basis of the widely known psychological theory has been put under questioning. After the death of Moseley in 2016, The New York Times issued a statement, calling their original reporting of the crime “flawed.”
“While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous,” the statement read. “The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety.”
As the event occurred more than 50 years prior to the statement, there was obviously no way to know for sure how many people did or didn’t witness the crime.
Regardless of the validity of the bystander claims, in the past five decades, it has become one of America’s most famous and most shocking cases. Hundreds of books have been written on the murder and the bystander effect, and it has inspired movies, television show episodes, and even a musical.
But perhaps the most shocking legacy left behind by the vicious murder was the one carried by the neighbors, the ones who quite possibly looked the other way during the murder, and who ensured that Kitty Genovese would be remembered by thousands of people as the inspiration for a psychological phenomenon, rather than an unfortunate victim.
Enjoy this article on the Kitty Genovese murder and the origins behind the so-called bystander effect? Next, check out these photos of old New York murder scenes. Then, take a look at the seven strangest celebrity murders in history.