The murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens 50 years ago is the inspiration for “Genovese Syndrome,” which sociologists say causes people in a crowd to disregard strangers in need because they expect someone else will.
Yet Debbie Van Cura, an Astoria Historical Society board member, sees the murder as proof of the syndrome for precisely the opposite reason. Most of those who tried to help did so because they saw or heard the murder from within the privacy of their own apartments and had no way of knowing if there was any “crowd” gathering at the time.
“They were all individuals. They were not in a group, they acted as individuals,” Van Cura said of the people who shouted out the window at Genovese’s murderer or called the police.
Van Cura, who is also an adjunct lecturer in urban sociology at LaGuardia Community College, presented her analysis at an Astoria Historical Society lecture on March 15. She provided a guided tour of the murder and its fallout.
In 1964, Catherine Susan Genovese, nicknamed Kitty, was a 28-year-old bartender working at Ev’s 11th Hour in Hollis. She was living in Kew Gardens with her roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko, who has since come out as Genovese’s girlfriend.
Genovese parked in the Long Island Rail Road parking lot on Austin Street at about 3:15 a.m. on March 13 and began walking to her apartment in the adjacent building at 82-70 Austin St., taking a longer but better-lit route along Austin Street instead of through a back alley. She was stalked and stabbed in front of her building with a hunting knife by a man named Winston Moseley.
A neighbor who heard Genovese screaming shouted out the window, “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley ran off and moved his car but came back looking for Genovese. She had staggered around the corner of the building to the back alley, where Moseley found her, stabbed her several more times, and raped her.
There are many reasons to upend the idea that the crime is an example of callous city neighbors, according to Van Cura. That characterization was drawn in a famous New York Times article that claimed there were 38 witnesses who failed to act. But the story was born at a lunch meeting between the Times’ ambitious new city editor A.M. Rosenthal and Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, both of whom were motivated by reasons that didn’t involve telling the story exactly as it happened, Van Cura said.
Murphy was eager to distract attention from racial conflict that had begun in other cities and Rosenthal wanted to make his mark. It is now known that the number 38 represents not the number of eyewitnesses but the number who were questioned about the crime even if they hadn’t heard or said anything, Van Cura said.
Countering the story that not one neighbor telephoned the police during the assault, Van Cura said that several people did try.
“Some people reported that they were on hold for five minutes after calling the police,” Van Cura said. Calling the police in 1964 required knowing the precinct’s phone number or getting transferred by an operator, causing delays. And the first call reported an assault, not a “crime in progress,” causing further delay. The Genovese murder led directly to the establishment of the 911 system.
And numerous accounts told the story of Sophie Farrar, a mother with a young baby at home who ran downstairs and held Genovese as she died. Even Karl Ross, a dog groomer and friend of Genovese, who became famous for saying he didn’t want to get involved, wasted time calling two people to ask what he should do. He eventually called police, drunk and frightened, after climbing through a window to use a neighbor’s phone.
Van Cura noted that one person who is truly known to have completely turned a blind eye to the crime was Joseph Fink, an assistant superintendent who worked in the Mowbray apartments across the street who later shrugged when police asked why he didn’t act.
The best counter-example to the Genovese Syndrome in Van Cura’s eyes is the capture of Moseley, which came about because a suspicious neighbor questioned him during his attempted burglary of an apartment in another neighborhood. That neighbor got involved by tampering with the wires in Moseley’s car, delaying his departure until police arrived.
Moseley, who readily admitted to killing Genovese and two other women before that, is serving a life sentence. During his imprisonment, he briefly escaped custody in 1968 and spent his time on the loose holding hostages and raping a woman while her husband was tied up. He was returned to custody, where he took part in the Attica prison riots in 1971. He has been described as a necrophiliac in psychological evaluations. His next chance for parole will be next year.