Kitty Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored

The rape and murder of Kitty Genovese as several witnesses ignored her cries for help raised serious questions about public indifference, the psychology and ethics of responsibility, and the so-called bystander effect. The case also inspired the formation of the 9-1-1 emergency phone system and the successful Neighborhood Watch groups around the United States.

Summary of Event

Kitty Genovese was a manager at a sports bar in the New York City borough of Queens. In the early hours of March 13, 1964, she left work and drove home to her apartment in the Kew Gardens neighborhood. As she was walking from the building’s parking lot to the door of her apartment, she was approached by Winston Moseley, a young business-machine operator who, by his own subsequent sworn testimony, had decided to go on the “prowl” and kill an unaccompanied woman. [kw]Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored, Kitty (Mar. 13, 1964)
Genovese, Kitty
New York City;Genovese murder
Rape;of Kitty Genovese[Genovese]
Genovese, Kitty
New York City;Genovese murder
Rape;of Kitty Genovese[Genovese]
[g]United States;Mar. 13, 1964: Kitty Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored[01210]
[c]Murder and suicide;Mar. 13, 1964: Kitty Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored[01210]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;Mar. 13, 1964: Kitty Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored[01210]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 13, 1964: Kitty Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored[01210]
[c]Women’s issues;Mar. 13, 1964: Kitty Genovese Dies as Her Cries for Help Are Ignored[01210]
Moseley, Winston
Ross, Karl

In his initial attack, Moseley stabbed Genovese several times with a knife. She cried out for help. According to later testimony, several of her neighbors turned on lights to see what was happening, and one person even opened his window and shouted for Moseley to leave Genovese alone. Moseley retreated to his car. One witness would later claim that his father had called the police to report the attack, but the dispatcher considered the call of no import.

What is known for certain is that no one helped Genovese. Instead, she was left to stagger toward her own apartment, bleeding and rapidly becoming weaker. Her attempt to get to her own apartment took her out of view of people who might have otherwise been convinced that she was in need of assistance. Eventually, she got to a hallway, where she collapsed from blood loss.

In the meantime, Moseley, who had initially fled the scene in his car, returned to the parking lot after about ten minutes and made a thorough search of the area. He finally located Genovese, who was still alive but barely conscious. He stabbed her several more times before raping her and leaving her to die.

Shortly after the second attack, Karl Ross, a witness, called police, who finally responded to the plea for help. They arrived with medical personnel only minutes later. However, Genovese’s wounds were too severe, and she died in the ambulance while on her way to a nearby hospital emergency room. Her family had her buried in Lakeview Cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut, and to protect the family’s privacy from curiosity seekers, they had to keep secret the location of her grave.

Moseley was found guilty of killing and raping Genovese, and two others, and was sentenced to death. However, because there was evidence of necrophilia (a sexual attraction to dying persons and corpses) and other mental instabilities presented in court, it was later ruled that he should have been allowed to plead insanity. As a result, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, but his parole hearings have been repeatedly denied.

Even as Genovese’s body was being laid to rest, outrage began to mount that a woman could be killed not in some dark and hidden basement room but in a common passageway with several witnesses. Many of the witnesses, when confronted about their inaction, answered that they did not want to get involved. These responses squared with the experiences of people in large cities, who carefully distance themselves from the crowds in which they move, avoiding eye contact with anyone except actual acquaintances, never meeting or becoming acquainted with neighbors, and otherwise moving anonymously through the masses of humanity around them.

Harlan Ellison, a science-fiction writer turned political commentator, wrote about the incident with particular fury. He claimed that one witness had even turned up a radio to avoid having to listen to Genovese’s screams and, thus, to evade his own sense of responsibility to aid her. Ellison also was the first to settle upon the number thirty-eight for the number of witnesses who had refused to get involved. (The exact number of witnesses, and other facts in the case, remain disputed.) Even after his initial articles, he continued to discuss the subject. His book The Other Glass Teat (1972), a collection of essays, explores the social effects of television, most of which he considers to be negative.

However, later studies showed that simplistic earlier accounts of the witnesses’ indifference were misleading. It turns out that no single person was able to see the entire sequence of events from the initial attack to Genovese’s final collapse and death. A number of the witnesses saw or heard only portions of the attack and did not realize that they were witnessing a crime in progress rather than a particularly noisy domestic fight. As a result, claims about the deliberate inaction of witnesses become more understandable. It is likely that those who thought they were only hearing a couple quarreling did not want to intrude upon a dispute that was none of their business. Others have argued that it is just as likely that the witnesses were not indifferent or uncaring but instead, according to writer Jim Rasenberger, were feeling “confusion, fear, misapprehension, [and] uncertainty.”


Genovese’s brutal murder quickly became a symbol of the phenomenon by which people in a crowd feel a reduced responsibility to respond to an emergency situation. A number of leading Experiments;psychological psychologists performed studies after the attack on Genovese in which various kinds of emergencies were staged in the presence of volunteers and their responses were analyzed. It was found that a person alone was far more likely to respond to an apparent emergency, whether by direct action or by summoning appropriate authorities, than was a person sitting in a room with two or three of the experimenter’s assistants posing as other volunteers for the study. However, if even one of the assistants were to take initiative, the chance that the actual volunteer would act went up considerably. The phenomenon was given a formal name, the “bystander effect,” leading to several major academic papers on the subject. Others have called it “bystander apathy” and “Genovese syndrome.”

On a more practical level, New Yorkers and people in other large cities across the United States began taking action to change the type of situation that led to Genovese’s death. Many neighborhoods organized neighborhood groups—precursors to the Neighborhood Watch system that began in 1972—in which residents pledged to consciously keep an eye on one another and on suspicious activities in their neighborhood. The New York Police Department reformed its telephone reporting system to ensure that early reports of a crime in progress would not be dismissed by careless or overworked dispatchers. Also, many agree that the Genovese case helped convince law enforcement and government officials to implement the national 9-1-1 emergency phone system in 1967.

Nearly eleven years later, however, on Christmas morning, 1974, twenty-five-year-old Sandra Zahler was attacked and beaten to death within a block of the apartment complex where Genovese had been killed in 1964. Again, neighbors had reported hearing her struggles and cries for help but had done nothing. Social commentators were particularly frustrated that despite hopes to the contrary, people did not learn; public outrage at one attack did not lead to long-term behavior change but, instead, to the old habit of indifference. Genovese, Kitty
New York City;Genovese murder
Rape;of Kitty Genovese[Genovese]

Further Reading

  • Benedict, Helen. Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Sets the Genovese rape and murder in a larger context of media coverage of rape and how it is colored by underlying sexist attitudes.
  • Ellison, Harlan. The Other Glass Teat: Further Essays of Opinion on Television. New York: Pyramid Books, 1972. The famous collection of essays about the social effects of television, written in Ellison’s usual acerbic style.
  • Mook, Douglas. Classic Experiments in Psychology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Includes discussion of the psychological experiments dealing with the bystander effect that followed the Genovese murders.
  • Rasenberger, Jim. “Nightmare on Austin Street.” American Heritage, October, 2006. Dismantles claims made in a March 27, 1964, New York Times news report of the Genovese rape and murder. Argues that misleading facts have led to a misleading history of the case.
  • Rolls, Geoff. “The Girl Who Cried Murder: The Story of Kitty Genovese.” In Classic Case Studies in Psychology. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005. Despite naming Genovese a “girl” (she was twenty-eight years old when she was murdered), this otherwise helpful work explores important case studies in psychology, including the Genovese case, with a focus on pathology and human behavior in crisis situations.
  • Rosenthal, A. M. Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. A brief, classic psychological study, first published in 1964, of the public’s failure to respond to Genovese’s cries for help.

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