The Witnesses That Didn't

Friday, March 27, 2009


(The New York Times)

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.

    Music Playlist
  • Giving Up the Ghost
    Artist: DJ Shadow

Comments [14]

Ken from VA

Interesting to learn the cops were called and may have sat on it. Like a plane crash, it was multifactorial, no single element, rather a chain of events if broken may have averted her demise. I would venture to guess there were no police call logs available as I had never heard about that before.

Feb. 08 2014 09:03 AM
Kinsolving from Texas

I have visited the apartment where this murder occurred. I have visited Miss Genovese's grave. I sent a card to Ms Zielonko. I wrote a letter to Mr Moseley in prison. I have communicated with individuals who knew Moseley's family. For some reason this case has always intrigued me. If anyone has any information they would like to exchange, please contact me RJMGREEN@AOL.COM

Feb. 15 2013 06:09 PM
Stephanie Booth from Lausanne, Switzerland

Where does the number 38 come from? This is a complete wild hunch, but what if it came from an initial "three to eight" early on? In your piece it's mentioned that there were actually only half a dozen witnesses, so it's not impossible that somebody at some point might have mentioned "three to eight witnesses" (if I were writing a crime story, I would have the reporter call the first policeman at the scene or something and misunderstand that quote).

Has that wild hunch ever come up as a possible explanation for the number "38"?

Oct. 24 2010 06:29 AM
Sweet Pea from Beverly Hills California

Forty years later, I still don't want to visit New York - this case and the Fort Apache incident. NY is a vertical city, too many people cramped into a small area. This woman would've lived if not for the neighbors simply calling the police. Perhaps they wouldn't call the police because they, themselves were involved in criminal activity of some kind. How can anyone hear a womans screams, ignore it - minutes later hear it again and ignore it again? In Beverly Hills - a man would come running to the rescue within minutes - even at 3:00am. In fact, he'd run to the rescue to save the person before calling 911, which NOW we have. If we had it 40 yrs. ago maybe someone would've called. RIP Kitty, she didn't deserve this.

Sep. 27 2010 07:39 AM
Matt Clare from Ontario, Canada

Mr. De May referenced  “.. 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”.

I E-Mailed him because as resident of the Greater Toronto Area this was news to me.

Mr. De May wrote back a very polite E-Mail that indicated that he made a mistake and it happened in Connecticut.

The statement was in response to a question and was not part of the research he was presenting, so I wanted to both post this for the record and indicate that it wasn't a big deal.

Toronto remains place where people die when hit by vehicles while texting, but first responders are contacted.

Apr. 03 2009 11:43 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Or ask the people disarmed of their weapons and killed by them.

Back to Phil Ochs, for a second, remember that line, "I believe in God and Senator Dodd and I always carry a purse." Looks like Odo (former Cong. Rep. Rob Simmons) is poised to replace Next Generation's Sen. Dodd (50% to 34% in today's Quinnipiac - good name, local Indian name - poll) but I gotta wonder if there was a pistol in Ochs' purse.

We are writing these comments for you at OTM primarily, aren't we? I mean, I'm trying to create a McLuhanistic, involving, "hot" mosaic for you all, so I feel free to jump from segment to segment and week to week or year to year with it.

Apr. 03 2009 12:56 AM
Scott Miller from Pennsylvania

While their appears to be a lot of myth surrounding this incident, I think it does address as Jack says, our civic duty. Myself, I am a former first responder and self defense instructor and consider it my civic duty to assist people when possible. Of course, you shouldn't wade into a situation blindly and cause a situation with two victims that now need rescuing.

However, I do think people are a little too willing to "let the authorities handle it." Just last week on this program, they discused publication of a concealed carry roster in Tennessee, and the editor being questioned scoffed at the idea that people would need access to their firearms for self defense. Ask Ms Genovese that question.

Apr. 02 2009 09:44 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Boy, I was thrown by that comment for a minute, until I realized it was Jack from Kirkuk, not from Chicago!

Last week a local reporter, Randall Beach, had a column titled "Randon Acts of Kindness" in which he recounted finding a young lady collapsed by the side of the road and stopping to make sure she wasn't injured or killed by a careless driver. He later discovered that emergency services had already been alerted by a passing driver, who did not so stop, and he wondered in print at the mindset of that driver.

I recounted to him a story about a mutual acquaintance who had once told me of watching a young woman attacked and beaten in front of his eyes. I asked that acquaintance why he had even told me the story, since it didn't include the part that any similar story by me would about what I had done to intervene. Otherwise, I would have been too ashamed to even mention it. It was thus that he went from friend to acquaintance.

Admittedly, one such intervention indirectly sparked a riot but that really wasn't my fault. Both members of the couple were spoiling for such a result. I had left them in peace.

As far as Mr. Valley's comment, just because Phil bought the lie, it didn't require you to reinforce it.

Apr. 01 2009 02:08 AM
Jack from Kirkuk, Iraq

Joseph De May asked, "if someone suffers that type of lung damage, are they even physically capable of screaming for a solid half hour?"

Yes, yes they can. Hard, loud horrible screams that can shake a person to the bone. I'm not sure if she was able to scream, but I know that this condition is unbearably painful.

And yes, back at home, I have responded to people injured from accidents, like beig hit by a car.

Any first responder will tell you, people circle around with blank faces and don't help. But it is not privy to just Americans, It happens in all cultures.

Sometimes I feel like we are over dependant on emergency services and forget our civic duty to help. I always recomend learning first aid, cpr, and a willingness to get involved until emergency services arrive.

Apr. 01 2009 01:23 AM
Andy Funk from Long Island

I believe it was 1994 when Chris Borgen, an amazing reporter at WCBS-TV (who was a highly-decorated NYC detective before moving to journalism), did a story looking back on the Kitty Genovese story. (At the time I was a videotape editor at WCBS-TV.) Chris debunked what "everyone knows" about Kitty Genovese in his report.

As I recall, Chris found several neighbors who called the police. But he pointed out that calling the police in the 1960s was not what is has been since the spread of 911 services. There was no single number to call to report emergencies. Instead, calls went to the local precinct. If I recall correctly, the report mentioned that there were frequent calls to that precinct due to noisy people leaving a neighborhood bar, and it was speculated that this may have led the police to discount the calls.

My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I remember Chris interviewing someone who said she tried to help Ms. Genovese before emergency services arrived.

It would be great for a current researcher to try to view Chris Borgen's report from WCBS-TV -- if they still have archive tapes available.

Mar. 29 2009 11:12 AM
S. Tripp

It was nice to hear about the Canadian student who called the police in the fire incident. It stands in contrast to the story of Abraham Briggs, a young Florida man whose suicide was watched by hundreds online. It is easy to write off things online as hoaxes, especially since it is common for people to use the anonymity of the internet to cause trouble, and even if someone believes it is real, they probably still expect someone else to get help. In the case of internet forums, the expectation usually falls on the moderators. The problem is that the moderators are not necessarily emotionally equipped to handle such problems.

De May said that a man ran out during the first attack on Kitty Genovese and told the attacker to get off her. I am very curious as to what happened to him. I cannot imagine why after seeing someone viciously attacked anyone would just walk away after seeing the attacker leave. Did he check if she was okay? If so, why didn't he get help?

Mar. 29 2009 11:00 AM
Donald Siegel

There's more to this story. Kitty Genovese was a relative of the head of the Genovese crime family, and residents of her building knew this. There has been some reporting that some were afraid because of this connection.

Mar. 29 2009 10:42 AM
Paul Valley from North Royalton, Ohio

Dear “On The Media”

I listened intently to your interview with the man who reported on the Kitty Genovese incident that happened in N.Y. 45 years ago I was waiting with anticipation after for a sample of the song dedicated to chastising the event titled: “Outside of a small circle of friends” by Phil Ochs. You missed a good one!

Mar. 28 2009 04:54 PM

This was a fascinating segment.

In a way, it may be useful to maintain the Genovese myth. I know that when I hear any disturbance, I immediately called the police, having it in the back of my head that the Genovese incident shows that there is no certainty that someone else would have called the police before me. (Having lived in New York and elsewhere, it's my impression that New Yorkers are much more proactive in looking after their neighbors, in part due to the closeness of the apartments.)

But this also reminds me of the "Twinkie Defense" myth, which has been exposed as false on, but somehow still made it into the coda of the recent film, "Milk."

I see a commonality in the two myths. In both cases, the people whom the myth condemns as "unfeeling", "jaded" or "hateful", are not the actual killers, but the bystanders who are white, ethnic, and middle class, e.g., the residents of Kew Gardens who allegedly did nothing to help Kitty, and the jury that let Dan White off the hook.

(Sidenote: What is interesting in the film "Milk" is that there is no mention of the Jonestown massacre that took place a week before the Moscone/Milk assassinations, and which undoubtedly - and unfairly - affected the view of the jury.)

So while the actual criminals, Dan White and the murderer of Kitty Genovese, were clearly sociopathic, it was middle-class white people who were indirectly blamed for the actions of these sociopaths, through the persistence of these urban myths.

Mar. 28 2009 03:52 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.