So we’re not really THAT bad? Kitty Genovese

” At 3:20 AM on March 13, 1964, Winston Moseley attacked Catherine (Kitty) Genovese in front of a 2 story Tudor building on Austin Street in Kew Gardens, NY about 50 ft. from a bar known to generate loud, late night rowdiness. He stabbed her twice in the back. Her screams awakened some residents of the Mowbray Apartment House across the street, several of whom went to their windows…”

At the beginning of teaching Piliavin or anything in relation to bystander apathy, at one time or another, we will all come across the horrific story of Kitty Genovese. I horrify my students with the story every year: young lady walking home; attacked; stabbed; calling for help; no-one comes (even worse her calls for help are ignored) – or so it may seem if you’ve read the initial March 27th NYT article.

37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector


For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

It seems that this first paragraph contains no less that 6 errors:

  1. Not all of the 38 witnesses were eye witnesses.
  2. With the exception of three people, it is almost certain that none of the eye witnesses saw any of the stabbings.
  3. The police were called right after the first attack.
  4. None of the eye witnesses could have watched Kitty or her attacker for half an hour because they were only visible to them for a few moments.
  5. There were only 2 separate attacks not 3; and the second attack occurred in the ground floor hallway of a building where only one of the 38 witnesses could have seen it.
  6. Kitty was still alive when the “one witness” called police.

As far as OCR goes, this story is a fundamental foundation upon the research into bystander apathy or diffusion of responsibility. Maybe it’s been a case of Chinese-whispers which has passed the story from one set of teachers to the other; maybe it was sensationalism. The site that I stumbled upon (and if you haven’t already tried stumble you must) has a mass of information on the Kitty G murder including witness statements, diagrams and a massive commentary on what happend at the time and how the story has transformed over the last few decades.

Something interesting to read if nothing else. Even though this might make the story of Kitty G less ‘oh-my-god’ – ish it still brings into question why the response wasn’t quicker. As we have seen recently, things like this are still happening today.

(Picture Credit: Illustration by 14 year old twins, Rebecca and Alexandra Chipkin, of Kew Gardens, NY (2005))

UPDATE: It seems both Christian and I were writing similar articles at the same time. Over at the BPS Research Digest he’s just written a post “The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect

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One Response to “So we’re not really THAT bad? Kitty Genovese”

  1. picklewalsh2013 February 7, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    We have just covered this in my social science class on when society breaks down, along with the Bulger case.

    What impact do you think this has on the theory of Bystander Effect?

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