Don’t Be a Bystander: Remembering Kitty Genovese

By: Matthew Battles
March 30, 2009

Times photograph of Kitty Genovese
Kitty Genovese
Winston Moseley’s brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in the small hours of March 13, 1964 remains one of the most riveting stories in the annals of crime. In a famous New York Times story about the murder, Martin Gansberg reported that thirty-eight witnesses had watched from their window on that cold night in the Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens without intervening on Ms. Genovese’s behalf.

Genovese’s murder became the classic case of apathy and alienation in urban life, spurring reform of police alert procedures, spurring psychological research, and inspiring the Neighborhood Watch program. The story of the murder has thrived in television, film, and literature as well. In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, the character Walter Kovacs is compelled to become Rorschach by the murder. “I knew what people were, then,” he tells his psychologist, “behind all the evasions, all the self-deception.” Kovacs, who works in the garment industry, fashions his Rorschach mask from a dress ordered by Ms. Genovese before her murder.

But recent work by a local historian casts doubt on the lore of the case. Joseph De May, a maritime lawyer and longtime Kew Gardens resident has analyzed the case in paralyzing detail. He concludes that Winston Moseley’s savagery was witnessed by far fewer than the thirty-eight onlookers instanced in the Times story (which served as the basis of The Thirty-Eight Witnesses by legendary Times city editor A. M. Rosenthal), and the lack of response was likely due to faulty phone systems in the NYPD rather than the apathy of Queens residents. De May has interviewed surviving witnesses, pored over maps and diagrams, and analyzed court testimony and police reports; he presents his case in exhaustive detail here.

Winston Moseley received a death sentence, later reduced to life in prison. He took part in the riots at Attica in 1971. Denied parole in 2008, he remains incarcerated.

Born in New York, Kitty Genovese remained in the city when her mother moved the family to Connecticut after witnessing a murder in 1954. She was survived by her partner Mary Ann Zielonko, who shared her Kew Gardens apartment. Her murder was a brutal act, senseless and unprovoked. The meaning of the tale, however, may be more complicated than once supposed. But one thing is certain: when it comes to history, Joseph De May is no bystander. He gets involved.


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