The Kitty Genovese Effect

If you took a psychology class in high school or college, then the name Kitty Genovese probably rings a bell. She was the woman from Queens, New York, who, legend has it, was stabbed to death in 1964 in front of 38 witnesses, and not one of them did a thing. It’s a tragic story, and a shocking one, that lead many researchers to study the concept of diffusion of responsibility.

I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about this recently (waving at Caly). She mentioned that if you’re going to be attacked, it’s better to have it happen in front of one person, rather than a crowd, because an individual is more likely to do something. I think that’s sad, but true. The larger the crowd, the more likely you are to think someone else will take charge, and the less guilty you will feel when everyone else around you is being equally inactive.

But, I theorized, in this modern world, the more people you have around, the more likely it will be that someone will video the attack on their iPhone. Because nowadays that’s what one does, isn’t it? So, yes, you’ll still probably die a painful, bloody death, but at least there’s a chance that your killer will be caught “on tape”, so to speak. That’s progress of a sort, isn’t it? Kind of?

But, before writing this article, I went to that font of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, and read the article on Kitty Genovese, and it was quite fascinating. First of all, it’s not as if there were 38 people standing in a circle, watching the entire crime from start to finish while twiddling their thumbs. It turns out that the number of witnesses was inaccurately reported, and of those who saw something, they only saw a snippet of the interaction. Many thought it was just a lover’s quarrel. Most didn’t realize that a stabbing had taken place. Others, behind closed doors and several floors away, saw nothing and weren’t quite sure what they heard. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, after all. And Kitty was stabbed in the lungs early on in the attack, so it’s very likely that her “screams” weren’t very loud at all, unfortunately.

Also, at least two people called the police, and one woman rushed out and cradled Kitty in her arms as she lay dying, despite the fact that no one could be sure that the murderer had left the area. And then there’s the fact that it was 1964. More people would be apt to turn their backs on what they considered to be domestic abuse than would in modern times. In theory.

So maybe there’s hope for humanity after all.

Another interesting angle to this story that I don’t remember reading in my psychology textbooks is that the killer, Winston Moseley, was, indeed, captured, prosecuted and convicted. He was given the death penalty originally, but it was reduced to a life sentence eventually. And this was one really bad man. He actually went on a hunt that night to kill a woman, any woman, and Kitty just happened to be the first one who crossed his path.

Moseley also confessed to killing and raping two other women, committing an untold number of burglaries, and later he managed to escape custody. During that time he held 4 people hostage in two different houses, and raped one of them. He also participated in the famous Attica Prison Riot. Needless to say, this guy was a total nut job, and prison was where he needed to be. But I was pretty surprised to discover that he only died in prison just recently, on March 28, 2016, at the age of 81. He was unrepentant to his dying day.

I think the worst tragedy, here, is that Kitty Genovese was only given 28 years on this earth, and her horrible death is practically preserved in amber, inaccurately reported in textbooks all over the world. I’m sure she would have preferred to be remembered for other things, such as her reportedly sunny disposition.

If you ever find yourself visiting Lakeview Cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut, please visit her grave and pay your respects.

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4 thoughts on “The Kitty Genovese Effect

  1. Sam Ramirez

    I told a similar story to my students the other day. When I was in grad school in the early 1990’s, a young lady was attacked and killed as she walked to her Brooklyn home once evening. She was a young social worker who had decided to devote her life to helping people living in a NYC shelter. One evening, she was on her way home and decided to stop in a little store (deli) to buy something. It was early evening and it wasn’t a particularity bad neighborhood. Then, suddenly two men approached her, stole her money, and stabbed her in the chest. After her death, a investigation revealed that several of her neighbors saw and heard the attack, but did nothing. When questioned, the witnesses said they “didn’t want to get involved.” This heartbreaking story really touched me. First of all, this young lady had dedicated her life to helping people who were desperate and who possibly needed food, shelter and money. I have a feeling she would have helped the young men, if they had approached her seeking assistance. One account revealed that some people stood peering out their apt. windows as they watched they young lady fighting off the assailants. Yet, nobody picked up the phone to report that a pair of thugs was assaulting a screaming woman in the street below. The two attackers were eventually caught and casually confessed that they attacked her, but that her death was a terrible accident: They claimed she fell on the knife. After all these years, the poor young lady’s name and her horrific death are long forgotten. But, I can never forget her cold-hearted neighbors who stood, watched, and did nothing.

  2. Sam Ramirez

    Hi Barb: Here is an update to my post above. The young victim was Amy Watkins, a graduate student at New York City’s Hunter College School of Social Work. She was working in a Bronx shelter at the time of her death. Shortly before she died, she had organized a meeting to discuss domestic abuse and students’ low reading scores. She hailed from the state of Kansas and had moved to NYC to help others in need. Sadly, this kind-hearted and dedicated young lady lost her life at the age of 26 (March of 1999). Her neighbors saw, heard, and witnessed her desperate pleas, but did nothing as she was attacked and killed.

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