On this day in 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her Queens, New York, apartment, as apartment residents reportedly did nothing. The tragic story sparked research into the social psychological phenomenon known as Genovese Syndrome, or bystander effect.
Genovese was the eldest of five children in a lower-middle class Italian-American family from Brooklyn. By the time she was 24, Genovese was working as a bar manager in Queens, where she also lived in a Kew Gardens apartment.
At around 3 AM on 13 March 1964, Genovese finished her late shift at the bar and drove home. She parked in a lot behind her building and as she made her way to the rear of the building, a man approached her. Frightened, Genovese began running, but the man overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. Genovese screamed for help, crying “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” It was a cold night and most neighbours had their windows closed and didn’t recognise her cry for help. However, one neighbour did and shouted, “Let that girl alone!” The man ran away and Genovese made her way to the rear entrance of her building, where she lay seriously injured.
Ten minutes later, the man returned, searching for Genovese. He found her in a hallway at the back of the building. Out of view of neighbours, he continued his brutal attack, then stole $49 before escaping as she lay dying. After a neighbour called the police, Genovese was taken away by ambulance at about 4:15 AM, but she died en route to the hospital.
The aftermath was intense. Two weeks after the murder, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw the Murder Didn’t Call the Police,” and many saw the lack of response to the heinous act as an example of big city apathy or callousness. In fact, a 2007 study found the headline and assumptions of apathy to be inaccurate, finding “no evidence for the presence of 38 witnesses, or that witnesses observed the murder, or that witnesses remained inactive.”
The response prompted research into the phenomenon known as Genovese Syndrome, or the bystander effect, which suggests that larger number of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward to help a victim. This occurrence results in a diffusion of responsibility, whereby onlookers are less likely to help because they see that others are also not helping, they believe others are better able to help, and they feel uncertain about helping while others look on. Though later researchers concluded the story is more parable than fact, the Genovese case has become a classic textbook example of the social psychological phenomenon of bystander effect.
Genovese’s attacker, Winston Moseley, was soon caught and confessed to the murder, along with two other murders, both involving sexual assaults. He is serving a life sentence in prison. Genovese was buried in a family grave in New Canaan, Connecticut.