For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,” the New York Times reported on March 27, 1964, two weeks after a New York woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally killed.
According to the Times, none of those 38 people bothered to call the police during the assault, even as Genovese screamed “Save me.” One did only after Genovese was already dead. Another later told authorities, “I didn’t want to get involved” – words that would later become emblematic of bystander apathy and urban decline that the killing was thought to represent.
Though it was just one of 636 murders in New York that year, the story led to public outcry and national soul-searching. Good Samaritan laws were enacted in all 50 states, the 911 system was developed, and countless social psychologists scrambled to understand how so many witnesses could do so little – a phenomenon later termed the “bystander effect.” More than half a century later, Genovese’s name still inevitably triggers anxiety, anger and collective guilt, not to mention bitter debates about what those alleged 38 witnesses should have done.
But the name of her killer, a man named Winston Moseley, had all but disappeared until Monday, when prison officials at the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, announced that Moseley died last week at age 81.
Moseley was a “chilling character,” as New Yorker contributor Nicholas Lemann wrote in a 2014 piece about the case, with a strange capacity for compartmentalization. He was 29, married, the father of two and steadily employed at the time of Genovese’s killing. But he also routinely broke into people’s homes to steal television sets – that’s what he was doing when he was arrested five days after Genovese’s death. Under questioning, he confessed to the murder of Genovese and killing or raping a number of other women. A New York jury swiftly found him guilty and condemned him to the electric chair; that sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
Four years later, during a short-lived escape during a lightly-guarded trip to the hospital, Moseley committed another rape and held two hostages at gunpoint. He also participated in the Attica Prison riot of 1971, which left dozens of people dead.
Moseley would spend 52 years behind bars – making him the longest-serving inmate in New York, the perpetrator of a crime that would live in infamy. In a 2013 parole interview, he said he was weary of the ceaseless visits from journalists and interview requests.
“It just goes on and on and on,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “I’d just prefer to die and be done with this than keep going over this, year after year after year.”
Yet the killing that trailed Moseley throughout his life and Genovese in her death didn’t quite mean what Americans thought it did. People looked at the killing, with its lurid sexual elements and racial undertones (Genovese was white and attractive, Moseley was African-American and a repeat rapist), and the apparently apathetic response of the 38 witnesses who might have stopped it, and they saw an encapsulation of everything they feared about modern urban life: the perilous anonymity, the absence of community, the breakdown of social conventions, the prospect of violence around every corner.
A series of subsequent investigations (including one by the New York Times itself) revealed that the shocking story that ran two weeks after the killing had misreported many of the details. A 2007 article in American Psychologist said that there was no evidence for the report of 38 witnesses – that number was thought to be a loose estimate of the number of people interviewed by police, tossed around during a lunch between the police commissioner and a New York Times editor only to be immortalized in print. Likewise, the American Psychologist article argues, there is no evidence that witnesses actually observed the murder in its entirety, or that they ignored it.
“Kitty Genovese was not killed by apathy,” Kevin Cook, author of “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America,” told WNYC. “She was killed by a monster named Winston Moseley.”
Indeed, Lemann wrote in the New Yorker, a number of people did call the police. Another man heard Genovese’s screams during Moseley’s initial assault and yelled “Leave that girl alone,” driving him away. Because Genovese’s lungs had been punctured, she likely wasn’t able to scream when Moseley ultimately returned to sexually assault and stab her in her apartment building’s vestibule, before fleeing and leaving her for dead.
When Genovese did die, she was in the arms of a brave neighbor who left her apartment to help the bleeding girl, even though she wasn’t sure the attacker had left for good.
The revisionist history of the Genovese killing does not exonerate those who failed to stop it. According to American Psychologist, many people said they heard the woman screaming, but assumed that it was a domestic dispute – and thus none of their business, according to 1960s social mores. One witness saw that Genovese was stabbed during the initial attack, outside the apartment building. And another man, a neighbor and friend of Genovese’s, had opened his door to see Moseley stabbing the young woman inside the building, but was too terrified to do anything other than close the door. He only called the police sometime later, after retreating to another neighbor’s apartment.
The police, too, have been implicated in these newer accounts. Like some of Genovese’s neighbors, they may have taken the woman’s screams for a lover’s quarrel that didn’t warrant their intervention. In 1964, marital rape was not a crime in New York, and domestic violence cases – in the rare instance where they were prosecuted – were considered in family, rather than criminal, courts. Beating would not become grounds for divorce for another two years.
All of that was on top of the fact that, in those pre-911 days, police were sometimes disinclined to do anything about ordinary citizens’ calls – as some of the newer reports suggested they did in the Genovese case.
“It was a time when the police weren’t necessarily your friend,” Cook told NPR in 2014. “There were many accounts in which people called in and were invited to mind their own business or move to another neighborhood if you don’t like it there.”
These revised accounts don’t alter the indelible impact that the case has had on the American psyche. For the Genovese family, it’s been a nightmare – something to scrutinize endlessly, as Kitty’s brother Bill has done (he produced a documentary about the case last year) or else push away. The “modern parable” of Genovese’s killing, as the American Psychologist termed it, also seemed to presage the next decades of white flight and urban decay.
On the other hand, the modern 911 system has unquestionably helped save lives, even if it did not come in time to save Genovese. And the case gave rise to an entire field of research into diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect – phenomena that decades of social science have proven real, even if the story that started it isn’t quite.
Moseley attempted to lay claim to some of that good in a 1977 op-ed that preceded several decades of requests for an early release. In the piece, headlined, “Today I’m a Man Who Wants to Be an Asset,” Moseley wrote that his “crime was tragic, but it did serve society, urging it as it did to come to the aid of its members in distress or danger.”
In his last few decades, Moseley continued to argue that he was a changed man. He obtained a college degree, worked as a porter and was involved in a Quaker program according to the Associated Press.
But his appeals for parole were never granted. During an interview, a parole board member had asked Moseley, “Do you remember what you did?”
He replied, according to the New York Daily News: “I remember sir.”
Last fall, the parole board denied his final request.