kitty genovese -- 2/8/17

Today's encore selection -- from SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese by Winston Moseley:

"The Kitty Genovese murder became infamous because of an article published on the front page of The New York Times. It began like this:

" '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. ... Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.' ...

"The incident so deeply shook the nation that over the next twenty years, it inspired more academic research on bystander apathy than the Holocaust. To mark the thirtieth anniversary, President Bill Clinton visited New York City and spoke about the crime: 'It sent a chilling message about what had happened at that time in a society, suggesting that we were each of us not simply in danger but fundamentally alone.'

"More than thirty-five years later, the horror lived on in The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell's groundbreaking book about social behavior, as an example of the 'bystander effect' whereby the presence of multiple witnesses at a tragedy can actually inhibit intervention.

"Today, more than forty years later, the Kitty Genovese saga appears in all ten of the top-selling undergraduate textbooks for social psychology. One text describes the witnesses remaining 'at their windows in fascination for the 30 minutes it took her assailant to complete his grisly deed, during which he returned for three separate attacks.' ...

"But was it true? ... Who then were 'the thirty-eight witnesses'? That number, also supplied by the police, was apparently a whopping overstatement. 'We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use,' one of the prosecutors later recalled. This included one neighbor who, according to De May, may have witnessed part of the second attack, but was apparently so drunk that he was reluctant to phone the police.

Kitty Genovese

"But still: even if the murder was not a bloody and prolonged spectacle that took place in full view of dozens of neighbors why didn't anyone call the police for help? Even that part of the legend may be false. ... [Winston Moseley was captured a few days later while robbing the home of a family named Bannister.] ... A neighbor approached and asked what he was doing. Moseley said he was helping the Bannisters move. The neighbor went back in his house and phoned another neighbor to ask if the Bannisters were really moving.

" 'Absolutely not,' said the second neighbor. He called the police while the first neighbor went back outside and loosened the distributor cap on Moseley's car. When Moseley returned to his car and found it wouldn't start, he fled on foot but was soon chased down by a policeman. Under interrogation, he freely admitted to killing Kitty Genovese a few nights earlier.

"Which means that a man who became infamous because he murdered a woman whose neighbors failed to intervene was ultimately captured because of ... a neighbor's intervention."


Steven D. Levitt


SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance


William Morrow Paperbacks


Copyright 2009 by Steven D. Levitt


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