Genovese, Catherine ("Kitty")

views updated

GENOVESE, Catherine ("Kitty")

(b. 7 July 1935 in New York City; d. 13 March 1964 in New York City), New York City woman whose murder in front of thirty-eight witnesses became an international symbol of urban crime and bystanders who "did not want to get involved."

Genovese was the first of five children born to Vincent Genovese, Sr., owner of the Bay Ridge Coat and Apron Supply Company, and Rachel Genovese, a homemaker. Genovese was a vivacious woman, an admired role model for her siblings, and remembered by her family as a "real high-energy person." In 1954 the Genovese family moved to the suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut, after Genovese's mother witnessed a murder in front of their Brooklyn home, but Genovese chose to stay in New York City, a bold decision for a single nineteen-year-old Italian-American woman.

On Friday, 13 March 1964, the petite five-foot, one-inch, 105-pound Genovese was returning home at 3:00 a.m. from Ev's Eleventh Hour Tavern in Hollis, Queens, where she worked as a manager who kept customers in line. As usual, she parked her red Fiat 100 feet from her apartment at 82-70 Austin Street in quiet Kew Gardens, Queens. When a man stepped from the shadows and slashed her, she screamed, "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Please help me!" Some house lights came on, and the attacker left when he saw a few of the neighbors shout or quietly watch from their windows. But over the next thirty-five minutes the attacker returned twice to rape, mutilate, and fatally stab Genovese. She screamed for her life in front of the watching neighbors, but no one intervened or so much as telephoned for the police or an ambulance. Only after her death did one neighbor, at 3:55 a.m., finally notify the police at the 102nd precinct. The police officers arrived in 120 seconds and clearly could have saved Genovese and captured her attacker if they had been contacted sooner.

By 7:00 a.m. forty detectives and technicians were scouring the murder scene for clues. Even hardened detectives were surprised to hear that at least thirty-eight neighbors admitted witnessing the attack. The neighbors offered several explanations for not doing more to help, including the now infamous refrain, "I just didn't want to get involved."

News of this murder nearly passed unnoticed on 14 March 1964, when the New York Times printed a small police blotter item, "Queens Woman Stabbed." But over lunch eight days later, police commissioner Michael Murphy casually mentioned to the New York Times metropolitan editor A. M. Rosenthal his puzzlement over a murder in front of so many inactive witnesses. Rosenthal's inquiry led to a front-page story on 27 March 1964 and a book, Thirty-eight Witnesses, published later that year. By then the police had in custody a serial killer who had slain two women before Genovese; he was stopped by two alert neighbors during a brazen daylight burglary when they removed the distributor cap from his car and called the police. In chilling detail, Winston Moseley described slashing Genovese's larynx to silence her screams and his lack of fear of the witnesses: "I knew they wouldn't do anything. People never do."

The facts of the Genovese murder struck a chord that resonated throughout America. Immediately Genovese's name and her published photograph were internationally known, symbolizing different things to different people and becoming the subject of countless articles, essays, even songs, plays, and movies. Some simply saw Genovese as the unfortunate victim of New York City and its crime-ridden streets. Others placed her murder in the broader context of the brutality of the urban condition in all U.S. cities during the era. For yet others, the event was indicative of America in the 1960s, with its do-your-own-thing, don'tget-involved, "Me Generation" ethos. Some saw evidence of a worldwide twentieth-century malaise in which anonymity spreads as communities break down.

More than any other of the century, this crime became a haunting symbol of the senselessness of urban street violence and of the individual's inability to rely on other people for protection. It led to national soul-searching and to changes in U.S. law. For example, most states enacted Good Samaritan laws that encouraged witnesses to intervene to stop a crime, and a few states even enacted duty-to-aid laws that obliged citizens to help victims of certain crimes. Genovese's name has been associated with many other post-1964 social reforms: victim/witness assistance programs, crime victim compensation, neighborhood watch programs, the Guardian Angels, and other grassroots anti-crime efforts.

The behavioral sciences were also heavily affected, particularly after Rosenthal's book found that the "experts" he interviewed realized they had little or no idea why people do or do not help each other. The Genovese tragedy was cited in well over 1,000 scholarly articles—more than any other incident—and literally created a new social psychology specialty termed helping behavior or prosocial behavior. Through experimentation, scientists found that, more than simple apathy, social phenomena including diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance, concerned confusion, Bad Samaritanism, and social loafing caused witnesses in groups to be less helpful to strangers in need than single individuals might be. It seemed Genovese-type incidents were all too common due to what has been called the secret of street crime—that criminals often commit crimes in public and rely on witnesses not to challenge them.

On the twentieth anniversary of Genovese's murder (10–13 March 1984), the heads of three federal agencies—Justice, Mental Health, and Public Service—met at Fordham University in New York City with one hundred behavioral scientists and lawyers. U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's voice quivered as he spoke: "I am not pleased to be here at all. I wish there were no event to commemorate.… I wish Catherine Genovese were still alive. She would be forty-eight years old now, maybe married, maybe a mother. Or maybe she'd still be single, a working woman, one of the twelve million single women in the work force today."

The Genovese family was devastated by their loss. They did not get involved in the trial of the killer, who was speedily convicted in Queens on 11 June 1964. His death sentence was later reduced to life in prison as convict 64A0102 at the Great Meadow State Prison in Comstock, New York. In 1995 the Genovese family stepped forward for the first time to speak with media and authorities in response to Moseley's nearly successful legal maneuvers to petition for a new trial.

Sadly, Genovese is known more for her death than her life. She appears in this book because of that final hour of her twenty-eight years, which has been microscopically studied by criminal investigators, journalists, and psychologists. It was an hour not of her own choosing, when she suddenly found herself excruciatingly alone in an unhelpful crowd. A 1999 survey of college students found that almost all of them were familiar with the Genovese tragedy, though virtually none of them were alive in 1964. Her screams may have been ignored by her thirty-eight neighbors at the time, but they have been heard around the world and touched millions of people since then.

Information on the Genovese murder is in A. M. Rosenthal, Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (1964); Bibb Latane and John M. Darley, The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? (1970); Albert A. Seedman and Peter Hellman, Chief! Classic Cases from the Files of the Chief of Detectives (1974); and Carl Sifakis, The Encyclopedia of American Crime (1982). Articles about the crime include A. Weinberger, "What the Street Thieves Know," New York Magazine (23 Nov. 1981); M. Dowd, "20 Years After Kitty Genovese Murder, Experts Study Bad Samaritanism," New York Times (12 Mar. 1984); P. Rogers and M. Eftimiades, "Bearing Witness," People Weekly (24 July 1995); and Michael Dorman, "The Killing of Kitty Genovese," Newsday (10 June 1998).

Harold Takooshian