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kitty genovese

Kitty Genovese

Apart from Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary, and the still unnamed victims, the person most often mentioned in connection with the Penn State sex abuse scandal is a woman who has been dead for almost forty-eight years. If you don’t recognize her name, you’ve likely heard her story or some version of it.

28-year-old Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, on March 13, 1964. As with Anne Frank, the story of Kitty’s death transformed her from an unknown to one of the most enduring of public figures. That transformation began with the opening paragraph of a front page story from the March 27, 1964 New York Times.

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. Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

In 1964, the idea that “respectable, law-abiding” witnesses would fail to call the police when they could have done so without risk was incomprehensible. Infuriating, too, was the excuse offered by two and attributed to all: an unwillingness to get involved.

Almost half a century later, we’ve learned that the so called “bystander syndrome”—the failure of onlookers to help someone in distress even when doing so would pose no danger—is more common than we would like to imagine. Whether it is pedestrians leaving two-year-old Yue Yue to lie in a street in China after she had been twice struck by vans; or hospital staff in New York leaving Esmin Green to die unattended on the waiting room floor for an hour after she collapsed, such cases seem to occur with depressing regularity. And, each time one does, there is always the mention of Kitty, and the cold indifference of those thirty-eight witnesses.

So, when the Penn State scandal broke, and it seemed that Joe Paterno and others had failed to do enough to protect the children who were victimized, it was inevitable that Kitty Genovese would again be recalled. Typical were Bennett L. Gershman and Joel Cohen, who did so in an 11/10/11 Huffington Post article entitled “'See No Evil, Hear No Evil': Joe Paterno, Kitty Genovese, and the Crime of Silence.” Mirroring the Times story, and popular accounts, Gershman and Cohen described Kitty’s murder this way.

Thirty-eight people—thirty-eight people—witnessed her death, but no witness—not one—called the police.

While that broad brush description may not be technically false, it paints an inaccurate picture.

Mike McCreary & Joe Paterno

Mike McCreary & Joe Paterno

The evidence at her killer’s trial was that Kitty Genovese died after two separate attacks over a period of about thirty minutes. The first attack began at about 3:20 am on Austin Street in Kew Gardens. It took place in front of a two-story residential building, and across from a much larger nine story apartment building. Both buildings stretched the length of the block. That attack was over with quickly. Kitty’s screams after being stabbed woke the residents of both buildings. Her attacker ran off. Without making further outcries, Kitty then left the scene of that first attack, with apparent difficulty but under her own power. She made her way to the rear of the two-story building where she entered a small foyer and collapsed. Her attacker returned about ten minutes later, found her there, and inflicted the wounds that killed her. The second attack was by far the longer of the two.

That means thirty-eight people could not have watched Kitty die, because the longer (and fatal) second attack occurred indoors where only one building resident was in a position to see it. Moreover, it was Kitty’s screams after being stabbed in the first attack that awakened witnesses and brought them to their windows. So those who reacted quickly saw Kitty’s attacker run away. Others just saw Kitty stagger away, bracing herself against storefronts for support. Only two people have ever been identified as seeing that first stabbing, and one of those thought Kitty was being hit.

Abe Rosenthal, the Times editor for the story, denied in front of a March 9, 2004 Fordham University forum that the case was ever about thirty-eight eyewitnesses.

"I never said, nor did anybody on The New York Times, or any reporter with a brain, say there were thirty-eight peering out of a window."

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In fact, the witnesses were overwhelmingly ear witnesses, not eye witnesses. However, being a witness does not necessarily mean you understand what you have witnessed. Decades later, it is impossible to reconstruct what each ear witness heard. We know that one witness heard Kitty cry out that she had been stabbed, but we do not know how many others did, if any. There is reason to believe that many other ear witnesses simply did not understand that they were hearing a murder in progress.

The first attack lasted a few minutes at most—from stalking to stabbing to the attacker’s flight—so ear witnesses suddenly awakened from their sleep would not have had a lot of time to figure out what was going on. Initially, they would have been disoriented and confused. Moreover, how much any witness heard would have also depended upon unknowns such as:

  • the acoustics of the street,
  • how high up or far down the block the apartment was situated,
  • whether the bedroom window was open or shut (it was winter), and
  • whether the witness was a heavy or light sleeper.

Once the first attack ended, so did Kitty’s outcries. Many any witnesses, still unsure of what the commotion was all about, could have easily concluded that whatever the crisis was, it had passed.

Other notions about the case are wrong. The witnesses did not watch for half an hour. Once Kitty left the scene of the first attack, the Austin Street witnesses could no longer see her. Nor did Kitty scream for half an hour. The first attack left her with a punctured lung which would likely have prevented that in any event. Her initial outcries lasted the short period of time it took for the first attack to end. She next cried out at the beginning of the second attack some ten minutes later in the foyer, but it was described as too low or weak to be a scream.

No one familiar with the case suggests that the thirty-eight witnesses earned any good citizenship awards that night (although two women who learned that Kitty was in trouble went looking for her under circumstances where they could not have been certain of their own safety). Their reactions were not nearly as egregious as so many believe, even if there is much to fault. Three witnesses did understand what was happening to Kitty but failed to act—one woman suggesting she became paralyzed with fear. An undetermined number of other witnesses were unresponsive although they had reason to believe that Kitty needed help even if they did not realize that it was a murder in progress.

There have been out of court contentions that the police were called that night, and that the presence a few doors away of a bar known for late night brawling and rowdiness led witnesses to think they were hearing another drunken lovers’ spat. Even if we discount those, it still appears that Kitty’s murder is less an example of unwillingness to get involved than of the inability of most of those jolted from their sleep to make complete sense of what was going on outside in time they had. That’s the gist of a recent Brown University study reported in New York magazine: The bystander syndrome diminishes to the extent the threat is clear.

There is no reason to believe that all of the witnesses immediately knew and understood everything we know and understand about the attacks today. What the case mostly demonstrates is the difficulty humans have in reacting to situations that are at all ambiguous. Even Times editor Abe Rosenthal wondered whether he would have done better.

Ambiguity was not a factor in the Penn State scandal. Witness Mike McQueary was quite clear on what he saw Jerry Sandusky doing— raping a ten-year-old boy. Presumably McQueary’s account was equally clear to head coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz.

Nor was time a factor. The Austin Street witnesses suddenly awakened had minutes to figure out what was going on, and act. In any event, Kitty suffered her mortal wounds probably well within thirty minutes after she was first attacked. Former quarterback Mike McQueary, at twenty-eight years of age and 6’5” in height, clearly had the ability, then and there, to stop the attack on the ten-year-old boy. He apparently failed to do so. Paterno, Curley, and Schultz just as clearly had more than adequate time to reflect on what they had been told, and call the police to head off future Sandusky attacks, but also failed to do so.

So, are the Penn State and Kitty Genovese cases comparable? At a certain level, yes. There were those in both cases who could have done more than they did to avert a tragic outcome. At another level, no. McQueary, Paterno, and Penn State administrators had clarity and time to react that most of the Kitty Genovese witnesses simply did not.

Joseph De May

Joseph De May is an attorney and historian of Queens, New York. He is a member and former Vice President of The Richmond Hill Historical Society, where his pioneering research into the Genovese murder overturned conventional wisdom on the case. His work has been cited by many journalists, including Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers."

Republished with permission from History News Network