It was the location, many later said, that gave a heightened sense of horror to what happened.
In the early morning of March 1964 in Kew Gardens, a quiet residential district of Queens, considered “idyllic” by New York City standards, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered on her way home from work in a bar. It would become the catalyst for a curious debate, lasting decades, about what role bystander effect played.
Across the street stood an immense ten-story apartment building that ran the length of the entire block. Lights were coming on, first one and then another and another, as if a giant stone creature had suddenly awakened and begun to open its many rectangular eyes.
Author Catherine Pelonero approaches this incident and its historical impact by retracing the voluminous newspaper reporting around it. Because Kitty’s murder was such a sensational story at the time, it was reported on extensively, beginning with the New York Times article that started the “38 witnesses” story.
A wealth of materials exist and in almost detective-like fashion, Pelonero pieces together where reality began to morph into myth as the story was retold and more people were interviewed after having absorbed media coverage until it snowballed into an event that does say something meaningful about society, violence, and responsibility, but perhaps not exactly what we’ve always assumed.
I really liked this approach, as it showed the evolution of the story and its progression through the media, what was chosen to report and what was ignored, or hidden, resulting in this being a much more nuanced bit of history than the narrative that’s become infamous. Pelonero includes interview excerpts from over the years with the neighborhood’s residents, recalling that night and how its aftereffects were wider-reaching than perhaps realized.
The narrative of Kitty’s murder with its demonstration of bystander effect is well known, but like many stories that have been repeated for too long between too many sources, the truth is more complicated and often contradictory. There were a number of factors that contributed to what happened – that is, a noisy murder committed in the middle of the night in a heavily populated residential area, the astonishing fact that the murderer was chased off but able to return to rape and kill his victim despite lights on and people shouting – and they weren’t all related to bystander effect.
Among them were, surprising to me, the complexities of the time around contacting the police and, less surprisingly, confusion over whether what they heard or partially saw was a domestic dispute between a drunk couple. It’s like that parable of blind men touching an elephant and each reporting something wildly different despite describing ostensibly the same thing. This had a lot to do with how people interpreted what they saw, and what they felt their responsibilities, or abilities, were in connection. One reporter quoted an elderly woman who said she was so frightened by what she heard that her hands trembled too badly to dial the operator.
That same reporter, Edward Weiland, interviewed another man who said: “You get used to it after a while. You get conditioned. So when you hear a cry, you figure it’s just another drunk or a teen-ager [sic] raising hell. How can you pick one noise out of a hundred and know this time it’s murder?”
This was the most powerful aspect of the book for me. Kitty’s name has become a reductive byword for the not-my-problem attitude of big city living, a horror story repeated with the threatening undertone of unsurprising violence against women out too late alone – all unfortunate parts of this story, but not the whole thing. There’s absolutely truth in the bystander effect here, but there’s also a perfect storm situation of circumstances of the moment plus social elements, coalescing tragically.
But, he insisted, he was not a coward. “I believe I would have helped if I’d realized what the real situation was.”
As for his thoughts on what the “real situation” was at the time, he said: “At one point I thought maybe a girl was being raped—but if she was out alone at that hour, it served her right.”
It’s worth mentioning that the details of Kitty’s ordeal are harrowing. I think the outline is clear from the oft-repeated version of this story, but it’s infinitely worse than I knew. It’s haunting.
Despite no lack of detail, Pelonero makes this about Kitty’s life as much as about her death, and it’s a remarkably touching and in moments, beautifully happy story. I can’t believe that so much about who she was has been lost as the story of her death has been repeated over time, eclipsing anything that came before it. One of the “private consequences” of the subtitle was what happened to Mary Ann Zielonko, her surviving partner.
This was a time when homosexuality was relegated to the sidelines, and although the pair were roommates, their romantic partnership wasn’t common knowledge. Mary Ann sank into a deep depression after Kitty’s murder, numbing herself with alcohol in isolation for months, before she “decided to rescue herself.” It’s clear that part of her pain stemmed from not being able to openly express the depth of what she’d lost.
Also covered is the life of Kitty’s murderer, Winston Moseley, whose wife mused about it being “near impossible to imagine a man more placid or less confrontational than Winston.” He’s a curious character, and although I didn’t enjoy reading about him and failed to feel sympathy, Pelonero is thorough in presenting every angle of this story and everyone involved.
Interestingly, Kitty’s death was an impetus for 911. Journalist Martin Gansberg wrote an article for the New York Times that led to discussions about implementing a simple, streamlined system for citizens to contact police directly. Until that point it had involved an operator, calling individual precincts or a police communications bureau, thus accounting for one of the convoluted elements that allowed this to happen.
There are a number of books about Kitty and I wasn’t sure which to read – I picked this one because it was $2 in the BookBub newsletter, and it ended up being excellent. It’s informative, well-structured and compellingly written in narrative nonfiction style, and provides so much insightful background about social context, not to mention about Kitty’s life and acquaintances. (This was maybe even a more scandalous element than the infamous alleged 38 witnesses – a close friend saw her lying in the apartment vestibule and went back inside without helping. There’s so much about this story that’s just confounding.)
But aside from those too frightened, those who had heard too little to know what was happening, and those who had miscalculated the severity of the situation, in certain others the sense of detachment was palpable, as if the agony endured by a neighbor had no more bearing on their lives than would a broken traffic signal on Austin and Lefferts. Somebody should fix it, but not me.
A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences
by Catherine Pelonero
published March 2014 by Skyhorse