Thirty-Eight Witnesses by A.M. Rosenthal is the chilling, true story of the brutal murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in which thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed her brutal murder and none of them called for help.
In the early hours of March 13, 1964, twenty-eight-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death in the middle-class neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens. The attack lasted for more than a half hour—enough time for Genovese’s assailant to move his car and change hats before returning to rape and kill her just a few steps from her front door.
Yet it was not the brutality of the murder that made it international news. It was a chilling detail Police Commissioner Michael Joseph Murphy shared with A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times: Thirty-eight of Genovese’s neighbors witnessed the assault—and none called for help.
To Rosenthal, who had recently returned to New York after spending a decade overseas and would become the Times’s longest-serving executive editor, that startling statistic spoke volumes about both the turbulence of the 1960s and the enduring mysteries of human nature. His impassioned coverage of the case sparked a firestorm of public indignation and led to the development of the psychological theory known as the “bystander effect.”The first attack came at 3:15. The first call to the police came at 3:50. Police arrived within two minutes, they say. Miss Genovese was dead.
That night and the next morning the police combed the neighborhood looking for witnesses. They found them, thirty-eight.
Two weeks later, when this newspaper heard of the story, a reporter went knocking, door to door, asking why, why.
Through half-opened doors, they told him. Most of them were neither defiant nor terribly embarrassed nor particularly ashamed. The underlying attitude, or explanation, seemed to be fear of involvement—any kind of involvement.
“I didn’t want my husband to get involved,” a housewife said.
“We thought it was a lovers’ quarrel,” said another woman. “I went back to bed.”
“I was tired,” said a man.
“I don’t know,” said another man.
“I don’t know,” said still another.
“I don’t know,” said others.
On March 19, police arrested a twenty-nine-year-old business-machine operator named Winston Moseley and charged him with the murder of Catherine Genovese. He has confessed to killing two other women, for one of whose murders police say they have a confession from another man.
Not much is said or heard or thought in the city about Winston Moseley. In this drama, as far as the city is concerned, he appeared briefly, acted his piece, exited into the wings.
A week after the first story appeared a reporter went back to Austin Street. Now the witnesses no longer wanted to talk. They were harried, annoyed; they thought they should keep their mouths shut. “I’ve done enough talking,” one witness said. “Oh, it’s you again,” said a woman witness and slammed the door.
The neighbors of the witnesses are willing to talk. Their sympathy is for the silent witnesses and the embarrassment in which they now live.
Max Heilbrunn, who runs a coffee house on Austin Street, talked about all the newspaper publicity and said his neighbors felt they were being picked on. “It isn’t a bad neighborhood,” he said.
And this from Frank Facciola, the owner of the neighborhood barber shop: “I resent the way these newspaper and television people have hurt us. We have wonderful people here. What happened could have happened any place. There is no question in my mind that people here now would rush out to help anyone being attacked on the street.”
Then he said, “The same thing [failure to call the police] happens in other sections every day. Why make such a fuss when it happens in Kew Gardens? We are trying to forget it happened here.”
A Frenchwoman in the neighborhood said, “Let’s forget the whole thing. It is a quiet neighborhood, good to live in. What happened, happened.”
Each individual, obviously, approaches the story of Catherine Genovese, reacts to it and veers away from it against the background of his own life and experience, and his own fears and shortcomings and rationalizations.
It seems to this writer that what happened in the apartments and houses on Austin Street was a symptom of a terrible reality in the human condition—that only under certain situations and only in response to certain reflexes or certain beliefs will a man step out of his shell toward his brother.
To say this is not to excuse, but to try to understand and in so doing perhaps eventually to extend the reflexes and beliefs and situations to include more people. To ignore it is to perpetuate myths that lead nowhere. Of these the two most futile philosophically are that apathy is a response to official ineptitude (“The cops never come on time anyway”), or that apathy is a condition only of metropolitan life.
Certainly police procedures must be improved—although in the story of Miss Genovese all indications were that, once called into action, the police machine behaved perfectly.
As far as is known, not one witness has said that he remained silent because he had had any unpleasant experience with the police. It is a pointless point; there are men who will jump into a river to rescue a drowner; there are others who will tell themselves that a police launch will be cruising by or that, if it doesn’t, it should.
Nobody can say why the thirty-eight did not lift the phone while Miss Genovese was being attacked, since they cannot say themselves. It can be assumed, however, that their apathy was indeed of a big-city variety. It is almost a matter of psychological survival . . . to ignore them as often as possible.
In every major city in which I have lived—in Tokyo and Warsaw, Vienna and Bombay—I have seen, over and over again, people walk away from accident victims. I have walked away myself.
There are, it seems to me, only two logical ways to look at the story of the murder of Catherine Genovese. One is the way of the neighbor on Austin Street—“Let’s forget the whole thing.”
The other is to recognize that the bell tolls even on each man’s individual island, to recognize that every man must fear the witness in himself who whispers to close the window.
Copyright © 2015 A.M. Rosenthal.
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Abraham Michael “A.M.” Rosenthal (May 2, 1922 – May 10, 2006) was a New York Times executive editor (1977–88) and columnist (1987–1999) and New York Daily News columnist (1999–2004). Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for international reporting. As an editor at the newspaper, Rosenthal oversaw the coverage of a number of major news stories including the Vietnam war, the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate scandal.