Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Kitty Genovese Murder


Austin Street in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, NYC (photo by author)
Austin Street in the Kew Gardens
section of Queens, NYC
(photo by author)

At about 3:50 a.m., a neighbor, Karl Ross, who lived on the second floor of Catherine's building on Austin Street, finally called the police. But before he did, he called a friend in nearby Nassau County and asked his opinion about what he should do. After the police were notified, a squad car arrived within three minutes and quickly found Catherine's body in the hallway on the first floor. She had been stabbed 17 times. Her torn and cut clothes were scattered about and her open wallet lay on the floor next to her. Her driver's license identified her as Catherine Genovese. Detectives from the 112 responded and began an exhaustive investigation. It was a frigid, winter morning, and a brisk, unrelenting wind made it seem even colder. A canvass of the neighborhood turned up several witnesses, including the one who had notified the police. When cops finished polling the immediate neighborhood, they discovered at least 38 people who had heard or observed some part of the fatal assault on Kitty Genovese.

Kew Gardens is a residential area located at the center of the borough of Queens, one of the most populated communities in America. If Queens were a city, it would be America's fifth largest. The area of Kew Gardens is generally middle class where houses in 1964 typically sold for $30,000 to $50,000. It resembled a small village in the suburbs rather than a city neighborhood. Mostly white, working class and typically one of the hundreds of small communities that make up metropolitan New York City, Austin Street is the focal point of the neighborhood. On this neat, picturesque avenue, there are shops, a small park and a busy train station where commuters catch the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central, 15 minutes away. Not the kind of place where one would think a person could be murdered without anyone offering even a smidgen of assistance.

"We thought it was a lover's quarrel!" said one tenant. "Frankly, we were afraid," said another witness. One woman who didn't want her name used said, "I didn't want my husband to get involved." Others had different explanations for their conduct. "We went to the window to see what was happening, but the light from our bedroom made it difficult to see the street." There were lots of excuses. Maybe the most apathetic was the one who told reporters, "I was tired." But the fact remained that dozens of people stood by and watched a woman being brutally assaulted for an extended period of time, and did nothing.

"If we had been called when he first attacked, the woman might not be dead now," an assistant chief inspector told the press at the time. New York City Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm said, "This tendency to shy away from reporting crimes is a common one." That was a revelation to the public. Some detectives were stunned. Others simply saw the unwillingness to get involved as representative of the times. Apathy, especially in urban settings, was everywhere, not only in Kew Gardens. In her own defense, one neighbor said she was too afraid to call. "I tried ...I really tried," she said, "but I was gasping for air and was unable to talk into the telephone."

As killings go, the murder of Catherine Genovese was not a spectacular one, nor did it generate much publicity when it happened. The original NYCPD complaint report reduced the episode to just five typewritten lines:

 "Karl Ross...heard calls of help at his residence. He saw a woman later identified as Kitty Genovese F-W-28 lying face down in ground floor hallway, she was taken to QGH (Queens General Hospital) by... with multiple stab wounds and pronounced DOA...then taken to morgue."

There were hundreds of killings in New York City in 1964 and 9,360 murders in America that year. A random killing in the street was not big news. The New York Times delegated a few short paragraphs to the incident on page 12. For two weeks, it lay dormant and gathered virtually no public attention. It wasn't until March 27, when The Times published its famous "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call" article by Martin Gansberg, that the killing became big news. The New York City media picked up on the wider themes of the event. Camera crews and newscasters descended on Kew Gardens. The press searched the neighborhood for any scrap of uncovered information, no matter how small or insignificant. Kitty Genovese's story began to take shape.