Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Kitty Genovese Murder


Why had so many people stood by and done nothing while an innocent person was killed before their eyes? "Seldom has The Times published a more horrifying story than its account of how 38 respectable, law-abiding, middle class Queens citizens watched a killer stalk his young woman victim...without one of them making a call to the Police Department that might have saved her life," The Times wrote in an editorial on March 28. It seemed to be too much for everyone to digest, though psychologists had several theories to explain the depressing conduct of the people in Kew Gardens.

Some dismissed it as a natural extension of urban environment. To people who lived in middle America or small towns, the reaction of the witnesses to the Genovese murder was symbolic of the hectic life in cities like New York. To them, citizens in a large metropolis are not likely or willing to help a stranger in need, although many New Yorkers would disagree with that premise. Stanley Milgram, one of America's foremost researchers in social psychology, wrote in The Nation: "The Kew Gardens incident has become the occasion for a general attack on the city. It is portrayed as callous, cruel, indifferent to the needs of the people and wholly inferior to the small town in quality of its personal relationships."

Others, like Lt. Bernard Jacobs of the N.Y.C.P.D., who led the police investigation, could not understand the reactions of the 38. He told the press, "Where they are, in their homes, near phones, why should they be afraid to call the police?" It was a good question. And there were disturbing answers as well. The police received a great deal of criticism from an angry public who had a deep resentment against what they perceived to be, an indifferent, rude and abusive police department. "Have you ever reported anything to the police?" One letter to the editor asked. "If you did, you would know that you are subjected to insults and abuse from annoyed undutiful police..." Another frequent complaint was the difficulty of calling the local police precinct. In 1964, there was no universal "911" system. A caller had to dial the number to their precinct, and sometimes, the call went somewhere else (the Genovese murder became the pivotal factor in changing the phone reporting procedure for the New York City Police Department).

Dr. Iago Galdston, a New York City psychiatrist said "I would assign this to the effect of the megalopolis in which we live which makes closeness very difficult and leads to the alienation of the individual to the group." Another professor was not so kind when he wrote that the murder "goes to the heart of whether this is a community or a jungle." The killing of Kitty Genovese soon became symbolic of all that was wrong with modern society, especially in cities. Apathy was endemic.

Beginning in April of 1964, New York newspapers printed a series of stories highlighting the apathy and callousness of citizens. One story, which appeared on June 8 in The Daily News, told of a distraught man who was perched on a 10-story ledge of a Broadway office building. As police tried to talk the man down, a large crowd gathered in the street and chanted, "Jump! Jump!"

When the man was finally pulled off the ledge, the crowd loudly booed the cops.

But an unidentified theologian provided the most telling piece of irony when he sought to explain the urban problem of indifference and the unwillingness of the ordinary person to become involved. "I can't understand it. Maybe the depersonalizing here has gone further than I thought," he told The Times. He then added, "But don't quote me!"

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