Friday the 13th has long been associated with bad luck. No one is really sure why, other than the number 13 and the day Friday are both considered somewhat unlucky, and so Friday the 13th is doubly so. But statistically, it is no more deadly than the other 364 days of the year. Not that it hasn’t had its fair share of catastrophes: freak floods, cyclones, blizzards, and plane crashes – including the infamous 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.
However, one Friday the 13th tragedy stands out as a legendary perfect storm of murder and apathy: on March 13, 1964, bar manager Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, in New York City. According to a New York Times article written soon after the crime, 38 people saw or heard the attack, but did nothing. The nation was rightfully shocked, and the phenomenon was studied intensely by psychologists and sociologists, who coined the term the “bystander effect.” For decades, her case was a staple of psychology classes.
But as the case got more scrutiny, researchers began to see that maybe the story we’d all been told wasn’t quite the whole truth.
Kitty Genovese grew up in an Italian- and Irish-American working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. She was known by friends and classmates as a “chatterbox,” popular, and charming. After graduation, she worked several jobs before becoming the manager of a bar in Queens. She was reliable and hard-working, often working double shifts to save money for her dream: to open an Italian restaurant.
On March 13, 1963, she met Mary Ann Zielonko, and they quickly fell in love. They moved into a second-floor apartment near the railway station in Kew Gardens.
On their first anniversary, Kitty got off work around 3 a.m. She parked her car at the railway station and began walking home through the frigid winter night. Businesses were closed, streets were empty, and apartment windows dark: the perfect hunting grounds for a killer.
Winston Moseley had snuck out of his home earlier that night, leaving his wife and two sons sleeping while he prowled for his latest victim.
Kitty was close to her apartment when she heard him approach her. She tried to run, but he caught her and stabbed her. She yelled out. A neighbor heard her cries and yelled, “Leave that girl alone!” Frightened, Winston retreated to his car. Kitty, bloody but still alive, limped toward her apartment.
After a few minutes, hearing no sirens, Winston decided to finish what he started. He found Kitty collapsed in the entryway to her apartment building. He stabbed her repeatedly and raped her there, then took the money from her wallet and left her to die (the coroner later found 13 stab wounds and a number of defensive wounds on her body).
Neighbor and friend Sophie Farrar heard the noises and rushed down the stairs to Kitty’s aid, holding her and comforting her. More than a half-hour after the attack, another neighbor finally called the cops. They arrived quickly, along with an ambulance, but she succumbed to her wounds at Queens General Hospital.
Six days later, Winston Moseley confessed to the murder of Kitty Genovese and two other women: Annie Mae Johnson and Barbara Kralik, as well as a number of burglaries and rapes. He was sentenced to death, but later his sentence was commuted to 20 years to life. (An interesting aside is that this did not put an end to his violence. While in prison, he purposefully injured himself in order to get transferred to a hospital. He then escaped transport, found an empty house, and holed up there. When the cleaning lady arrived, he raped her. After escaping, she called the owners of the house, and they called the police. The police told her they were only one and a half hours to shift change, so she should call back later. When the owners came home, Winston tied the man up, raped the woman, then stole their car and went to another house where he held a mother and daughter hostage. Later he released them and was arrested.) He died in prison on March 28, 2016.
The story that was written about the attack made national headlines and sparked a widespread debate about supposed urban apathy and indifference. Kitty Genovese’s case – and the story of the 38 bystanders – helped pass Good Samaritan laws and sparked the creation of the 911 system.
Though the Kitty Genovese murder sparked such debate and ultimately positive changes, after some digging it was shown that the story was not as bad as it had been reported. First of all, the number of witnesses had been inflated, and most of the witnesses only caught brief glimpses of the attack and didn’t realize what they were seeing or hearing.
The fact remains that many people did hear her screaming and did not call the cops. But the neighborhood was near a bar, and residents said that screaming and yelling late at night weren’t uncommon. It is also important to remember that domestic violence was perfectly legal in 1964, so hearing a woman’s screams may have not alerted neighbors to a crime, necessarily – just a husband exercising his God-given right to control his wife.
There was also another factor at work: back then, being gay was illegal. Kitty and many of her neighbors feared police persecution daily, and so would not have seen the police as a force for help. In fact, her partner, Mary, was grilled extensively about her sexuality after Kitty’s death and was herself accused of killing her.
But most importantly, several people actually did call the cops. Her friend Sophie took a great risk to come to Kitty’s aid, and held her in her arms while she breathed her last. She showed great courage and kindness, and I think that story deserves as much attention as the false claim that “no one wanted to get involved.”