Nightmare On Austin Street

July 2017

It was a story so disturbing that we all still remember it. But what if it wasn’t true?

In the paper’s morning edition for March 27, 1964, The New York Times ran one of the most indelible leads in its 155-year history. “For more than half an hour,” began a front-page article by the reporter Martin Gansberg, “thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

The story went on to recount the killing of 28-year-old Catherine Genovese, known as Kitty, by a psychopath named Winston Moseley. The murder had occurred two weeks earlier, in the cold dark hours of March 13 shortly after Ms. Genovese drove into her neighborhood of faux-Tudor buildings in Queens, New York. Moseley followed, tailing her in a white Corvair. When she parked near her apartment building, he continued his pursuit on foot. Ms. Genovese made it only a few hundred feet up Austin Street, one of Kew Garden’s thoroughfares, before Moseley caught up to her and shoved a knife into her back. Later, after attempting to rape her in a foyer at the back of her building, he left her to bleed to death.

The murder was ghastly, but it wasn’t the details of Moseley’s attack that made the story so chilling. It was the response of the neighbors. According to the Times , as Ms. Genovese screamed out, “Please help me! Please help me!” lights came on in nearby apartment buildings, faces appeared in windows, a man shouted, but nothing more. “Not one person telephoned the police during the assault,” reported the Times ; “one witness called after the woman was dead.” For 35 minutes 38 people simply watched —the word is right there in the lead—as Moseley slaughtered their pretty young neighbor. One witness explained himself with a phrase that became infamous: “I didn’t want to get involved.”

The Times article detonated on breakfast tables, then mushroomed into an expanding cloud of gloom. Newspapers disseminated the story across the country. The 38 witnesses were roundly and personally vilified, but to those in the business of worrying about such things, their actions—or rather, inactions—reflected a broad crisis in American society. As clergymen decried the incident from their Sunday pulpits, politicians spoke gravely of the country’s moral lethargy. Mike Wallace broadcast a CBS radio special called “The Apathetic American.” Loudon Wainwright concluded in Life magazine that Americans were “becoming a callous, chickenhearted and immoral people.”

Gradually the self-flagellation mellowed into something more like navel-gazing. Academic symposiums were organized, research grants awarded, studies undertaken. A number of these studies yielded groundbreaking insights into the pathology of Bad Samaritanism—“bystander apathy,” as it came to be called, or simply Genovese syndrome. In the years to come, more than a thousand books and articles, as well as countless plays, movie scripts, and songs, were inspired by the story of the 38 witnesses who watched their neighbor die.

All of which brings us, 42 years later, to what may be the most peculiar aspect of the case. The Times article that incited all this industry about an urban horror was almost certainly a misleading account of what happened.

Almost from the start there were murmurs that the Times had exaggerated details of the case. The reporter John Melia aired some of these doubts in the New York Daily News in 1984. Joe Sexton alluded to them in a 1995 article for the Times . The most recent debunking is the work not of a journalist but of a lawyer and Kew Gardens resident named Joseph De May, Jr., whose analysis of the original Times article, posted at oldkewgardens.com, is exhaustive and eviscerating.

No one has ever questioned that a horrible murder was committed or that some Kew Gardens residents could— should —have done more to help Ms. Genovese. But that description of 38 people watching the murder for more than half an hour struck many as implausible. Indeed, as a matter of geography, it seems impossible.

Ms. Genovese was first stabbed on Austin Street. But after the initial attack, which lasted no more than a minute or two, she staggered to a narrow foyer at the back of her building, opposite Austin Street and facing only the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. It was inside this foyer that Moseley discovered her after temporarily fleeing the scene. And it was here, out of view and earshot of nearly everyone in Kew Gardens, that the greater part of the assault occurred.

The Times initially described three attacks, based on a faulty police report. In fact there were only two attacks, the one on Austin Street, the other in the foyer. The Times later noted the discrepancy, but to this day three is the number generally cited in histories, adding to the impression that scores of people had the opportunity to watch Ms. Genovese’s murder for a sustained period of time.

The true number of eyewitnesses was not 38 but 6 or 7. To be sure, far more residents heard something, but the perceptions of eyewitnesses and earwitnesses alike were mostly fleeting and inchoate. Many of the witnesses claimed that they did not grasp what was happening; they thought it was a lovers’ quarrel or an argument spilling out of the Old Bailey bar on Austin Street. The Times insinuated that such excuses were disingenuous, but all those psychology studies spawned by the case suggest otherwise. It’s generally not stone-cold indifference that prevents people from pitching in during emergencies, psychologists now agree. It’s states of mind more familiar to most of us: confusion, fear, misapprehension, uncertainty.

A. M. Rosenthal, the young newly appointed metropolitan editor at the Times in 1964 who got the tip about the 38 witnesses and went on to edit the article, stood by it to the end. “In a story that gets a lot of attention, there’s always somebody who’s saying, ‘Well, that’s not really what it’s supposed to be,’” he told this writer in a 2004 interview. Rosenthal, who went on to publish a book about the case ( Thirty-eight Witnesses ) and later became the Times ’s executive editor (and who died last May), dismissed criticisms as quibbles. “There may have been 38, there may have been 39, but the whole picture, as I saw it, was very affecting.”

Well, yes. And no doubt that picture gave shape to the free-floating end-of-innocence anxiety many Americans already felt in those strange days of the early 1960s, just months after President Kennedy’s assassination, as social mores shifted rapidly and New York’s murder rate suddenly shot off on a three-decade upward trajectory. Real good came of the story too. The 911 emergency phone system was launched in its aftermath. The understanding of human psychology was expanded. Consciences were pricked.

As to how affecting a more tempered, more accurate account would have been, we can only wonder. Certainly the much-maligned residents of Kew Gardens, most of whom quickly moved away after the murder, would have been treated more sympathetically. The caricature of New Yorkers as callous, self-centered creatures might have been milder as the city entered its dark days of the 1970s, and perhaps, in turn, New Yorkers would have behaved less callously. One of the key insights of post-Kitty psychology is that people tend to gauge their actions, moral or otherwise, on the actions of those around them. In Good Samaritan, “prosocial” environments—New York City in its heroic mode after the September 2001 attacks, for example—people are more likely to behave altruistically. The corollary of this is that Bad Samaritan environments tend to breed Bad Samaritans.

It’s a stretch to suggest that the Times article made people Bad Samaritans. At the very least, though, it’s a good bet many Americans glanced at their neighbors more suspiciously after March 27, 1964. That bespectacled man in 6F? The petite brunette in 3A? Would he, would she, stand idly by and watch me die ?

Lost in the uproar was Kitty herself. She was never the story. What mattered was not how she lived but how she died. So it comes as a surprise to learn that she was a spirited young woman, funny and warm, hardly the victim-in-waiting that gazed from photographs. Right after her murder there were hints in the press that she traveled with a “fast crowd.” In fact, at the time of her death, she was living a quiet life in a committed romance with her Kew Gardens roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko. No newspaper would have mentioned Ms. Genovese’s sexuality at the time, on the grounds that it was taboo and immaterial. But her character, her likes and loves, speak to the complexity of flesh and blood behind those who have the good or bad fortune to become symbols.

Of course, complexity is not really the province of daily journalism. Even the best of it, the sort The New York Times has produced for many decades, is provisional and imperfect. It’s the job of history to add layers and nuance. One final irony, though: None of us would still be writing, or reading, about Kitty Genovese 42 years later if the Times had gotten the story right in the first place.

—Jim Rasenberger is the author of High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline (HarperCollins).