On March 13th, 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally raped and murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens.
The crime, and Kitty Genovese’s name, became symbols of much more than this one savage act. Largely through reporting in the weeks that followed, the murder became a parable of sorts about the unravelling of society, increasing crime, racial fears, the dangers faced by young single women, and the lack of care exhibited by city dwellers for their neighbors. Though the story of what happened that night has since been dissected, critiqued, and retold, for more than a generation, the crime profoundly shaped how we perceived urban life. The murder and the reaction to it — or purported lack of reaction by neighbors — lead to the popularization of the notion of “bystander effect” or “Genovese Syndrome,” whereby good people take no action because they don’t want to put themselves in danger, or assume others will.
But while this tragic event — part myth, part reality — had a near-universal resonance, it had a particular significance for, and often unspoken connection to, the Village.
Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was born July 7, 1935 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. After her mother witnessed a murder, the family moved to Connecticut in 1954. Rather than join the family, Kitty, who had just graduated from high school, chose instead to remain in the city. She worked as a bar manager in Hollis, Queens, and lived above a row of shops next to the Long Island Railroad Station at 80-20 Austin Street in Kew Gardens, Queens.
She was coming home from her shift at the bar at about 3:15 am on Friday, March 13th when she first encountered Winston Moseley. Moseley, a married father of two who lived in nearby South Ozone Park, was a computer punch card operator with no prior criminal record. He was, however, a violent criminal who, it was later revealed, had already committed several robberies, murders, and sexual assaults. That night, he had left his home seeking another victim.
Genovese parked her car in the nearby Long Island Railroad station parking lot and walked towards the door leading to the entrance to her apartment, located in an alleyway behind the parking lot. Moseley approached her; frightened, Genovese ran towards a more public main street nearby. Before she could reach the street, however, Moseley caught her and stabbed her twice in the back. Genovese screamed; one neighbor, who heard but was not necessarily entirely aware of what had happened, screamed out the window at the attacker “Let that girl alone!” Moseley fled, and Genovese, severely injured, crawled towards the alleyway leading to her apartment, now out of sight of most neighbors.
Unfortunately, the brutal scene did not end there. Moseley soon returned, searching the parking lot and environs for Genovese, who lay at the back of her building, prevented from entering by a locked doorway. There, Moseley set upon her again, brutally stabbing her repeatedly (stabs to her hands suggested she tried to defend herself). As she lay dying, Moseley raped her, and stole $49 from her.
Apparently one neighbor had opened the door and witnessed the second attack; rather than intervening, he shut the door, and crawled from his apartment across the roof of the building to seek advice from another neighbor as to what to do. Another neighbor, Sophia Farrar, left her apartment to go to the crime scene where she found Genovese, mortally wounded. She stayed with her, though she had no way of knowing if the attack was over and if the perpetrator was still nearby. Genovese died en route to the hospital.
The story of the brutal crime might have ended there, and almost did; it got the briefest of mentions in the paper the next day, and there were few clues to the identity of the attacker.
However, two weeks later the New York Times published an article entitled “Thirty Seven Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.” The article purported that “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” Analysis in years since has found this description to be highly flawed. Several witnesses did call the police; none were aware of the entirety or the seriousness of the attack; few saw what actually happened, given the dark and the fact that the second attack took place out of view, in an exterior hallway; and given that Kitty Genovese’s lungs were punctured by the initial attack, it is unlikely that she could scream and therefore be heard by any of her neighbors after the initial attack.
Nonetheless the crime captured the public imagination, taking on a life of its own. It became a symbol of the apathy and alienation of urban life, and the lack of true community in cities. Crime victims were urged to yell “fire” rather than “help” to avoid bystander syndrome. And more constructively, the crime is credited with helping to spur the establishment of the 911 system (at the time, to report a crime, one generally had to call the appropriate police precinct, and indicate that immediate assistance was needed, rather than being able get an automatic and direct line to emergency response).
Moseley’s story did not end there either. He was apprehended six days later by police during a house burglary; while in custody, he confessed to Genovese’s murder and that of two other women, as well as dozens of burglaries and rapes. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, which was later reduced to life in prison. Mosley escaped from prison in 1968 and committed two separate home invasions in which he held hostages and, in at least one case, committed another brutal rape. He was eventually captured and sentenced again. He participated in the 1971 Attica prison riots, and argued before parole boards that the notoriety of his crime made him a victim. He further contended that the good which came of his act — a greater awareness of the plight of crime victims — should be considered in his favor. He was denied parole for the 17th time in December, 2013, and is currently the longest serving prisoner in the New York State prison system.
The murder of Kitty Genovese has been revisited and re-examined many times in the intervening half century. Following the New York Times report, it became a flashpoint for the debate around what ailed American cities, especially New York, which in the 1960’s and subsequent decades suffered from increasing crime and an unravelling of the social fabric.
Two seemingly contradictory trends took hold in our cities during this time period, in which the Village played a prominent role. One was the abandonment of urban communities by those with the means to do so, often with the rationale that suburban communities and small towns had the safety, intimacy, and social fabric that was lost in big cities. The other, seemingly contradictory but perhaps parallel trend, was the “back to the city” movement, in which people chose to live in cities, especially in older neighborhoods with a human scale and a deeply interwoven social fabric, for the sense of community and connectedness that these places provided.
This was central to the argument made by Jane Jacobs in her landmark book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961, in which she posited that it was the great conjunction of people and activities on streets and in varied businesses in urban neighborhoods which made them safe and allowed them to thrive. The Village, with its deeply involved populace, its garrulous cafes and public gathering places, its “eyes on the street” to use Jacobs’ phrase, and its plethora of community-supported institutions and mom and pop businesses, was a living, breathing rebuttal to this narrative that cities were places where neighbors did not know or care about one another, and people did not want to “get involved.”
But there was another glaring gap in the Kitty Genovese narrative which the Village, in a way, undercut as well.
Entirely unmentioned in all the reports about Kitty Genovese and her murder at the time, and particularly about the Kew Gardens home she was desperately seeking to return to that night, was the fact that Kitty Genovese was a lesbian. And the home she was retunring to was the one she shared with her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko.
In fact, Zielonko was at home that night asleep in their apartment, awaiting Genovese’s return; she was awoken later that morning by the police who informed her of the murder of her “roommate.” None of the voluminous coverage of the event made any reference to Genovese’s partner, who was forced to mourn, largely silently and invisibly, for her loss.
Like many lesbians of this era, Kitty Genovese and Mary Ann Zielonko met in the Village — one of the few places at the time in New York, or anywhere, that lesbians and gay men had some opportunities to openly, or at least semi-opnely, meet and interact. According to Zielonko, not long after they met at a Village bar, she found a note taped to the door of her Upper West Side apartment door: “WILL CALL YOU AT THE STREET CORNER PHONE BOOTH AT 7. –KITTY G.” They met up at a gay bar on Houston Street called Seven Steps. They soon fell in love and moved in together, finding the ill-fated apartment in Kew Gardens in 1963. All this was six years before the Stonewall Riots which for many Americans began the process of breaking open long, tightly-shut closet doors.
The morning of the murder Zielonko was taken by the police to Queens County Hospital to identify Kitty’s body. She attended the funeral in New Canaan, Connecticut, but according to Zielonko, the family refused to acknowledge her; though they had known her and her close relationship to Kitty — or perhaps because of it –she says her calls and overtures to them over the years went without a response. It was not until decades after the murder, and all the commentary and cultural analysis that surrounded it, that Mary Ann Zielonko began to speak publicly about her relationship with Kitty, in a series of interviews, books, and even a play, “38 Witnessed Her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko (Kitty Genovese Story).”
Kitty Genovese is buried in a family plot in Lakeview Cemetery in New Canaan, Connecticut. Winston Moseley remains in New York State Prison. Retired since 1997, Mary Ann Zielenko lives in West Rutland, Vt., with her partner of 3 1/2 years. And fifty years after one of the most infamous murders of the 20th century, Kitty Genovese’s legacy, and the story of what actually happened that night, continues to come into clearer focus.