The Debunker: Did Witnesses Ignore the Murder of Kitty Genovese?

by Ken Jennings

October is Crime Prevention Month, says the National Crime Prevention Council, and would the nonprofit that brought you McGruff the Crime Dog lie to you about crime prevention? In honor of the occasion, we've decided to shine the hard light of truth on the underbelly of the criminal underworld. As a Jeopardy! superhero, Ken Jennings doesn't fight crime—just misinformation about crime. He'll be here all month debunking felonious falsehoods and misdemeanor myths.

The Debunker: Did Witnesses Ignore the Murder of Kitty Genovese?

The tragic 1964 stabbing of Queens resident Kitty Genovese would probably be completely forgotten today—there were 636 murders committed in New York City that year, after all—if not for a follow-up story printed in The New York Times on March 27, which reported that thirty-seven neighbors had witnessed the killing outside Genovese's own apartment building—and not called the police! This launched decades of study into the mysterious phenomenon that psychologists call bystander apathy, or even "the Genovese effect": the decreasing likelihood that an individual will intercede in a situation as the number of onlookers increases.

The Debunker

There's pretty substantial clinical evidence that bystander apathy is real—though it's not "apathy" in any real sense. The unhelpful onlookers in these cases aren't apathetic about the victim; they just feel less pressure to act due to the diffusion of responsibility that comes in a crowd. Surely someone else more qualified than I, they think, will step in. Kitty Genovese's death is still the ur-text of a lot of academic and popular writing about bystander effect, which is incredible, given that it's not a particularly inscrutable example of the phenomenon. You see, almost everything people think they know about the killing is wrong.

In 2004, on the fortieth anniversary of Genovese's death, The New York Times published a new investigation into the crime and its aftermath. Reporters found that many details of the case had been misrepresented or exaggerated in order to play up the crazy "thirty-seven witnesses!" angle. Most of the so-called "witnesses" never saw anything; they assumed the yelling was just drunks or a domestic spat. Some neighbors looking out their windows did scare Genovese's killer off after a first attack, and then assumed the situation was resolved. No one saw him return and attack Genovese again out of public view around the corner. One timid neighbor, Karl Ross, did knowingly return to his apartment, not wanting to get involved at a time when police weren't well known for responsiveness and there was no centralized dispatcher to call anyway—but Ross was the exception, not the rule. In general, Genovese's neighbors did what they could. Two separate parties did call the police, and one neighbor came outside to investigate and ending up holding Genovese until help arrived.

The biggest cultural change wrought by poor Kitty Genovese's death actually has nothing to do with the psychology of bystanders. The high-profile case led to a national campaign for better emergency response, which in turn led to the modern 911 system still in use today.

Quick Quiz: 911 is the emergency services number in North America, but what three-digit number is the European equivalent?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.