One of the most disturbing crimes of the 20th century, the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese had shocking social repercussions. Around 3 a.m. on March 13, the 28-year-old was stabbed outside her apartment in Queens, New York. Despite screaming for help—and despite a rumored 38 witnesses—no one came to her aid. As a result, Genovese’s assailant was able to flee, and then return for the second attack that ultimately killed her.
The crime became the talk of the nation and a source of shame for New Yorkers. The passivity of Genovese’s neighbors came to be known as “the bystander effect”—a term that explains why people are less likely to take action in the presence of other potential helpers. And while the media may have exaggerated the number of eye-witnesses, Genovese’s murder still raises important questions about culpability: If you ignore someone’s cries for help, are you partly responsible for what happens to them? Is it your duty, as a human being, to respond?
One of the most memorable and recent investigations into the case was The Witness documentary, led by Genovese’s younger brother. It’s a heartbreaking search for truth and closure, as he reconnects with his sister's neighbors, journalists, and the killer himself. But other people have also offered their own researched perspectives—some personal, others more sociological. Below, you'll find five books that tackle the controversial case, revealing more insight into the extent of the media's inaccuracies, the murder's aftermath, and Kitty Genovese as a person.
Once the media point man on the Genovese case, New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal was the genesis of the "38 witnesses" rumor. He expanded the paper's original coverage into a full-length book, which became a staple of American psychology course curriculums. Though critics have since pointed out its flaws (there are critical omissions and exaggerations), it remains a pivotal slice of the case's infamous history: To fully grasp the legacy of Genovese's murder is to have read the book that helped shape it.
Fifty Years After Kitty Genovese
Albert A. Seedman, the chief detective on the Genovese murder, has been haunted by the events of March 13, 1964 for over 50 years. Now, with the help of author Paul Hellman, he provides an insider’s view of the case that continues to analyze our role as responsible citizens. Perhaps most chilling is a remembered conversation with Genovese’s killer, Winston Moseley, who expressed no surprise at her neighbors’ apathy. “I knew they wouldn’t do anything,” Seedman recalls Moseley saying. “People never do. That late at night, they just go back to sleep.”
Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America
In 2014, author Kevin Cook revisited the Genovese case, vowing to tell the true story. He begins by studying Genovese’s life before her death—including her work as a New York barmaid and her romantic relationships—to show that she wasn't "the innocent girl nobody cared about." Drawing from interviews with her secret lover and others close to her, Cook then takes a crack at her notorious death. From an examination of the “bystander effect” to Winston Mosley, Cook’s book aims to revise the urban legend through new evidence.
Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences
First published in 2014 after six years of research, Catherine Pelonero’s book paints a more thorough portrait of Genovese, her community, and her killer’s evolution (including his terrifying escape from prison in 1968). Critics have praised Pelonero’s account for her compassionate focus on Kitty herself, who appears as a multi-faceted, full-fledged person—not just another "dead girl"—and the center of her own life story.
No One Helped
Marcia M. Gallo’s approach to the Genovese case is decidedly sociological. In No One Helped, she trains her eye on the changing cultural and racial landscape of 1960s New York and how they contributed to the urban apathy that "killed" Kitty. Using historical examples such as the rise of Nazism, the creation of the 9-1-1 system, and the increased psychological studies of the “bystander effect,” Gallo reveals how Genovese’s tragic death truly changed people’s idea of moral responsibility.
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Featured poster of "The Witness": Wikipedia