It is somewhat inevitable that every genuinely sensational and shocking news story will eventually generate hype and exaggeration and distortion. We never seem satisfied with even the most surprising story. So humans rewrite and exaggerate and distort, and, after a time, it becomes difficult to know what really happened. Did 300 Spartans really hold off 5 million Persians all by themselves? Did judges in Medieval Europe really believe that witches float? Did they burn witches at the stake in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century? Did the rich really elbow their way into the lifeboats on the Titanic? Did Joseph McCarthy really accuse completely innocent people of being communists in the 1950’s? Did Marie Antoinette really suggest that starving peasants should eat cake? Answers here.
Did Al Gore really claim to have invented the internet? Did some Arabs really dance in the streets to celebrate 9/11?
Did 38 people really stand by and do nothing while Kitty Genovese was murdered on the streets of New York in March, 1964?
Did Evita Peron “whore” her way to the pinnacle of power in Argentina?
The funny thing is, the core truth of many of these stories, if you can see beyond the ridiculous exaggerations imposed on them by later generations or Hollywood, is often quite remarkable. It is only in comparison to the hype that people sometimes think the gist of the story is not true. Often, that is a mistake. And then you will always find contrarians willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
Public shorthand for shocking events does tend to simplify and distort and exaggerate. At the same time, there is undoubtedly a temptation for a journalist or historian to uncover the exact truth and shout, “eureka– the public has been deceived” when, in fact, the essential truth of the original story is still quite compelling. We know there will always be some exaggeration and distortion in the retelling of human events. But immediate first-hand accounts are often quite accurate. They are less likely to be edited in memory by the spin imposed on events by public hysteria.
We also know, for example, that some of the people Senator Joseph McCarthy persecuted really were or had been communists. Anne Coulter, who wrote a book on the subject, would have you believe that this a shocking revelation that changes the meaning of “McCarthyism” and proves that Joseph McCarthy was actually a hero.
But then, someone else will come along and go back to the original story and discover, all over again, that Senator Joseph McCarthy was a repulsive, vainglorious, vindictive alcoholic thug and bully, and that his tactics really did constitute “persecution” and that he really was engaged in a “witch hunt”, in which refusing to answer questions made you just as guilty as a confession, and, of course, that most of his victims were innocent.
And so someone named Joseph De May has made the shocking discovery that 38 people did not actually watch Kitty Genovese’s murder from beginning to end.
De May’s “discovery” is only shocking if you have ever actually believed that 38 people actually saw the killing, with their eyeballs, from beginning to end and clearly saw a knife and saw Kitty Genovese bleeding to death and did nothing. I’m sure some people remember the story that way. I wonder how many reasonable people do.
You first have to appreciate that De May believes that the word “witness” should only apply to people who saw an event, clearly, with their eyes. He believes that that is what everyone else thinks too, and he spends a lot of time trying very hard to prove that 38 people did not see the murder.
My memory of the event is that 38 people heard or saw something of the attack and that not one of them called the police or offered any assistance to the young girl. After all of De May’s convoluted explanations, that information remains essentially accurate.
I don’t remember anyone ever insisting that most or all of the 38 actually saw the attack clearly. I don’t know why that would make a big difference to Joseph De May who admits that at least 12 people saw some part of the attack and at least 20 other people heard part of the attack and knew something was going on on the street below their windows. The New York Times editor, Abe Rosenthal, who wrote a book on the subject, insists that no New York Times reporter ever stated that 38 people saw the attack. The article uses the term “witness” as I would: people who heard or saw. People who were aware of the incident at the time it happened.
I don’t think it would even have occurred to me to think about whether all 38 people saw the entire attack from the beginning to the end. Why would that make any difference?
De May insists that there were two separate attacks, not three.. Again, I’m not sure why he thinks that makes a big difference. Are we supposed to go, “Oh, well then, I can understand why no one went down to assist the girl. They were waiting for a third attack…” Furthermore, his case on that point is not as air-tight as he seems to think it is. He finds very little evidence in the official court record, but there is some witness evidence that Moseley went away and then came back twice. It’s not clear– and it doesn’t really matter– if he counts that as two attacks or one.
The essential facts as reported in the initial New York Times article remain substantially correct. The one disputed fact that would matter is this: De May claims to know of someone who did phone the police after the first attack. His evidence for this is not very compelling. A former New York City cop claims to have known an unidentified “old-timer” who told him that he had worked at that precinct the night in question and had received the first call. This was reported to De May 30 or 40 years after the events. Remember — the New York Times article was written the same month as the attacks, before people had a chance to “interpret” their memories.
There is as much– no– less!– evidence for this blockbuster claim than there is for the assertion that there were three, not two separate attacks. It’s unaccountable hearsay by someone who would have an interest in proving that his family or friends were not indifferent to human suffering.
Talk about a scoop! And Mr. Michael Hoffman– the retired cop–decided, in the face of all the publicity about this case, to keep this information secret until just recently! That’s is truly astonishing. It is even more astonishing that Mr. De May was not embarrassed to put this into the public record without even being able to supply the name of the police officer who told someone who told someone.
Then he proceeds to report that Andree Picq also called. Why, there was a veritable torrent of phone calls. Except that Andree felt her throat constrict and didn’t actually say anything on the phone before hanging up. So how do we know she called? She says so. The police, who indisputably did respond when they received a real call later, have no record of her call.
De May quotes the Times article about a man who saw the second attack. He told the reporter that he didn’t call the police because he was tired. He went back to bed. De May stunningly excuses this man because the Times reporter did not provide details of what the man thought he saw– only of the fact that he went back to bed right after he claimed he saw it. The man, by the time he talked to the reporter, knew a murder had taken place. He knew that what he was claiming to have witnessed resulted in the death of a young neighbor, and he knew the reporter knew that. Yet he casually dismisses his responsibility with “I was tired”… and De May exonerates him.
The rest of De May’s article consists of a lot of quibbling. It was rather dark. It was cold. It was not unusual for boisterous people to make a lot of noise in the streets nearby. Genovese got up after the first attack and may not have staggered quite as dramatically as some people believe she did. She seemed to walk slowly.
But even De May does not deny that Kitty screamed, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!” But he actually quibbles over whether Winston Moseley stabbed her before or after she screamed! If he stabbed her first, then the witnesses who came to their windows could not have actually seen a stabbing. So then… you can’t blame them for ignoring the cries of “he stabbed me! Help me! Help me!”?
De May tries to argue that many of the witnesses would likely have thought that the noise coming from the street was not unusual for a neighborhood with a bar on the corner. But he had already admitted that people came to their windows to try to see what was going on– he argues that they couldn’t see very much. Why would they bother going to the window at 3:00 in the morning if they thought the screaming was coming from just one of many inebriated couples having a quarrel?
De May seems to think that people generally believe that most of the witnesses told police that they didn’t call because they didn’t think it was any of their business. I don’t know why anyone would think everyone would say the same thing.
Rather astoundingly, De May, defending the indifferent bystanders, actually lists five instances of people who testified in court that they heard Kitty screaming but did nothing. He quotes a witness as stating that he heard Kitty say “help me, help me” as proof that he did not hear Kitty say “he stabbed me”, and therefore… therefore what? Therefore had no obligation as a human being to react? To help? To at least call the police? The question is not whether the witnesses had an accurate perception of what was happening. The question is whether what the majority of witnesses heard and saw should have compelled a responsible citizen to at least investigate further. Some witnesses opened their windows. How large of a step is it to the point at which you shout to Kitty Genovese, “Are you okay? Do you want me to call the police?”
De May admits that the reporter whose article he claims to debunk, Martin Gansberg, interviewed virtually all of the same witnesses the police interviewed, immediately after the event. The product of Gansberg’s intimate familiarity with the feelings and attitudes of these witnesses is the conclusion that most of these people did not care enough about what they heard to investigate further, to provide assistance, or even to phone the police. De May admits that at least a dozen people heard something at 3:00 a.m., got out of bed, went to the window, and then went back to bed, or just stayed at the window and watched. Why? Because, he says, they justifiably believed nothing important was happening. And none of them decided to investigate further, even though what they heard was compelling enough to get them out of bed?
We enter into the realm of ridiculousness when De May starts describing how complicated it was to call the police with a telephone in 1964– before 911. A reasonable person could be forgiven for believing that many New Yorkers might actually be familiar with the process, or might have the number near their phones.
Karl Ross, who did finally instigate a phone call to the police– by asking another neighbor to do it– told the police, “I didn’t want to get involved”. Another woman told the police that she told her husband not to get involved.
I can’t find any evidence in De May’s website to prove his rather astounding claim that some people did in fact call immediately after the first attack. He claims that the police might not have recorded such a call. But the police responded immediately to a specific call that was made too late. Why would anyone think they had ignored an earlier call, but not this one? They were at the scene in 3 minutes.
Given the publicity this case generated, if someone had called, why would they not have come forward? Why doesn’t De May identify the person? Such a person would have been received as a hero. But the police, who interviewed everyone who lived in the area, could not locate a single person who claimed to have called them earlier than the neighbor asked by Mr. Ross.
De May argues that some of the witnesses may have been reluctant to call the police because they feared retribution. Well, this has become pathetic. After trying very hard to convince us that the witnesses never saw anything anyway, De May now wants us to believe that these good citizens were simply wisely looking after themselves and that’s why they closed their windows and went back to bed. So now he concedes that a number of people, had they not feared retribution, could have been expected to call the police?
Here he has clearly entered advocacy mode. He is no longer really interested in clearing up some misconceptions about the attack: he wants to restore the reputations of the citizens of Kew Gardens. Amazingly, just before making this argument, he argues that Kew Gardens was so crime free, that most of the witnesses probably didn’t believe they were actually seeing a murder. Or was it that they were so used to drunks leaving a nearby bar that they didn’t see anything remarkable about a woman screaming at 3:00 a.m., though it was remarkable enough to draw them out of bed and to their window, and for some of them to open their windows and try to see what was happening?
As proof that the 38 witnesses were not indifferent, De May quotes this one:
Of course I heard the screams. But there was nothing I could do. I was afraid. My hands were trembling. I couldn’t have dialed for an operator if I’d tried. I never even thought of it. I was too afraid.
That sounds about right. I don’t know why De May thinks this would correct my impression of what happened that night. It is one of what I would expect to be many reasons given by the 38 as to why they chose not to do anything. The “of course I heard the screams” is a ringing indictment: obviously many of the witnesses heard the screams.
What we have is revisionism. Now that the notoriety of Kew Gardens has been established, the people involved have revised their memories.
None of the reasons each individual had for inaction are very good. Each individual excuses, while unfortunate, is not preposterous. But what was compelling about the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese and remains just as compelling today is that a large number of people had good reason to be concerned about what was happening in the street just below them and chose to do nothing.
Joseph De May Fixes History
De May’s “research” [the website is down] into the issue was neither scrupulous nor objective. One of many examples was his complete trust in single-sourced anecdotal evidence that there were earlier calls to the police. The original news story relied on interviews with dozens of residents of Genovese’s apartment building.
[The original website about Kew Gardens is no longer there.]
Update 2011-11: David Brooks in the New York Times casually referred to the “mostly apocryphal” Kitty Genovese case. What shocked me is that only one respondent called him out on it.
More Update: a new angle has emerged with the fact that Kitty Genovese was gay, and living in a relationship with another woman at the time of the murder. Was that a factor in the indifference of her neighbors to what was happening? I’m skeptical.
Wikipedia stumbles: I like Wikipedia and I think that it is generally an extremely reliable source of information. However, it’s entry on Kitty Genovese is a bit strange. On the contentious issue of whether anyone else called the police before Karl Ross, Wikipedia reports, without citation:
Records of the earliest calls to police are unclear and were certainly not given a high priority by the police. One witness said his father called police after the initial attack and reported that a woman was “beat up, but got up and was staggering around.”
There is no objective contemporaneous news source for this claim. It sounds a lot, to me, like someone is hoping to rewrite history.
Furthermore, Wikipedia states flatly:
Moseley also testified at his own trial where he further described the attack, leaving no question that he was the killer.
“No question”? Albert DeSalvo claimed to be the Boston Strangler and provided the police with details of the crime scenes that, supposedly, only the perpetrator could have known. If you read the book by Gerold Frank, you know how convincing this story was. How else could Albert DeSalvo had known, for example, about a notebook hidden under a bed, or what kind of scarf was used to strangle Joann Graff, and so on?
DNA evidence later proved that he was not the man who murdered and raped Mary Sullivan, who was widely regarded as the last victim of the Boston Strangler. For good reason, many now suspect he didn’t commit any of the murders.
Apparently, the police can sometimes carelessly let those details slip into the conversation while trying to build a convincing confession… or not so carelessly. Several persons involved with the investigation later ran for political office: there was enormous pressure to solve the case. According to the Crime Library, top investigator John Bottomly clearly fed DeSalvo information to make the confession look convincing.
These murders occurred in exactly the same time period as Kitty Genovese’s murder. I have never heard anyone question whether Moseley actually did it, but some of the parallels are interesting, including the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime, the quick voluntary confession, and the lack of eyewitness corroboration.
Here’s the alarming bit: Moseley also confessed to at least one other crime for which he was never charged… because police firmly believed they already had the culprit in custody. That flashes a big fat red light, considering what we now know about unethical police interrogation methods.
Has anyone ever taken up this case? I don’t believe Moseley himself claims innocence– but then again, what would be the point? I think Moseley probably did do it– I just don’t think anyone should be glib about it given the lack of physical evidence.