Wednesday, November 04, 2015

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES with Earl Staggs: SHE CRIED FOR HELP. . .And No One Came

It has been awhile, but Earl is back today with his latest guest post…..

HISTORY’S RICH WITH MYSTERIES

When I look at the past, I find stories about people which fascinate me, particularly those in which there is a curious mixture of fact, legend, and mysterious uncertainty. In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those stories. I think of them as mysteries swaddled in legend. While truth is always desired in most things, truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, forever holds a hint of romanticism and an aura of excitement borne of adventure, imagination and, of course, mystery. 



SHE CRIED FOR HELP. . .And No One Came by Earl Staggs

Two weeks after it happened, the New York Times published an article with the headline, "Thirty-Seven Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police.” (That number soon and inexplicably became “thirty-eight” rather than “thirty-seven.”)

Author Harlan Ellison later wrote that thirty-eight witnesses stood by and watched a woman “get knifed to death right in front of them and wouldn’t make a move.”

The story raised a fury nationally and internationally, and New York City gained a reputation of “an urban hell where no one would lift a finger to help a neighbor.” The story is often featured in psychology textbooks as an illustration of onlookers failing to help someone in distress.

That’s how the horrific murder of Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese came down to us through legend and urban myth. Her story has become a notorious and appalling example of citizens who could have saved a life but chose not to get involved. The story as reported led to what has become known as the “Bystander Effect or “Genovese Syndrome.” 

But that’s not exactly what happened. Let’s take a look at the facts.

In Queens, New York, at approximately 3:25 a.m. on March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old bar manager, arrived home after work, parked her car and walked toward her apartment building a hundred feet away. Frightened by a strange man approaching her, she began to run. He overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed, "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" A man in the neighborhood shouted, "Let that girl alone!" and the attacker ran away.





Seriously wounded, Kitty tried to make it home. The attacker waited until he was sure no one was coming to her aid and, wanting to finish her off, returned a few minutes later and searched until he found her. Kitty had managed to make her way into an alleyway leading to the entrance to her building, which put her out of view of anyone who might have looked out their windows and further out of hearing distance.  At that time, she was barely conscious and unable to cry out. The attacker stabbed her several more times, raped her, stole $49 from her, and left her for dead. The two attacks spanned a time period of about thirty minutes. 

The incident occurred in the Kew Gardens area of Queens, primarily a quiet residential area where it is highly unlikely thirty-eight people were outside on the street to witness the attack. At 3:25 a.m., those “witnesses” would have been inside the buildings, probably sleeping. The only sounds to be heard during the initial attack were a man chasing a woman on foot for a short distance, a brief scuffle, stab wounds, and her crying, "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" In March, it is not normally warm enough in Queens to leave windows open at night. How many people inside the buildings would have been awakened by that and be able to comprehend what was going on?

The furor about the incident was based on erroneous information. There weren’t thirty-eight people watching Kitty get stabbed to death and doing nothing. There were no actual “eye” witnesses to the stabbings. An investigation later revealed that approximately a dozen people were aware an attack was taking place. Calls were made to the police, but were not given high priority.  The last visible sight of her was her staggering toward her home after the first attack, and at that point, no one knew she had been stabbed. While some who were aware she was being attacked might have decided not to get involved in someone else’s business, some of them did make calls to the police. 

One caller reported after the initial attack that a woman was "beat up, but got up and was staggering around." Nothing was said about her being stabbed. The caller and the police apparently considered it an altercation between a man and a woman who would kiss and make up the next day.

The police and an ambulance arrived at 4:15 a.m., fifty minutes after the attacks began. Kitty Genovese died on the way to the hospital.

Could Kitty Genovese have been saved that night? Possibly. Perhaps if the police and the ambulance had arrived sooner. The story might have had a different ending if the callers could have dialed 9-1-1, but that system was not in place until four years later.


The Man Who Killed Kitty Genovese

The attacker, Winston Moseley, a twenty-nine-year-old man with no criminal record, married with two children, was arrested as he burglarized a house six days later, and he confessed to the murder. His motive? He wanted to “kill a woman.”  He said he got up at two a.m., left his wife asleep at home, and drove around until he found a victim. He further confessed to raping and killing two other women and to as many as forty burglaries. He was sentenced to death on June 15, l964. His sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on the grounds he had not been allowed to argue at his trial that he was medically insane when he killed Kitty. He escaped from prison in 1968 and committed more crimes before surrendering to police. He received two additional fifteen-year sentences. 

In December, 2013, Moseley was denied parole for the seventeenth time. Now eighty years old, he is one of the longest-serving inmates in the state of New York. 

The brutal and senseless murder of a young woman with a lot of life ahead of her is a gut-wrenching tragedy under any circumstances. The circumstances surrounding Kitty Genovese’s death leave me wondering about the moral responsibility of bystanders. In a deadly situation, should they step up and try to save a life at the risk of their own? 

Perhaps Kitty would have been saved if some of the people aware of her plight had gone out to help her. Suppose the man who shouted during the first attack for the attacker to “Let that girl alone” had instead gone out to intervene. Maybe he could have saved Kitty. It’s possible, however, that the man with the knife would have turned on him and there might have been two victims that night. 

One woman bravely went outside to investigate after the second attack and found Kitty barely alive. Fortunately for her, the attacker had driven away by then. The woman cradled Kitty in her arms until the ambulance arrived. Suppose that woman had gone out a minute earlier. The attacker might have still been there, and she might have been a victim also.

I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been there that night. 

Do you?
 
Earl Staggs ©2015


Earl Staggs earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. He invites any comments via email at earlstaggs@sbcglobal.net  He also invites you to visit his blog site at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com

17 comments:

jrlindermuth said...

Earl provides an excellent clarification of a case which has become an urban legend. Another in an interesting series of essays.

Kaye George said...

I'm so glad you posted the truth about this! From your analysis, I agree there might have been another victim or two if the first man and the last woman had tried to intervene. The killer seems to have a particularly dark soul. I'm also very glad he's still locked up and hope he stays that way. Thanks!

Marja said...

I remember that case and the media attention it got. I'd like to think I would have tried to help, but you never know. Fear can hold us back sometimes, especially when we're not sure what's really going on. Excellent post, Earl!

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks for dropping by, John. I'm glad you find these articles interesting.

Earl Staggs said...


That guy had a dark soul, for sure, Kaye. We don't have to worry about him ever getting out of prison. He's eighty years old and has been rejected for parole seventeen times, the last time in 2013. The only way he'll get out is in a pine box. The sad thing is, he left behind a wife and two kids.

Earl Staggs said...


I'm with you, Marja. We never know what we'd do in a situation like that. Let's hope we never have to find out.

Barry Ergang said...

Thanks for this, Earl. I remember when the incident occurred, but never knew so many aspects of it had been mythologized or that the killer had been caught and imprisoned. That noted, the first piece of fiction I ever had published outside of a junior high or high school school literary magazine drew on the Genovese case as its basis. Should anyone care to have a look, it's called "Slow and Quiet, Drift Away," and is available for free at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/23417

Jan Christensen said...

This is fascinating. I am one who remembers the case, too. How did anyone find out a man yelled for the killer to "leave that girl alone?" Did the killer mention him, or did he come forward, or? Thanks for clearing up the facts. Everyone should read this, especially those writing sociology texts. LOL

Caroline Clemmons said...

I remember hearing about that crime. I'm glad you posted the truth.

Earl Staggs said...


Hi, Barry. A lot of people know about the case, but most remember the incorrect reporting that 38 people watched Kitty get stabbed to death and did nothing. I'm reading your "Slow and Quiet, Drift Away" and enjoying it. Great characters! Harry Bronson and his wife jump off the page.

Earl Staggs said...


A good question, Jan. The killer made a full confession in detail. He may have told about the man who shouted and drove him away after the first attack or the police may have gotten it from interviewing the people in the neighborhood. Probably both.

Earl Staggs said...


Caroline, this is another example of stories coming to us through legend and urban myth which are not the true story. No matter how you look at it, Kitty's death was a senseless horrific tragedy.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I remember the event, and how appalled people were. I think someone made a movie or TV show about it, in which tenants in her building shouted out a window while watching the Late, Late, Late Show, and a few other incidents. I don't know what I would have done in the same situation, but the question is a good one. In France and some other European countries, the law requires a bystander to step in and give assistance if such action doesn't endanger his or her life. But how do you know if it's safe or not? Good post, very stimulating.

Earl Staggs said...


Susan, there have been several movies and books about this. And I agree with you. Most people are decent enough to help someone in distress, but how can you be sure you're not putting your life in jeopardy if you do? It's a judgment call, I suppose, and one I hope I never have to make.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Well, since I was about three at the time I don't remember this case. I do remember hearing about it in the early 80s when I was taking college classes.

My thanks to Earl who has once again given us another enlightening post. Wonder what will be in store for next month?

Debbi Mack said...

I remember this incident. I was a child living in Queens at the time.

I recall thinking, "What is wrong with people who live here?"

Earl Staggs said...


I think we all felt that way, Debbi, when we heard the early version of what happened. The facts simply don't support the story that "38 people watched Kitty get stabbed to death and did nothing." Even so, we'd like to think a young woman could not be brutally murdered on the streets of a major city. The sad and sobering fact is that it did happen and it could happen again.