MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. In March 1964, there was a heinous murder in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens. Back then, there was no national 911 emergency number, there were no good Samaritan laws. And there was no one coming to the aid of Catherine Genovese, despite her cries for help.
Kitty, as she was known, was a manager of a bar. She was on her way home from work in the early morning hours when she was assaulted. Now, news reports on the story have always said she was attacked not once, but three times over the course of half an hour. And what's more, there were allegedly 38 witnesses.
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MARY ANN ZIELONKO: I still have a lot of anger toward people because they could have saved her life. I mean, all the steps along the way - when he attacked her three times and then he sexually assaulted her, too, when she was dying. I mean, you look out the window and you see this happening, and you don't help. That's - how do you live with yourself, knowing you didn't do anything?
CORNISH: That's Mary Ann Zielonko. She was Genovese's girlfriend at the time, and reflected on the crime in an interview with Sound Portraits Productions 10 years ago. The Genovese story never fails to invoke indignation; it's been a touchstone for a certain strain of psychology. But 50 years later, author Kevin Cook is raising big questions about key claims in the story - for starters, those 38 witnesses and whether they ignored Kitty Genovese's cries. His book is called "Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America." Kevin Cook, welcome to the program.
KEVIN COOK: Thank you, Audie. I'm glad to be here.
CORNISH: So take us back to the night of the crime. What really did happen to Catherine "Kitty" Genovese that night?
COOK: She was coming home from work at 3 in the morning, at the moment that a monster sprang out with a knife. He had been looking for someone to kill. He had tracked her to the place where she parked her car...
CORNISH: And this is Winston Moseley, the man convicted of the crime.
COOK: That's correct, Winston Moseley. And he stabbed her twice, in the middle of the sidewalk. At that point, she screamed loudly, loudly enough to wake people on both sides of the street. But by the time they get to their windows - after one man raises his window, he shouted, "Leave that girl alone!" Moseley ran into the darkness. And at that point, Kitty - she staggered around a corner, out of sight to most of the witnesses.
This is one reason that the story has come down that 38 people watched through their windows over this long period of time. In fact, most of them could no longer see her after just a minute or two. When there was nothing left to see, they went to bed; and there was, then, a second attack.
CORNISH: So weeks after her murder, the story is investigated by The New York Times, which initially reports this claim about the 38 witnesses to the death of Kitty Genovese. Break that down for us. Where did that number come from, and did it reflect what happened that night?
COOK: I don't think it did. In a fascinating chain of events, the story went practically unreported for two weeks. And 10 days after the crime, the new city editor for The New York Times - Abraham Rosenthal - had lunch with the chief of police, who said, you know that story out in Queens? That's one for the books; 38 witnesses. And Rosenthal thought that was a striking thing that might well resonate with readers - 38 witnesses. That was the story. That came from the police, and it really is what made this story stick.
Over the course of many months of research, I wound up finding a document that was a collection of the first interviews. Oddly enough, there were 49 witnesses. I was puzzled by that until I added up the entries themselves. Some of them were interviews with two or three people, lived in the same apartment. I believe that some harried civil servant gave that number to the police commissioner, who gave it to Rosenthal; and it entered the modern history of America after that.
CORNISH: Another part of this story is this infamous quote, "I didn't want to get involved," which came to sort of symbolize this idea of urban dwellers ignoring people in need. Talk about where that quote came from.
COOK: The second attack was going on; there was a fellow at the top of the stairs who did open his door and saw it going on. He chose to slam the door. At that time, there was no 911 telephone system. As Mary Ann Zielonko - who was Kitty's roommate and partner - she told me that probably the last person you would ever want to be at the top of the stairs if you needed help was this fellow, Karl Ross, who was a timid character; who took a look out, and shut the door again.
The police come around later, they ask him why he didn't do anything. He said: I didn't want to get involved. This entered the lexicon of '60s America and really stuck. It became the slogan of urban anomie - the whole idea that people aren't going to come to your aid no matter how dire your situation may be. That's what I believe helped to keep this story in the public eye. It went viral in 1960s fashion, and there were people all over the world quoting the man at the top of the stairs, who said: I didn't want to get involved.
CORNISH: The irony here, it seems, is that the implication is that it was strangers - I mean, neighbors, but kind of strangers who let Kitty Genovese die, whereas this witness who actually saw something, he knew her, right? He was drinking buddies with her girlfriend.
COOK: He did know both Kitty and Mary Ann Zielonko, and this was definitely an instance in which there was a neighbor who could have helped.
CORNISH: And you write very descriptively about how all this is happening in the backdrop of 1964, and the tensions between police and citizens in cities all around the country. I mean, racial tensions, of course, but talk a little bit about why would people be reluctant to call the police at this time - especially Kew Gardens; mostly white, mostly middle-class neighborhood.
COOK: It was a time when the police weren't necessarily your friend. You can't call a central dispatcher. You call the number on your Yellow Pages, usually, and then a desk sergeant, whoever, picks up the phone, will take your report - although there were many accounts in which people called in and were invited to mind their own business, or move to another neighborhood if you don't like it there.
There was much more a feeling among the police - certainly not all of them, but among some - that their business was to fight crime, and the business of the citizens was to wait until the police fought crime.
CORNISH: While you are finding some things wrong with these initial claims, is the science of the psychology all that wrong? I mean, hasn't it been shown time and time again that people don't necessarily feel obligated to call for help when they see something wrong, especially when there's other people around - right? - this idea of diffusion of responsibility.
COOK: Oh, I believe that the Genovese case, the way that it was believed, which was largely a myth, has led to a great many positive results. The bystander effect, the diffusion of responsibility, is a real thing that has been studied again and again, corroborated in test after test. If we need help, we are much luckier to have one or two witnesses than to be surrounded by 20 or 30. People tend to feel someone more courageous will act and...
CORNISH: Or that somebody already has acted - right? - that idea that someone must have called by now.
COOK: Exactly right. And one of the sad quotes that wasn't remembered from this case was that of a wife who told her husband, 30 people must have called the police by now. One great thing that has come of this is that more or less directly, the 911 telephone system arose from the Kitty Genovese case and now, if you lift a finger and call the police, you can anonymously call in a tip and get a police car going to where it needs to be.
CORNISH: That's Kevin Cook; his book is called "Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America." Thanks so much for talking with us.
COOK: Thank you, Audie. Enjoyed it.