"For more than half an hour, thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens."
It's no exaggeration to say that this story had far-reaching effects on the American psyche for decades to follow. The crime didn't matter, but the fact that 38 people watched it, with either the classic apathy of "I didn't want to get involved" (the famous quote from one of the witnesses), or worse, a sick voyeuristic glee, well, that shocked the world. Nothing better encapsulated the feeling of traditional American values coming apart at the seams. Nothing better expressed the fears of rising crime, the obvious dehumanizing consequences of urban living, and the just-plain-nastiness of New Yorkers, to boot. As Jim Rasenburger describes in American Heritage,
"The Times article detonated on breakfast tables, then mushroomed into an expanding cloud of gloom. Newspapers disseminated the story across the country. The 38 witnesses were roundly and personally vilified, but to those in the business of worrying about such things, their actions—or rather, inactions—reflected a broad crisis in American society. As clergymen decried the incident from their Sunday pulpits, politicians spoke gravely of the country’s moral lethargy. Mike Wallace broadcast a CBS radio special called “The Apathetic American.” Loudon Wainwright concluded in Life magazine that Americans were “becoming a callous, chickenhearted and immoral people.”"
So, naturally, it's not true. In recent years, several people have stepped up to point out the inconsistencies in this tale. The mistakes include:
- There weren't 38 "eyewitnesses", as the article claimed. There were perhaps 7 or so. There were several more "earwitnesses" who heard various bits and pieces, but even they don't add up to 38 people.
- One reason that there weren't more witnesses was that the attack happened at 3:20 in the morning. Most of Kitty's neighbors were asleep.
- The article was based on an error-filled police report. For example, there were actually two attacks, not three.
- The first attack took place in view of some windows, but from far away (and in the dark), it appeared to witnesses to be a domestic dispute. The woman walked away on her own, and her staggering appeared to be drunkenness.
- Only one witness ever saw the knife.
- The second attack took place shortly thereafter, when the murderer caught up to Kitty in a foyer-type space in the back of a building, out of the line of sight of anyone.
- There was no 9-1-1 emergency line in 1964, so calling the police meant waiting for the operator to connect you. In fact, perhaps the only good thing to come out of the aftermath of the inflated media coverage of the Genovese murder was more support for establishing 9-1-1, in 1968.
- Nevertheless, at least one person did call the police, and possibly several. The police arrived later than they should, but they arrived.
- The article claimed that the police didn't arrive until after Kitty's death. In reality, she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
- Kitty's murderer was caught several days later when a Corona (another Queens neighborhood) man saw someone acting suspiciously and called the police. Yeah.
So instead of 38 people watching Kitty die, we get a handful of people, some of whom called the police and some of whom probably should have, but didn't. Their inaction probably wasn't due to apathy but confusion. For example, our upstairs neighbors here fight all the time, and we can hear them yell. I've called the police on more than one occasion, but not every time. You have to make a judgment call and only report something if you think the seriousness or violence warrants it. Perhaps over the years of living in apartments in the city, there have been sounds in the night that I half-sleepingly heard that were actually crimes but I never reported. How responsible should I feel for that?
Reading about the fallacies in the Genovese story got me madder than usual, really struck home. It's because this story is one of those rare events that becomes a public myth, much larger than itself. It warps people's perspectives for years, even decades, and no amount of mitigating caveats and dry counter-statistics can change the mind of someone won over by the visceral impact, the resonance, of the myth.
(Perhaps it's hitting home because I used to work for Meetup, a site that brings people together in community groups and is thus dependent on social capital and neighborly trust. So, trying to grow the site including trying to get people to abandon irrational fears of their neighbors. People often left comments after Meetups expressing surprise at how "friendly" and "normal" the attendees were, revealing their low expectations.)
How different would Americans have felt - still feel - about the neighborhood of Kew Gardens, about Queens, about New Yorkers, about city living, about their own neighbors, about humanity, had that article not been published? It's impossible to know how many subtle demographic and social trends would have turned out differently. And when trust disappears and social capital erodes, it turns these negative myths into self-fulfilling prophecies that then take decades of hard work of community-building to overcome.