Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case

Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case

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by A. M. Rosenthal

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A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist’s groundbreaking account of the crime that shocked New York City—and the world

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, twenty-eight-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death in the middle-class neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens. The attack lasted for more than a half


A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist’s groundbreaking account of the crime that shocked New York City—and the world

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, twenty-eight-year-old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death in the middle-class neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens. The attack lasted for more than a half hour—enough time for Genovese’s assailant to move his car and change hats before returning to rape and kill her just a few steps from her front door.
Yet it was not the brutality of the murder that made it international news. It was a chilling detail Police Commissioner Michael Joseph Murphy shared with A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times: Thirty-eight of Genovese’s neighbors witnessed the assault—and none called for help.
To Rosenthal, who had recently returned to New York after spending a decade overseas and would become the Times’s longest-serving executive editor, that startling statistic spoke volumes about both the turbulence of the 1960s and the enduring mysteries of human nature. His impassioned coverage of the case sparked a firestorm of public indignation and led to the development of the psychological theory known as the “bystander effect.”
Thirty-Eight Witnesses is indispensable reading for students of journalism and anyone seeking to learn about one of the most infamous crimes of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Liz Smith
Now the classic book on the subject is out from the University of California Press. You owe it to yourself to read this or to reread it. Mike Wallace, Gay Talese and Robert Coles have all endorsed the work. The book has a stunning new introduction.

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Thirty-Eight Witnesses

The Kitty Genovese Case

By A. M. Rosenthal


Copyright © 2009 Samuel G. Freedman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2643-7


This small book is about a woman I never met but who touched my life as she did the lives of many other people — some tens of thousands, I think. I know very little about her except her name, which was Catherine Genovese, and her age, which was twenty-eight, and the manner of her dying.

It is also about thirty-eight of her neighbors, about whom all I know is that they are much like other people of decent middle-class background. The only thing that distinguishes them and, I believe, now harrows their lives a bit, is that on the night of March 13, 1964, each one of them turned away from a cry in the night.

A great many hard things have been said about these thirty-eight, and I am sure they are bewildered, and I know they are resentful. But it is important to say this — that what they did happens every night, in every city. The terror of the story of Catherine Genovese is simply that by happenstance all thirty-eight did that night what each one alone might have done any night without the city having known, or cared. In my own mind, and I believe in the minds of others, this has presented a question that troubles and will not recede: is the ugliness in the number or is it in the act itself, and are thirty-eight sins truly more important than one?

This small book is about a number of connected things — an anecdote told in passing by a commissioner of police who looks like a tough Irish cop because he is a tough Irish cop but who also happens to be a man of knowledge and sensitivity; a newspaper story; a few sociologists; a most cautious theologian; and how so many good people try so desperately to make collective their individual guilt.

At the end of this book are set down some of my thoughts on the meaning of the death of Catherine Genovese. But in some embarrassment I say now that these are not meant as a sermon. I say this in the haunting fear of being told — by myself, mostly — to practice what is preached and because I know I cannot. All I believe, and this most fervently, is that a truth remains a truth whether or not a man has the strength to follow it.

The first time the name of Catherine Genovese appeared in the New York Timeswas on March 14, 1964 — a four-paragraph story. The heading, small type given to stories of minor importance usually printed simply for the record, read: "Queens Woman Is Stabbed to Death in Front of Home."

The story written by a young police reporter read:

"A twenty-eight-year-old Queens woman was stabbed to death early yesterday morning outside her apartment house in Kew Gardens.

"Neighbors who were awakened by her screams found the woman, Miss Catherine Genovese of 82-70 Austin Street, shortly after 3 A.M. in front of a building three doors from her home.

"The police said that Miss Genovese had been attacked in front of her building and had run to where she fell. She had parked her car in a nearby lot, the police said, after having driven it from the Hollis bar where she was day manager.

"The police, who spent the day searching for the murder weapon, interviewing witnesses and checking automobiles that had been seen in the neighborhood, said last night that they had no clues."

Other newspapers carried roughly the same kind of story.

On the Times, I am the Metropolitan Editor, a job that used to go by the name of City Editor, and which is still a little difficult for most newspapermen to get their tongues around. I head a staff of about 200 reporters and editors responsible for covering the city, its huge suburbs, and a couple of neighboring states.

It is a rather strange job and I still am coming slowly to understand it, and sometimes feel like a small boy just learning to read, taking up a storybook and searching for letters and short words that give him clues to the story. It is strange for me perhaps because eighteen of the twenty years I have spent on The Timeshave been devoted to diplomatic or foreign reporting, and to a certain extent I grew away from the city that was my home. For almost a decade, reality to myself, my wife and our three sons was not the Grand Concourse in the Bronx or Broadway in Manhattan but Nizamuddin in New Delhi or Chodkiewicze Street in Warsaw.

Quite suddenly, the focus of life shifted — for my boys to a public school on the East Side of Manhattan, for myself to a great city I thought I no longer knew, but which I found more a part of myself and my half-hidden memories than I had ever realized. I found myself missing the liberty I had abroad, but so enveloped by the pace and excitement of New York and fascinated by the always elusive goal of trying to figure out a way of pinning down the city in newsprint that past freedoms lost some of their poignancy. The essence of New York still eludes me, as it does all newspapermen — is it pace or is it mixture, is it grayness or is it brightness, is it power or is it the diffusion of power, is it sophistication or is it vulgarity? But it seems enormously worth chasing, somehow. Journalistically, is New York a front-page story or is it a fourparagraph story?

I have no recollection whatever of that four-paragraph story being assigned or written. Early in the job I had come to the delightful rationalization that I could not occupy myself with every little story that came in during the course of the day, and that the price of sanity was selectivity combined, hopefully, with newspaper intuition. If the story had been reported to me, I would have ordered, I think, quite exactly the kind of story that did appear — a brief newspaper follow-up of the police blotter.

The truth also is that if Miss Genovese had been killed on Park Avenue or Madison Avenue an assistant would have called the story to my attention, I would have assigned a top man, and quite possibly we would have had a front-page story the next morning. If she had been a white woman killed in Harlem, the tension of the integration story would have provided her with a larger obituary. If she had been a Negro killed in Harlem she would have received a paragraph or two.

In twenty years in the newspaper business, I have spent only four nights covering police news, but I remember quite distinctly a police reporter of some experience telling me then of the relationship of color and geography to crime news —"Above 125th Street, if there's a killing don't bother phoning the desk; it happens too often."

Quite naturally, I pride myself on being a different breed of newspaperman than that old police reporter — traveled and socially conscious. I can find no philosophic excuse for giving the murder of a middle-class Queens woman less attention than the murder of a Park Avenue broker but journalistically no apologies are offered — news is not philosophy or theology but what certain human beings, reporters and editors, know will have meaning and interest to other human beings, readers. Within that definition there is range for almost anything that can befall man or mankind. How much attention it gets still depends largely on where it befalls, and to whom.

Death took Miss Genovese in Queens, a borough of New York growing faster than any other place in the city, home for 1.8 million people, most of whom are like most reporters and editors, not particularly poor, not particularly rich, not particularly famous. It is probably the least exotic place in the city — great housing developments crowding out the private homes that were once the borough's pride, a place of shopping centers and baby carriages and sewer troubles and, to newspapermen, paralyzing ordinariness.

The New York Times, which has full-time staff correspondents in Karachi and Stockholm and Léopoldville and Algiers, has no full-time reporter in Queens. It can be shown statistically, I believe, that in the past few years Times reporters have spent more time in Antarctica than in Queens. It is one of those places about which editors keep telling themselves that they really should get around to covering it someday, with a good young reporter; you know, a bright kid ready to climb.

So Catherine Genovese died in Queens and I assume I read the story in the paper the next day. I do not remember. I do remember that the first time her story came directly into my consciousness it was with a sense of irritation and professional annoyance.

We had carried a brief story the third week in March saying that a man called Winston Moseley, a twenty-nine-year-old business-machine operator, had been arrested for the murder of Miss Genovese, that police said he had confessed and that they said he had confessed to the killing of another Queens woman, Mrs. Annie May Johnson, a twenty-four-year-old housewife stabbed to death outside her house in Ozone Park, Queens, on February 29. (During the life of the story we received a few nasty letters demanding to know why we had "concealed" the fact that Moseley was a Negro. The answer is really quite simple. Where the fact that a man is a Negro is directly relevant to the story we print the fact. Where it is not, we do not.)

What irritated and annoyed me was a story a few days later in the New YorkDaily News that Moseley had also confessed to the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, Barbara Kralik, in July 1963, and that the police were holding another man from whom they had had a confession, and that this situation embarrassed officialdom no end. I was upset not for any moral reason at all but simply because we had not had the story ourselves. The double confession in the Kralik case, incidentally, has not been explained at the time of this writing.

The next Monday was the twenty-third of March and scrawled in the appointment book one of my sons had bought for me for Christmas was "lunch Murphy."

Michael Joseph Murphy is the Police Commissioner of New York, and I had lunched with him two or three times before, always at the same place — Emil's near City Hall. It is a good sauerbrauten and dumpling place full of politicians and city officials who mind their own business and don't table-hop. The Commissioner always has the same table toward the middle of the restaurant, sits always with his back to the wall, an old police habit, and orders shrimp curry and rice in the touching belief that the dish is somehow non-caloric.

There was nothing particularly strange or unusual about my meetings with Murphy. I was new to the city after a decade abroad, and, I wanted to get to know him as I wanted to get to know the Housing Commissioner or the Mayor or judges or playwrights or bankers or anybody else who has anything significant to do with the life of the city. We talked off the record, but I wasn't after secrets and he wasn't after telling me any. I wanted simply to form my own impressions of a man important in the news of New York.

Murphy did not have a murder on his mind that day; he rarely does. In the spring of 1964, what was usually on the mind of the Police Commissioner of New York — as it was of most policemen and politicians — was the haunting fear that someday blood would flow in the streets of New York because of the tensions of the civil rights movement. He lives with fear of a fire from a match carelessly or deliberately thrown away igniting in the ready, dry kindling wood of Harlem. His talk was of integration movements and civil rights and civil rights leaders and civil rights laws, not of detectives and precincts and stabbings. He is six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds and came up through the ranks and is a cop's cop, but he is also the holder of three degrees, all of them earned while working policeman's hours. He is neither a great hero nor a great leader, but he is intelligent and he is tough and he runs his own department.

I had a question in my mind that day, and just before coffee I asked it. I did not remember the names involved. I was not really interested in the women murdered or the details of their deaths, but that one man had confessed to a murder for which the police were already holding another. I also remember thinking that this story would do the Queens District Attorney, Frank O'Connor, no particular good in his enthusiastic quest for the Governorship.

"What about that double confession out in Queens?" I asked Murphy. "What's that story all about, anyway?"

Now, early in my newspaper career I encountered the stunning reality that a policeman does not have to answer a reporter's questions. This truth broke upon me when I had been a reporter for about four days. I was sent out to cover a suicide at a "good address"— a Park Avenue hotel. I knew exactly what to do. I marched into the hotel, asked the elevator man where the trouble was, took the elevator up, knocked on the door.

A detective twelve feet tall opened the door, and I started to walk forward, where I was introduced to his hand, about three feet wide, held up before my face.

"Where are you going, kid?" he asked.

"There's a suicide here."


"Reporter. I want to come in and talk to you and see the body."

"Beat it."

Beat it? I wasn't quite sure of the follow-through.

"But I am from the Times, a reporter."


"Don't you care if I get the story right?" I asked righteously and indignantly.

"Four eyes," said the detective, amiably, "I don't care if you drop dead." Then he introduced me to the closed door. Thus I learned that, contrary to what I had believed as an article of faith, it was not the ordained, patriotic duty of every American to answer every reporter's every question.

At Emil's, the Police Commissioner did not tell me he did not care if I ceased suddenly to exist. But he looked at me from the corner of his eye, and said he knew nothing about the double confession. Somehow, I feel still that he was being less than utterly frank with me.

After a moment the Commissioner half turned toward me.

"That Queens story is something else," he said. "Remember we talked about apathy, public apathy toward law enforcement?"

We had, several times. The Commissioner had said what every cop often says — that one of the troubles with New York was that people didn't give a damn, wanted to stay out of trouble, wouldn't cooperate. An old cop complaint, nothing very new in it.

"Brother," the Commissioner said, "that Queens story is one for the books."

Thirty-eight people, the Commissioner said, had watched a woman being killed in the "Queens story" and not one of them had called the police to save her life.

"Thirty-eight?" I asked.

And he said, "Yes, thirty-eight. I've been in this business a long time, but this beats everything."

I experienced then that most familiar of newspapermen's reaction — vicarious shock. This is a kind of professional detachment that is the essence of the trade — the realization that what you are seeing or hearing will startle a reader. The reporter or the editor need not be, and usually is not, shocked or startled himself but he experiences the flashing realization that readers will be.

I told the Commissioner that this seemed to be a story, and since our talk was entirely off the record up to then, asked his agreement to my assigning a reporter to look into it. He agreed.

I rode back to 43rd Street in a police car, and was a little disappointed that nobody saw me drive up. In the newsroom, I was caught up as usual like a shirt in a laundry machine by the news of the day, and forgot the whole thing until about 5 P.M. when it popped back in my mind.

I was sure that the Commissioner had been exaggerating, but the story was clearly worth looking into. People doing nothing about a murder — even if there were only eight or nine or so — was obviously a story. Thirty-eight was impossible, I knew.

I asked an assistant to call Marty Gansberg over the loudspeaker. (Our newsroom is so large we need a public-address system, but it seems terribly impersonal to me, and I soothe my sense of outrage in summoning a reporter mechanically by getting somebody else to do it.)

Gansberg is an old hand at the Times but new at reporting; he had been a copy editor and wanted to try his hand at something different. For weeks afterward, a variety of reporters asked me — more in anger than in sorrow — why I had chosen somebody so new and not experienced reporters such as themselves, for instance.


Excerpted from Thirty-Eight Witnesses by A. M. Rosenthal. Copyright © 2009 Samuel G. Freedman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A. M. Rosenthal (1922–2006) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign correspondent and the longest-serving executive editor of the New York Times, holding the position from 1969 to 1987. He joined the Times as a staff reporter in 1944 and ten years later was assigned to the paper’s New Delhi bureau. As a foreign correspondent, Rosenthal reported from India, Poland, and Japan, among other locales, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. In 1963 he returned to New York and quickly rose through the editorial ranks at the Times, overseeing coverage of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra scandal. He played a decisive role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers and, for his exceptional support of human rights, received the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, from President George W. Bush in 2002. Thirty-Eight Witnesses (1964), Rosenthal’s groundbreaking account of the murder of Kitty Genovese and ensuing public outcry, is a classic of twentieth-century journalism.

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Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
BuckeyeAngel More than 1 year ago
On March 13, 1964, 28 year old Kitty Genovese was murdered in Queens, NY. The murder took place in a course of about 30 minutes, with breaks in between. She was stabbed numerous times and sexually assaulted after she died. However, that’s not what’s so shocking about the crime. The shocking part, and the reason it’s still talked about and referenced, is that there were 38 witnesses to the attack. None of them called the police. None of them stepped out to see what was happening as a woman screamed for help. Once or twice someone would shout down, which would interrupt the murderer, who would sneak off, and then come back a few minutes later and carry on. This book was originally written about a year after the crime by an editor at the New York Times who assigned a reporter to the case a few days after it happened, making it one of the first true crime books. There’s also a preface from him that he wrote several years ago, giving his opinion in this day and age, which gives a great comparison of a man who heard about this crime when it happened, how he reflected upon it then, and how he reflected on it over 30 years later. There’s also a preface from several years ago from the reporter himself. I’ve read a number of true crime stories. I have the standard addiction to the true crime channel. I heard references to this crime in movies and recently watched a special on it. However, what the author does is a bit different. Yes, he gives the detailed information about the crime and the murderer. BUT, he points out from the beginning, what makes this crime so fascinating and what his original point was in writing the book: The human person and how we react to certain things. He asks the question of empathy vs. self-preservation and questions desensitization. Seeing his personal reflection on what he would’ve done then vs just several years ago and everything in between made me really question how I would react if I heard a woman scream or how I do react when I see people in need. I was so engrossed into the book, I read it within a few hours. I can’t remember the last book that really made me think like this. I highly recommend it. **I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i cant believe i spent $10.00 for 61 pages!