In Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, journalist Kevin Cook disproves the myth of the 38 unresponsive bystanders.
How did you become interested in the case?
I encountered [the story of] Kitty Genovese [years after the initial press coverage], and was struck by the haunting photo of her that’s on the cover of the book. The story’s simplicity struck me, too. Precisely 38 people watched from their windows while Kitty was stabbed to death? It sounded like one of those stories that might be deeper than it first appears. I was also drawn to the remarkable time and place: Robert Moses’s 1964 World’s Fair coming up, the Beatles riding in from newly named JFK Airport, folkies and beatniks in Greenwich Village, where there was a vivid underground gay and lesbian scene—all on the brink of a dark period when crime-ridden NYC got the sarcastic nickname “Fun City.”
Where did the myth of the 38 unresponsive witnesses come from?
A week and a half after the crime, Times editor A.M. Rosenthal met police commissioner Michael Murphy for lunch. Murphy shook his head over “that Queens story,” which the press had barely noticed. “That’s one for the books,” he said. “Thirty-eight witnesses.” The Times’s front-page story revolved around the idea that 38 neighbors had watched Kitty’s stabbing. The precision of the number made the story stick. People familiar with the case could tell me only that, according to the NYPD, detectives had found 38 eye- and ear-witnesses during their initial investigation. I eventually tracked down a 1964 document: an official synopsis of the detectives’ interviews with witnesses. It listed almost 50 witnesses, which puzzled me until I counted the entries. There were 38 entries, some lumping several interviewees together. I think some harried civil servant counted up the entries and gave that number to Murphy, who gave it to Rosenthal. The number took on a life of its own after the Times story and Rosenthal’s book, Thirty-Eight Witnesses.
How did you research the case?
I spoke with Kitty’s partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, a very private person who had barely discussed the case in 50 years. I’m grateful to her. The NYPD complied with a freedom-of-information request. I ran across a 1964 tape recording of the killer talking about the crime. And then there were rows of cardboard boxes of documents that hadn’t been seen in years, if not decades—the kind of trove you dream of finding.
What reforms stemmed from the case?
Press coverage led to pressure for an emergency phone line—the 911 system. The murder also led to Good Samaritan laws and to neighborhood watch programs that deterred crime (but played a controversial role in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida). According to Fordham professor Harold Takooshian, the case also led to new fields in behavioral science, including urban psychology and prosocial behavior.