Anger, Anguish Murder case highlighted ‘moral vacancy,’ led to creation of 911 system

“Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences” by Catherine Pelonero. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014. $24.95

Shortly after 3 a.m. on March 13, 1964, Winston Moseley assaulted, raped and stabbed to death Catherine “Kitty” Genovese as she returned to her apartment in Kew Gardens, a middle-class neighborhood of Queens, New York.

Twenty-nine years old, petite, vivacious and fiercely independent, she was the manager of a local tavern, Ev’s Eleventh Hour.

Her suffering lasted more than a half-hour and took place along two well-lit streets bordered by large apartment buildings.

Thirty-eight residents witnessed at least something of the attack; 62 others heard her screams. Only one called the police. Two came to her rescue when her assailant was gone and she had only moments to live.

These numbers are known exactly because homicide detectives interviewed everyone in the area and were appalled by such “moral vacancy.” Over and over, they heard, “I didn’t want to get involved.”

Five days later on March 18, they apprehended Moseley while he was committing a burglary, then heard him quietly boast of killing not only Genovese but two other women as well. At The New York Times, veteran reporter Martin Gansberg followed the investigation and wrote a story for the March 27, 1964, front page under the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”

The circumstances of Kitty Genovese’s murder then became a national issue. Because changing moral behavior was unlikely, New York authorities sought a simple means of reporting crime and came up with the 911 Emergency Call System.

At Moseley’s trial in June 1964, his attorneys presented him as schizophrenic and incapable of knowing that his actions were wrong.

Convicted and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life in prison, Moseley never denied his crimes yet always complained that he was suffering more than his victims. He is the longest-serving convict in the New York State Correctional System.

Residents of Kew Gardens resented their portrayal as apathetic and anomic. Even today, some claim that the number of witnesses was exaggerated, while others insist that calls to the police were made but ignored.

Like all who wish for a different past, they are wrong. Catherine Pelonero has consulted all the original files and tracked down every surviving participant for her definitive analysis of the case. Reading her pages evokes anger and anguish in equal measure.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).