Murder, bystanders and Kitty Genovese

Hiya Islam | Published: 00:00, May 05,2019 | Updated: 22:10, May 04,2019


Catherine Susan ‘Kitty’ Genovese’s murder in New York 1964 has prompted the term ‘Genovese Syndrome’ or the ‘Bystander Effect’.

Getting help during an emergency is significantly low when there are more people present around the situation. This phenomenon is known as ‘The Bystanders Effect’. Reasons for this include lack of strength or expertise, fear of personal harm and assumptions that others are more capable to help, writes Hiya Islam

Catherine Susan ‘Kitty’ Genovese, the eldest of the five children, was born in Brooklyn, New York to parents Rachel and Vincent Genovese. While her family moved to New Canaan, Connecticut after her mother witnessed a murder, she chose to stay in New York.

Apart from working as a secretary at an insurance company, she toiled away her nights at a bar in Queens where she joined as a bartender and was later promoted to a manager. Years later, she stumbled upon Mary Ann Zielonko. The two found love and ended up sharing a second-floor apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens.

March 13, 1964 was a wretched day for an average girl.

It was about 2:30am when Kitty was returning from work that she was greeted by a brutal fate. A man approached her, grabbed her and stabbed her while she screamed for help. The man was later identified as Winston Moseley.  He had been tailing the lady from the traffic light where he spotted her; he had been driving around Queens in search of a victim.

Her pleas were heard by the neighbors. Moseley fled from the scene when a neighbor yelled ‘Let that girl alone’ out of his window. However, this yielded to nothing. As Kitty crawled across the steps of her apartment, the killer returned undaunted to finish his task. He stabbed her barbarically, raped her and stole her money.

She was found bleeding by a 70-year old woman, Sophia Farr. Police arrived at the scene several minutes later followed by an ambulance. Unfortunately, Genovese succumbed to her injuries and died en route the hospital. She had been stabbed at least 14 times.

Along with Kitty Genovese, Moseley confessed to killing two more women, Annie Mae Johnson and Barbara Kralik. In 2016, after serving for almost 52 years, the abhorrent killer died in prison at age 81.

The murder sparked a national interest when The New York Times ran the story titled as ‘37 Who Saw Murder But Didn’t Call The Police’. The number 37 was attributed to the number of people who had witnessed or heard suspecting activity during the hour. Although sometime later this figure was disproved but it already had a spiraling effect amongst public ranging from movies, documentaries and new scientific findings.

Had she moved to Connecticut, would she have been saved from such a brutal fate? The answer is uncertain. Nonetheless, the fear out of which her mother had taken away her family to safety could not save her daughter in the end. But it had given rise to a novel concept dealing with the human psychology, ‘The Bystander Effect’ or ‘Genovese Syndrome’.

This attempts to explain why someone present in a crime scene would be reluctant to intervene and help the victim. The term was coined by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley in 1969, five years after the horrific incident. Their work was published in the scientific journal, American Scientist. Clinical experiments carried out by the pair had shown that the greater the number of witnesses, the lesser the likelihood of a person to step forward.

The bystander effect is not limited to crime scenes and accidents. In fact, the lack of action regarding societal issues such as sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, property damage, environmental threats and global dilemma like the climate change, waging wars against poor nations all stand to strengthen the effect.

In case of an emergency, the first decision is to deem the situation as critical or not. Inaction from surrounding people can influence an individual to lightly treat the affairs. Once this is settled, the next step is to determine the course of action needed. When in a large group of people, it is common for each individual to feel that it is not their responsibility to act first. Because, then, there are ‘seemingly’ more people capable of helping. But little do people realise that everyone else walks by thinking the same thought. Eventually, the problem no longer poses itself as requiring a solution and goes unnoticed.

Many people try to justify their inaction based on thinking such as, ‘I don’t want to get involved’, ‘Maybe help is not needed’, ‘I hope someone else will help’, ‘No one is asking for help’, ‘I should mind my own business’, ‘It is not affecting me’, ‘Others are not bothered, why should I be’ and so on.

Other reasons include lack of strength or expertise, fear of personal harm and assumptions that others are more capable to help. And in many occasions, the unavailable help has claimed lives of innocents.

Therefore, the key to breaking out of the bystander effect is to assume a greater personal responsibility and act. It is of utmost importance that everyone be more risk-aware so that they can pinpoint what is wrong. An unconscious victim will not be seeking for help, the oppressed are more likely to never stand up and speak for themselves due to fear or someone screaming or pleading cannot be without a reason.

Moreover, gaining appropriate knowledge and intervention skills per situation is essential as well. Because, competency to deal with a situation affects confidence. And low confidence results in no action. Times could be such that an ambulance fails to arrive on time. What would one do in case of profuse bleeding? Tie a tourniquet, of course.

40 per cent of the blood can easily be lost within 3-4 minutes, if an injury is severe sending the casualty to hypovolaemic shock or failure of the circulatory system and is fatal if left untreated. A person who has just stopped breathing, what should be done? Check for pulse and try CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Apt actions may not completely remove the person from danger but it does extend the lifeline until help arrives.

People are more likely to help if they know the victim or if they have been in their shoes at any one time. Chances also increase with personal defense skills or medical training. But it is possible for all to step out of this curse by being aware of it. It is not right to assume nothing is wrong because there is no comment from the people around. Guilt often drives someone to help and sometimes it is just a heart made of gold.

Looking from the perspective of a victim, how can a person in need get help from a crowd under the spell? Calling out for help in general is futile. Eye contacts and individual pleas are more effective. In other words, reaching out to someone and specifically asking them for help is fruitful.

We do not see heroic acts every day. Even though, opportunity to save the day comes around countless times few people cease it.  A little act of kindness goes a long way. Perhaps, a phone call, some way to deter a mugger/killer or asking someone else for help is better than no help at all.

Hiya Islam is a student of BRAC University.


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