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The Ghost of Kitty Genovese

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The Ghost of Kitty Genovese

An assault in Philadelphia evokes memories of a notorious crime. October 21, 2021
Public safety

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed, robbed, raped, and killed on a street in New York City. The crime went on for almost an hour, with nobody coming to Genovese’s aid. Initial media coverage suggested that dozens of people had watched it take place and done nothing, not even calling police. It was revealed years later that these details had been considerably distorted, but by then the Genovese incident had taken shape in the public mind as a cautionary tale about life in big cities. Last week, a woman was raped on a train in Philadelphia, and bystanders reportedly stood by and watched, without intervening.

Genovese was a cheerful 28-year-old bartender, the graduate of a Catholic all-girls high school. On March 13, 1964, she was driving home to Queens at around 2:30 AM after completing her shift. Her killer, Winston Moseley, saw her stopped at a traffic light in her car and followed her home. When Genovese parked and headed into her building, Moseley attacked and stabbed her. She screamed, and a neighbor yelled out a window at Moseley, which frightened him away momentarily. But Moseley then returned and tracked down the wounded Genovese. He raped her. He stabbed her again. He stole almost $50 from her. Moseley eventually fled, and Genovese was found by a friend. She died on the way to hospital.

Last week, a young woman boarded an evening commuter train at around 9:15 in Philadelphia. Fiston Ngoy, a homeless man, fixated on her. He began to harass her and touch her. This behavior continued for approximately 45 minutes. Bystanders ignored the commotion. Finally, Ngoy reportedly tore off the woman’s clothes and raped her in the train car. The bystanders did not ignore the rape, but neither did they help the woman. Instead, according to police, they held up their phones and filmed the crime. (Delaware County district attorney Jack Stollsteimer disputes this version of events, claiming that the crime was not widely recorded by passengers, though he did not deny that no one stepped forward to help the victim.)

The Genovese rape and murder in New York was not big news initially. It burst into the public consciousness when the New York Times ran a sensationalized story about how 38 witnesses did nothing to help Genovese over the course of the attack. (In 2016, the Times said that the story had “grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived.”) For Republican mayoral candidate John Lindsay, publicity on the attack was one of the keys to unseating the Democratic Party from control of City Hall. The case became emblematic for the crime, chaos, and apathy of modern New York City.

The Philadelphia rape has made national headlines. The outraged chief of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Police, Tom Nestel, said, “We want everyone to be angry, disgusted and to join us in being resolute in keeping our system safe.” Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney’s Twitter feed had nothing to say about the rape, perhaps not surprisingly given that he also has had little to say about Philadelphia’s historically high murder numbers. Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner didn’t mention the rape either, instead focusing on re-arresting a police officer on charges that had previously been dismissed. (The actual rape occurred just outside of the city limits, though the victim and defendant spent most of their train ride in Philadelphia.)

The woman raped in Philadelphia was not killed, thank goodness, though the bystander response, if accurately characterized, was nonetheless disgraceful. What gives? Are Americans worse people today than ever before?

No, Americans remain the same, I think, in their general inclination to help others. The apathy has its roots in political leadership telling citizens that it is perfectly acceptable not to care about violent crime. When prosecutors and mayors are more concerned about the well-being of defendants than victims, that message filters down. Why get involved when your leaders think that somebody else’s criminal behavior is not only acceptable but probably your fault?

One might see this profoundly depressing incident as a wake-up call. People will come out of their stupor, recognize that violent crime is on the rise, and take common-sense measures to restore order—right? But the Genovese murder did not awaken American sensibilities in 1964; instead, it served as an opening act for 30 years or so of accelerating murder and mayhem across the country. Americans—in Philadelphia and elsewhere—should consider themselves warned.

Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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