10 Historically Pivotal Murders

Kitty Genovese
Kitty Genovese's killer, Winston Moseley, is led away in handcuffs on March 21, 1968, after escaping police custody while serving a life sentence for her death. © Corbis

Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in Queens, New York City, who was stabbed to death in a parking lot outside her apartment building on March 13, 1964. Her killer, Winston Moseley, spotted Genovese walking home from her job as a bar manager around 3 a.m. and decided she would be an easy target.

What made the murder so strange and notable, and in some ways even more chilling, is the response of Genovese's neighbors. The initial stabbing took place in full view of Genovese's apartment building, and the press initially reported that as many as 38 neighbors had heard or seen the stabbing, yet none called the police. The public took it as a sign of moral collapse – how was it possible that so many people did nothing to help a dying woman?

Re-evaluating the facts has shown that the idea of dozens of neighbors witnessing a murder and doing nothing was an exaggeration, and most of the people who had heard or seen the killing did not realize that a murder was taking place. However, the case prompted sociologists to look into a "Genovese syndrome," and their research has pointed to dark truths about human nature. The idea of the bystander effect, or the diffusion of responsibility, is now an established phenomenon. That is, as the number of bystanders increases, people become less likely to intervene, even in life-threatening situations.