If you know the name Kitty Genovese, you’re almost certainly aware the story associated with her. She was stabbed multiple times over the course of a half an hour while 38 bystanders watched and did nothing. Her name has been associated with urban apathy for over 50 years and her case helped give rise to Good Samaritan laws across the country and the 911 calling system. But in truth, only two people saw and comprehended what was happening to Kitty; others only heard a scream and then nothing. Some saw the attacker run off and assumed the danger was over. At least one person did call the police but calls weren’t logged in 1964. Kevin Cook’s book shows us the complexity of the case and of Kitty herself, who was more than just a murder victim.
This book first shows us the life of Kitty herself. She was an independent young woman who chose to stay in Queens when her family pulled up stakes and moved to Connecticut. She was also a closeted lesbian who was going home to her partner the night she was stabbed (a fact kept out of the papers and court trial for fear of the victim becoming unsympathetic). We also see the life of Winston Mosely, the deeply disturbed man whose path would cross with Kitty’s in the early hours of March 13, 1964. Cook also puts the crime in context. New Yorkers in the early 60s avoided calling the police, who were often unresponsive and unhelpful. He also notes that the street where the crime occurred was home to a bar that was open until 4AM and was often the source of rowdy drunks and domestic disputes that would spill out onto the sidewalk at night. This certainly caused many of the witnesses the night of Kitty’s murder to ignore her screams and go back to sleep.
Kitty Genovese may be the most well known crime victim in American history. The details of her death were embellished while the truth of her life was hidden from the public. While this led to many positive changes in how we report crime and how we view the responsibility of bystanders, Cook’s book gives much needed nuance and depth to the story. He also gives voice to Kitty’s partner who, by choice and by necessity, has kept her life with Ms. Genovese and the pain of her loss private for half a century.