Murder by death


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It’s one of the most famous murders in American history, the killing of 28-year-old Catherine (Kitty) Genovese, in the early hours of March 13, 1964, on Austin Street, in the borough of Queens, New York, around the corner from where she lived. While 38 people watched or listened without calling the police, Genovese was stabbed repeatedly, in three separate attacks over the course of half an hour, then sexually assaulted and left for dead. (She died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.) Two weeks later, the New York Times detailed all this in a Page One piece, and the Kitty Genovese story became a metaphor for contemporary urban apathy.

The Genovese murder forms the center of “Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case” (Melville House: 112 pp., $14.95 paper) by A. M. Rosenthal, who was the paper’s metropolitan editor at the time. But this little book is more a look at our collective guilt for Genovese’s murder, the way we are all complicit when the rules of society start breaking down.


Prior to taking over the metropolitan desk, Rosenthal — who later went on to be the Times’ executive editor and an op-ed columnist — was a foreign correspondent, stationed in India and Poland. There, he saw all sorts of things he looked away from: “Cripples crawling in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, the capital’s shopping center then, wretched mishapen babies held out by filthy mothers in Calcutta — I turned away not in fear but in disgust and annoyance.” Where, then, he wants us to consider, is our moral authority to judge the Genovese witnesses when we all do similar things every day?

It’s a vivid argument, and 44 years later, it has more to tell us than some moralistic tale of apathy. “There are, it seems to me,” Rosenthal ends the book, “only two logical ways to look at the story of the murder of Catherine Genovese. One is the way of the neighbor on Austin Street — ‘Let’s forget the whole thing.’

“The other is to recognize that the bell tolls even on each man’s individual island, to recognize that every man must fear the witness in himself who whispers to close the window.”

David L. Ulin