Fact Check: Did 38 Witnesses Do Nothing While Kitty Genovese Was Killed in 1964?

Footage of a 65-year-old Asian woman being attacked on a New York City sidewalk went viral on Monday, but the assault itself isn't the only thing shocking people online.

Video shows a security guard at the building next to where the assault occurred, on West 43rd Street, shutting the door as a man kicks the elderly woman in the head and shouts, "F**k you, you don't belong here," as reported by ABC7NY's CeFaan Kim.

The display of bystander apathy has reminded many users on social media of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was killed in 1964.

Genovese was robbed, raped and stabbed to death outside her Queens, New York, apartment over the course of a roughly half-hour period, according to the New York Times.

The Claim

"America was shocked when Kitty Genovese was killed in alley in NYC and 38 people watched and no one called the police. That was 1964. We have changed as a culture," one user tweeted on Monday, in response to a tweet from Bari Weiss about "the evil of bystanders."

America was shocked when Kitty Genovese was killed in alley in NYC and 38 people watched and no one called the police. That was 1964. We have changed as a culture.

— Dennis M. Powell (@dennismpe) March 30, 2021

The Facts

The narrative surrounding the Genovese case stems from a New York Times article by Martin Gansberg that reported "38 respectable, law-abiding citizens" bore witness to the attack on Genovese.

The number, and what would become known as "bystander apathy" and the "Kitty Genovese effect," scandalized the U.S. and represented to many a troubling cultural shift. But there was one problem with Gansberg's story: It wasn't entirely true.

According to a 2016 New York Times piece on the infamous case that went on to define a generation of social psychology, the original number of 38 stems from the remarks made by then-New York City Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy.

Abe Rosenthal, then the Times' city editor, took the number and ran with it, but it was never investigated or confirmed before being published. It is now widely believed to be hyperbole, and at the very least, unsubstantiated.

In 2004, Charles Skoller, the former Queens assistant district attorney, told journalist Jim Rasenberger that he doubted the storyline in a Times article revisiting the case.

"I don't think 38 people witnessed it," Skoller told Rasenberger. "I don't know where that came from, the 38. I didn't count 38. We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use."

What's more, witnesses of the attack did intervene, but Gansberg's article failed to mention them. Sofia Farrar, a 70-year-old neighbor, held Genovese in her arms as she died. There were reports of multiple calls made to police, and some witnesses explained that they did not recognize Genovese's cries as signals for help.

The Ruling

False.

The New York Times has revisited its 1964 reporting multiple times and concluded that some of the most shocking elements of the Kitty Genovese murder—specifically, that 38 people watched and no one called police—are false or unsubstantiated.

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On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked on a street in Kew Gardens, Queens. Soon after, the New York Times published a front-page story asserting that 38 witnesses watched her being murdered from their apartment windows, and did nothing to help. The death of Kitty Genovese, 28, quickly became a symbol of urban apathy. Five More Minutes Productions