Fifty years ago today Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her apartment house in Queens. One of the most highly publicized murders in New York’s history, a half-century later it is still widely known but often for the wrong reason.

The common story is that many neighbors heard the young woman’s cries as she was raped and murdered and did nothing. The crime and the indifference of the spectators seemed to underscore the idea that cities, and New York in particular, were heartless places that were unlivable because of urban anonymity and the malaise it engendered.

This has largely remained the popular interpretation.

But it turns out the moral drawn is wrong because the facts as reported at the time and immediately after were inaccurate.

The news story reported that 38 people came to their windows when they heard her screams and watched for a half hour while the Winston Moseley returned three times to finish the deadly attack.

In fact, when Genovese was first attacked and screamed, a man opened his window and shouted at the assailant: “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley ran away but not before stabbing her. She stumbled into the lobby of her apartment house and shortly after Moseley found her there and killed her.

So the story is this: one person came to Genovese’s aid and the second and last attack took place indoors, which was witnessed by one other person. Rather than no one calling the police, two phoned. And contrary to the most popular account, someone did try to assist the dying woman. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night and there was no way to know whether Moseley was still present, Sophia Farrar, a neighbor, was holding Genovese in her arms when the ambulance arrived.

Only two people saw or heard the attack and did nothing. A man who worked across the street who what was happening, saw Moseley run away and did nothing to help. The second person who saw the attack was drunk. He called a friend who advised him to do nothing. Eventually he called the police.

Far from representing the worst of urban life, the Genovese story can be viewed different. There are, indeed, those who helped and one who did so at great risk to her own safety.

The larger issue is how the story got told in such an inaccurate and distorted way. That can be traced back to the NY Times and the sensational way in which the follow-up story was framed. That aspect is explored in an excellent article in the New Yorker, “A Call for Help,” by Nicholas Lemann.

Thinking that 38 people stood by and did nothing feeds into the idea that human nature is base. The more accurate story that at least one woman risked her own life to cradle a dying woman in her arms is not as sensational and therefore receives less attention.

The murder of Kitty Genovese is an iconic event but it would serve us better if we recognize its complexity. The true story is that of a rapist and murderer, one person who was indifferent to her fate and another who waited too long to respond. And there is a true hero, Sophia Farrar, whose name should be honored and better known.

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