The Kitty Genovese Syndrome
& Yelling “Fire!”


Debunking a Foolishly Flawed Crime Escape Scheme 

Winston Moseley attacked and stabbed 28-year-old Kitty Genovese at 3 a.m. on the street near her Kew Gardens home in Queens NY on 11 March 1964. Her screams prompted one neighbor to shout out, causing Moseley to flee, but he soon returned to rape the helpless, bleeding woman. Her subsequent screams throughout the 30-minute ordeal fell on the deaf ears of 38 of her neighbors. Moseley then stabbed her to death. Other than the one neighbor who’d shouted just once, 37 of the "bystanders" had not tried to help her or even call the police.

That's what the news media reported, though 50 years later it was proven to be wildly inaccurate and dishonest (see UPDATE 2014 at the end of this page). A worldwide news media furor erupted over the neighbors' supposed apathy - and they supposedly refused to explain their baffling behavior.

Sprouting from this messy morass of publicity, a woefully unqualified New York Times newspaper editor concocted a cockamamie escape scheme to counter such "apathy" in the future. He proposed that outdoor crime victims should yell, “Fire!” (even though there is no fire) instead of yelling “Help! Police!” Supposedly, apathetic neighbors would then fear a fire spreading to their homes and call the fire department, and then the fire trucks' sirens would scare away the attacker. Hmm... that's like the old Rube Goldberg cartoons of building a wildly elaborate contraption to perform a simple task. But since it came from a major newspaper, few questioned its supposed wisdom.


Though never tested for feasibility, this goofy notion somehow grew into “folk wisdom” still taught today by some “crime experts” - even retired FBI agents and cops (they, too, sometimes just repeat poorly-conceived “conventional wisdom”). This supposed emergency tactic had escaped any serious scrutiny of its logic – or lack thereof – for decades. But, finally, researchers have investigated more deeply.

A tiny number of times, yelling “Fire” has even been reported as successfully deterring a crime. Not because it’s a clever strategy, but because whatever help it had summoned would’ve been forthcoming with any screamed plea – regardless of its wording (such as “Stop!” or “Let go of me!” or “No!” or "Help Police!" or "Fire!"). Most bystanders are not apathetic and will at least start hollering, turning on porch lights, honking car horns, and so on – and of course, calling the police (NOT firefighters). Most predators prefer secrecy/anonymity, so any attention from bystanders/witnesses usually scares them off.

Besides, what if the victim is nowhere near buildings or anything that might catch fire? Yelling “Fire!” – during a violent crime with NO visible fire – is absurd.... and confuses bystanders.

Bluffs are risky in any situation, but trying to bluff bystanders into saving your life is beyond foolish. Trying to trick them with a fictitious fire when you really want to be rescued from a crime adds dangerous confusion to a crisis. Bystanders have reported that when they couldn’t see a fire anywhere, they assumed the woman yelling “Fire!” was goofing around, crazy, or drunkenly fighting with her “boyfriend” – and they ignored her after all.

Why risk confusing your potential rescuers when you're in deep trouble? A life-threatening emergency is not the time to gamble on some silly trick. Instead, you should accurately identify your plight by yelling or screaming “Help! Police!”

And here's another reason to not yell, "Fire!" 


Many Hollywood movies have shown a military officer commanding a firing squad. He yells, “Ready. Aim. FIRE!” – and his troops shoot at the target. In other movies, a commander just yells “FIRE!  Most people are very familiar with that command. So, think about it especially if a predator is pointing a gun at you in a tense, life-or-death situation, do NOT yell “FIRE!”  DOH! It's not a good idea to confuse an excited gunman when your life is at stake. See Victim's Options: Overview


Alone, a single bystander may or may not intervene to rescue a stranger – depending upon many factors, such as the degree of risk involved, individual ability, etc. But most people will at least phone the police.

With several bystanders, additional factors come into play, such as how well they know each other as well as the shame they’d feel by not acting – by at least calling the police and/or creating a loud ruckus (perhaps from a safe distance) to deter the criminal.

Furthermore, in “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote that psychologists Bibb Latane of Columbia University and John Darley of NYU studied the Bystander Apathy in the Kitty Genovese case (a.k.a. the "Genovese Syndrome") and found that what most affected “helping behavior” was how many people witness an event.

The larger the group, the more each person’s responsibility is diffused. Each thinks others will help, or if no one is helping, then there isn’t really a problem (or solution). They aren’t heartless, they just feel less responsibility to act. Ironically, Latane and Darley say, had Kitty Genovese been attacked with just one (capable) bystander nearby, she might have been rescued.


Years later, another researcher claimed to have found yet another reason for the neighbors' apathy. Supposedly, Kitty Genovese had a neighborhood reputation for sexual promiscuity. On 11 March 2004, the 40th anniversary of Genovese’ death, Dr. Tina Trent wrote in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Although the ‘38 Witnesses’ were in their homes, not a courtroom, they judged the victim, not her attacker, and they sentenced her to death.”

Dr. Trent's blaming of the neighbors' self-righteous moral disdain was later debunked. See the link in UPDATE 2014 at the end of this page.


Don’t call the dogcatcher to fix a leaky pipe, don’t call an ambulance to tow your car, and don’t yell “Fire!” when you’re attacked by a criminal. Instead, yell “Help! Police!”

(However, sounding a false fire alarm to deter a criminal might be effective in certain instances – such as being chased through a hotel hallway. Yell “Help! Police!” while pounding on suite doors as you pass, and pull a fire alarm lever – make as much noise as possible. Then hope that bystanders take action.)


Ultimately, though, your first line-of-defense should not be the wildly unpredictable availability of helpful bystanders or police to rescue you. You must rescue yourself!  Think about it, when seconds count – cops are minutes away! The average response time to 9-1-1 emergency calls in the U.S. is ELEVEN minutes (and even slower than that in many areas). That's an eternity in a crisis....

Now, if Kitty Genovese had had the chance to read what you’re about to learn, she might have escaped virtually unscathed. Modern pepper-spray and “noisemaker” personal alarms didn’t exist yet [though an old-fashioned whistle is quite effective – if it's attached to your neck by a rather weak beaded-metal chain instead of a cord that can be used to strangle you (see personal security alarms)]. Today, however, you have the following strategy – and modern tools – to possibly help you escape Kitty Genovese's fate.


Always remain aware of your surroundings (and that means no earbuds or talking on a phone). Keep your head on a swivel, calmly looking all around you. If anyone suspicious begins to come near you, stand tall, have one hand poised on your noisemaker, raise your other hand in a “STOP!” gesture (or aiming pepper spray), and yell, "STAY AWAY FROM ME!"

If he still comes toward you, activate your noisemaker. If that doesn't stop him, pepper spray him and run away while yelling, "Help! Police!"

"Fight or flight” are the most well-known options. Martial arts' strategies usually add 'surrender' to the list. I’ve added two more: posturing and outsmarting, and aligned all five with FBI guidelines (and clarified their painfully clunky wording).


1. Posturing – presenting yourself as a tough target. If that fails:
2. Fleeing – and if that’s not possible:
3. Outsmarting – talking your way out and/or maneuvering toward escape. If that fails:
4. Surrendering and hoping for the best; or preferably as a setup for a sneaky escape, perhaps helped by:
5. Fighting like a mad dog to allow your escape. Stun & run.

(click on the above links for full explanations)


A noisemaker & pepper spray (perhaps on wrist-straps) visibly ready will strengthen your first option – Posturing as a tough target – and may well keep a predator away. Your second option – Fleeing – is improved as well.

In the end, though, Kitty Genovese’s tragic fate ultimately helped lead you to a greater understanding of the dynamics and options within an all too common nightmare: a victim facing an attacker. Now you know how to possibly rescue yourself.


Kitty Genovese’s brother, Bill Genovese, has extensively investigated her murder and in his recent documentary ‘The Witness,’ claimed that the New York Times newspaper editor, shortly before he died in 2006, admitted to him that he had lied and greatly exaggerated the bystander apathy issue in order to sell more papers.

Actually, the police had ignored an emergency call, then blamed "38" neighbors of bystander apathy - though only two eye-witness/bystanders ignored the crime. On the other hand, at least three bystanders did try to help - and many more were misled by confusion and unaware of the life-and-death nature of the crime. Yet the media twisted the facts, and also started the dangerously loony advice of yelling "Fire!" when suddenly facing a possibly violent criminal. See Debunking the Myth of Kitty Genovese and The Kitty Genovese Story Was the Prototype for Fake News .

On the bright side, despite any devious reportage, the massive publicity of Kitty Genovese’s murder did lead to New York City installing the first 911 emergency phone system as well as spawning decades of academic research that now illuminates the age-old issue of bystander apathy. So, ultimately, Kitty Genovese’s tragedy had a ‘silver lining in the cloud’ after all.

Finally, to clarify the issues, ‘bystander apathy’ has indeed often been a problem throughout history and still remains a problem in many crimes today. Thus the advice above – Defend Your Space, A Victim's Five Options, and Strengthening Your Options – also remains.

(By the way, in 2016 - 52 years after Kitty Genovese’s murder - her killer Winston Mosely died in prison at age 81. May he rest in hell.)


By Michael Edward Loftus Sr at
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Crime-Safety-Security > Article Bank > Kitty Genovese

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