The Kitty Genovese Syndrome
& Yelling “Fire!”


Debunking a Foolishly Flawed Crime Escape Scheme 

Winston Moseley attacked and stabbed 24-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 neighbor who’d shouted just once, not a single one had lifted a finger to help her or even call the police.

At least that's basically what the New York Times and many other news media reported (though later doubted to be fully accurate). A worldwide news media furor erupted over the neighbors' apathy - but they refused to explain their baffling behavior.

Sprouting from this morass, a woefully unqualified New York Times editor concocted an escape scheme to counter such apathy in the future: he proposed that outdoor crime victims should yell, “Fire!” instead of “Help! Police!” Supposedly, apathetic neighbors would fear a fire spreading to their homes and call the fire department, and then fire trucks would scare away the attacker. Hmm... that's like the old Rube Goldberg cartoons of wildly elaborate contraptions to perform a simple task. But since it came from the glorified New York Times, few questioned its wisdom.


Though never tested for feasibility, this goofy notion somehow grew into “folk wisdom” still taught today by many “crime experts” - even FBI agents and cops (they, too, often just regurgitate poorly-conceived “conventional wisdom”). This supposed emergency tactic has escaped any serious scrutiny of its logic – or lack thereof – for decades. Until now.

Not surprisingly, yelling “Fire” has even been reported as being successful once in a while. 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!”). 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). Predators almost always prefer secrecy, 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? Rarely - if ever - does yelling “Fire!” make any sense whatsoever.

Finally, bluffs are always risky in any situation, but trying to bluff bystanders into saving your life is beyond foolish. Trying to manipulate them with a fictitious fire when you really want to be rescued from a crime adds dangerous confusion to a crisis. Bystanders have often reported that when they can’t see a fire anywhere, they assume the woman yelling “Fire!” is goofing around or drunkenly fighting with her “boyfriend” – and they disregard 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 simply identify your plight accurately by yelling “Help! Police!”


Do you really want to yell “FIRE!” if someone is pointing a gun at you? 


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 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 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. They aren’t heartless, they just feel less responsibility to act. Ironically, Latane and Darley say, had Kitty Genovese been attacked with just one bystander nearby, she might have been rescued.


Years later, an investigation found another possible reason for the neighbors' apathy – Kitty Genovese had a neighborhood reputation for promiscuity. In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of Genovese’s 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.”

So, while the rationale for the Yell “Fire!” advice was goofy from the start, we can also add in the psychological group diffusion and possible self-righteous moral disdain to refute the silly advice forever.


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 don’t treat you like Kitty Genovese.)


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. 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. But, alas, didn’t exist back then. Modern “noisemakers” didn’t exist yet either [though an old-fashioned whistle is quite effective – if it's attached 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. If anyone suspicious begins to come near you, stand tall, have one hand on your noisemaker, raise your other hand in a “STOP!” gesture (or aiming pepper spray), and yell, "STAY AWAY FROM ME!"

If he continues coming toward you – that's your tip-off that he's probably a predator – so you can use your pepper spray and activate your noisemaker while fleeing.

"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 an 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 visibly ready will strengthen your first option – Posturing as a tough target – and will probably keep a predator away. Your fifth option – Fighting – is strengthened 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 lone woman 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,’ said that the New York Times had exaggerated the bystander apathy in order to sell more papers. He also said that the New York Times’ editor, A.M. Rosenthal, admitted it to him shortly before his death in 2006.

On the bright side, despite any exaggerated reportage of bystander apathy, the massive publicity of Kitty Genovese’s murder did end up spawning decades of academic research that now illuminates the age-old problem of ‘bystander apathy.’ So, ultimately, Kitty Genovese’s tragedy had a ‘silver lining in the cloud’ after all – it led to insights that have helped, and will continue to help, countless other crime targets.

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 – still stands.

By Michael Edward Loftus Sr at
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