Why Not Today: Tales of the Fountain Part 2: The Bystander Fountain

Last week’s Why Not Today column: Tales of the Fountain Part 1 was on how MSU Mankato’s humble little fountain was originally installed at the 1964/1965 NYC Worlds Fair and how that Worlds Fair helped lead to an increase in anti-LGBTQ persecution on the part of the NYPD. That increased persecution would ultimately become a contributing factor in the 1969 Stonewall Riots that jump-started the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

This week, I wanted to discuss a different story, one often brought up in intro psychology courses to discuss the bystander effect: the murder of Kitty Genovese.

The story as originally told by the New York Times on March 27, 1964, is a sensationalistic cautionary tale. 38 individuals stood gaping from their apartment windows as Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in cold blood while her screams rendered the night. Not one of those 38 individuals lifted a finger to help the innocent victim or call the police as she was stabbed to death in full view of their windows.

“I didn’t want to get involved,” an anonymous man is quoted as saying in the original New York Times article.

This particular story entered popular culture, helping to give rise to what psychologists would call the bystander effect. However, the original New York Times report was so riddled with inaccuracies that the online article now includes a note stating “later reporting has called into question significant elements of this account.”

38 people did not, in fact, witness Genovese being assaulted in the street near her apartment. Only one witness was later confirmed to have been aware initially of her being stabbed and while others did hear screaming, most later claimed they thought it was a lovers quarrel they were hearing.

Another witness, later identified as Karl Ross, was a friend and neighbor to Genovese who saw her murder from his second-story apartment door after Genovese was able to make her way into their apartment foyer. Ross, who was reportedly drunk at the time, began calling friends for advice after seeing the assault on Genovese taking place practically right outside his door.  Rather than call the police from his own apartment, he went outside (using the fire escape) and traveled to the apartment of another friend, which is when the police were finally called.

Notably, it was Karl Ross who has since been identified as the one who provided the “I didn’t want to get involved,” quote to the New York Times that would come to eventually define the incident.

This is the part of the story where our beloved campus fountain enters the picture. As discussed previously, the 1964/1965 New York City World’s Fair led to an increase in police persecution of the LGBTQ community. This means that the murder of Genovese took place during what was a rise in anti-LGBTQ police activity.

The reason this is relevant is because Karl Ross, as discussed by several later accounts, was gay. While it was never confirmed by Ross, several researchers have speculated that it was a natural consequence of the NYPD’s persecution of the LGBTQ community that resulted in Ross’s extreme reticence to call the police in spite of the horrifying violence that he witnessed being perpetrated against his friend and neighbor Genovese.

It is true that LGBTQ people are more likely to be the target of violence and ironically, are less likely to report being victims directly to the police, thanks to the many decades our identities were criminalized in America.

Local LGBTQ activist Jim Chalgren spoke on several occasions of a man who was assaulted in a public park, who never reported the assault to the authorities due to fears that he would be fired from his job if he was publicly identified as gay.

Regardless, one element that at least until recently was rarely reported on, was that Genovese was a lesbian and her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko, was initially treated as a suspect by the police. While she would quickly be cleared of suspicion, Zielonko would end up being erased from the public narrative around the murder.

Zielonko would eventually get to tell her story in 2004 when she started to talk publicly to the media. She also appears in the documentary ‘The Witness’ made by Genovese’s brother William Genovese, which challenges many of the details of the initial New York Times reporting.

The erasure of Genoves’s lesbian identity falls broadly in line with the larger erasure of LGBTQ people from the historical record. We can only hope that in time, the story of Genovese comes to be better understood as the complicated tale it is and not just the urban legend of the non-existent 38 silent bystanders.

(Dominic Bothe/The Reporter)

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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