The Bystanders’ Tale, With Second Thoughts

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, rest her soul, would be 80 years old this July. Instead, she ran into a serial rapist-murderer on her way home from work on this day in 1964, and became a symbol. The influential New York Times coverage of her murder, spearheaded by then-metro editor A.M. Rosenthal, framed it indelibly as a crime of apathy as well as violence.

But the famous story of the 38 uncaring witnesses in Queens is not completely true. Yes, two in particular would qualify as villains in this piece. But of all the dozens of potential Good Samaritans, it transpired very few heard the struggles clearly enough to understand their seriousness. As it was, one neighbor shouted from his window at Genovese’s attacker, driving him temporarily away. Two others called the police. And Sophia Farrar, far from cowering behind a closed door, left her apartment to try to help Genovese, who was lying in Farrar’s arms when the ambulance came. A 2014 review of the case by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker is interesting reading, and recommended.

To me what bugs the most about the legend is its vision of city dwellers as a bunch of urban zombies jammed uncaringly together. Why, somebody could be murdered right in front of them and they wouldn’t lift a finger! The uncritical belief that every single one of Genovese’s neighbors turned over on their pillows and went back to sleep always seemed odd to me, given my mother’s account of her Greenpoint girlhood, where a night out meant risking the window thrown open, the nosy neighbor’s pointed query: “Coming in a bit late, aren’t ya?”

So in addition to noting the genuine advances that resulted — the birth of New York’s 911 system is the major example – I’d also like to remember the neighbors whose actions remained unsung for decades. They reflect the outer boroughs of today and of my parents’ day – places where people are simply people, for bad and, yes, for good too.

New: Death Notices from Lansingburgh, NY

UPDATE, 3 March 2015: Looks like my Connors great-great grandmother is in this thing! Seriously, check it out!

Ed. Note: This blog would be missing huge chunks of family stories without the work of the indefatigable Troy Irish Genealogy Society of Troy, Rensselaer County, N.Y.

The project teams of TIGS continue to break new indexing ground each year. It’s only factual, not exaggeration, to say their website is indispensable for anyone with ANY sort of ancestry in Troy and the surrounding towns of New York’s Capital District. (Check out the additional links at the Projects page mentioned below.)

And here comes yet another important compilation from TIGS. Without further ado we yield the floor to the society’s project coordinator, Bill McGrath:

Death Notices Appearing in Lansingburgh Newspapers 1787 – 1895

An index to 9,682 death notices that were published in ten different Lansingburgh, New York, newspapers from 1787 to 1895 was created by staff at the Troy Public Library in 1938 through 1939. The Troy Irish Genealogy Society was allowed by the Troy Library to scan the two books of these important records so they could be made available on-line for genealogy researchers. To see these records:

  1. Go to the TIGS website.
  2. Click on PROJECTS.

Lansingburgh, by the way, for those not in the Capital District Region, was the first chartered village in Rensselaer County and was settled around 1763. In 1900 Lansingburgh became part of the City of Troy, New York.

The ten different Lansingburgh newspapers were:

  • American Spy
  • Federal Herald
  • Lansingburgh Advertiser
  • Lansingburgh Chronicle
  • Lansingburgh Courier
  • Lansingburgh Democrat
  • Lansingburgh Gazette
  • Lansingburgh Daily Gazette
  • Lansingburgh Times
  • Northern Centinel

Under “RESOURCES” on the TIGS website,  you will also find an informative article, “Newspapering in Rensselaer County”, which identifies which of the above newspapers are available, on microfilm or hard copy, at the Troy Library. These historical records are extremely important to genealogy researchers as the bulk of the records predate New York’s 1880 law that required reporting of deaths. Outside of church death and burial records and newspaper accounts, you will not find these records anywhere else.

In addition to the name of the deceased, other entries show the age, date of death, names of newspapers that reported the death along with the newspaper date, page and column number where you will find the death notice in the appropriate newspaper.

It is important to note that the residence for the deceased is not just Lansingburgh, but may cover all areas of New York State, other States and even foreign countries.

Hopefully you will find some of your ancestors in this new data base or in the various other data series of almost 300,000 Irish AND Non-Irish names on the Troy Irish Genealogy website.

Bill McGrath, TIGS Project Coordinator

Clifton Park, NY

Chart Fun: Migration Patterns

Via The New York Times, here’s nifty interactive data to play with: a look at migration patterns within the United States since 1900.

State by state, this graphic offers a snapshot of where its inhabitants have moved (or how many of them have stayed put) by percentages over the years. You can either scroll down to read through the states alphabetically, or select a state at the top of the page to jump wherever you want.

Deftly done — and for USians, it’s interesting to check against what we know about our own ancestors’ wanderings. (And thanks to Mr. Archaeologist for the tip!)

Amanuensis Monday: The Subway Song

You might remember my great-uncle George Rudroff (1870-1940). George was a man of distinction — a  professional beer brewer; a Ripley’s Believe It or Not!  topic; an aspiring playwright.

He was also a composer of songs about subways. Having read this and even recited it (to myself, softly, when nobody else is home), I can definitely say that it is … heartfelt. I leave further artistic judgments up to you, dear readers.

Long Island Daily Press, Jamaica, N.Y., April 1940:

 “Ex-Beer Champion Pens ‘Van Wyck Subway Song’ ”   

A father in Yorkville said on Sunday morn,

“Come Mother and children, get ready for the shore,

“I’ll show you something new that never you did see

“The Eighth Avenue Subway to Rockaway.”


The father smiles, the mother laughs, the children too,

And little Freddy swings his flag, red, white and blue.

But father starts to sighing, the big express was flying

And stopped on Van Wyck Avenue.


Three times in, four times out, we don’t care,

The whole trip to Rockaway is only five cents fare.

And little Freddy with his flag, was first to leave the train,

He cried: “That trip to Rockaway was nothing but a dream.”


And the mother, Fred, and Annie said, “Papa will you say,

“Papa will you say which is the shortest way.”

And the mother, Fred, and Annie said: “Papa will you say,

“There is no Eighth avenue subway down to Rockaway.”


And father said: “I know, myself, there is no such train,

“We’ll have to wait till Jimmy Walker is mayor once again,

“He and President Joe Coyle, they tried, and very hard,

“But when Mayor LaGuardia came, the subway was forgot.”


And little Freddy raised his flag, with colors red white and blue

He looks his father in the eye, “God help your wish come true,

“The best intention of two good men, should never be so spoiled,

“Three cheers for Jimmy Walker and hurrah for Joe Coyle.”


The article: The upcoming debut of George’s song rated two columns at the top of the local news page. Here is the accompanying story:

The Van Wyck Subway Song, with words and music by George Rudroff, former beer tester for a brewery, will have its premiere at a meeting of the Dunton Civic League Thursday night in Masonic Hall. The song was dedicated by the 70-year-old composer to the league and its president, Joseph A. Coyle, fiery veteran of half a hundred South Side civic battles.

Rudroff, who lives in Richmond Hill, became famous in his salad days for his beer-drinking capacity, and recently was the subject of a Believe-It-Or-Not cartoon.

Every day for eight years, Rudroff drank 90 glasses of beer a day. That was before prohibition. It was just about this time, too, that Rudroff composed a war song, “The Pride of Uncle Sam.”

His latest effort is inspired by the civic league’s campaign to win an extension of the 8th Avenue subway from Queens boulevard southward under Van Wyck boulevard to the Rockaways.

Rudroff also courts the Muse on behalf of ex-Mayor Jimmy Walker, who, he believes, could get the new subway built with a minimum of delay if he were back in City Hall.

The subway issue: Uncle George and the Dunton Civic Association were referring to a proposed expansion of the IND Queens Boulevard Line under Van Wyck Boulevard. I’m working my way through accounts of the subway system’s development in this area and era, and it is complicated.  

George appears to have been waxing eloquent about an expansion that was under discussion (and a big political football) in one form or another between 1929 and 1940. There is a lot of information here, at the site. But please feel free to chime in with any additional insights!

George, who died in November 1940, did not live to see many changes to come on the IND line, including an expansion to Rockaway in the 1950s. The song, however, endures.

The clipping: Digital image,  Old New York Newspapers ( : accessed 17 June 2013).  The scan did not include the page number or edition date. Judging from references in other articles on the page, it seems likely this article ran in early April 1940. A calendar of events in the Brooklyn Eagle for 11 April 1940 (page 24, col. 3) mentions a meeting of the Dunton Civic League as taking place that night, and 11 April was on a Thursday.

NewsClips: Oh, Come ON.

This NewsClip has nothing to do with my ancestors; it just happened to be at the top of a page that did. But the headline was an eyecatcher:


[Aside: Don’t you love that old-school use of a verb with an implied subject? I used to be a copyeditor. I notice this stuff.]

Anyway: I laughed out loud. Fortunately I had already swallowed my mouthful of coffee.

“What is it?”asked Mr. Archaeologist from behind his smartphone. I read him the headline.

“Oh, they mean the mice chewed through a wire and caused an electrical fire. Happens all the time.” Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary. He makes it his business to know how disasters happen, whether caused by mice or men.

But he was wrong this time!

Fire which gutted the kitchen of John W. Clancy, Twelfth avenue and 150th street, Whitestone, while Mrs. Clancy and her three children were asleep upstairs, was caused by mice igniting matches.

You don’t believe me? Check this out. (And no, it was not even April Fools’ Day.)

Whitestone mice. They’re tough.

Queens Daily Star, Thursday, 11 October 1928, Page 7, Col. 5.

Queens Daily Star, Thursday, 11 October 1928, Page 7, Col. 5.

Wordless Wednesday: Believe it? Not? Really?

"Ripley's Believe it Or Not", October 15, 1935. Scan from Miami Daily News, Google Newspaper Archive.

“Ripley’s Believe it Or Not”, October 15, 1935.
Scan from Miami Daily News, Google Newspaper Archive.

Meet my great-uncle George. The guy with the beer, not the guy with the basketball. Naturally.

This panel ran during the height of the Ripley’s craze of the Depression years, when readers from all over the country vied to catch Mr. Robert Ripley’s attention with stories of amazing or just plain odd behavior. Ripley’s items ran in two parts. The first day was the cartoon, which as you can see was calculated to make the reader say: “Whoa! Wait, what? How can that BE????” The following day, they’d run additional details about the cartoon, which in this case read:


DRANK 90 GLASSES OF BEER A DAY – On display in an honored position at Mutt and Jeff’s Beer Garden in Richmond Hill is the mug from which George Rudroff (Mut [sic] at the firm) drank 90 glasses of beer each day for eight solid years. Before prohibition, Mr. Rudroff tested beer in New York breweries and every day for the entire eight years he was so employed, he consumed 30 pitchers of beer, equaling 90 glasses – a total of 225,640 glasses, or 1,560 half barrels of beer – all from the same mug.

I just found this. I am still trying to get my head around it discover more about it, but for the moment I can tell you that there aren’t a whole lot of Rudroffs in Richmond Hill between 1915 and 1940, other than George (1870-1940), his wife and kids.

George’s niece Therese Rudroff Haigney (1927-2003) was my mother. Her uncle was “a character”, which in Mom’s vocabulary could be a good thing or a bad thing, but was certainly a somewhat flamboyant thing. For example, George was said to have shopped a song to Kate Smith. (She did not buy it.) I have found evidence that he wrote and copyrighted a comic play, as well.

Reviewing my notes of talks with Mom, I see she did say he was a tavern keeper. And censuses (mostly) bear this out: In 1900 and 1910 George was listed as a brewery helper and a brewer, respectively.

By the time of the New York census of 1915 he was at 61 Zeidler Avenue (present-day 55th Street) in Maspeth, Queens, where his occupation was listed as saloon keeper. The censuses of 1920, 1930 and 1940 all list him in Richmond Hill. In the first two of the Richmond Hill censuses, George was a motorman and a drug-company salesman. Well, I guess he couldn’t exactly be a tavern keeper during Prohibition.

His death certificate of 1 November 1940 said he was retired from the restaurant business. And there really was a Mutt and Jeff’s Bar and Grill on Atlantic Avenue in Richmond Hill, according to the Queens telephone directory for 1940. (Thanks, NYPL!)

So at least at some point, George had an occupation that required beer tasting. But did he really drink 1,560 half barrels? It was typical of Ripley’s contributors to, ah, color the facts a bit, according to this NPR story. Given what I’ve heard and discovered about him so far, I think my great-uncle George was perfectly capable of spinning a good story to land himself in Ripley’s.

I can just see my mother rolling her eyes.

An Unimportant Story

Long before I landed a job at the newspaper that was his home base, I just loved Roger Ebert. Toiling away on a series of night news desks, I sneaked peeks at his film reviews on the entertainment wire when I was supposed to be writing headlines for zoning-board stories. I delighted in his genial snark-and-snipe routine as half of the Siskel and Ebert TV team.

He was the best. So I devoutly hoped I’d never get to work with him when I arrived at the Sun-Times as a lowly copy editor.

By that point in my professional life, I knew that beloved, award-winning newsroom personalities weren’t always so lovable to be around. “If you can read this, you’ve come too close,” Dorothy Parker supposedly suggested for her tombstone. I thought of this quote often as I moved from newspaper to newspaper, heard the stories, and landed on the receiving end once or twice.

The hissy fits over unavoidable deadline or space constraints. The marquee-value columnists who used their high-profile pulpits to poke fun at lesser colleagues. (And, ugh: “How’d you like to sleep with a Pulitzer winner, honey?”  a colleague was asked a few weeks into her first job. She declined, probably more politely than was deserved.)

At the Sun-Times I worked on a variety of feature-section stories. Then I became an assistant editor on the Friday entertainment section, which ran movie reviews. But I was still safe from illusion-busting in the Ebert department, because his reviews were very much my boss’ territory. Ebert worked off-site and was actually in the office only occasionally. By that time he was as much of a media brand presence as he was a critic, and he was still, of course, a fine critic. His reviews came in by remote and were edited by my boss over the telephone, in conversations to which I listened with half an ear. They seemed cordial; fun, even. Still: better my boss than me. Ebert was a newsroom legend at the Sun-Times and his niceness was equally legendary, but I distrusted the stories. It was easy to wax eloquent about niceness if you only saw the guy every few weeks, I reasoned.

But a day came when my boss could not be there to handle the Friday-section movie reviews – he had the plague? Something dire, I’m sure.

“Just give him the lengths,” said the boss over the phone, from his bed of pain, or whatever it was. “Relax. It’ll be fine.”

It would not be fine, I knew as I looked over the space allotted for that week. There was not a lot of wiggle room. Of course Roger Ebert’s reviews were top priority, but a lot of movies were opening that particular Friday, and we were skimpy on jump space – the pages where you put the “Continued from …” parts of the reviews. The Friday section was never really the place where the movie reviews could run on and on, and this week was tight.

It was time to call Mr. Ebert and tell him this. Surely he would not be happy. Stars never liked being told their space was short. I was about to learn the real deal about the guy who had made me and my mom laugh hysterically over “At the Movies.”

I telephoned. I explained who I was and called him Mr. Ebert, and he told me it wasn’t necessary to call him Mr. Ebert. I recall ignoring this. Nervously I hemmed and hawed over the skimpy space, trying to be frank, yet inoffensive.

He cut efficiently into my waffling. “Liz. Listen.”

Here it comes.

“Just tell me the lengths,” Mr. Ebert said, very kindly, very patiently. “I will write to the lengths.”

“But …”

“Just tell me. I’ll write to it.”

The reviews came in, comfortably ahead of deadline, fitting the space to the syllable, and as fun to read as ever.

“But he’s always like that,” said a co-worker, witnessing my slack-jawed reaction. “I thought you knew that.”

I had heard so, many times. But I hadn’t really known.

That’s my only Ebert story, and it is not a particularly remarkable one. But I have come to believe that the truth of a person’s spirit is evidenced by how they treat those who are not in a position to do them any particular favors. By that measure, Mr. Ebert’s spirit was right up there. I will miss reading his reviews very, very much. And I am sad the world no longer has him in it.