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Howard Barton UNRUH





Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Revenge
Number of victims: 13
Date of murders: September 6, 1949
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: January 21, 1921
Victims profile: 6 men, 4 women and 3 children
Method of murder: Shooting (Luger P08 pistol)
Location: Camden, New Jersey, USA
Status: Pronounced insane, he was sentenced for the remainder of his life to the Vroom building, the unit for the criminally insane. Died October 19, 2009
photo gallery

Howard Unruh (born January 21, 1921, Camden, N.J) is regarded as one of the first of the 'lone gunmen' to go on an indiscriminate shooting spree. On September 6, 1949, twenty-eight year old Unruh left his house for a twelve minute trip around his Camden, New Jersey neighborhood, shooting people at random and killing 13.

Always a reserved man, he had turned into a recluse in the three months before his spree. The World War II veteran was unemployed and lived with his mother. During the war, he was reportedly a brave tank soldier who kept meticulous notes of every German killed, down to details of the corpse. He was honorably discharged in 1945, and returned home with a collection of medals and firearms. He decorated his bedroom with military items, and set up a target range in his basement. His mother supported him by working at a factory while Howard hung around the house and attended daily church services.

He had trouble getting along with his neighbors, and his interactions with them deteriorated in the three months before his spree. He was considered a "mama's boy" and the subject of teasing. Eventually Unruh became paranoid about his neighbours and started to keep a diary detailing every single thing that he thought was said about him.

Next to each of those complained about was the word "retal.", short for retaliate. He arrived home from a movie theater at 3am on September 6 to discover that the gate he had just built in front of his house had been stolen. This appears to have been the final trigger. After sleeping until 8am he got up, dressed in his best suit and ate breakfast with his mother.

At 9:20am he left the house armed with a German Luger looking for his first victims. In only twelve minutes he would shoot at a total of 26 people, killing 13 and wounding several others. When he heard the sirens of the approaching police, he returned to his apartment and engaged in a standoff with police. He was eventually convinced to surrender, and was taken in for interrogation. Only at the end of the interrogation did they discover he had been wounded as well.

Charges were filed for 13 counts of "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery." He was eventually pronounced insane, making him immune to criminal prosecution, and he was incarcerated in a unit for the criminally insane. As of 2005 he is in his eighties and still resides in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Unruh's rampage was the most visible of a number of murders and suicides by WWII veterans, and may have spurred the federal government to put additional resources into mental health treatment for this group.


Howard Barton Unruh (January 21, 1921 – October 19, 2009) was an American spree killer who killed 13 people on September 6, 1949, in Camden, New Jersey, when he was 28 years old. Unruh is considered the first single-episode mass murderer in U.S. history. He died in 2009 after a lengthy illness at the age of 88.


Unruh was the son of Samuel Shipley Unruh and Freda E. Unruh. He had a younger brother, James; he and Unruh were raised by their mother after the parents separated. He grew up in East Camden, attending Cramer Junior High School, and graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in January 1939. The Woodrow Wilson High School yearbook from 1939 indicated that he was shy and that his ambition was to become a government employee.

Always a reserved man, he had turned into a recluse in the three months before his spree. The World War II veteran was unemployed and lived with his mother. During the war, he was reportedly a brave tank soldier, serving in the Battle of the Bulge, who kept meticulous notes of every German killed, down to details of the corpse.

He was honorably discharged in 1945, and returned home with a collection of medals and firearms. He decorated his bedroom with military items, and set up a target range in his basement. His mother supported him by working at a factory while Howard hung around the house and attended daily church services. He briefly attended a pharmacy course at Temple University in Philadelphia but dropped out after only three months.

He had trouble getting along with his neighbors, and his interactions with them deteriorated in the three months before his spree. He was considered a "mama's boy" and the subject of teasing. Unruh was harassed by neighborhood teens, who thought he was gay and used to make fun of him. He was reported to have been depressed about having had "homosexual liaisons" in a Philadelphia movie theater. He had only one brief relationship with a girl prior to his arrest.


Eventually Unruh became paranoid about his neighbors and started to keep a diary detailing everything he thought was said about him. Next to some of the names was the word "retal.", short for "retaliate." He arrived home from a movie theater at 3 am on September 6 to discover that the gate he had just built in front of his house had been stolen. This appears to have been the trigger; Unruh told the police, "When I came home last night and found my gate had been stolen, I decided to kill them all." After sleeping until 8 am he got up, dressed in his best suit and ate breakfast with his mother. At some point, he threatened his mother with a wrench, and she left for a friend's home.

At 9:20 am, Unruh left the house armed with a German Luger pistol looking for his first victims. In only twelve minutes he shot and killed 13 people with 14 shots and wounded several others.

Although in general the killing was premeditated, the victims seemed to be chosen at random. Unruh's first shot missed its intended victim, a bakery truck driver. Unruh shot two of five people in a barber shop, sparing the other three. One victim was killed when he happened to block the door to a pharmacy. A motorist was killed when his car slowed to view the body of a victim. Intending to kill a local tailor, Unruh entered his shop, but the tailor was not there; Unruh killed the man's wife.

Other intended victims successfully locked themselves inside their businesses (a tavern and a restaurant), and Unruh was unable to reach them.

When he heard the sirens of the approaching police, Unruh returned to his apartment and engaged in a standoff. Over 60 police surrounded Unruh's home, and a shootout ensued.

During the siege, Philip W. Buxton, a reporter from the Camden Evening Courier, phoned Unruh's home and spoke briefly with him. On a hunch, Buxton had looked up Unruh's number in the phone book. Buxton later recounted the conversation, which was cut short when police hurled tear gas into the apartment:

"What are they doing to you?"

"They haven't done anything to me yet, but I'm doing plenty to them."

"How many have you killed?"

"I don't know yet. I haven't counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score."

"Why are you killing people?"

"I don't know. I can't answer that yet. I'm too busy. I'll have to talk to you later. A couple of friends are coming to get me."

Arrest and incarceration

Unruh surrendered several minutes later. While Unruh was being arrested, a policeman reportedly asked, “What’s the matter with you. You a psycho?" In response, he said, "I'm no psycho. I have a good mind."

Unruh was later taken in for interrogation at the police headquarters, where policemen and Mitchell Cohen, Camden County prosecutor, questioned him for more than two hours.

He told police that he had spent the previous evening sitting through three showings of a double feature, The Lady Gambles and I Cheated the Law, and had thought that actress Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors. He provided a meticulous account of his actions during the killings. Only at the end of the interrogation did they discover he had a gunshot wound in the left thigh, which he kept secret. He was subsequently taken to Cooper Hospital for treatment.

Charges were filed for 13 counts of "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery". He was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by psychologists, and found to be hopelessly insane, making him immune to criminal prosecution.

When he was able to leave Cooper Hospital, Unruh was sent to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), to be installed into a bed in a private cell in the maximum-security Vroom Building. Unruh's last public words, made during an interview with a psychologist, were, "I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough."


During his spree, Unruh killed 13 victims and injured three. Those killed are listed below:

  • John Joseph Pilarchik, age 27;

  • Orris Martin Smith, 6;

  • Clark Hoover, 33;

  • James Hutton, 45;

  • Rose Cohen, 38;

  • Minnie Cohen, 63;

  • Maurice J. Cohen, 39;

  • Alvin Day, 24;

  • Thomas Hamilton, 2;

  • Helga Kautzach Zegrino, 28;

  • Helen Wilson, 37;

  • Emma Matlack, 68; and

  • John Wilson, 9.


Howard Unruh, 88, Dies; Killed 13 of His Neighbors in Camden in 1949

By Richard Goldstein - The New York Times

October 19, 2009

Howard Unruh, who carried out one of America’s most infamous mass shootings, killing 13 people, three of them children, in a 20-minute, seemingly emotionless stroll through his neighborhood in Camden, N.J., in September 1949, died Monday at a nursing home in Trenton after 60 years’ confinement. He was 88.

His death was announced by Warren W. Faulk, the Camden County prosecutor. Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said Mr. Unruh had been in state custody since his arrest.

Mr. Unruh was found to have paranoid schizophrenia and never stood trial. He was confined to the high-security Vroom Building for the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital until 1993, when he was transferred across the grounds to less restrictive wards in a geriatric unit.

When Mr. Unruh gunned down his neighbors, the shootings were particularly shocking because no one could remember anything like that. And few of his neighbors, in the working-class Cramer Hill section of East Camden, had paid him much notice. An Army veteran who had seen extensive combat in Europe with the artillery in World War II, he lived in a three-room apartment in the 3200 block of River Road with his mother, Freda.

He had often accompanied her to St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and was known to read his Bible frequently. A graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, he entered Temple University’s pharmacy school in the fall of 1948 but soon dropped out. At age 28, he was unemployed and supported by his mother, who was estranged from her husband and worked as a packer for a soap company in Camden.

On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1949, Mrs. Unruh fixed her son a breakfast of fried eggs and cereal. Moments later, she was astonished to see him threatening her with a wrench. She ran from the apartment to a friend’s home.

At 9:20 a.m., Mr. Unruh, a slender 6-footer, wearing a brown tropical suit, white shirt and bow tie, stepped into the sun-splashed street and walked to a shoemaker’s shop on his block. He pulled out a 9 millimeter German Luger pistol he had purchased at a Philadelphia gun shop in January 1947 and pointed it at the owner, John Pilarchik, 27.

“I had leveled the gun at him, neither of us said nothing, and I pulled the trigger,” Mr. Unruh told a psychiatrist a month later. “He had a funny look on his face, staggered back and fell to the floor. I realized then he was still alive, so I fired into his head.”

Next, he went to a tailor shop looking for the owner, Thomas Zegrino, but instead shot the man’s wife, Helga, 28, who was there alone.

Then he entered a barber shop and shot Orris Smith, 6, who was astride a white hobby horse, getting his hair cut as his mother, Catherine, sat beside him.

The barber, Clark Hoover, 33, was the next victim. In his confession, Mr. Unruh told how the man had “dodged around the barber chair, making it difficult for me to get a clear shot, but I finally hit him, walked over and then shot into his head.”

Then Mr. Unruh approached a tavern, but the owner, Frank Engel, having heard the shots, locked the door and fled with his patrons to the rear as Mr. Unruh shot into the bar.

Next, Mr. Unruh fired into an apartment window and shot Thomas Hamilton, a 2-year-old, in the head. After shooting into a restaurant, he fired through the window of a passing automobile and hit Alvin Day, 24, a television repairman.

Mr. Engel, who owned a pistol, shot Mr. Unruh in the hip from an upper-floor window of the tavern building, but Mr. Unruh seemed not to notice the wound.

Having reloaded his pistol, he went to a drugstore owned by Maurice Cohen, 40, whose family had argued with Mr. Unruh over his using the Cohens’s gate to take a shortcut from his home to the street. As Mr. Unruh entered, Jason Hutton, 45, an insurance agent, was emerging. Mr. Unruh shot him in the head.

Mr. Cohen fled to the roof of his apartment above the drugstore as his wife, Rose, 38, hid in a closet and pushed their son Charles, 12, into another closet. Mr. Unruh shot Mr. Cohen in the back, sending him plunging to the street. He also shot Ms. Cohen, firing through the closet door, and Minnie Cohen, 63, the druggist’s mother, as she was trying to call the police from a bedroom. Charles Cohen was unharmed.

Over the next few minutes, Mr. Unruh shot Helen Matlack Wilson, 37; her son, John, 9; and her mother, Emma Matlack, 68, who were in a car stopped at a red light. He also wounded Charles Peterson, 18, who had approached Mr. Hutton’s body outside the drug store, unaware that the gunman was still on the scene.

On his final stop, Mr. Unruh broke into a home and wounded Madeline Harrie, 36, and her son Armand, 16.

“Children screamed as they tumbled over one another to get out of his way,” Meyer Berger wrote in The New York Times in a 4,000-word account, based on more than 50 interviews, that won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting under deadline pressure. (He gave the $1,000 prize money to Mr. Unruh’s mother.)

“Men and women dodged into open shops, the women shrill with panic, men hoarse with fear,” Mr. Berger wrote. “No one could quite understand for a time what had been loosed in the block.”

Mr. Unruh fled to his apartment. Some 50 police officers converged there and blazed away with machine guns, shotguns and pistols.

During an interlude, the assistant city editor of The Camden Courier-Post, Philip Buxton, phoned the house. Mr. Unruh answered his call.

Mr. Buxton asked Mr. Unruh how many people he had killed.

“I don’t know, I haven’t counted,” he said. “Looks like a pretty good score.”

“Why are you killing people?” Mr. Buxton asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Unruh replied.

After the police fired tear gas, Mr. Unruh came outside, his hands held high, his bow tie still in place.

A search of his room turned up 700 cartridges, a book called “The Shooter’s Bible” (he had used the building’s basement for target practice) and a New Testament Bible.

In his confession, Mr. Unruh said that the night before the killings, he made a list of people to be targeted: the shoemaker, the tailor, the barber, the druggist. He had nevertheless shot down strangers as well.

A psychiatric report found that Mr. Unruh had felt his neighbors were persecuting and belittling him, “that they were thinking of him as a homosexual.”

The report described him as “a master of suppressed rage” who harbored a “smoldering anger.”

Mr. Unruh’s brother, James, said later that “since he came home from the service, he didn’t seem to be the same.”

“He was nervous,” James Unruh said.

His father, Samuel, said Mr. Unruh had “built a shell around himself we could never penetrate.”

Moments after Mr. Unruh surrendered, a policeman said to him: “What’s the matter with you? You a psycho?”

“I’m no psycho,” Howard Unruh replied. “I have a good mind.”

Mr. Unruh’s years in confinement were largely without incident. In 1995, James H. Klein, the public defender who had represented him for two decades, said Mr. Unruh spent most of his time sleeping and watching television. For a while, Mr. Klein said, Mr. Unruh had collected stamps.


Berserk American Kills 12 People

The Auckland Star

Thursday 8th September 1949

NEW YORK, Tuesday. – A 26-year-old ex-serviceman went berserk in Camden, New Jersey, today and killed 12 persons and wounded four others. The ex-serviceman, Howard Unruh, killed five men, five women and two boys, and wounded a man, woman and two boys in a few minutes in the quiet residential section of Camden.

Unruh killed the people in houses, shops and in the street until police fire forced him to take cover in a house.

Barricading himself in a second-story room he exchanged shots with police until tear gas bombs forced him to surrender.

The police, reconstructing the shooting, said Unruh, armed with a .45 automatic Luger pistol, first entered a chemist’s shop, where he killed the proprietor, Maurice Cohen, as he attempted to escape.

Unruh then ran upstairs and killed Cohen’s wife and her mother with two shots.

Running into the street he killed a man with one shot. Then he walked over to a motor car, poked his pistol in the window and fired one shot, which killed a man at the wheel.

Next Unruh walked across the street to a barber’s shop, fired two shots and killed the proprietor.

Then he ran into a house and shot and wounded a mother and her son. Running back into the street Unruh fired at all persons in range, killing six and wounding one with 10 shots.

Police cars raced up the street, firing at Unruh, who ran into a house and barricaded himself on the second floor. The police riddled the room with bullets and then threw 25 tear gas bombs through the window.

Unruh returned the police fire for a few minutes and then staggered from the room calling: "I give up. Don’t shoot."

Stumbling down stairs, he fell into the arms of the police.

Unruh saw three years’ service with the American Army in Europe. He was described by neighbours as "very religious, even to the point of being a fanatic." He always carried a Bible.

The police had to resist an angry mob of about 1000 who wanted to lynch Unruh.


"I Have A Good Mind," Says Killer Of Twelve

The Auckland Star

Monday 12th September 1949

NEW YORK, Saturday. – Leading psychiatrists are co-operating with the police in an effort to find what caused handsome 26-year-old Howard Unruh to mow down neighbours in Camden, New Jersey. This soft-spoken ex-serviceman killed 12 people and wounded three in a shooting affray without parallel for sheer horror and meaninglessness.

Unruh, who is of German extraction and whose name means "unrest," showed no signs of abnormality under questioning.

On the contrary, he insisted, "I am no psycho. I have a good mind."

He clearly remembered every detail of his actions in the fateful 10 minutes of the affray and showed no trace of regret, except for the children he had shot.

"Strange Eyes"

His mother, however, who was visiting a neighbour while he was running amok, commented on how strange his eyes looked and how worried she was about him. A few minutes later the first shots echoed in the street.

Police found his well-worn Bible open at Matthew Chapter 24, predicting the destruction of the temple. Near it was a book entitled "Shooters’ Bible," and a pamphlet called "The Ten Commandments for safety in shooting."

Unruh, who was unemployed, apparently had not made any effort for months to get a job. He divided his time between Bible reading and target practice in the basement of his mother’s small house, in which he lived.


One man's massacre

On the morning of Tuesday 6 September 1949, in a modest, stuccoed house, jammed between a cobbler’s shop and a pharmacy in East Camden, New Jersey, 50-year-old Freda Unruh worked her way through a pile of ironing.

It was too early yet for there to be any warmth in the sun and Freda, a frail women, wore a thick jumper over her housecoat to stave off the morning chill. At eight o’clock, she abandoned the ironing to give her son, 28-year-old Howard, the morning call he had asked for in a note he’d left on the kitchen table the night before. She then set about making him breakfast. Howard, meanwhile, washed, shaved and dressed. Today was a big day for him and he chose his best dark suit, a white shirt and bow tie, which gave him an air of somber formality befitting the gravity of the occasion.

During the next hour, he ate a hearty breakfast, spent some time downstairs in the cellar, and finally returned to the living room where he switched on the radio. At quarter past nine, Freda entered the room. Her boy suddenly wheeled around, a heavy wrench in his raised hand. Freda drew away, pleading, "Howard, you can’t do this to me."

Then, as he stared at her expressionlessly, she turned and raced to the house of a neighbour, Mrs. Caroline Pinner. A few minutes later, gunshots echoed and re-echoed around the small Delaware River community and Freda cried, "Howard, oh, Howard, they’re to blame for this," before fainting in the Pinners’ front room.

Accounts differ as to the precise sequence of events during Unruh’s thirteen-minute rampage through the neighbourhood, but we know how his victims died – "I shot them in the chest first and then I aimed for the head" – and that a 27-year-old cobbler John Pilarchik was the first. Pilarchik was busy in his shop, at 3206 River Avenue. Shortly before 9:20 A.M. he glanced up as a shadow slid towards him across the shop floor, in advance of the tall, lean figure of his neighbour, Howard Unruh.

Pilarchik was a veteran of the Second World War, but had a long ago discarded any soldierly vigilance he might once have possessed. He simply stared in dumb bewilderment as Unruh, with the morning sunlight filtering past his silhouetted figure, raised his right arm to a horizontal position. The muzzle flash that preceded the roar of a 9-mm Luger pistol discharging in his face was John Pilarchik’s last mortal vision. Unruh about-turned and walked calmly back out into the street.

Other local shopkeepers met the same fate as the cobbler. Clark Hoover’s barbershop was two doors away. There was a white-painted carousel horse in the center of the shop, which Hoover used while cutting children’s hair, and a blond boy, 6-year-old Orris Smith, was seated on it, submitting to a shearing, when Unruh entered. "I’ve got something for you, Clarkie," Unruh said to the barber.

Orris Smith’s mother watched incredulously as the well-dressed young man coolly shot both Clark Hoover and little "Brux" (her pet name for her son) and then walked out of the shop as nonchalantly as he had entered. Orris toppled slowly from the carousel horse, landing on the floor with a thud. Mrs. Smith, still scarcely able to believe her eyes, rushed to his side, gathered him up in her arms and staggered out into the soft September sun. "My boy is dead. I know he’s dead," she cried, staring about her, dazed and confused.

Next, Unruh visited the tailor’s shop, at 3214 River Avenue. The tailor, Thomas Zegrino, was out at the time, but his wife of a month, Helga, was working at the back of the shop. "She looked at me and started to say ‘Oh no, no’ and I shot her more than once," Unruh later recalled.

Three members of the Cohen family were killed in the pharmacy farther down the road. Maurice Cohen was climbing out of an upstairs window when he was shot in the back. He keeled over, bounced off the roof and plummeted headlong into the street. Maurice’s wife, Rose, and his elderly mother, Minnie, were also shot. Unruh fired three times into a cupboard where Rose was hiding, then opened the door and shot her in the head. In another room, Minnie was telephoning the police. Unruh walked in, pushed the pistol in her face and pulled the trigger. Then he went back downstairs. Hidden in another closet, 12-year-old Charles Cohen was the only member of the household to survive.

James Hutton, an insurance agent, lived in nearby Westmont, but was a familiar figure in the River Avenue neighbourhood, Like the shopkeepers, he had known Howard for many years; in fact, he was the Unruh family’s own agent. Hutton was in the doorway of the pharmacy when the killer sidled up to him, "Excuse me, sir," Unruh said, then shot him dead. He would later tell detectives, "That man didn’t act fast enough. He didn’t get out of my way."

Unruh also knew, at least by sight, his youngest victim, 2-year-old Thomas Hamilton. Tommy lived at 3208 River Avenue and was peeping out of a window when a bullet hit him between the eyes.

Not all Unruh’s victims, though, were known to him. Alvin Day, a visiting TV repairman, had driven into River Avenue unaware that it had become the arena for one man’s private war. Like John Pilarchik, Day was a Second World War veteran. One of his favourite remarks was that the Germans had never been able to find a bullet with his name on it. Unfortunately for Day, a fellow American citizen, Howard Unruh, had.

Helen Wilson, her 9-year-old son, John, and her mother, Emma Matlack, were also strangers to Unruh. They were in their car, waiting at traffic lights at the junction of River Avenue and Thirty-second Street, when Unruh spotted them. He walked up to the car and fired through the window. Mrs. Wilson, the driver, and Mrs. Matlack, the front seat passenger, were killed outright. Little Johnny clung to life for eighteen hours in hospital before succumbing to the bullet lodged at the base of his brain.

The occupants of another vehicle, two women and their daughters were more fortunate. They heard shooting but thought it was a car backfiring and they continued steadily on their way down the street. For some reason, Unruh completely ignored them. A bakery van driver had a narrow escape, ducking as a bullet whizzed by his ear, and a teenager, who was crossing the road a block away, was hit twice in the leg, but survived.

At some point during the rampage, Unruh himself was wounded. Frank Engel, who ran a tavern across the road from Unruh’s house, had bolted his front door at the start of the shooting and ushered his customers to the back of the room. Unruh had shot up Engel’s door but had not managed to get in, and had moved on down the street to Dominick Latela’s restaurant where he fired more shots, kicked in a glass pane, but also failed to gain entry. Frank Engel, meanwhile, rushed upstairs to his apartment.

He opened a window and took aim at Unruh with a .38-calibre pistol. He fired and hit, but Unruh simply walked on without even acknowledging he had been shot. Engel did not fire again. "I wish I had," he would later tell reporters. "I could have killed him then. I could have put a half-dozen shots into him. I don’t know why I didn’t do it."

After ten minutes of shooting, River Avenue was all but deserted. Shopkeepers – those not already lying dead – had locked and barred their doors; screaming parents had shepherded their children to safety. The emergency services were being flooded with telephone calls from frantic residents.

Unruh tried the door of the American Stores Company, a grocery opposite Cohen’s pharmacy, but it was locked. Earl Horner, the clerk, was crouched nervously behind the counter with his customers. Unruh fired several shots into the shop, but failed to hit anyone. He turned away, and headed off down Thirty-second Street where he entered a house that6 backed onto his mother’s.

In the kitchen, he found Madeline Harrie and her 16-year-old son, Armand. Unruh fired twice at Mrs. Harrie but missed both times. She began to shout and he fired again, wounding her in the shoulder. Armand tried to shield his mother and got a bullet in each arm for his pains. Unruh then struck him over the head with the butt of the Luger, knocking him to the floor.

Several neighbours saw Unruh leave the Harrie’s place and pause to spit on the doorstep. It had just turned half past nine. The sound of police sirens could now be heard and the killer, his gun empty, headed back to his mother’s house. He was inside by the time police cars and motorcycles screeched into the neighbourhood. Only thirteen minutes had passed since he fired he first shot: thirteen people now lay dead or dying; three more lay wounded. Young Charlie Cohen had come out onto the pharmacy porch and was screaming hysterically, "He’s going to kill me. He’s killing everybody."

As police officers surrounded 3202 River Avenue, they were fired upon from an upper-storey window. They returned the fire, pouring round after round into Unruh’s room, shattering the windows and riddling the walls. Unruh, by some miracle, was not killed in the dense mesh of lead, and a gun battle raged for some time. Meanwhile, a local newsman, Philip Buxton, of the Courier-Post, keen to check out what seemed like wild reports coming into his office, got hold of a telephone number: The phone was finally answered and Buxton spoke with a man.

"Is this Howard?"

"Yes, this is Howard. What’s the last name of the party you want?"


"Who are you and what do you want?"

"I’m a friend and I want to know what they’re doing to you."

"Well, they haven’t done anything to me yet, but I’m doing plenty to them."

"How many have you killed?"

"I don’t know yet – I haven’t counted ‘em, but it looks like a pretty good score."

"Why are you killing people?"

"I don’t know. I can’t answer that yet – I’m too busy."

Unruh was indeed busy. Tear gas canisters had just been hurled into his room and he staggered to the window, eyes streaming and gasping for air. "Okey," he choked. "I give up. I’m coming down."

A minute later, with fifty police guns trained on him, he stepped out into the yard with his arms raised, Cops swarmed across the flowerbeds of morning-glory. "What’s the matter with you?" one of them demanded. "You a psycho?" Unruh gave the officer a level stare. "I’m no psycho," he said. "I have a good mind."


Howard's life

Howard Barton Unruh was born on 21 January 1921, the first son of Samuel Unruh, a dredge boat worker, and his wife, Freda. He was raised in the Delaware River neighbourhood of small businessmen, shopkeepers, traders and their families, which he would later decimate. His early childhood was unremarkable, except he was a little slow in learning to walk and talk.

In school, he was considered an average student, polite and reserved, who seemed to prefer reading his Bible to the company of his fellow. He inspired no great emotional response from his peers, one way or the other; in fact, people barley had reason to notice him, far less become a friend or enemy. When his parent’s separated, in about 1930, he was already rather introverted. He had a lot more affection for his mother than for his father and it was with his mother that he lived, along with his younger brother, James, when his parents went their separate ways.

By early adolescence, Unruh was a somewhat withdrawn and reclusive boy. He favoured hobbies that he could pursue on his own; he started a stamp collection and built elaborate train sets. He never tired of playing with his trains, even as an adult. He was mesmerized by the precision mechanics and engineering, by the critical track intersections and complex loco interaction – ultimately, by the supreme order and efficiency of the systems he constructed.

He developed his brain along the same lines. He went to considerable lengths to train his memory, and doctors examining him after the rampage were amazed by his powers of recall and by his obsessive attention to, and retention of, detail. "His mind is more in the nature of a systematized card file than a dynamic force acting on its environment," Dr. Harold Magee wrote in his notes. "Its chief intellectual function is the storage and reproduction of factual material."

The extreme efficiency and orderliness of the rational logical part of Unruh’s brain was in marked contrast to the great turmoil he was experiencing on an emotional level. There, his mind was a short-circuiting confusion of conflicting feelings and urges, involving his social isolation, his emerging sexuality and his faith in God.

Later, he was able to talk about some of the emotional conflicts that first began to torment him in his youth: "I get an erotic feeling in my penis that associates with my erotic feeling of having intercourse with my mother… I put myself in a fantasy condition; I withdraw and things do not seem as real as they should be. I am constantly tense and anxious, mostly when in population because I feel they are going to harm me or punish me… there is a conflict between my desires of having sex with my mother." This conflict (love and attraction versus guilt and resentment) would manifest itself no more clearly than on the morning when he set about, but could not carry through, braining his mother with the wrench.

Unruh’s Oedipus complex was not his only adolescent worry. In contrast to his sexual desire for Freda, he suffered, according to one doctor, "vague, half-conscious feelings… of fear, anxiety and disgust in his dealings with girls his own age." His brother suspected he was homosexual. He would later tell investigators that Howard once made advances to him while they were sleeping together. As if his anxieties about his sexuality were not torment enough, Unruh, the avid Bible reader, was appalled by what God might think. He can hardly have believed that his sexual desires pleased the Lord.

His thoughts – for all their sparking emotionality in the one hemisphere, and rapidly expanding store of factual information in the other – were rarely evident to those around him. Like Wagner von Degerloch, Unruh was a master of repression. His neighbours considered him a quiet, unremarkable young man, leading a quiet, unremarkable life. He accompanied his mother to St. Paul’s Evangelical Church every Sunday without fail, and attended Monday night Bible classes, where he was known as a keen student of the scriptures who would often mark his favourite passages for further study.

In 1939, he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and got a job at the naval base in Philadelphia. He began dating a girl, whom he had met at church, and he treated her with the politeness and respect that folk had come to know him for. His belle, in fact, found him a mite too polite for her liking. Even kissing and holding hands were best avoided to Howard’s way of thinking. For him, the relationship was a charade. It was just another sacrifice to peer pressure, another component in the protective conformity capsule, which he had built around himself and which he now inhabited as a virtual prisoner. Later, after his rampage through the neighbourhood, he was questioned about his relationship with the girl and spoke of it with complete indifference:

"Did her kisses make you feel passionate?"


"Did you ever have any sexual desires for this women?"

"No, but she did for me."

"Have you ever had sexual relations with her?"


"Have you ever had sexual relations with any women?"


Unruh was infinitely more interested in the developing war in Europe. He had always followed world events closely, particularly those involving large-scale destruction, but the Second World War was in a league of its own. He filled a scrapbook with newspaper clippings, which he read and re-read, methodically collating the mass of information before committing it to memory. Military equipment, weapons in particular, held not only a special place in his mind, but a special place in his heart. In 1942, he enlisted in the army.

As a soldier, Unruh discovered that he was quite a talented marksman. He earned the rifleman rating of sharpshooter, a peg below expert. It was a revelation and his interest in weapons grew immeasurably. His colleagues found it impossible to say which was his greatest love – the Bible he read with fervent ardor or the rifle he field-stripped and cleaned with religious devotion. When, after his training, he joined the war in Europe, it was with the Good Book in one hand and his M-1 carbine in the other.

In the midst of war, marksmanship was not an abstract talent but the very real power over life and death. For a young man whose impact on people had never been anything other than negligible, this was a heady power indeed. Unruh embraced it passionately. In his usual methodical way, he began to keep a diary, detailing Germans he shot: times, dates, places, and even how the bodies looked in death. In his three-year service with the 342nd Armored Field Artillery, he reveled in killing.

His favourite job, apparently, was the number one cannoneer position on his unit’s 105-mm howitzer. He loved setting the sights on the target, which was usually within visual range, but most of all he loved firing the gun. He moved with his unit from Italy, through France and Belgium, and on to the finish in a shattered, post-apocalyptic Germany – experiencing firsthand a scale of destruction that previously he had only read about in his Bible.

When the war in Europe ended, H.B. Unruh, private first class, was honourably discharged from the United States Army and returned home to live with his mother in East Camden. He smuggled back with him the weapons and souvenirs he had collected as a soldier. He followed the final stages of the Second World War – combat in the Far East – at a distance but with great interest.

Meanwhile, he tried to pick up the threads of the life he had left behind in New Jersey in 1942. He was now 24 years old, six-foot tall, lean and fit, but to his mother and others in the neighbourhood, he seemed very much the same mild-mannered, quiet young man who had gone off to war three years earlier. As in the past, he accompanied his mother to church on Sundays and attended Monday night Bible classes. Behind the public persona, though, there was a growing bitterness.

Unruh had always been a nonentity in his home community. What had changed, and the reason he now found his lowly status hard to stomach, was the sense of self-worth he had discovered as a soldier. For the first time in his life, he saw himself as a man to be reckoned with. His neighbours, unfortunately, did not and he fiercely resented them for it. Who were they to treat him Pfc. Unruh, killer of Germans, as an inconsequential nobody? Had he not earned the right to a little respect, a little status? "Hey, you – can’t you be more quiet with that gate?" the pharmacist’s wife, Rose Cohen, shouted at him. What he resented most, he later revealed, was the use of the phrase "Hey, you."

People thought so little of him that they did not even have the common decency to address him by name. It was not fair and Unruh could not understand it. When he looked at his neighbour, John Pilarchik, for example, he saw a man the same age as himself, a man who, again like himself, had been away to war and returned home to New Jersey when the war ended. Pilarchik, though, had a place in the community, was well thought of by his fellows and had built up a successful business – in fact, he possessed all the things Unruh felt he himself was entitled to.

Unruh made one known attempt to achieve something within his home community that his neighbours could understand and admire. He took some refresher courses at Brown Preparatory School in Philadelphia, and then, under the GI Bill of Rights, went on to Philadelphia’s Temple University to study pharmacology – the trade of his highly respected next-door neighbours the Cohens. Unfortunately, he was not the least bit interested in the subject, found it impossible to concentrate, and quit the programme after just three months.

For sustenance, Unruh drew on his self-respect and his pride in his marksmanship. He surrounded himself with reminders of his army days. Apart from his stamp album and train sets, a book on astronomy and volumes concerned with what a detective termed "sex hygiene," his bedroom was a shrine to war and weapons.

The walls were decorated with crossed bayonets and pictures of armoured artillery in action; he had books on weaponry and military strategy, clips of 30-30 cartridges for rifle use, a pistol, ashtrays made from German shell casings and a host of other war souvenirs. In the cellar of the house, he set up a shooting range and practised regularly.

Meanwhile, his loathing of those around him grew. Howard and his gun were worth any ten of them and one day he would prove it. He would have his revenge for the slights and insults that he felt were being aimed at him from all sides – for the great injustices that he felt were being done him by his neighbours.

The list of grievances he had against them was long and detailed: "I had trouble with the barber because in building his store next to our place he excavated for the cellar and spread dirt over the vacant lot to the rear which increased the rise of the land and prevented the free drainage of heavy rainfall, and as a result the water was diverted into our cellar, flooding it. Then there was the shoemaker who… not only buried considerable trash in the backyard close to our property, but also kept throwing trash over into our yard on many occasions."

The manager of the American Stores grocery "had always been nice to me, until a clerk that he hired had difficulty one time with me over some change and since that time forward the manager was never nice." The pharmacist, Maurice Cohen, "shortchanged me five different times," and Cohen’s wife, Rose, "was always talking about me and very belligerent towards me and seemed to take pleasure in bawling me out in front of people."

Just as he had during the war, Unruh started to keep a diary – not a death tally of German soldiers this time, but a list of the petty grievances he had against his neighbours. The diary entries were invariably followed by cryptic notes: "Ret. W.T.S." – an abbreviation for "Retaliate when time suitable." And "D.N.D.R." – "Do not delay retaliation." He was obsessed with the idea of retaliation; the word itself appears close to 200 times in the diary.

In the course of the painstaking interrogation of Unruh after the massacre, his reply to one of the least probing questions led to one of the most significant discoveries. He was asked if he had ever been sick or in hospital and answered that he had once been treated for gonorrhea. Prosecutor Mitchell Cohen (no relation to Unruh’s pharmacist neighbour), remembering his earlier assertion that he had never slept with a woman, asked him how he came to contract the disease. Unruh replied that he had been an active homosexual since 1946.

His first homosexual encounter apparently took place in a Philadelphia cinema when a man, whom he had never before met, masturbated him during the film. Thereafter, he became highly promiscuous and, with his customary attention to detail, kept a diary of his sexual encounters, listing names, dates and places. Although he confined his activities to Philadelphia, and even rented a room to ensure maximum discretion, he became convinced – just as Wagner had – that the people of his home community knew his secret. "The tailor… circulated the story that he saw me ‘go down on somebody in an alley one time,’ " Unruh alleged.

He also said that he had heard muttered comments from neighbours who passed him in the street: "You can get him to stay all night with you," and other pointed remarks. He began to fear that he would be physically attacked by his neighbours, and took to arming himself against the possibility. He claimed to have heard people plotting against him: "One time they said they were going to gang up on me." Another time, they said, "Let’s give him a chance to use his gun."

One of the psychiatrists who later examined him noted: "It must definitely be acknowledged that this patient has a very high index of suspicion, a very marked tendency to refer to himself apparently indifferent acts perpetrated by his neighbours and a general paranoid tendency to resent real acts which a normal person would pass off as harmless pranks or part of the everyday friction inevitable between families who live closely together."

As Unruh plotted his revenge, he endeavoured to maintain his public composure. His brother, James, by this time married and living nearby in Haddon Heights – thought Howard was a little nervous at that time but could not put his finger on exactly what form the nervousness took: "He just seemed changed." Neighbours who had once considered him quiet and polite now saw him more as quiet and moody – but that was all. No one was even remotely aware of the true complexion of the world inside his head.

Early in 1947, Unruh added another gun to his collection. It was a German Luger 9-mm pistol, which he purchased in Philadelphia. Later the same year, he brought a mail order machete from L.L. Bean’s, in Maine, after fantasizing about cutting off the Cohen’s heads.

By the spring of 1948, he was no longer accompanying his mother to church on Sundays or attending Monday night Bible classes. His years of study and what Dr. Harold Magee described as an "obsessive rumination concerning his relations to the Deity and his responsibility for right and wrong behaviour" had done little but awaken him to grand biblical themes of apocalypse – themes he could readily adapt to legitimize in his own mind his mass murderous mission.

On Monday 5 September 1949, he went into Philadelphia and spent the evening at the cinema, sitting through several showings of the double bill presentation, I Cheated the Law and The Lady Gambles. In the early hours of the morning of Tuesday 6 September, he returned home by bus, arriving at around three o’clock. Someone had removed his backyard gate from its hinges.

The time for revenge had finally arrived. He resolved there and then, he told the county prosecutor, to shoot the people who had "talked about me," and he figured 9:30 A.M. would be a good time to do it because most of the neighbourhood gossip-shops would be open by that time, instructing his mother to wake him at 8:00 A.M. Having made the decision to end his torment once and for all, he apparently enjoyed a good night’s sleep.


Rampage in Camden

By Katherine Ramsland -

A Preconceived Plan

It seemed a petty grievance, but it was also a turning point.  As soon as he saw the missing gate, just installed that day, he knew that his life would change.  He had to take action now, no matter what the cost.  He'd been plotting revenge for at least two years and now it was time to act on his "preconceived plan."

Dressing up in a brown tropical-worsted suit, white shirt, and striped bow tie, the slender six-foot recluse picked up his 9-mm. German Luger and went outside. It was Tuesday, September 6, around 9:20 a.m.  His mother had just left, so she was out of the way.  He could have taken any number of guns from his collection, but he favored the Luger.  Just in case, he also grabbed a six-inch knife and a tear gas pen with six shells.

Vaulting over a fence, he cut through some back streets and then stepped out into the road.  A map drawn for the Philadelphia Inquirer that evening, which identified the shooter as "the crazed man" and "the maniac," marks where this otherwise quiet World War II veteran went.  (The exact sequence of the events that day differs from one newspaper to the next, but they all end up with the same result.)

The lean and quiet man was about to make history. He would become    America's first single-episode mass murderer.

In 1949, the Cramer Hill area of Camden, N.J. was generally quiet.  But that day, for a mere twelve minutes, the shooter had made himself heard.  For too long, he believed, people had been talking about him behind his back.  It was time for revenge.  No one was going to treat him like this! He put his lessons from the war to good use:    he approached the target area from a route that no one would expect.

At the corner of Harrison and 32nd St.  sat a bread delivery truck.  Two kids   played nearby.  The driver appeared to be sorting through some papers.  He would be the first.  Shoving the Luger through the door, the shooter pulled the trigger.  But the bread man was quick.

"He missed me by inches," the unidentified driver later told reporter Roxy Di Marco.  "I was seated in my bread truck going over my records and he walked up and shoved a pistol through the door at me.  I thought it was a holdup.  I tumbled into the back of my truck among the breadboxes.  He fired one shot and, thank God, it missed me." 

The bread man saw the two children in the road, so he grabbed them and hid them in the truck.  He then drove down the road to warn others, but it was too late.

The shooter walked along 32nd St. back toward the building where he lived on the second floor. He planned on making some stops before reaching home.    He had enemies and he knew where they were.  Entering a shoe repair shop, he aimed the gun at John Pilarchik, 27, the man inside bent over a child's shoe.  The shooter walked within a yard of him and fired twice.  A little boy ran for cover behind the counter, but the shooter ignored him.  He now had his first kill of the day, with one bullet in the man's stomach and another in his head.  Unlike the bread man, the shoemaker had been on his list.  The barber was next.


People who heard the shots later admitted they had dismissed them as cars backfiring or someone shooting at the rats that ran along the Delaware Riverfront.    No one could quite understand why people were screaming.

Next door to the shoe shop was Clark Hoover's barbershop.  When the shooter entered, Hoover, 33, was cutting the blond hair of a six-year-old boy sitting on a white carousel horse.  His mother, Catherine Smith, sat nearby, watching.  The shooter took aim and said, "I've got something for you, Clarkie."  The barber tried to shield the boy, but he was too slow.  The first bullet hit the boy in the head from a short distance and the second one killed Hoover.  Both dropped to the floor.  The shooter left the woman alone to cry out for help.  Two other children who had been in the shop went screaming into the street, but the shooter was oblivious, even when the shrieking mother carried out her dead child, begging for someone to help. 

Passing a group of kids who raced for cover, the shooter shot at a boy watching him from a window, but missed.  It didn't matter.  They were incidental targets.  He headed toward the tavern, but the door was locked so he shot two bullets in it.  Inside, customers cowered behind the bar.  The tavern owner, Frank Engel, rushed up the steps to retrieve his .38 caliber pistol.

Next, the shooter tried to get into a locked restaurant -- without success. He reloaded and then turned his attention to his most hated targets, the Cohens.

Their drugstore was on the corner.  The Cohens were his immediate neighbors, and they  complained that he had used their gate to get to the door of his apartment.    They were among those who had slandered him during the past two years. 

As he was about to enter the drugstore, a man he knew well, an insurance agent named James Hutton, came out the door.  He greeted the shooter, who politely said, "Excuse me, sir."  Hutton did not move, so he received his own fatal bullet.  He had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The shooter went into the pharmacy and saw Maurice Cohen and his wife Rose run up the steps to their apartment.  Something had alerted them, but that would not save them.  The shooter followed, watching Rose try to hide in a bedroom closet and firing three times through the door.  He then opened it and shot her in the head.  Then he walked through the apartment until he found Maurice's elderly mother, 63, on the telephone.  She was calling the police.  He killed her with two shots where she stood, but had no time to watch her slump to the bed, because Maurice had jumped out a window onto a porch roof.

The shooter leaned out and hit him with a bullet, wounding him badly enough to send him off the roof to the sidewalk below.  He had no time to recover because the shooter had jumped down the steps and come out to the street, where he discharged another shot.  Maurice died on the street, but he had succeeded at saving one person, his 12-year-old son, hidden in a closet upstairs.  The shooter reloaded.

Nearby, Mrs. Harrie and her 16-year-old son, Armond, were hanging clothing onto a clothesline.  Mrs. Harrie went inside and the shooter entered her house.  Her son ran in and said that the man shot at them five times, wounding them both in an arm.  Then he tried smacking Armond with the butt of the empty pistol, but before anyone could stop him, he left.  He now had shot nine people, killing seven. 

Circling back, he walked down 32nd St.  along the side of the pharmacy and encountered a motorist, Alvin Day, who had slowed down near the body of James Hutton, the dead insurance agent.  That was his mistake.  The shooter leaned into his car and killed him, leaving the car to stall and roll into the curb. 

Then the shooter went over to another car that was stopped at a light across the street.  He shot through the windshield, killing the female driver and her mother, and wounding a twelve-year-old boy in the back seat with a bullet through his neck.  Next was a car behind this one (according to the map, but not included in other accounts) where he shot a young male, Charlie Peterson, wounding him.  He shot into several other cars, too.    Peterson staggered from his car and entered the tavern so someone could get him to a hospital.  The man on the rampage was then busy firing at a chain grocery store.

Frank Engel leaned out a window and shot at the retreating figure with his own pistol.  He thought he had hit the maniac in the thigh, because he paused, but it had not slowed him down.  Engle could have fired again and killed him, but he refrained.  Later he would say, "I could have put a half dozen shots into him.  I don't know why I didn't do it.  I wish I had."

Apparently, the shooter wasn't yet finished.  He went into the tailor's shop.  Zegrino, too, was on his list.  By that time, a man who had been in line behind cars into which the maniac had fired had driven to the nearest fire station on 27th Street, six blocks away, to raise an alarm.  But there would be two more fatalities.

The tailor's wife, Helga, who had been married to him for only three weeks, got on her knees and begged, "Oh, my God, don't!"  Then she screamed so loudly that people in buildings across the street could hear her.  Without mercy, the shooter pointed his gun and shot her.  Then he left and went strolling down the street. 

Tommy Hamilton, aged two, happened to look out his front window, so the shooter aimed and fired right through the glass, taking his last victim.  (One Philadelphia Inquirer account has him going into the Hamilton apartment, herding the family into the kitchen, and then killing Tommy.   In the New York Times,  Meyer Berger has him killing Tommy from outside, but entering the apartment of the Harrie family and shooting at them.  Other sources have Mrs. Harrie and her son outside, but the Harrie boy claimed later to reporters that they were both inside when shot.  The killer says he shot someone through a window from outside.  The likely tale is that he shot the Harries inside but the Hamilton boy from outside.) 

He attempted once more to get into a restaurant that stood at the end of River Road near Bergen St. but failed, so as sirens began to wail from a distance, he went around to the back and finally came home to his apartment.  He'd been out for less than 15 minutes, but was running low on ammunition.  "I ran out of bullets," he later said, "so I went home."

In his wake, twelve people were dead—five men, five women and two small children--and four were badly wounded—a man, a woman, and two teenagers.  One of these would later die, bringing the toll to thirteen.  Had he hit everyone at whom he took a shot, as Time-Life's Mass Murderers says, the number of deaths would have been twenty-six.

The police were scrambling to go after this man, having run into or been called to the massacre, but the shooter reached his apartment first.  He barricaded the door and reloaded.  One officer found a boy running in the street, who turned out to be Charles Cohen, the boy who had been spared by being shoved into the closet in his home.  He had nearly suffocated, he said, and had finally kicked open the door to get out.  He remembered watching his grandmother fall just as the door closed, and he had heard screams and shooting.  He was taken to the home of a relative.

People had now identified the rampaging shooter to the first arriving officers as Howard Unruh, a 28-year-old recluse and "religious nut." All available police reserves were dispatched.  None had ever dealt with such an incident before.  Ironically, Unruh's name in German meant "unrest."


A cordon of between 50 and 60 police officers surrounded the two-story gray stucco building that housed Unruh's apartment at 3202 River Road, behind and next to the Cohens' pharmacy and residence.  Unruh was barricaded inside, and he shot at them from a window.  From the number of victims, the police believed they were dealing with more than one killer.  They armed themselves with rifles and machine guns.  For a time, the road was a state of confusion, with people in the milling crowd getting in the line of fire.

The police shot into the apartment in what reporters called a "rain of gunfire" intended to drive the shooter out or to kill him.  Pedestrians formed a ring around the area and within half an hour, more than 1,000 people were watching.  Several marksmen on the roof of a nearby shed tried to get a clear shot into the room from which the suspect himself was shooting.  One officer shouted that he had hit the man.

Meanwhile, the bodies of the dead and the wounded were removed to Cooper Hospital, and some officers were collecting stories from eyewitnesses.  One woman suffering from shock and a man who had injured his leg trying to escape were also rushed to the hospital.

Freda Unruh, the shooter's mother, had returned home around this time, just after 10 A.M.  When she saw the police barricade and heard spectators talking excitedly about what had occurred, she knew it was about her son, and she wandered off in a daze.  She finally made her way (or was taken) to the home of her sister, five blocks away, who found a doctor to treat her and who kept the breaking details of the story from her.  It was the sister's opinion that this had all been caused by "terrible experiences" that Howard had suffered during his three-years in the war.

Reporters were aware of the events, and Philip W. Buxton, an assistant city editor of the Camden Evening Courier looked up Unruh's phone number, Camden 4-2490W, and called the home.  To his surprise, Unruh answered with a calm voice. 

"Is this Howard Unruh?" Buxton asked.

"Yes, this is Howard.  What's the last name of the party you want?"

"Unruh," the editor told him.

"Who are you?" Unruh demanded to know.  "What do you want?"

Buxton could hear the sound of bullets coming through the window, breaking glass.  He identified himself as a friend and then asked, "What are they doing to you?"

"They haven't done anything to me yet," said Unruh, "but I'm doing plenty to them."

"How many have you killed?"

"I don't know yet—I haven't counted them.  But it looks like a pretty good score."

The editor then wanted to know why he was killing people.

"I don't know.  I can't answer that yet.  I'm too busy.  I'll have to talk to you later.  A couple of friends are coming to get me."  He slammed down the phone.

Who those friends might be was never clarified.

To get him to leave the apartment, the detectives on the roof got close enough to lob a canister of tear gas through the broken bedroom window.  It proved to be a dud, which alerted Unruh to their strategy, so he went into another room.      As he returned, they tossed in a second canister and the place slowly filled with stinging gas.  It took another five minutes, but finally Unruh moved aside the white curtain upstairs, looked out and said, "Okay, I give up.  I'm coming down."

"Where's the gun?" a sergeant yelled up at him.

"It's on my desk, up here in the room.  I'm coming down."

He came out the door, unarmed, with three dozen guns trained on him, and surrendered without a word to motorcycle officer Charles Hance.  Forty-five minutes after he had taken his first shot, Unruh was ushered through the angry crowd, who swore at him and called for a lynching, and into a police car and driven away.

One observer murmured, "You gotta watch them quiet ones."

Three coroners came to oversee the autopsies.  The wounded were tended, but the 12-year-old boy who had been sitting in the backseat of a car was in critical condition.  The bullet had gone through his neck to the base of his brain.  The prognosis was poor.

The police did not comprehend the killer's motives.    They had never dealt with such an incident before. "What's the matter with you?" one officer asked Unruh.  "Are you a psycho?"

"I'm no psycho," Unruh insisted.  "I have a good mind."

Whether or not he was right remained to be seen.


At City Hall, a gaunt Unruh was taken into a private room and questioned for hours by detectives and those who would be involved in prosecuting him.  At all times, he seemed calm, as Berger reported for The New York Times.  "Only occasionally excessive brightness of his dark eyes indicated that he was anything other than normal."

To Camden County Prosecutor Mitchell Cohen he admitted that before going to sleep the previous night he had made up his mind to go on this rampage.  He was willing to offer a shot-by-shot account.  "I shot them in the chest first," he explained, "and then I aimed for the head."  Although some people were pre-planned targets, a few just got in the way.  About the insurance agent on the pharmacy doorstep, Unruh simply explained, "That man didn't act fast enough.  He didn't get out of my way." 

He'd gone out that morning, he admitted, with one bullet in the chamber, 16 loose bullets and two clips of eight, because his neighbors "had been making derogatory remarks about my character." 

A check of his records indicated no report of mental illness before, during, or after his Army service.  In fact, he had an exemplary record as a soldier and those who knew him reported that he was not a drinker.  No one knew much then about post-traumatic stress disorder, or even combat fatigue (which they called war neurosis).  Few people knew much about paranoid character disorders or schizophrenia.

Eighteen civilian witnesses were interviewed and most claimed that Unruh had entered the barbershop first, but Unruh insisted it was the shoemaker, with the barbershop second, so his report became the official one.

Between what neighbors said and what Unruh told his questioners (this was in the days before people were told they had the right to remain silent), a narrative about was pieced together.

It was learned that on September 5, the evening before, Unruh was in Philadelphia at the 24-hour Family Theater, where he watched a double feature. One movie was "I Cheated the Law," about how a lawyer seeking justice tricks a gangster into confessing to murder.  The other was "The Lady Gambles," starring Barbara Stanwyck, about a woman with a gambling addiction who destroys nearly everything in her life.  Unruh sat through both three times, thinking that Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors. He left the theater for home at about    3:00 a.m. 

At that time, he discovered that someone had stolen his outside gate.  He and his mother's friend had just installed it that day, because the only other way to get access to the apartment door was through the gate  owned by Rose and Maurice Cohen.  They owned the pharmacy downstairs in the same building and had their residence next door on the same floor as the Unruh's.  Prior to cutting a gateway into the fence, he'd had to walk through a weedy lot to get out to the street, or use their gate.  Rose sometimes complained that Howard left the gate standing open, and she and her husband both disliked the loud music that Howard played on the radio late at night.  Their squabbles had led to a threat to revoke his gate privileges.

"When I came home last night and found my gate had been taken," Unruh said, "I decided to shoot all of them so I would get the right one."

He went to bed angry and got up around 8:00 a.m. to eat a breakfast of fried eggs that his mother had prepared.  She asked him what was wrong but he told her nothing about his plan.  He went into the basement to retrieve some items and came back, going into the living room.  He seemed to go into a trance, according to the statement Mrs. Unruh gave later, and when she probed to find out what was wrong, he spun around and menaced her with a wrench. 

She left the house and went to the home of friends, the Pinnars, to tell them she was afraid that tensions were coming to a head and that her son no longer loved her.  (By some accounts, she had narrowly escaped death by leaving when she did.)  It was Mr. Pinnar who had helped build the gate the day before.  David Everitt claims that Mrs. Unruh had told them she was most afraid of her son's eyes.  "Freda Unruh would later tell reporters, he stared at her as if he had no idea who she was."

After she left, Unruh returned to his preparation.  He figured that 9:30 was the time to begin, because most of the stores would be open at that time.  He could shoot everyone who had been talking about him.  He had a German 9-mm. Luger that he had bought for $37.50 at M&H Sporting Goods in Philadelphia, and he had thirty-three rounds of ammunition.  It was enough to do what he had in mind.

At just after nine o'clock, he had walked out into the neighborhood, fully armed.

The Story Unfolds

Two people believed they had hit Unruh with a bullet -- the tavern owner and a police officer, but only when Unruh got off his chair after hours of questioning did anyone notice the bloodstain.  He had been wounded in his right side but he was uncomplaining throughout the interrogation.  He was sent to Cooper Hospital, the same place where the victims were being treated or placed in the morgue.

There he underwent surgery for his own wound, but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet.  That meant they could not determine who had actually shot him.  (While the newspapers offer no answer in later reports, most accounts attribute the hit to Frank Engel.)

Two psychiatrists, Drs. H. E. Yaskin and James Ryan, were assigned to ask Unruh questions while he was still hospitalized at Cooper.  What they learned would be compared with assessments by other professionals later, because it seemed clear that, regardless of his past record, he was destined for psychiatric treatment.  They (along with reporters looking for Unruh's acquaintances) learned more about his background.

Unruh was living with his mother, Freda, in a small apartment on River Road.  He had a married younger brother living in Hadden Heights and his father, Samuel Unruh, was alive but estranged from the family.  (Samuel had come to City Hall when he'd heard about the shootings.)

Unruh had had an ordinary childhood and seemed to have been a well-behaved boy, although reportedly he was quiet and moody.  He attended the Lutheran church every Sunday and studied the Bible.  When he was of age, he enlisted in the army in 1942 to fight for America during World War II, but most people did not realize that this was not just a patriotic duty for him.  It was also an experience of death that he painstakingly documented.

He took excessive care of his rifle and was a brave soldier as a tank gunner in Italy, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and France, taking part in the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.  Whenever he killed a German, he wrote down the day, hour, and place.  If he actually glimpsed the remains, he described the corpse in some detail, to the point where a fellow soldier who read the tight-lipped, Bible-reading soldier's diary was quite shocked.  Unruh was honorably discharged in 1945. Like many soldiers, he  returned home with medals and a collection of firearms.

He decorated his bedroom in the three-room apartment with military pieces.  Berger writes that on the walls he had crossed pistols, machetes, crossed German bayonets, and photographs of armored artillery in action.  Even his ashtrays were made from German shells.

Unlike other soldiers, he did not try to find a girlfriend and settle down, although for a few weeks prior to his enlistment he had dated a young woman who went to his church but he had ended this relationship by letter from overseas.  After coming home, he mostly remained inside his mother's apartment, rarely going out and becoming increasingly more reclusive.  She supported them both with her income as a packer for a soap company, although Howard had made and sold several model trains.  For three months, he took pharmacy courses at Temple University in Philadelphia, across the river.  He also went to church and attended Bible classes. 

"I always thought of Howard as a soft-spoken young man," said the pastor of his Lutheran church.  "He came to services regularly before the war.  After the war, he came mornings and evenings regularly for about a year.  About three months ago, he stopped entirely."  The pastor's wife called Unruh "the mildest type of man you could meet."

Mrs. Pinnar, who had corresponded with Howard when he was overseas, said when he came back he was different.  "He always appeared to be very nervous.  He walked very straight on the street, his head rigid, never glancing to the right or left."  She thought he was suffering from "war neurosis."

Unruh's brother, James, 25, said that Howard was a "born-again Christian" who had undergone a deep religious experience and had tried to live by the ways of Christ.  Yet he'd become "nervous" over the past couple of months, according to statements James made to the New York Times.  "He just seemed changed."

Another church member who visited him a month after he stopped going to church said that he exhibited strange behavior, believing that people were making things hard for him.  This is precisely what Unruh's mother had been frightened about.

Unruh's primary recreation was collecting guns and target shooting in the basement.  Eventually he stopped going out.  Without a job, he just sat around the house, often thinking about his neighbors.

He kept a list of grudges against them, imagining how he would get his revenge.  He felt that people in the neighborhood were slandering him, talking behind his back.  Next to each offender's name he had recorded that particular person's misdeeds.  Then he had placed the word "retal," short for retaliation.  "I had been thinking about killing them for some time," Unruh commented. "I'd have killed a thousand if I'd had bullets enough."

Despite Unruh's claim that he had pondered all of this while at the movies, many people believed that the damage he saw to the gate when he came home from the theater was the final straw.  Freda Unruh had sensed that morning that something terrible was going to happen.  As she left the Pinnar's home that morning, according to them, she heard gunfire at a distance and went back in, crying, "Oh Howard, Howard, they're to blame for this."  She asked for a phone to call the police, but before she reached it, she fainted. (Some accounts say a doctor revived her and took her to her sister's.  Others say that the Pinnars revived her and she went back out.)

In sum, Howard Unruh appeared to be a quiet man who developed suspicions but kept them to himself, letting them simmer and grow into paranoid delusions.  Now his fate was in the hands of a team of mental health professionals.


When he was able to leave Cooper Hospital, Unruh was sent to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), to be installed into a bed in a private cell in the maximum-security Vroom Building. 

Only twelve hours earlier, 10-year-old John Wilson, who had been with his mother and grandmother in a car when all of them were shot, had died from his injury.  This put the death count at thirteen.  Prosecutor Cohen emphasized that the killer had not been declared insane, but that he would be receiving tests to determine his state of mind.  It was not an involuntary admission by the court, but a voluntary agreement that four psychiatrists had recommended and Unruh had accepted.  He'd asked to be "subjected to further study and observation."

Since he would need bed rest for at least two weeks anyway, the prosecutor had no reservations about leaving him in the hands of psychiatrists.  "It will benefit all concerned," he said.  "We will get the full and complete results of all possible study."  He filed the charges for 13 "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery."

On Friday morning, September 9, Freda Unruh learned from her estranged husband the full facts of her son's fate.  "Howard, poor Howard," she cried.  "He didn't know what he was doing."  She fainted before she had heard all the details.  Then she worried that the hospital would not have enough handkerchiefs for Howard's hay fever.

Soon there were rumors that two of the four psychiatrists had determined that Unruh was sane.  "He appears cognizant of his surroundings," said Dr. Dean Cavalli, a Camden area physician, "and knows between right and wrong."  But he added that he himself was not a psychiatrist.  Nothing further was forthcoming.  They expected the tests to last more then a month.

At the hospital, Dr. Robert S. Garber, assistant superintendent, and Dr. James Spradley began their assessments, attended by the prosecutor and several detectives.  News photographers were permitted to enter the isolation cell for pictures.  Unruh submitted without expression, although he turned his head when they asked him to.

Reportedly, Unruh was surprised by the treatment he was receiving.  "It is certainly a lot better than I deserve," he commented.  He expressed some remorse over dropping out of pharmacy courses, because he could have devoted his life to saving lives.  No one records him feeling badly about the victims.

During the testing, the relative of the boy who recently had died showed up in the doorway of Unruh's cell.

"I'm going to get him!" the man yelled, trying to rush inside, but the police guards restrained him and took him out.

Dr. Edward Strecker, of the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant for the armed services, told reporters that "war does not cause an increase in the number of actual cases of insanity."  (Ironically, on the same page is an incident of another veteran creating havoc in a restaurant by hitting people with a chair and being shot dead by the police.  He'd been angry that someone suggested he get psychiatric help.)  Strecker believed that Unruh's illness must have built up over the years.  The type of killing that he had done could not be traced to military service.  The war had simply provided the opportunity to learn the weapons.  Although he had not examined Unruh himself, he thought the man had gone "gun crazy" once he started shooting.

Another psychiatrist, unidentified, thought that Unruh's overtly religious character might have given him a savior complex, and when he saw that he had failed to save the world, he reacted.

While they awaited the official results, reporters looked around for earlier signs of Unruh's mental instability.  The Woodrow Wilson High School yearbook from 1939 indicated that he was shy and that his ambition was to become a government employee.  They called him "How."  A check of his records revealed Bs and Cs for things like "health," "courtesy," and "personal impression."  There was no evaluation of his intelligence, but his mental alertness was average.

After two months of personality and physiological tests, the assessment was concluded and the final diagnosis was "Dementia praecox, mixed type, with pronounced catatonic and paranoid coloring."  Unruh was a paranoid schizophrenic, caught in a world of his own delusions and separated from reality.  His mental illness had come upon him slowly and was not caused by combat.

Pronounced insane, he was immune from criminal prosecution but was sentenced for the remainder of his life to the Vroom building, the unit for the criminally insane.

Mass vs. Spree

In Who Killed Precious?, a book about the FBI's approach to mass murderers and serial killers, H. Paul Jeffers says that before Howard Unruh's rampage, mass murders in America were rare.  "After Unruh, there's hardly been a year stained by it."  On "Mass Murders," an American Justice documentary, it was claimed that mass murders have been on the rise over the past three decades and that around the country there are an average of two a month.  Two hundred people each year become victims, and seven of the ten worst cases in our history have occurred since 1980.  Many experts see this as a sign of the breakdown of social controls.

A mass murderer, according to the FBI Crime Classification Manual, is someone who kills four or more people in close succession in a single locale, or in closely related locales.  This differs from a spree killer, who may have similar motives and ambitions, but who tends to travel over a series of loosely related or unrelated locations.  Mass murderers come in two basic varieties: family killers such as John List, who slaughtered his mother, wife, and three children, or classic mass murderers, like Charles Whitman or Richard Speck.

Mass murderers are male, white, usually over 30, and generally own at least one gun.  Criminologist James Fox says the availability of guns has influenced the increase in mass murders because guns distance people from their crimes—a desire common to mass murderers.  They want it to be easy and fast.

Mass Murderers are typically quite ordinary.    They're reclusive, have few if any friends, and have no criminal record.  However, they do not let go of past grievances and they tend to build and fester, with minor incidents being perceived as major offenses, and impersonal ones as personal.  Some stress, such as a broken relationship, a loss, or unemployment, may be the trigger that sets everything in motion.  They blame others for their failures and their motive is generally to strike back, to punish, and to exact as much damage as they can manage.  The higher the death toll, the better they have succeeded.  People who have been dismissing or ignoring them are not going to forget them now.  Their choice of targets is typically irrational, and often does not even include the one against whom they wanted vengeance.  Some, like Unruh, have shown signs of psychosis, but most have been judged sane at the time of the incident.

The time period for mass murder can be minutes, hours or days, and such people typically have a mental disorder, are frustrated, and their problems have increased to the point of having to act out aggressively.  Charles Whitman and James Huberty are held up as the typical example.  In 1966, Whitman took an arsenal up the tower at the University of Texas in Austin to take shots at unsuspecting people from above until he was killed.  In an hour and a half, he killed sixteen and wounded thirty.  He had also killed his wife and mother that day.  Huberty, crushed by unemployment, went "hunting for humans" at a McDonald's fast food restaurant in San Ysidro, California in 1984, killing 21 and wounding 19.

While the FBI manual says that because Unruh moved to different locations, his act was not classified as a mass murder, but other criminologists disagree.  His spate of killings was one of the shortest on record, it was a contained neighborhood, and he did not travel in the way that spree killers like Andrew Cunanan or Charles Starkweather did.  The manual calls Unruh a spree killer, but there is clearly disagreement on this classification.  Since the Crime Classification Manual has not been universally adopted the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been in psychiatry, exactly how to classify Unruh seems unclear.

Other examples of killers like him include:

  • Martin Bryant On April 28, 1996, Bryant, 28, killed the two owners of Seaside Cottages in Australia, then took two semi-automatic rifles to a tourist area in Port Arthur, where in 15 seconds he shot and killed 20 people, wounding fifteen.  He then walked around shooting more, got into his car to drive a few hundred yards, killed more people, stole a car, killed more people, took a hostage, and went back to the cottages, where he killed several people driving by and then killed the hostage.  The police held him under siege overnight and he ran out when the building went up in flames.  His total in less than a day had been 35 dead, 18 wounded.  While he is considered a mass murderer, he did move around quite a bit and he killed people in a lot of different areas, but not in the manner in which classic spree killers do, who generally stretch things out over days or weeks.

  • Michael Ryan - In August 1987, Ryan, 27, a gun-loving, hypersensitive young man prone to exaggerated fantasies, took an AK-47 assault rifle and several other weapons on a shooting spree in Hungerford, England, killing 15 and wounding as many before retreating to his former school and turning the gun on himself.  He began in the woods, killing a woman who ran from him, then drove home to shoot the family dogs and grab ammunition.  When his car failed to start, he set fire to his house and began a two-mile walk through the streets of Hungerford, shooting both acquaintances and strangers.  When his mother found him and confronted him, he killed her, too.  She was his eighth victim, felled by four bullets.  Police set up blockades and inadvertently sent motorists directly into the killer's path, where their cars were sprayed with bullets and many were killed.  Ryan even entered one home and shot an elderly man to death.  Finally he went into the John O'Gaunt School.  Surrounded by police, he demanded to know about his mother and his dog.  Before he shot himself in the head, among his last statements was, "I wish I had stayed in bed."

  • Marc Lépine Enraged against feminists and believing that some woman got a position intended for him, militaristic Lepine armed himself on December 6, 1989 and committed the worst mass murder in Canadian history.  Most of the victims were women and all of them were strangers.  Lepine went to the Engineering school at the University of Montreal, separating the women from the men in one classroom before he started shooting.    Six died and three were wounded.  Then he left the classroom and roamed the building, now treading the line that divides mass from spree killers.  Like Unruh, he just kept walking and shooting when he found people.  Then he went into another classroom, killed more students and then plunged a knife into a woman struggling to survive a shot.  As a final gesture, he turned a pistol on himself.  Fourteen women had died; fifteen men and women had been wounded, and in the months to come, some people who had survived would kill themselves. 

Given these examples of killers who move around in a fairly tight area, either we need to pinpoint a better distinction between mass and spree killers or develop a new category into which to place those who appear to be not quite in either camp.  Most criminologists call Unruh a mass murderer, and his rampage does bear all the marks of a disgruntled, militaristic loner who decided to just act out.

Unruh in Retrospect

"The more random the killings," says sociologist Jack Levin, "and the more it occurs in public places among absolute strangers, the more likely it is that the killer is psychotic, or insane."

That was not the case with Howard Unruh.  He knew most of the people he had killed, he'd placed them on a list, it was his neighborhood, and the spate of killings was the result of what he called a preconceived plan.  He even believed he was not crazy.  When he heard sirens, he rushed home.  Thus he knew that what he had done was illegal or wrong.  He was aware and he had made a plan.  That frame of mind generally does not pass in today's courts as insane.

Dr. Richard Noll, professor of psychology at DeSales University and author of The Encyclopedia of Schizophrenia and the Psychotic Disorders, now in its second edition, offers a perspective on the manner in which Unruh may have been diagnosed in 1949.

"It sounds more like schizoid personality disorder or paranoid personality disorder, in modern DSM-IV parlance.  When someone was violent back then, they always invoked the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.  If someone was distraught (from emotional trauma, for example), that might be called 'pseudo-neurotic schizophrenia.' 

"Paranoid schizophrenia is traditionally one of the most misused diagnostic labels in both clinical and forensic contexts.  Schizophrenia is an insidious, chronic brain disease that takes many forms, the paranoid subtype being one of them. The age of onset for this subtype tends to be slightly older than for other subtypes, has a better prognosis, and is most likely to be helped by treatment.  The hallmark of the paranoid subtype is delusions, usually of a persecutory or grandiose nature.  For the individual in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital since 1949 who killed 13 people because he believed his neighbors were slandering him, you would have to place that explosive event in the context of prior mental status and subsequent clinical observations.  Anyone -- especially a male under great stress due to a divorce, job loss, death of a loved one, etc. -- could become paranoid and violent under conditions of extreme and prolonged stress.

"In a clinical contest, it is really quite difficult to distinguish between paranoid schizophrenia, an agitated manic episode of bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, a brief psychotic reaction, or someone with a paranoid personality disorder (a character disorder, not a psychotic disorder), who simply 'loses it.'    Without a detailed clinical history, it is hard to assess whether the diagnosis was a correct one.  However, it is true that the diagnostic criteria for paranoid schizophrenia have tightened up considerably since the 1940s when this incident took place, and back then the term paranoid schizophrenia was liberally dispensed in a forensic context as almost a euphemism for 'raving madman.' Anytime violence entered the case history, the 'paranoid schizophrenia' diagnostic label was almost automatically applied, even if someone was bipolar and violent, or under stress and violent."

In other words, had he gone on his rampage today, his paranoia would have been acknowledged but unless psychosis actually affected his ability to appreciate that what he was doing was wrong or made him unable to comply with what he knew, then he would have been declared legally sane.

Howard Unruh remained at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and as of this writing, is still there, according to Ramsey, mopping floors.  Now in his 80s, he reportedly has spoken to no one since his mother died some years ago.  He has ground privileges now and just keeps to himself.



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