(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."
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
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
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
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
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
Next, he went to a tailor shop looking for the owner,
Thomas Zegrino, but instead shot the man’s wife, Helga, 28, who was
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
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
During an interlude, the assistant city editor of The
Camden Courier-Post, Philip Buxton, phoned the house. Mr. Unruh answered
Mr. Buxton asked Mr. Unruh how many people he had
“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
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
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
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
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
Unruh returned the police fire for a few minutes and
then staggered from the room calling: "I give up. Don’t
Stumbling down stairs, he fell into the arms of the
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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 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.
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
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
"Did her kisses make you feel passionate?"
"Did you ever have any sexual desires for this
"No, but she did for me."
"Have you ever had sexual relations with
"Have you ever had sexual relations with any
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
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.
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."
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
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 - TruTV.com
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Meanwhile, the bodies of
the dead and the wounded
were removed to Cooper
Hospital, and some
officers were collecting
eyewitnesses. One woman
suffering from shock and
a man who had injured
his leg trying to escape
were also rushed to the
Unruh, the shooter's
mother, had returned
home around this time,
just after 10 A.M. When
she saw the police
barricade and heard
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
this Howard Unruh?"
this is Howard. What's
the last name of the
party you want?"
the editor told him.
are you?" Unruh demanded
to know. "What do you
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?"
haven't done anything to
me yet," said Unruh,
"but I'm doing plenty to
many have you killed?"
don't know yet—I haven't
counted them. But it
looks like a pretty good
editor then wanted to
know why he was killing
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.
those friends might be
was never clarified.
get him to leave 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."
the gun?" a sergeant
yelled up at him.
on my desk, up here in
the room. I'm coming
came out the door,
unarmed, with three
dozen guns trained on
him, and surrendered
without a word to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
interrogation. He was
sent to Cooper Hospital,
the same place where the
victims were being
treated or placed in the
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.)
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
assessments by other
because it seemed clear
that, regardless of his
past record, he was
destined for psychiatric
treatment. They (along
with reporters looking
more about his
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.)
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
there were rumors that
two of the four
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
the hospital, Dr. Robert
S. Garber, assistant
superintendent, and Dr.
James Spradley began
attended by the
prosecutor and several
permitted to enter the
isolation cell for
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
During the testing, the
relative of the boy who
recently had died showed
up in the doorway of
going to get him!" the
man yelled, trying to
rush inside, but the
police guards restrained
him and took him out.
Edward Strecker, of the
Medical School of the
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
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
that Unruh's overtly
might have given him a
savior complex, and when
he saw that he had
failed to save the world,
they awaited the
reporters looked around
for earlier signs of
Woodrow Wilson High
School yearbook from
1939 indicated that he
was shy and that his
ambition was to become a
They called him "How."
A check of his records
revealed Bs and Cs for
things like "health,"
There was no evaluation
of his intelligence, but
his mental alertness was
two months of
physiological tests, the
assessment was concluded
and the final diagnosis
was "Dementia praecox,
mixed type, with
pronounced catatonic and
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
of two a
it was a
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."
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
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 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."
words, had he gone on
his rampage today, his
paranoia would have been
acknowledged but unless
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
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