Howard Barton Unruh
January 21, 1921
|Died||October 19, 2009 (aged 88)|
|Occupation||United States Army (1942–1945); honorable discharge, employment as a sheet-metal worker|
|Criminal penalty||Commitment to an asylum after being found criminally insane|
|Date||September 6, 1949|
|Location(s)||Camden, New Jersey,|
|Weapons||Luger P08 pistol|
Howard Barton Unruh (January 21, 1921 – October 19, 2009) was an American mass murderer (sometimes classified as a spree killer) who shot and killed thirteen people (including three children) during a twelve-minute walk through his neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, United States, on September 6, 1949, when he was 28 years old. The incident became known as the "Walk of Death". Unruh was found to be criminally insane, and died in 2009 after a lengthy illness at the age of 88 following sixty years of confinement.
Background and possible motives for killings
Howard Unruh was the son of Samuel Shipley Unruh and Freda E. Vollmer. He had a younger brother, James; they were raised by their mother after their parents separated. Unruh grew up in East Camden, New Jersey, attended Cramer Junior High School, and graduated 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.
Unruh enlisted in the United States Army on October 27, 1942, and saw active service as a tank soldier across Europe between October 1944 and July 1945. He was remembered by his Section Chief, Norman E. Koehn, as a first-class soldier who never drank, swore, or chased girls, yet spent much time reading his Bible and writing long letters to his mother. It was also cited that Unruh kept meticulous notes on the enemies killed in battles, down to the details of the corpses. He was awarded the European Theater of Operations Medal, the Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. Unruh was honorably discharged at the end of the war and returned to New Jersey to live with his mother. Both his brother and his father later indicated that Unruh's wartime experiences had changed him, making him moody, nervous and detached.
Unruh briefly found work as a sheet-metal worker before enrolling at the Temple University School of Pharmacy in Philadelphia, but quit after a month citing "poor physical condition" as the reason. Supported by his mother's income working in a soap factory, he hung about their house, decorating it with his medals, reading his Bible, and practicing his shooting in the basement, which he turned into a practice range.
It was around this time that Unruh's relations with his neighbors began to deteriorate, and his resentment grew over what he regarded as "derogatory remarks made about my character". His brother James pointed to an ongoing feud between Unruh and his neighbor, pharmacist Maurice Cohen, over Unruh's use of Cohen's backyard as a means to access his apartment. On the evening prior to the killings, Unruh went to a movie theater in Philadelphia and sat through several shows before returning home about 3 a.m. He had gone to the theater to meet a homosexual man for a date, but was delayed and arrived to find that the man had gone. Upon his return home, the gate he had installed that day had been removed.
At approximately 7 a.m. on September 6, 1949, Unruh ate a breakfast prepared by his mother, who then left to visit a neighbor, Carolina Pinner. At about 9:20 a.m., armed with his Luger P08 pistol, an eight-round magazine, and more ammunition stored in his pockets, he left his apartment and walked out onto River Road in Camden. Approaching a bread delivery truck, Unruh shoved his pistol through the door and shot at the driver. He missed his shot by a few inches and the driver unsuccessfully attempted to warn residents.
Unruh visited the shop of one of his neighbors, shoemaker John Pilarchik, whom he shot and killed instantly. He next visited the barbershop of another neighbor, Clark Hoover, who was cutting the hair of six-year old Orris Smith; shooting Hoover in the head and Smith in the neck, both fatally. Running to Cohen's pharmacy, Unruh encountered insurance man James Hutton and killed him when he didn't move out of his way.
Unruh proceeded to the rear of the pharmacy and witnessed Cohen and his wife Rose running up the stairs into their apartment. Once in the apartment, Cohen climbed through a window and onto the porch roof, while Rose hid herself and their son, 12-year-old Charles, in separate closets. However, Unruh discovered the closet Rose was hiding in and shot three times through the door before opening it and firing once more into her face. Walking across the apartment, he spotted Cohen's mother Minnie, age 63, trying to call the police, and shot her multiple times. He then followed Cohen onto a porch roof and shot him in the back, causing him to fall to the pavement below. Charles, still hiding in the second closet, managed to escape undetected.
Unruh then walked into the middle of River Road and fired at an approaching sedan, killing the driver, Alvin Day, and causing the car to careen onto the sidewalk. He then visited the business of tailor Thomas Zegrino; he was absent, but his wife Helga was present and was killed by the gunman. Zegrino would be the only one of Unruh's intended targets to survive the rampage.
After firing through the locked front door of a grocery store, Unruh approached a car waiting at the intersection and shot the occupants: Helen Wilson, her son John, and mother Emma Matlack; the two women died instantly, while the boy later died at Cooper Hospital. Unruh then fired through an apartment window, killing 2-year-old Thomas Hamilton. The child's caregiver, Irene Rice, collapsed upon witnessing the shooting and was treated for severe shock; Unruh would later claim that he didn't know who he saw in the window or whether he hit them. Unruh next fired upon another car coming down the street; its occupants, Charles Peterson and James Crawford, managed to escape to a nearby tavern and survived.
Witness William McNeely saw Frank Engel run out of the tavern and shoot at Unruh, but he apparently missed and then ran back inside. In fact, he had succeeded in shooting Unruh in the leg, which police would only discover at the end of a lengthy interview with Unruh. Unruh fired at several other people across the street, missing them. He then found Madeline Harris and her son Armand outside their home hanging out blankets to dry, and shot at them; both were injured but survived.
Hearing police sirens in the distance, Unruh returned to his apartment, which was soon surrounded by police. The first officer on the scene was Detective William E. Kelly, Sr. A gunfight ensued, during which journalist Philip Buxton of the Camden Evening Courier located Unruh's number in the local telephone directory and dialled. Unruh answered in what was described as "a strong, clear voice", and had the following conversation with Buxton:
"Is this Howard?"
"Yes ... what's the last name of the party you want?"
(Pause) "What's the last name of the party you want?"
"Unruh. I'm a friend, and I want to know what they're doing to you."
"They're not doing a damned thing to me, but I'm doing plenty to them."
(In a soothing, reassuring voice) "How many have you killed?"
"I don't know yet, because I haven't counted them ... (pause) 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."
(At that point Buxton heard Unruh move away from the phone as gunfire was heard in the background)
"I'll have to talk to you later ... a couple of friends are coming to get me" ... (voice trails off).
The gunfight ended when police threw two tear gas bombs into the apartment, the second of which ignited, filling the room with gas. Two armed officers, Patrolman Charles Hance and Captain Everett Joslin, went up to the first floor of the building and shouted, "Come down with your hands up", to which Unruh replied, "I give up. Don't shoot." Unruh emerged from the room and stumbled down the stairs, falling at the feet of the officers and was handcuffed by Sergeant Earl Wright.
Detectives found an apartment filled with what was described as an arsenal of weapons, guns, knives, bullet-making equipment and more than 700 rounds. In a drawer were several marksmanship medals, and in the basement was Unruh's target range. On a table was a Bible opened to Matthew Chapter 24. Police also found books relating to sex hygiene.
Arrest and incarceration
Under police interrogation, Unruh gave a meticulous account of his actions, which was later released by Camden County prosecutor Mitchell Cohen (no relation to Maurice Cohen). Only at the end of this interrogation did police discover that Unruh had a bullet wound in his left thigh. He was subsequently taken to Cooper Hospital for treatment, where his thirteenth victim, John Wilson, was already dying.
Charges were filed for thirteen counts of "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery". Unruh was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by psychologists and found to be 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 held in a private cell in the maximum-security Vroom Building. He remained incarcerated there for the rest of his life until his death in 2009. Unruh's last public words, made during an interview with a psychologist, were, "I'd have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets."
Unruh killed 13 and injured three. Those killed, and their ages, are listed below:
- John Joseph Pilarchik, 27
- Orris Martin Smith, 6
- Clark Hoover, 45
- James Hutton, 46
- Rose Cohen, 38
- Minnie Cohen, 63
- Dr. Maurice J. Cohen, 39
- Alvin Day, 24
- Thomas Hamilton, 2
- Helga Kautzach Zegrino, 28
- Emma Matlack, 68
- Helen Wilson, 37
- John Wilson, 9
Maurice and Rose Cohen's son Charles, then aged 12, survived the murder of his family by hiding in a closet. Charles H. Cohen (January 31, 1937 - September 4, 2009) was the maternal grandfather of Carly Novell, who survived the February 14, 2018, shooting incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, by hiding in a closet like her grandfather did in 1949. Charles Cohen died at the age of 72 on September 4, 2009, and buried two days later on September 6, 2009 (during the 60th anniversary of the mass murder and just one month before Unruh's death).
- List of rampage killers
- Gun violence in the United States
- Mass shootings in the United States
- Ernest Ingenito (1924–1995) another New Jersey-based spree killer
- "Camden mass murderer Howard Unruh dies at 88". philly.com. October 20, 2009. Retrieved August 7, 2011.
Berger, Meyer (September 7, 1949). "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 7, 2018. Retrieved June 23, 2018.
Howard B. Unruh, 28 years old, a mild, soft-spoken veteran of many armored artillery battles in Italy, France, Austria, Belgium and Germany, killed twelve persons with a war souvenir Luger pistol in his home block in East Camden this morning. He wounded four others.
Sauer, Patrick (October 14, 2015). "The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on July 7, 2018. Retrieved July 11, 2018.
He went into his apartment, uncased his German Luger P08, a 9mm pistol he’d purchased at a sporting goods store in Philadelphia for $37.50, and secured it with two clips and 33 loose cartridges.
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- A Portrait of the Jersey mass killer as an old man, The New York Times (March 8, 1982)
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- Howard Unruh, 88, Dies; Killed 13 of His Neighbors in Camden in 1949, The New York Times (October 19, 2009)
- Howard Unruh - 1939 Woodrow Wilson High School yearbook entry
- Howard Unruh at Find a Grave
- Life Magazine September 19, 1949