|Born||Howard Barton Unruh
January 21, 1921
Camden, New Jersey
|Died||October 19, 2009
Trenton, New Jersey
|Occupation||US Army (1942–1945); honorable discharge|
|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 killed 13 people (including three children) during a 12-minute walk through his neighborhood on September 6, 1949, in Camden, New Jersey, 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 60 years of confinement.
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 the parents separated. Unruh grew up in East Camden, 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.
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 served in the Battle of the Bulge and 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 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 homosexual and used to make fun of him. He was reported to have been depressed about having had "homosexual liaisons" in a Philadelphia movie theater.
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 a.m., 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 and wounded three 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 the 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 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 enough bullets."
Unruh killed 13 victims and injured three. Those killed, and their ages, are listed below:
- John Joseph Pilarchik, 27
- Orris Martin Smith, 6
- Clark Hoover, 33
- James Hutton, 45
- Rose Cohen, 38
- Minnie Cohen, 63
- Dr. Maurice J. Cohen, 39
- Alvin Day, 24
- Thomas Hamilton, 2
- Helga Kautzach Zegrino, 28
- Helen Wilson, 37
- Emma Matlack, 68
- John Wilson, 9
- "Camden mass murderer Howard Unruh dies at 88". philly.com. 2009-10-20. Retrieved 2011-08-07.
- "All about mass murderer Howard Unruh" by Katherine Ramsland
- Sexual homicide: Patterns and Motives; by Robert Ressler, et al., Free Press, 1995.
- Suspect in historic mass murder dies at 88
- Howard Unruh, dvrbs.com.
- Ramsland, Katherine. Rampage in Camden, truTV.com.
- Fischer, Heinz Dietrich, and Erika Fischer. The Pulitzer Prize Archive: A History and Anthology of Award-Winning Materials in Journalism, Letters and Arts, Part 1, 1987. (p. 19)
- Sixty years ago today, a Camden gunman killed 13, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 6, 2009. Archived October 30, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Mass murderer Unruh, who shot 13 in 1949, dies" by Bruce Shipkowski, Associated Press, October 21, 2009
- "The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History | History | Smithsonian". Smithsonianmag.com. 2015-10-14. Retrieved 2015-10-18.
- Ramsland, Katherine. Inside the minds of mass murderers: why they kill, 2005. (p. 8)
- "Berger Award". Columbia Journalism School. Retrieved July 3, 2014.
- Nash, Jay. History of World Crime. (p. 965)
- Dramatic summary of the murders as well as analysis from the Crime Library.
- The Quiet One, Time Magazine (September 19, 1949)
- A Portrait of the Jersey mass killer as an old man, The New York Times (March 8, 1982)
- Sixty years ago today, a Camden gunman killed 13, The Philadelphia Inquirer (September 6, 2009)
- 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