Howard Barton Unruh
January 21, 1921
Camden, New Jersey, United States
|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 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.
Background and possible motives for killings
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, 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.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 27, 1942, and from October 1944 to July 1945 saw active service in the Rhineland. He was a part of many armored artillery battles as a tank soldier across Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, and Germany. He was awarded the European Theater of Operations Medal, the Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. He was remembered by his Section Chief, Norman E. Koehn, as a first-class soldier who never drank, swore, or chased girls, a smart but quiet man who spent much time reading his Bible and writing long letters to his mother. It was also cited that he kept meticulous notes on the enemies killed in battles, down to the details of the corpses. But his hobby was guns, and his marksmanship, noted Koehn, was deadly. He was honorably discharged at the end of the war, after which he returned to New Jersey to live with his mother.
He briefly found work as a sheet-metal worker before enrolling at Temple University in Philadelphia in their School of Pharmacy, but quit after a month citing "poor physical condition" as the reason, after which, supported by his mother's income working in a soap factory, he hung about the 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 his relations with his neighbors began to deteriorate, and his resentment grew over what he regarded as "derogatory remarks made about my character". The evening prior to the killings, he went to a movie theater in Philadelphia, where he 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 the man was gone by the time he arrived. Upon his return home, the gate he had installed that day had been removed. It was the following morning that he decided to commit the rampage. Both his brother, James, and his father Samuel, indicated that Howard's wartime experiences had changed him, making him moody, nervous and detached, although James also pointed to the ongoing feud his brother had been having with his neighbor, the pharmacist Maurice Cohen, as a possible trigger for the killing spree. For several months he had been engaged in a dispute with Cohen relating to use of the pharmacist's backyard as a means of access to his apartment. As well as Cohen, he planned to kill John Pilarchik, shoemaker, Clark Hoover, barber, and Thomas Zegrino, tailor.
Walk of Death
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, 8-round magazine, and more ammunition stored in his pockets, he left his apartment and walked out onto River Road.
Unruh first walked by a bread delivery truck, shoved his pistol through the door, and shot at the bread delivery driver. He missed his shot by a few inches and the bread delivery driver attempted to warn people, but he was too late. He then made his first planned stop at the shop of shoemaker John Pilarchik, whom he shot and killed instantly. He next visited the barber shop of Clark Hoover, who was cutting the hair of a six-year old boy. He shot Hoover in the head and the boy in the neck, killing both instantly.
He then ran to the River Road pharmacy, intending to kill Maurice Cohen. Outside he encountered James Hutton, an insurance man. Unruh asked him to excuse him, but Hutton didn't move fast enough for the gunman's liking, so he shot and killed him.
Upon entering the drugstore he found it empty. He then proceeded to the rear of the premises where he witnessed Maurice and his wife Rose running up the stairs into their apartment. Once in the apartment, Maurice climbed through a window and onto the porch roof. Meanwhile Rose hid in a closet after putting their son, Charles, 12, in a separate closet. Unruh however 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 Maurice’s mother Minnie, 63, trying to call the police, and shot her multiple times. He then followed Maurice onto a porch roof and shot him in the back, sending him to the pavement below. Charles, still hiding in the second closet, managed to escape undetected.
Unruh then went back onto River Road where he walked in the middle of the road, causing a sedan to slow for fear of hitting him. Unruh walked up to the car and shot the driver, Alvin Day, killing him instantly and causing the car to careen onto the sidewalk.
He then visited the tailor shop of Thomas Zegrino, the only one of Unruh's intended targets who survived his murder spree. Zegrino was absent, but his wife Helga was there and was shot and killed by the gunman.
Unruh next went to a foodstore. He found the door locked and fired through it, failing to injure anyone inside. He approached a car waiting at the intersection and shot everyone inside: Helen Wilson, her son John, and mother Emma Matlack. The two women died instantly. The boy died later in hospital.
He then shot at someone through an apartment window, instantly 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.
As another car came down the street he shot at the occupants, Charles Peterson and James Crawford. They survived and managed to escape to a nearby tavern, the same one Roxy de Marco had found refuge in.
Another 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 the gunman.[clarification needed]
Unruh then 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 police officer on the scene was Detective William E. Kelly, Sr (who served with United States Army Air Corps during World War II). A gunfight ensued, during which journalist Philip Buxton of the Camden Evening Courier located Unruh's number in the local telephone directory and called it. 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 (The latter served with U.S. Army during World War I), 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."
He emerged from the room and stumbled down the stairs, falling at the feet of the officers and was handcuffed by Sgt. 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. Only at the end of this interrogation did police discover that he had a bullet wound in his left thigh. He was subsequently taken to Cooper Hospital for treatment, while his 13th victim, John Wilson, lay dying in the same hospital.
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 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 12, survived the murder of his parents and grandmother Minnie Cohen 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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- Howard Unruh - 1939 Woodrow Wilson High School yearbook entry
- Howard Unruh at Find a Grave
- Life Magazine September 19, 1949