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 of 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 every single thing that 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 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 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 8:00 a.m. 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 with 14 shots and wounded several others. Although premeditated, the list of victims was marked by random chance. 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 instead.
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 good mind."
Unruh was later taken in for interrogation at the police headquarters, where policemen and Mitchell Cohen, Camden County prosecutor, questioned him for more than two hours. He told police that he had spent the previous evening sitting through three showings of a double feature, The Lady Gambles and I Cheated the Law, and had thought that actress Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors. He provided a meticulous account of his actions during the killings. Only at the end of the interrogation did they discover he had a gunshot wound in the left thigh, which he kept secret. He was subsequently taken to Cooper Hospital for treatment.
Charges were filed for 13 counts of "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery". He was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by psychologists, and found to be hopelessly insane, making him immune to criminal prosecution. When he was able to leave Cooper Hospital, Unruh was sent to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital), to be installed into a bed in a private cell in the maximum-security Vroom Building. Unruh's last public words, made during an interview with a psychologist, were, "I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough."
During his spree, Unruh killed 13 victims and injured three. Those killed are listed below:
John Joseph Pilarchik, age 27;
Orris Martin Smith, 6;
Clark Hoover, 33;
James Hutton, 45;
Rose Cohen, 38;
Minnie Cohen, 63;
Maurice J. Cohen, 39;
Alvin Day, 24;
Thomas Hamilton, 2;
Helga Kautzach Zegrino, 28;[
Helen Wilson, 37;
Emma Matlack, 68; and
John Wilson, 9.