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 Howard Unruh's "Walk of Death"

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PostSubject: Howard Unruh's "Walk of Death"   Thu Feb 09, 2017 10:22 pm

On September 6, 1949 in Camden, New Jersey, 28 year old Howard Unruh took a 12 minute walk through his neighborhood with his Luger P08 pistol, leaving 13 dead and 3 injured.

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I think Howard Unruh's case is interesting and I rarely hear anything about it. Most people point to Charles Whitman as an early example of a mass shooter but Unruh's massacre took place even before that, in 1949, and I think that in some ways, he bears more similarities to many modern shooters than Whitman. He was the stereotypical “lone wolf” killer, a young man who was unsuccessful in his social and professional life, who had been ostracized by his community and despite seeming harmless to most people, he was paranoid and harbored intense anger. He even had his own version of a hit list.

Howard was born on January 21, 1921. Psychiatrists noted that it took him an abnormally long time to potty train, and he did not walk or talk until 16 months but other than that, he was considered to be a normal boy. He grew up in New Jersey and was known to be very shy and quiet. His parents separated when he was young so he and his younger brother Jim were raised in Camden by their mother, who worked in a soap factory.

After high school, Howard served as a soldier in WWII where he kept a diary with a detailed list of every German soldier that he had killed. He would mark down the day, hour, and place, and whenever possible, describe the corpses in bloody detail. He was honorably discharged and returned home to New Jersey but his brother stated that he wasn’t the same, that “he was nervous and never acted like his old self.”

He spent a lot of time collecting firearms or practicing shooting in a range he had set up in his basement, even though the ceiling was so low that it required him to shoot from a kneeling position. He decorated his room with weaponry, including pistols and bayonets hanging on his walls and ashtrays fashioned from German shells. He was a devout Christian for many years, spending time reading the bible and frequently attending church services. His two favorite hobbies were stamp collecting and building model trains. He never drank or smoked, even as an adult.

After the war, he worked a couple of factory jobs, neither of which lasted more than a year, and briefly attended a pharmacist program at a university before dropping out a few months later. By December 1948, he was unemployed and living at home with his mother with no prospects for the future.

Howard had dated a girl for about two years, between 1944 and 1946 but he later told her that he was “schizo” and would never marry her. He admitted to himself that he was a homosexual in his late 20s, which was obviously not socially acceptable in the 1940s but was also actually illegal at the time. He felt unhappy about it and had lost interest in religion because of it. Howard kept a room in a Philadelphia lodging house for about a year, where a maid reportedly saw him coming and going with strange men all the time which resulted in Howard contracting gonorrhea at some point.

Howard was paranoid and his resentment of the people in his community grew for some time. He started to keep a list of those who had wronged him, mostly minor or possibly imagined transgressions. His neighbor and local drugstore owner, Mr. Cohen, had short-changed him five times while Mrs. Cohen told him to turn down his music, even though their son Charles was permitted to practice with his loud trumpet. The man and woman who lived below him threw trash on his back lot. The barber put dirt in a vacant yard that backed up the drainage and flooded his cellar. The shoemaker buried trash close to his property. A boy from the neighborhood tapped his electricity to light up the Christmas trees he was selling on the street.

Howard was paranoid about his reputation among his neighbors but this was apparently justified. He later told police that they had "been making derogatory remarks about [his] character." Neighbors noted that he was a "mama's boy" and suspected his homosexual tendencies, leading some of the older teenagers in the neighborhood to tease and harass him about it. One neighbor called him “queer” and another had been spreading a rumor about seeing him “go down on somebody in an alley one time.”

Neighbors certainly found Howard strange – there were reports of him dressing in a suit and army boots, taking his bible and quoting scripture publicly – but no one thought he was dangerous. The local tailor described Howard as “awfully polite. The kind of guy who wouldn’t hurt a flea.” His wife, who would later be one of Howard’s victims, said, “I think he’s a nice fellow. He seems devoted to his mother, too. That’s something I like.”

Howard was also involved in an ongoing feud with his next door neighbors, the Cohens, over the use of a gate in their backyards. Just before his shooting, he had erected a new gate made by a family friend to settle the issue. On the evening of September 5th, he had a date with a man at a well-known gay pick-up spot in Philadelphia but there was traffic and by the time he arrived at the theater, his date was gone. He waited around for several hours and when he returned home from the theater that night at 3 a.m., thoroughly disappointed, he saw that his new gate was missing and assumed that it had been taken by one of his neighbors. Unruh told the police, "When I came home last night and found my gate had been stolen, I decided to kill them all." He decided that he would do it at 9:30 that morning, because most of the stores would be open by then.

On the morning of September 6th, Howard’s mother woke him around 8 a.m. and the slender, six foot tall man dressed in his best brown suit and a striped bow tie. Howard’s mother then cooked him breakfast. He later admitted that he considered killing his mother that morning. He had threatened to kill her with a wrench he had retrieved from the basement and she repeatedly asked him “What do you want to do that for, Howard?” but he didn’t respond so she had fled the apartment. She went over to her friend Caroline Pinner’s home on the next block. She mentioned to them how strange Howard’s eyes had looked and how she was worried about him. Alone in his room, Howard loaded his Luger with one magazine and carried a second in his pocket, along with some loose ammunition. He also equipped himself with a six-inch knife and a tear gas pen with six shells. Then he walked out onto the street and began his rampage.

Right outside his apartment, Howard took a shot at a truck, narrowly missing the bread delivery man. Then Howard turned the corner and entered the shoe repair shop of John Pilarchik. He stood three feet away and shot him twice, once in the stomach and the other in the head, killing him instantly. A boy in the shop took cover but Howard ignored him and walked out without saying anything.

Mrs. Unruh heard the initial gunshots from the Pinners’ home and realized what was happening. She cried "Oh, Howard, oh, Howard, they're to blame for this," and asked to use the phone. Before she could make a call, she fainted in their living room.

Howard then entered Clark Hoover’s barber shop, where he was cutting the hair of six year old Orris Smith as his mother looked on. Howard said “I’ve got something for you, Clarkie,” and though the barber attempted to shield the child, Howard shot the child in the head and then did the same to the barber, killing them both. Howard ignored everyone else in the shop as they screamed in horror and calmly walked out to continue his massacre. Mrs. Smith carried her son outside looking for help, screaming, "My boy is dead. I know he's dead."

Howard walked down the street shooting at, but missing, a child watching in the street. He attempted to enter the tavern but the door was locked so he fired several bullets into the door and moved on. He reloaded his pistol and headed for the drugstore owned by the Cohens, his neighbors and the people for whom he harbored the most resentment. As he attempted to enter the drugstore, insurance agent James Hutton, who Howard was acquainted with, was stepping out the door to see what was causing the commotion. He greeted Howard who said, “Excuse me, sir,” and when Hutton didn’t move fast enough, Howard shot him. He stepped over Hutton’s body and entered the store.

Rose Cohen and her husband ran upstairs to the attached apartment. Rose hid her son Charles in a closet and then hid herself in a separate one. Howard followed them and fired several times through the closet door and then opened it, shooting Rose once in the head and killing her. He then found Rose’s mother Minnie in a bedroom as she attempted to call the police and shot her twice in the head. He caught Maurice Cohen with a bullet in the back as the man jumped out the window to the porch roof. Mr. Cohen, wounded, fell onto the sidewalk below but Howard had come back down to the street and he fired on him one more time, killing him. Charles was the only member of the family to survive that day.  

By this time, Howard had killed most of the people on his mental hit list but he reloaded his gun and his rampage continued. He circled back, and encountered Alvin Day, a motorist who had slowed down upon seeing Hutton’s body lying on the sidewalk. Howard leaned into his car and shot him dead. He saw a car stopped by a red light and fired through the windshield, killing Helen Wilson and her mother Emma Matlack and wounding Helen’s nine year old son John with a bullet through his neck, and the boy later died at a hospital.

Howard attempted to enter the local grocery across the street from the drug store but again, the door was locked so he fired into the closed door and walked away. No one there was hurt. He also shot a teenager, Charlie Peterson, in the leg after he and his two friends had gotten out of their car to investigate Hutton’s dead body.

Frank Engel, the tavern owner, had retrieved his pistol after the initial attack and he fired at Howard from the second story window. He thought he had hit him in the thigh so he stopped shooting. He later said he could have put half a dozen bullets into him and he didn’t know why he didn’t do it but wished he had.

Howard headed for his final targets at the tailor shop near the other end of the block. The tailor was not there but his wife of one month, Helga Zegrino, was alone in the shop. Howard shot her dead as she screamed and begged for her life so loud that the people across the street could hear her pleas.

He then shot a two year old boy, Tommy Hamilton, in the head, as he peeked out a window next door to the tailor shop. Howard later said that he mistook the moving shadow in the window as one of the people dumping trash in his yard when he took this shot.

Finally, Howard cut through an alley and broke into the home behind his apartment, wounding Madeline Harrie and her teenage son, Armand. At this point he was out of ammunition and there were approaching sirens so he retreated to his apartment. In less than 20 minutes, 12 people were dead, one was fatally wounded and three were injured by his attack.

Howard was inside of his apartment as the authorities began to respond to calls for help. An estimated 50 officers arrived and began shooting at his home with machine guns, shotguns and pistols, although there were neighbors crowded around to watch the action. At the time, mass shootings were unheard of so there was no protocol to follow in a case like this.

A local journalist, Philip Buxton, looked up Howard’s number in the phone book and called him while he was cornered in his home. He called the number and to his surprise, Howard answered. They chatted briefly as police bullets shattered windows. The journalist asked questions, and Howard calmly answered them, without a trace of panic.
Buxton: “What are they doing to you?"
Unruh: "They haven't done anything to me yet, but I'm doing plenty to them."
Buxton: "How many have you killed?"
Unruh: "I don't know yet. I haven't counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score."
Buxton: "Why are you killing people?"
Unruh: "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.

By now, officers had climbed up on the same roof that Maurice Cohen had tried to escape from. They shot a tear gas canister through Howard’s window. It was effective. Five minutes later Howard called out that he was surrendering. He left his gun on a desk and walked outside with his hands up. He was cuffed as onlookers screamed that he should be lynched right there. One cop angrily asked, “What’s the matter with you? You a psycho?” and Howard replied, “I am no psycho. I have a good mind.”

Neighbors were shocked. Those who knew Howard kept talking about how quiet and soft-spoken he had been, how he took his mother to church and how he had marked passages of scripture. One man said “He was a quiet one, that guy. He was all the time figuring to do this thing. You gotta watch them quiet ones."

Howard was brought directly to the police station for questioning by detectives. He took responsibility and gave details on the killings without emotion. A couple of hours into the interrogation, the District Attorney noticed a pool of blood on the floor under Howard’s chair. Apparently, the tavern owner had hit his mark and Howard was rushed to the hospital where surgeons treated the bullet wound to his upper thigh.

The next day Howard was taken to the Vroom Building for the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. Starting that day, he was questioned by a team of psychiatrists for several weeks as they tried to determine whether he had a mental illness. He explained to them how his neighbors had wronged him and again described the murders in great detail and with very little emotion. He did express sorrow for the children he killed but the doctor’s notes indicated that he did not appear to feel remorseful. He apparently said that “murder is sin, and I should get the chair.”

Unfortunately, during some of the interviews, he was given “truth serum,” which has since been discredited because it can produce unreliable results where fantasies and imagined memories are mixed with truthful statements. Though the veracity of his statements can’t be known, during these interviews he admitted that he had been in bed with his mother and they had sexual contact, where he fondled her breasts and “their privates touched,” though he was not sexually aroused by the contact. This was reportedly one of the only times that he showed any emotion during the interviews. Howard also stated that he had once made advances on his brother when they were sleeping together, which Jim had vigorously resisted.

In his home, police found the journal where he had written a list of his neighbors and their offenses against him, marking some of them with “retal” for retaliation. He told psychiatrists that he “had been thinking about killing them for some time.” He told investigators that he had the neighborhood druggist, the neighborhood barber, the neighborhood cobbler, and the neighborhood tailor on his list of targets when he set out. However, he also told them "I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough” and their notes say that “after WWII, after he returned home, he did not work nor did he any life goals or directions, had difficulty adjusting or solving problems and was, ‘angry at the world.’”

Howard never went to trial for his massacre as he was committed by a judge on October 20, 1949 with the diagnosis of “dementia praecox, mixed type, with pronounced catatonic and paranoid coloring,” or paranoid schizophrenia. At least one expert believes this initial diagnosis was incorrect since he didn’t really have any symptoms of schizophrenia and it was somewhat of a catch-all diagnosis at the time. They say that today, he would have been found legally sane and competent to stand trial. Instead, Howard remained on the grounds of the same Trenton Psychiatric Hospital for the next 60 years, until his death in 2009 at 88 years old.

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PostSubject: Re: Howard Unruh's "Walk of Death"   Thu Feb 09, 2017 11:06 pm

Interesting, thank you for posting this [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]

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
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PostSubject: Re: Howard Unruh's "Walk of Death"   Fri Feb 10, 2017 12:03 am

[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.] wrote:

Interesting, thank you for posting this [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]
No problem. Thank you for reading. Smile

I don't know why, but Howard Unruh's story sticks with me more than others. Maybe it's that there are some things about Unruh's personality and lifestyle that remind me of Lanza, even though their killing sprees were over 60 years apart. He was a soft-spoken introvert who lived alone with his mother and harbored hostility toward her. He had issues surrounding his sexuality. He had significant developmental delays at a young age. He was unemotional and non-violent but interested in the military and firearms. He kept detailed records of his kills, just as Lanza kept a detailed list of mass murders. He kept a list of complaints against his neighbors before killing them just as Lanza had a list of complaints directed toward his mother on his computer. He had few close relationships and was unable to complete college or hold a job, despite efforts to do so. He was enthusiastic about firearms and practiced shooting in his basement, like Lanza supposedly did. He spent most of his time alone, engaging in his solitary hobbies and he did not drink, smoke or do drugs.

There are obvious personality differences though. Lanza was an atheist who hated religion while Unruh was a devout churchgoer (though it has been said that sometime in his teens Lanza was obsessed with religion, it's not clear what the context was and it's unlikely that he was ever a believer). Unruh was promiscuous while Lanza hated the thought of casual sex. Lanza committed suicide while Unruh surrendered. The biggest difference was that Unruh killed people he knew well and Lanza killed complete strangers but it seems that in both cases, the shooters focused their anger and discontent on outside forces (and became obsessed with their perceived persecution) instead of admitting that their unhappiness probably stemmed from something inside of themselves. However, that seems to be a common thread among most mass shooters including Eric, Dylan and others.
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PostSubject: Re: Howard Unruh's "Walk of Death"   Fri Feb 10, 2017 11:35 am

Thank you for posting this. Indeed I had never heard of it and it is quite interesting. I agree he does sound quite a bit like Lanza. How terrifying it must have been to see this man just casually walking up and down the street shooting people!

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