First, let it be understood that this page is in no way an attempt to glorify Howard Unruh or the terrible things he did on September 7, 1949. If anything however, this page stands as evidence for each of us that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Howard Unruh has been, and unfortunately will continue to be, called America's first mass shooter. This is COMPLETELY UNTRUE.  There were several other similar incidents, including one in Chester, Pennsylvania in November of 1948..... less than 24 miles away and only 10 months before, where a sniper killed seven people before taking his own life. Click here for more information on this incident.

Howard Unruh has been described as "an odd, withdrawn 'mama's boy' in his neighborhood".  He grew up in East Camden, attending Cramer Junior High School and graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in January of 1939. 

Unruh served in the United States Army in Europe, and saw considerable combat. After returning home he became increasingly withdrawn. On September 6, 1949 the schizophrenia that had been manifesting itself unknown to his own family and his neighbors overtook him, and he killed 13 people in a shooting rampage that has been inaccurately described as "America's First Mass Murder".

Howard Unruh was never brought to trial, his mental condition being apparent to those who apprehended him. Sent to Trenton State Prison shortly after his arrest, he has been confined to a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane, and will remain confined for the rest of his life. This may well be considered one of the few times that the criminal justice system in New Jersey worked by its very un-involvement in the proceedings.

If there is any possible "silver lining" that can be found in this sad affair, is that the Unruh affair may have spurred the federal government to put additional resources into mental health care for the veterans that came home from World War II. Howard Unruh's rampage was arguably the culmination of a chain of events that had been taking place since the middle of World War II, evidenced by a series of suicides and suicide attempts by soldiers home on leave and discharged veterans

Howard Unruh - 1939 High School Yearbook

Howard Unruh
United States Army

Of the many on-line articles about Howard Unruh, some are pure garbage. Unfortunately, 60-plus years after the event, people with WORSE intentions than Howard Unruh's have sought to exploit the murders to further their own selfish political and social agendas. Beginning in 2009, articles began to appear claiming Howard Unruh was a homosexual. While it is beyond doubt that was teased, as many shy and reclusive boys were and are, there is ZERO evidence of him being gay. ZERO. If anything, there is more evidence to indicate the contrary, specifically, his time in the Army and his words and deeds after his arrest. To exploit the tragedy of Howard Unruh, one of thousands of combat veterans who came home during and after WWII with serious mental illness and found little help, is to spit in the face of every veteran who has come home from war damaged.

In 1945, Gen Omar N. Bradley was appointed as the head of the Veterans Administration. Bradley hired Paul Hawley, the chief surgeon of the European Theater of Operations, to direct the Division of Medicine. Hawley hired more than 4000 physicians and initiated an extensive hospital-building program. New Veterans Administration hospitals were established in affiliation with medical schools, guaranteeing that the best medical services would be provided to veterans. The Veterans Administration system also encouraged clinical psychologists to become psychotherapists and provided a large number of training positions. It took several years to hire the doctors and build the hospitals. My father, Dr. Leon B. Cohen, a clinical psychologuist, was one of these doctors.. he began his service with the V.A. in 1951... two years after Unruh's murders.

The most informative, accurate, and objective one, is by Katherine Ramsland. 

New York Times - September 7, 1949

For a distinguished example of local reporting during the year, The New York Times submits the story by Meyer Berger of the mass shootings in Camden, New Jersey on September 6, 1949. Mr. Berger was assigned to the story by The Times City Desk shortly before 11 A.M. He caught the first available train to Camden; personally covered the story and filed approximately 4,000 words. The last of his copy reached The Times office at 9:20 P.M., about one hour before the first edition closing. In the opinion of the editors of The New York Times, Mr. Berger’s story was a brilliant example of thorough, accurate reporting and skillful writing, under pressure. Mr. Berger subsequently received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

CAMDEN, N.J., Sept.6--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.

Unruh, a slender, hollow-cheeked six-footer paradoxically devoted to scripture reading and to constant practice with firearms, had no previous history of mental illness but specialists indicated tonight that there was no doubt that he was a psychiatric case, and that he had secretly nursed a persecution complex for two years or more.

The veteran was shot in the left thigh by a local tavern keeper but he kept that fact secret, too, while policemen and Mitchell Cohen, Camden County prosecutor, questioned him at police headquarters for more than two hours immediately after tear gas bombs had forced him out of his bedroom to surrender.

Blood Betrays His Wound

The blood stain he left on the seat he occupied during the questioning betrayed his wound. When it was discovered he was taken to Cooper Hospital in Camden, a prisoner charged with murder.

He was as calm under questioning as he was during the twenty minutes that he was shooting men, women and children. Only occasionally excessive brightness of his dark eyes indicated that he was anything other than normal.

He told the prosecutor that he had been building up resentment against neighbors and neighborhood shopkeepers for a long time. “They have been making derogatory remarks about my character,” he said. His resentment seemed most strongly concentrated against Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Cohen who lived next door to him. They are among the dead.

Mr. Cohen was a druggist with a shop at 3202 River Road in East Camden. He and his wife had had frequent sharp exchanges over the Unruhs’ use of a gate that separates their back yard from the Cohens’. Mrs. Cohen had also complained of young Unruh’s keeping his bedroom radio tuned high into the late night hours. None of the other victims had ever had trouble with him. Unruh, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School here, had started a GI course in pharmacy at Temple University in Philadelphia some time after he was honorably discharged from the service in 1945, but had stayed with it only three months. In recent months he had been unemployed, and apparently was not even looking for work.

Mother Separated From Husband

His mother, Mrs. Rita Unruh, 50, is separated from her husband. She works as a packer in the J. Evanson Soap Company in Camden and hers was virtually the only family income. James Unruh, 25 years old, her younger son, is married and lives in Haddon Heights, N.J. He works for the Curtis Publishing Company.

On Monday night, Howard Unruh left the house alone. He spent the night at the Family Theater on Market Street in Philadelphia to sit through several showings of the double feature motion picture there--“I Cheated the Law” and “The Lady Gambles.” It was past three o’clock this morning when he got home.

Prosecutor Cohen said that Unruh told him later that before he fell asleep this morning he had made up his mind to shoot the persons who had “talked about me,” that he had even figured out that 9:30 A.M. would be the time to begin because most of the stores in his block would be open at that hour.

His mother, leaving her ironing when he got up, prepared his breakfast in their drab little three-room apartment in the shabby gray two-story stucco house at the corner of River Road and Thirty Second Street. After breakfast, he loaded one clip of bullets into his Luger, slipped another clip into his pocket, and carried sixteen loose cartridges in addition. He also carried a tear-gas pen with six shells and a sharp six-inch knife.

He took one last look around his bedroom before he left the house. On the peeling walls he had crossed pistols, crossed German bayonets, pictures of armored artillery in action. Scattered about the chamber were machetes, a Roy Rogers pistol, ash trays made of German shells, clips of 30-30 cartridges for rifle use and a host of varied war souvenirs.

Mrs. Unruh had left the house some minutes before, to call on Mrs. Caroline Pinner, a friend in the next block. Mrs. Unruh had sensed, apparently, that her son’s smoldering resentments were coming to a head. She had pleaded with Elias Pinner, her friend’s husband, to cut a little gate in the Unruhs’ backyard so that Howard need not use the Cohen gate again. Mr. Pinner finished the gate early Monday evening after Howard had gone to Philadelphia.

At the Pinners’ house at 9 o’clock this morning, Mrs. Unruh had murmured something about Howard’s eyes: how strange they looked and how worried she was about him.

A few minutes later River Road echoed and re-echoed to pistol fire. Howard Unruh was on the rampage. His mother, who had left the Pinners’ little white house only a few seconds before, turned back. She hurried through the door.

She cried, “Oh, Howard, oh, Howard, they’re to blame for this.” She rushed past Mrs. Pinner, a kindly gray-haired woman of 70. She said, “I’ve got to use the phone; may I use the phone?”

But before she had crossed the living room to reach for it she fell on the faded carpet in a dead faint. The Pinners lifted her onto a couch in the next room. Mrs. Pinner applied aromatic spirits to revive her.

Panic Grips Entire Block

While his mother writhed on the sofa in her house dress, and worn old sweater, coming back to consciousness, Howard Unruh was walking from shop to shop in the “3200 block” with deadly calm, spurting Luger in hand. Children screamed as they tumbled over one another to get out of his way. Men and women dodged into open shops, the women shrill with panic, man hoarse with fear. No one could quite understand for a time. what had been loosed in the block.

Unruh first walked into John Pilarchik’s shoe repair shop near the north end of his own side of the street. The cobbler, a 27-year-old man who lives in Pennsauken Township, looked up open-mouthed as Unruh came to within a yard of him. The cobbler started up from his bench but went down with a bullet in his stomach. A little boy who was in the shop hid behind the counter and crouched there in terror. Unruh walked out into the sunlit street.

“I shot them in the chest first,” he told the prosecutor later, in meticulous detail, “and then I aimed for the head.” His aim was devastating--and with reason. He had won marksmanship and sharpshooters’ ratings in the service, and he practiced with his Luger all the time on a target set up in the cellar of his home.

Unruh told the prosecutor afterward that he had Cohen the druggist, the neighborhood barber, the neighborhood cobbler and the neighborhood tailor on his mental list of persons who had “talked about him.” He went methodically about wiping them out. Oddly enough, he did not start with the druggist, against whom he seemed to have the sharpest feelings, but left him almost for the last.

Newlywed Wife Shot Dead

From the cobbler’s he went into the little tailor shop at 3214 River Road. The tailor was out. Helga Zegrino, 28 years old, the tailor’s wife was there alone. The couple, incidentally, had been married only one month. She screamed when Unruh walked in with his Luger in his hand. Some people across the street heard her. Then the gun blasted again and Mrs. Zegrino pitched over, dead. Unruh walked into the sunlight again.

All this was only a matter of seconds and still only a few persons had begun to understand what was afoot. Down the street at 3210 River Road is Clark Hoover’s little country barber shop. In the center was a white-painted carousel-type horse for children customers. Orris Smith, a blonde boy only 6 years old, was in it, with a bib around his neck, submitting to a shearing. His mother, Mrs. Catherine Smith, 42, sat on a chair against the wall and watched.

She looked up. Clark Hoover turned from his work, to see the six-footer, gaunt and tense, but silent, standing in the driveway with of the Luger. Unruh’s brown tropical worsted suit was barred with morning shadow. The sun lay bright in his crew-cut brown hair. He wore no hat. Mrs. Smith could not understand what was about to happen.

Unruh walked to “Brux”-- that is Mrs. Smith’s nickname for her little boy -- and put the Luger to the child’s chest. The shot echoed and reverberated in the little 12 by 12 shop. The little boy’s head pitched toward the wound, his hair, half-cut, stained with red. Unruh said never a word. He put the Luger close to the shaking barber’s hand. Before the horrified mother, Unruh leaned over and fired another shot into Hoover.

The veteran made no attempt to kill Mrs. Smith. He did not seem to hear her screams. He turned his back and stalked out, unhurried. A few doors north, Dominick Latela, who runs a little restaurant, had come to his shop window to learn what the shooting was about. He saw Unruh cross the street toward Frank Engel’s Tavern. Then he saw Mrs. Smith stagger out with her pitiful burden. Her son’s head rolled over the crook of her right arm.

Mrs. Smith screamed, “My boy is dead. I know he’s dead.” She stared about her, looking in vain for aid. No one but Howard Unruh was in sight, and he was concentrating on the tavern. Latela dashed out, but first he shouted to his wife, Dora, who was in the restaurant with their daughter Eleanor, 6 years old. He hollered, “I”m going out. Lock the door behind me.” He ran for his car, and drove it down toward Mrs. Smith as she stood on the payment with her son.

Latela took the child from her arms and placed him on the car’s front seat. He pushed the mother into the rear seat, slammed the doors and headed for Cooper Hospital. Howard Unruh had not turned. Engle, the tavern keeper, had locked his own door. His customers, the bartender and a porter made a concerted rush for the rear of the saloon. The bullets tore through the tavern door paneling. Engel rushed upstairs and got out his .38 caliber pistol, then rushed to the street window of his apartment.

Unruh was back in the center of the street. He fired a shot at an apartment window at 3208 River Road. Tommy Hamilton, 2 years old, fell back with a bullet in his head. Unruh went north again to Latela’s place. He fired a shot at the door, and kicked in the lower glass panel. Mrs. Latela crouched behind the counter with her daughter. She heard the bullets, but neither she nor her child was touched. Unruh walked back toward Thirty-second Street, reloading the Luger.

Now, the little street--a small block with only five buildings on one side, three one-story stores on the other--was shrill with women’s and children’s panicky outcries. A group of six or seven little boys or girls fled pass Unruh. They screamed, “Crazy man!” and unintellible sentences. Unruh did not seem to hear, or see, them.

Autoist Goes to His Death

Alvin Day, a television repair man, who lives in the near-by Mantua, had heard the shooting, but driving into the street he was not aware of what had happened. Unruh walked up to the car window as Day rolled by, and fired once through the window, with deadly aim. The repair man fell against the steering wheel. The front wheels hit the opposite curb and stalled. Day was dead.

Frank Engel had thrown open his second-four apartment window. He saw Unruh pause for a moment in a narrow alley between the cobbler’s shop and a little two-story house. He aimed and fired. Unruh stopped for just a second. The bullet had hit, but he did not seem to mind, after the initial brief shock. He headed toward the corner drugstore, and Engle did not fire again.

“I wish I had,” he said, later. “I could have killed him then. I could have put a half-dozen shots into him. I don’t know why I didn’t do it.”

Cohen, the druggist, a heavy man of 40, had run into the street shouting, “What’s going on here? What’s going on here?” but at sight of Unruh hurried back into his shop. James J. Huttton, 45, an insurance agent from Westmont, N.J., started out of the drug shop to see what the shooting was about. Like so many others he had figured at first that it was some car backfiring. He came face to face with Unruh.

Unruh said quietly, “Excuse me, sir,” and started to push past him. Later, Unruh told the police: “That man didn’t act fast enough. He didn’t get out of my way.” He fired into Hutton’s head and body. The insurance man pitched onto the sidewalk and lay still.

Cohen had run to his upstairs apartment and had tried to warn Minnie Cohen, 63, his mother, and Rose, his wife, 38, to hide. His son, Charles, 14, was in the apartment, too.

Mrs. Cohen shoved the boy into a clothes closet, and leaped into another closet herself. She pulled the door to. The druggist, meanwhile had leaped from the window onto a porch roof. Unruh, a gaunt figure at the window behind him, fired into the druggist’s back. The druggist, still running, bounded off the roof and lay dead in Thirty-second Street.

Unruh fired into the closet, where Mrs. Cohen was hidden. She fell dead behind the closed door, and he did not bother to open it. Mrs. Minnie Cohen tried to get to the telephone in an adjoining bedroom to call the police. Unruh fired shots into her head and body and she sprawled dead on the bed. Unruh walked down the stairs with his Luger reloaded and came out into the street again.

A coupe had stopped at River Road, obeying a red light. The passengers obviously had no idea of what was loose in East Camden and no one had a chance to tell them. Unruh walked up to the car, and though it was filled with total strangers, fired deliberately at them, one by one, through the windshield. He killed the two women passengers, Mrs. Helen Matlack Wilson, 43, of Pennsauken, who was driving, and her mother, Mrs. Emma Matlack, 66. Mrs. Wilson’s son John, 12, was badly wounded. A bullet pierced his neck, just below in the jawbone.

Earl Horner, clerk in the American Stores Company, a grocery opposite the drugstore, had locked his front door after several passing men, women and children had tumbled breathlessly into the shop panting “crazy man***killing people.***” Unruh came up to the door and fired two shots through the wood panelling. Horner, his customers, the refugees from the veteran’s merciless gunfire, crouched, trembling, behind the counter. None there was hurt.

“He tried the door before he shot in here,” Horner related afterward. “He just stood there, stony-faced and grim, and rattled the knob, before he started to fire. Then he turned away.”

Charlie Petersen, 18, son of a Camden fireman [John M. Peterson] , came driving down the street with two friends when Unruh turned from the grocery. The three boys got out to stare at Hutton’s body lying unattended on the sidewalk. They did not know who had shot the insurance man, or why and, like the women in the car, had no warning that Howard Unruh was on the loose. The veteran brought his Luger to sight and fired several times. Young Petersen fell with bullets in his legs. His friends tore pell-mell down the street to safety.

Mrs. Helen Harris of 1250 North Twenty-eighth Street with her daughter, Helen, a 6-year-old blonde child, and a Mrs. Horowitz with her daughter, Linda, five, turned into Thirty-second Street. They had heard the shooting from a distance but thought is was auto backfire.

Unruh passed them in Thirty-second Street and walked up the sagging four steps of a little yellow dwelling back of his own house. Mrs. Madeline Harrie, a woman in her late thirties, and two sons, Armand, 16, and Leroy, 15, were in the house. A third son, Wilson, 14, was barricaded in the grocery with other customers.

Unruh threw open the front door and, gun in hand, walked into the dark little parlor. He fired two shots at Mrs. Harrie. They went wild and entered the wall. A third shot caught her in the left arm. She screamed. Armand leaped at Unruh, to tackle him. The veteran used the Luger butt to drop the boy, then fired two shots into his arms. Upstairs Leroy heard the shooting and the screams. He hid under a bed.

By this time, answering a flood of hysterical telephone calls from various parts of East Camden, police radio cars swarmed into River Road with sirens wide open. Emergency crews brought machine guns, shotguns and tear gas bombs.

Sergeant Earl Wright, one of the first to leap to the sidewalk, saw Charles Cohen, the druggist’s son. The boy was half out the second-floor apartment window, just above where his father lay dead. He was screaming “He’s going to kill me. He’s killing every body.” The boy was hysterical.

Wright bounded up the stairs to the druggist’s apartment. He saw the dead woman on the bed, and tried to soothe the druggist son. He brought him downstairs and turned him over to other policemen, then joined the men who had surrounded the two-story stucco house where Unruh lived. Unruh, meanwhile, had fired about 30 shots. He was out of ammunition: Leaving the Harrie house, he had also heard the police sirens. He had run through the back gate to his own rear bedroom.

Guns Trained on Window

Everett Joslin, a motorcycle policeman, scrambled to the porch roof under Unruh’s window. He tossed a tear-gas grenade through a pane of glass. Other policemen, hoarsely calling on Unruh to surrender, took positions with their machine guns and shotguns. They trained them on Unruh’s window.

Meanwhile a curious interlude had taken place. Philip W. Buxton, an assistant city editor on the Camden Evening Courier had looked Unruh’s name up in the telephone book. He called the number, Camden 4-2490W. It was just after 10 A.M. and Unruh had just returned to his room. To Mr. Buxton’s astonishment Unruh answered. He said hello in a calm, clear voice.

“This Howard?” Mr. Buxton asked. 

“Yes, this is Howard. What’s the last name of the party you want?”


The veteran asked what Mr. Buxton wanted.

“I’m a friend,” the newspaper man said. “I want to know what they’re doing to you down there.”

Unruh thought a moment. He said, “They haven’t done anything to me---yet. I’m doing plenty to them.” His voice was still steady without a trace of hysteria.

Mr. Buxton asked how many persons Unruh had killed.

The veteran answered: “I don’t know. I haven’t counted. Looks like a pretty good score.”

“Why are you killing people?”

“I don’t know,” came the frank answer. “I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”

The telephone banged down.

Unruh was busy. The tear gas was taking effect and police bullets were thudding at the walls around him. During a lull in the firing the police saw the white curtains move and the gaunt killer came into plain view.

“Okay,” he shouted. “I give up, I’m coming down.”

“Where’s that gun?” a sergeant yelled. 

“It’s on my desk, up here in the room,” Unruh called down quietly. “I’m coming down.”

Thirty guns were trained on the shabby little back door. A few seconds later the door opened and Unruh stepped into the light, his hands up. Sergeant Wright came across the morning-glory and aster beds in the yard and snapped handcuffs on Unruh’s wrists.

“What’s the matter with you,” a policeman demanded hotly. “You a psycho?”

Unruh stared into the policeman’s eyes---a level, steady stare. He said, “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.”

Word of the capture brought the whole East Camden populace pouring into the streets. Men and women screamed at Unruh, and cursed him in shrill accents and in hoarse anger. Someone cried “lynch him” but there was no movement. Sergeant Wright’s men walked Unruh to a police car and started for headquarters.

Shouting and pushing men and women started after the car, but dropped back after a few paces. They stood in excited little groups discussing the shootings, and the character of Howard Unruh. Little by little the original anger, born of fear, that had moved the crowd, began to die.

Men conceded that he probably was not in his right mind. Those who knew Unruh kept repeating how close-mouthed he was, and how soft spoken. How he took his mother to church, and how he marked scripture passages, especially the prophecies.

“He was a quiet one, that guy,” a man told a crowd in front of the tavern. “He was all the time figuring to do this thing. You gotta watch them quiet ones.”

But all day River Road and the side streets talked of nothing else. The shock was great. Men and women kept saying: “We can’t understand it. Just don’t get it.”

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1949

Charley Humes

Howard Unruh - Walt Carley - Jake Weiner - Stanley Bobiak - William Deery
Russ Maurer - Charles Hance - Everett Joslin - Cecil Picou - Thomas Carr
William Moll - Martin "Sid"Sid Nelson - Harry J. "Barney" Tracey - William Kelly Sr.
Marshall Thompson - Vince Conley - Leonard Andruzza
William Rogers -
John Ferry

Trenton State Prison

Trenton, New Jersey

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Bernard Dubin


Camden Courier-Post * September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post

September 7, 1974


William E. Kelly - Charles Hance

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974
John Ferry - Howard Unruh

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974
William E. Kelly on the roof.

Camden Courier-Post - September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post - September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Frank Engel - Engel's Cafe

Camden Courier-Post * September 7, 1974
Carl Sorg

Camden Courier-Post * September 7, 1974
William Joyce - Roxy DeMarco
Harry "Barney" Tracy
- Howard Unruh

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Bernard Dubin


Camden Courier-Post * September 7, 1974
John Ferry - Howard Unruh - James Milligan - Mitchell Cohen
"Pop" Lawyer - Frank Engel -
Robert Wonsetler

Camden Courier-Post * September 7, 1974
Howard Unruh
Philip W. Buxton
William E. Kelly Sr.
Martin "Sid" Nelson

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post

September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post * September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post - September 7, 1974
Mitchell Cohen - Howard Unruh

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

William E. Kelly


Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post - September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
September 7, 1974

Camden Courier-Post
August 22, 1999



MURDER/ East Camden's
'Walk of Death' 
as nation's first mass killing





Trenton State Prison

Trenton, New Jersey

Philadelphia Inquirer * September 6, 2009

Sixty years ago today, a Camden gunman killed 13

By Barbara Boyer
Inquirer Staff Writer

Charles Cohen slipped into a closet after hearing his mother yell, "Hide, Charles! Hide!"

Sixty years later, he remembered vividly what he had heard next: gunfire.

Howard Unruh, a deranged World War II veteran, was spraying bullets around the Cohens' apartment in the Cramer Hill section of Camden. He was on an infamous 20-minute rampage that killed 13 people and wounded three others.

In the media, it became known as the walk of death.

As 12-year-old Charles huddled in a closet, Unruh killed the boy's father, Maurice, 40, then his mother, 39-year-old Rose. Unruh then killed the boy's grandmother Minnie Cohen, 67, as she desperately tried to call police.

Last week, Cohen said a prayer and lit a candle in a synagogue to observe Yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of the deaths, which occurred Sept. 6, 1949.

"You get through it, but you never get over it," Cohen said. "I think about my parents every day."

He was disappointed to hear from a reporter that Unruh, although in poor health, was still alive. Cohen was waiting for the call that the man who killed his parents had died.

He never got that call.

On Friday, Cohen died at 72, three days after giving his final interview about that terrible day 60 years ago.

Many witnesses gone

Unruh has outlived a lot of people who could offer memories of the shootings and their aftermath. The judge is gone. The medical examiner, the psychiatrist, and nearly all the investigators are gone, too.

One of those still around Camden is Ron Dale, a retired ironworker and Navy veteran who was 8 and waiting to get his hair cut on that September morning.

The line for the barber in the 3200 block of River Road was long as youngsters got ready for the first day of school. The shoemaker in the next shop had comics, so Dale waited there.

That was when Unruh arrived, gun in hand, and shot the shoemaker, John Pilarchik, 27, a World War II veteran from Pennsauken.

"I heard this bam! He turned around and looked at me," Dale said last week. "He left and went to the barber's."

J. Clark Hoover, 45, was cutting the hair of 6-year-old Orris M. Smith as the boy sat on a hobbyhorse. The two were shot dead in front of the boy's mother.

Dale ran home, pale with fear, his mother later told him. She closed and locked the windows, pulled the blinds, and locked the door, which the family rarely had done before the slayings but regularly did afterward.

Pandemonium ensued. Police flooded the neighborhood. As they searched for the gunman, they used loudspeakers to warn residents to stay inside. Mothers grabbed their babies and ran. Others slid beneath their beds.

Dale was among those who scattered for safety. At Engel's, the nearby saloon, the owner later told Dale that he had grabbed his gun and waited for Unruh as customers took cover behind the jukebox and bar.

But Unruh targeted mostly neighbors and business owners on the other side of River Road, or killed those who got in his way or just caught his eye.

The chronology of the shootings is unclear. At some point, Unruh spotted movement in the first-floor window of a rowhouse next to the shoemaker's. He fired and killed 2-year-old Tommy Hamilton, who was playing with the curtain next to his playpen.

Unruh lived in a second-story apartment at River Road and 32d Street, above the pharmacy where Maurice Cohen worked. Unruh wanted the Cohens dead because of a squabble about Unruh's leaving a gate open.

He also killed a mother, her son, and a grandmother stopped in traffic; a tailor's wife of one month; a TV repairman stopped in traffic; and an insurance agent who failed to get out of his way as he stood at the door of the pharmacy.

Dale thinks Unruh also was looking for neighborhood teens.

"The older kids in the neighborhood used to harass him. They thought he was gay and used to make fun of him," Dale said, describing Unruh as a loner.

James Klein, Unruh's public defender for 33 years, was 7 at the time.

"I remember playing outside and my mother saying, 'Come inside. There's a madman on the loose.' "

In a recent interview, one historian said the event foreshadowed the decline of Camden, an industrial city that had experienced little more than petty crimes. It pierced a trusting community where neighbors took care of one another, he said.

"It's something you never really forget. . . . You take extra precautions to protect your family and your property," said Paul Schopp, a former director of the Camden County Historical Society. "He didn't just rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their essence."

Schopp, who took an interest in the case as a historian, said his father had been on the No. 9 bus from Philadelphia, heading home to Palmyra, when it passed through Camden during the rampage. Police stopped traffic on River Road.

"He was very much aware that something horrific had happened," Schopp said. "By the time his bus had reached the carnage, they were putting sheets over the bodies."

If he'd had more ammunition, Unruh told police, he would have kept shooting. In the end, he surrendered when police descended on his apartment and opened fire on the building.

Years later, as Unruh's attorney, Klein would become one of the few people to visit him regularly in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, where doctors diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and he remained in a ward for the criminally insane.

Klein said Unruh had never been right after he returned from World War II combat, having served in Italy and France, keeping a diary of the Germans he killed. After the war ended and he returned from the service, Unruh tried college but could not make it, Klein said.

Unruh collected weapons and created a shooting range in the basement of his building. He often walked the neighborhood in Army boots, carrying a Bible. Police later learned that Unruh had kept a list of those he wanted dead.

Over the years, Unruh never was found competent to stand trial; the legal system has treated him as someone found guilty by reason of insanity. He unsuccessfully sought parole and transfers to less restrictive facilities, with the relatives of his victims fighting each possible move.

Cohen was among those who attended court proceedings and kept track of Unruh. In the 1980s, he became a strong advocate for victims' rights and hoped for changes in the criminal-justice system to prevent such slayings, his family said. It seemed, however, that the number of mass murders increased; each time, Cohen relived his own horror, they said.

He and his wife of 52 years, Marian, had three grown daughters and seven grandchildren, some of whom never were told of the tragedy. Two years ago, he and his wife left Cherry Hill and moved out of the area. His wife said services for her husband would be private.

There are no more hearings - or, as Marian Cohen called them, "dog and pony shows" - where Unruh is taken to court. Every year, a judge signs a new order to keep him confined.

On River Road, most of the buildings still stand, occupied by new businesses. Engel's Saloon is now the Rumbarenque Night Club, closed this year after a 25-year-old man was fatally shot outside.

Martin's barbershop stands where the shoemaker was killed, and weeds grow in a lot where the old barbershop was torn down.

The apartments where the Cohens and Unruh lived are vacant. A newer stucco facade hides the bullet holes that had, for decades, scarred the building.

The pharmacy is a shoe store, where Maritza Guzman, the owner of Gomez Shoes, learned of the rampage a week after she moved her business there two years ago.

Guzman said she was sorry for the tragedy, "but life has to continue."

Still in custody

Today, Unruh is the oldest person incarcerated in the state. When not hospitalized for medical reasons, he is confined at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Klein questions whether the mass murderer will survive to see his 89th birthday in January.

"He's really declined a lot," said Klein.


Philadelphia Inquirer * October 19, 2009

Notorius Camden Killer Unruh Dies at 88

By Joseph A. Giambardello & Barbara Boyer
Inquirer Staff Writers

Howard Unruh, the World War II Army veteran who became the modern face of mass murder when he shot and killed 13 people in East Camden in 1949, died today. He was 88.

Unruh was never found competent to stand trial after the killing spree, and spent the rest of his life at Trenton State Hospital, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

Unruh's 20-minute rampage in the 3200 block of River Road of Cramer Hill unfolded on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1949. At the time, it was known as the "walk of death." The 13 victims included three children.

Eventually, officers used tear gas to smoke him out of his apartment.

"I'm no psycho," the combat veteran told police. "I have a good mind."

Experts have offered many explanations for Unruh's actions, all fitting what has become the textbook profile of a spree killer. Introverted. Narcissistic. Oedipal. Remorseless.

He had a fascination with guns, which apparently developed during the war. He served with the 342d Armored Field Artillery in Italy, Austria, Belgium, France and Germany.

His Army commanders told reporters at the time that Unruh was a good soldier who kept to himself. Among recognitions, Unruh held a Good Conduct Medal and two bronze stars on his European medal for his battle participation. He didn't drink, smoke or chase women, and took orders well, the commanders said.

Unruh's younger brother, James, told reporters he thought the war caused him to snap.

"Since he came home from the service, he didn't seem to be the same. He was nervous. He never acted like his old self," James Unruh had said.

Experts at the time said Unruh more likely had been suffering from mental illness before the war.

He was born Jan. 20, 1921 in Haddonfield. His parents separated and the children lived with their mother, Freda, in Camden. An average student, he graduated from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and then worked for Curtis Publishing Co. In 1942, he worked briefly as a sheet metal worker for the Philadelphia Naval Base until he enlisted in the Army.

He served with a self-propelled field artillery unit and sometimes served as a tank gunner. In 1945, he was honorably discharged.

He returned to live with his mother in Camden, where the two regularly attended Sunday services at St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Howard, born-again, participated in Bible study Monday nights as well.

He took college classes briefly and never held a job.

At home, Unruh listened to somber music, Brahms and Wagner, and constructed a range in the basement where he practiced shooting with a cache of guns he collected. Tall and lanky, he was considered weird by teens who teased him. Although Unruh, known as Junior, dressed nicely, he often wore his Army boots and clutched a Bible as he walked the neighborhood.

To get home, Unruh often cut through a rear yard owned by Maurice and Rose Cohen at 32nd Street and River Road where they ran the local pharmacy. He often had run-ins with the Cohens and other shop owners. Secretly he plotted to kill them over two years.

After Unruh squabbled with Cohens about a backyard gate, he constructed his own gate that was wrecked by neighborhood boys on September 5.

Unruh told police he planned his killing spree as he sat overnight in Philadelphia through three showings of a double feature - The Lady Gambles and I Cheated the Law.

In the morning, he had a dazed look, his mother later recalled. He threatened her with a wrench and she ran for help. Her son left next, with a 9mm pistol he bought in Philadelphia for $37.50.

Unruh only stopped killing when he ran out of ammunition and retreated to his apartment.

In the state hospital, Unruh spent his time reading, including the Bible; watching television, listening to music and playing cards. He was still regarded a loner.

He had visitors, over the years, including a fellow World War II veteran who died in 2001. Since then, his health steadily declined and before his death, officials said, he was no longer lucid.

Unruh has no known survivors.

3200 River Avenue - October 18, 2011

Of the many on-line articles about Howard Unruh,
the most informative, accurate, and objective one, is by Katherine Ramsland
It is not on-line at the moment (November 20, 2018).
If you would like it, e-mail me and I will send you a copy.

Many people used and, both of which are now off-line.
For more "true crime" resources, check out this page