Sunday, September 6, 2009
You a Psycho!?!
The September 7, 1949 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer produced this photo [above] denoting the places where each victim of Howard Unruh was believed to have been felled at the time. The spelling of the names of some of the victims, as well as a few locations, later turned out to be incorrect.
On July 19, 1984, I was 15 years old. It was the summer after my horrific freshman year of high school. As usual, I got up and went for the newspaper. On the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer was a horrific picture showing what appeared to be a dead body - certainly one bleeding profusely - on the sidewalk in front of a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California. It was the first time I was ever exposed to what we now come to expect with the same regularity as hurricanes and taxes: mass murder.
I remember being riveted - not in a positive way - by the story. I read nearly everything I could about it. About innocent people having a meal in a hamburger joint one moment only to be killed in cold blood in the next. Among the dozens of articles I read at the time, one sticks out in my mind. It was an article about another mass murder, one I'd never heard about. The San Ysidro killings were not only my indoctrination into the fact that life is a crapshoot. It introduced me to the reality that this fact wasn't just a 1984 fact, but one that had existed for as long as time existed.
The mass murder from the past that I now read was a 35-year retrospective on Howard Unruh's murderous rampage through the streets of a Camden, New Jersey, neighborhood on September 6, 1949. Today is the 60th anniversary of that rampage, and a disappointing article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer - which looks as though it had about as much research put into it as an episode of Disney's The Suite Life of Zack and Cody - made me remember that far, far more in depth article from 1984.
So, on this the 60th anniversary of Unruh's murderous 20 minutes, I thought I'd use that article as well as some other sources to write about what was the first modern murderous rampage in U.S. history.
By September 6, 1949, Howard Unruh's life had become one of heavily chronicled slights - he kept a notebook with a tally of those who had upset him, made fun of him or who somehow joined the list of people he perceived were out to get him. He was 28 years old and a World War II veteran. In the war, he was a tank gunner in Italy and France. His service record was unremarkable with the exception of the little journal he kept in which he tallied the number of Germans he had killed each day.
In the four years after his discharge from the Army, Unruh was a wanderer in terms of employment, although his domicile remained the second floor apartment on River Road in Camden that he shared with his mother. It was in the basement of that apartment that he built a target range and accumulated an arsenal in bullets, knives and guns.
Because of the still-primitive nature of psychiatric evaluation in the 1930s and 1940s, it is impossible to know whether Unruh was paranoid schizophrenic before he even joined the Army - or, more to the point, whether he displayed those tendencies prior to fighting in World War II. In the aftermath of the carnage Unruh left behind, beyond determining his motive - "You a psycho!?!" screamed one of the officers who finally arrested him - very little examination was done into Unruh's childhood or pre-war behaviors. By the time such inquisition would be considered standard operating procedure, most of Unruh's relatives - including his mother - were dead and Unruh could provide no background deemed credible.
Regardless, by September 6, 1949, Unruh was in a completely delusional state. Neighbors still alive in 2009 - almost all of them in their 70s and 80s - do recall that not all of Unruh's slights were imaginary. These neighbors recall that teenagers, particularly, were brutal towards Unruh. Suspecting that he was homosexual - not something heavily advertised in 1949 - they mercilessly teased and harassed him. Yet, detectives later discovered that Unruh's intended targets hadn't been the neighborhood's teenage boys who had teased him but - for some still-unknown reason - the neighborhood's merchants.
The final trigger, though, was a stolen gate. Unruh went to the movies on the evening of September 5th, sitting through three showings of a double-feature - including The Lady Gambles starring Barbara Stanwyck. Unruh later told detectives that he was particularly irritated by the fact that Stanwyck reminded him of one of neighbors whose name ended up in his little journal of slights. When Unruh finally got home at 3 am, he was incensed to find that the gate in front of his house - which he had just finished earlier the previous day had been stolen. Unruh would later tell police, "When I came home last night and found my gate had been stolen, I decided to kill them all."
Unruh slept until about 8 am on the morning of September 6th. He breakfasted with his mother, although she was alarmed at his appearance: he had inexplicably dressed in his best suit although he had long since stopped looking for work. An argument ensued between the two, which ended as soon as Unruh pulled a knife and threatened to kill her. Rather than go to the police, however, Unruh's mother simply went to a friend's house until "Howard got over his spell."
Unruh left the apartment at about 9:20 am, armed with a German Luger pistol and his pockets stuffed with ammunition. As he emerged into the daylight he spotted a bakery truck driver stopped at a traffic light. Raising the gun, he fired - but just as the light had turned green. The driver drove off, never knowing that he'd almost become Unruh's first victim. Worse, no one else heard the shot over the traffic. Meaning that Unruh was free to continue walking down the street uninterrupted, despite the German Lugar in his hand.
Unruh next stepped into a shoe repair shop owned by fellow World War II veteran John Pilarchik, aged 27. Without saying a word, Unruh calmly fired two shots into Pilarchik, killing him instantly. Unruh had done this with the door to the repair shop closed. Because there was no one in the shop at the time, then, when Unruh emerged back into the sunlight onto the street, no one was aware yet that they were in the beginning of a rampage. It was only after his next stop that this became frighteningly clear.
That destination was the barber shop of Clark Hoover, aged 33. Inside, Hoover was busy clipping away at the hair of 6-year old Orris Smith. Orris was about to enter first grade, and so his mother had brought him to Hoover's shop for a final trim. Orris was sitting atop a raised hobby horse that Hoover had recently installed as an incentive for frightened children to ease their fears during hair cuts. Little Orris was chatting amiably to Hoover while his mother looked on. Unruh walked in and acted so suddenly that witnesses - including Orris' horrified mother - swore that they saw the blood on the white neck-apron that little Orris was wearing before they heard the first shot. Unruh had fired two shots at the child first, one to the chest and a fatal one to the head. He immediately fired one shot into Hoover's head, killing him as well.
By now, pandemonium erupted in the barber shop. Orris' mother screamed and ran to her now-dead child, while Unruh calmly walked out of the barber shop without firing on any of the other patrons. Detectives later suspected that Hoover - like John Pilarchik a local merchant - had been the intended target and that Unruh had never even seen the boy standing in front of him. This would, of course, be of little consolation to Orris's mother for the rest of her days.
As he left the barber shop, this time Unruh had left the door open so that the screams from inside the shop now permeated the street front. Unruh's next target was a drug store run by Maurice Cohen, aged 39. The pharmacy was actually built under the apartment where Unruh and his mother lived. Living in an adjacent apartment were the pharmacist and his family. In the doorway of Cohen's pharmacy stood 46-year old insurance salesman James Hutton. Investigators were never able to determine why Hutton did not flee. Unruh actually said to him - twice - "Excuse me, sir" in trying to get by Hutton into the store. Whether Hutton was frozen in fear by the Lugar at Unruh's side, or whether he even saw the gun - some witnesses surmised that Dutton was fishing through his pockets for change for a newspaper, unaware that Unruh was trying to pass him to get into the store. Regardless, after asking politely the second time and getting no response, Unruh simply raised the Lugar and fired one fatal shot into Hutton's head, the other into his heart.
Unruh, it later turned out, believed that it was his neighbor - pharmacist Cohen - who had stolen the gate. By the time James Hutton was killed in the front of his store, Maurice Cohen had heard the gunshots next door at the barbershop. The screams as Hutton fell told he and his family living upstairs that someone was shooting and that the someone was now in their store. Maurice Cohen raced upstairs to his apartment. Cohen's wife, Rose - aged 38 - began screaming to their son, Charles, "Hide, Charles! Hide!" The 12-year-old Charles obeyed, diving into a closet. He did this as his mother held onto the front door in an attempt to keep Unruh from entering. Unruh was able to wrest the door open and fired a shot into Rose Cohen's head. Charles heard his mother's scream. Next, Unruh entered the apartment and cornered Maurice Cohen's mother - Minnie, aged 63 - as she frantically tried to call the police. Unruh fired two more shots at Minnie, killing her as well. By this time, Maurice Cohen had fled through a kitchen window and onto the roof of the building. It was there that Unruh raised his Lugar and fired one shot that killed Cohen instantly. In a matter of approximately 16 seconds, 12-year old Charles Cohen had lost his mother, grandmother and father.
For the next 60 years, Charles Cohen would carefully follow Unruh through the criminal justice system. He waited for the phone call that he prayed would come, telling him that his family's killer had finally died in prison. That call never came. On September 1, 2009, Charles Cohen died at the age of 72.
Unruh walked out of pharmacy and noticed movement in a first floor window of the rowhouse next to John Pilarchik's shoe shop. Unruh fired at the window. It's believed that Unruh did so thinking that a sniper had honed in on him. In fact, the movement was 2-year old Thomas Hamilton who - despite his mother's persistent warnings - had continued playing with the curtains in the window that morning. Unruh's shot killed Thomas Hamilton instantly.
At nearly the same time, as James Hutton's dead body lay visible in the doorway of the pharmacy, 24-year-old Alvin Day, who had just begun a career in a new and burgeoning field - television repair - happened to driving down River Road in his work truck. Not believing what he was seeing, Day slowed down to take a closer look at Hutton. Unruh promptly raised his Lugar and fired two shots into Day's head, killing him instantly.
Within seconds of this, 68-year old Emma Matlack swerved to avoid Day's now-runaway vehicle. She never saw Unruh as he turned to fire two more shots at her, hitting her once in the head and once in the neck, killing her instantly.
Unruh next went looking for tailor Tony Zegrino. He entered Zegrino's shop, but the tailor was not there. Instead, Unruh found Zegrino's bride - the two had just married in August. Seeing the gun, 28-year-old Helga Zegrino screamed as Unruh shot her twice, again killing her instantly.
Unruh exited the tailor shop and went immediately into the front door of a rowhouse next door. Inside, a cowering Helen Wilson, aged 37, tried to shield her 9-year old son John to no avail. Unruh empted his final rounds into both of them, killing them on the spot.
With that, Unruh finally began to hear the sirens that were now descending on the neighborhood. 20 minutes had passed since Unruh had first fired at the bakery delivery truck driver. Unruh, now out of ammunition, fled back to his apartment - passing the front door of the Cohen's apartment, in which 12-year old Charles was still cowering in the closet.
With that, 60 policemen descended on the building and surrounded it in a standoff. By this point, much of the town knew that something horrific was happening. Philip Buxton was a reporter for the Camden Evening Courier. He quickly arrived on the scene of the standoff at Unruh's apartment. Seeing the address, he ran to a nearby pay phone, looked up the telephone number and called into the apartment. Unruh answered.
"Hello," Buxton yelled, not waiting for Unruh to say anything. "I am a friend. Tell me, what are they doing to you?" Unruh responded, "They haven't done anything to me yet, but I'm doing plenty to them." Stunned that he had actually reached the gunman, and trying to distract him long enough for police to apprehend him, Buxton frantically thought about what to say. "How many have you killed?" he asked. Unruh, by now realizing that police were lobbing tear gas into his apartment, began to cough, saying. "I don't know yet. I haven't counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score." Buxton - by now hoping that he was distracting Unruh long enough for police to move in - asked the question that would linger 60 years afterwards, "Why are you killing people?" Much as he would do for the next 60 years, Unruh was evasive. "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." With that, Unruh hung up and surrendered to police.
By the time Unruh was arrested, 13 were dead. Somehow - no one ever learned how - Unruh himself had received a gunshot wound to the thigh. It was only discovered after police had interviewed him for two hours after the killing. Unruh was then taken to Cooper Hospital for treatment. After that, he was sent to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane [now, more politically-correctly named Trenton Psychiatric Hospital]. He has been there for 60 years.
The concept of a "killing spree" led TIME magazine at the time to call the killings a crime that "had no counterpart in U.S. crime history" By the time of the 1984 San Ysidro killings, the Unruh crimes had long been forgotten by all but those directly affected. Since 1984, of course, hundreds have died in such killing sprees to the point where it is only when the circumstances are deemed by us to be particularly egregious - school children, for example - that we even pay attention anymore.
At the time, the killings naturally shocked the country. Unruh's rampage was the most visible of a number of murders and suicides by World War II veterans. In fact, it may have spurred the federal government to put additional resources into mental health treatment for this group - albeit too late for Unruh's victims.
Today, Howard Unruh is 88 years old. Although he has routinely appealed for transfer to a lighter-security prison - or, more correctly, his public defenders have done it for him - such requests over the past few years have been less traumatic for the surviving family members of the victims. Prior to the 1990s, these hearings required that these victims come to the hearing, see Unruh, and hope that the presiding judge would reject the request. In the last few years, however, such hearings have been eliminated by a judge simply throwing out the request before an appearance by Unruh - and the trauma of his victim's families having to see him again - takes place.
Learning that today is the 60th anniversary of Unruh's killings surprised me only in that it seemed like just yesterday that I was reading about it for the first time, in that 35th anniversary retrospective in the aftermath of San Ysidro. At the time I remember being shocked that such a thing had happened in 1984 - let alone in 1949. Today I think I've become jaded enough to where I'm shocked that it hasn't happened more often.
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