In my last blog post, we met Tony Baekeland, a troubled young man who murdered his mother and eventually took his own life. This week’s case concerns Howard Unruh. In 1949, Unruh walked through his neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey, shooting people as he went.
Howard was a shy but unremarkable kid born and raised in East Camden, New Jersey. He attended school in Camden, graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in January 1939. With World War II raging, Unruh enlisted in the Army on October 27, 1942. During the war, he saw action as an armor crewman in various parts of the European Theater. His crew chief later recalled that Unruh was an unusual soldier. He never drank, swore, or chased girls. Instead, he spent his spare time reading the Bible. When in combat, he kept a detailed record of every German soldier he killed.
After the war, Unruh returned to New Jersey and lived with his mother. Before enrolling in classes at Temple University in Philadelphia, he worked in a sheet metal shop for a brief time. College didn’t suit him, and he soon withdrew, citing his “poor physical condition.” Now, instead of working, he hung around his mother’s apartment. Part of the time he spent practicing shooting in the basement, where he’d built a target range. Another pastime was tracking every perceived slight and grievance against him.
Howard Unruh and the “Walk of Death”
On September 6, 1949, a Tuesday, Howard Unruh ate breakfast with his mother, who then left to visit a friend. Howard left the apartment at about 9:30, dressed in a brown suit with a bow tie and armed with a Luger P08. He walked out onto River Road.
Unruh’s first target was a bread delivery truck driver; the shot missed by inches. Next, he began targeting the people on his list of supposed “enemies.” He started with shoemaker John Pilarchik, shooting and killing him instantly. From the cobbler’s shop, he went to Clark Hoover’s barber shop. His shots killed the barber and the six-year-old boy having his hair cut. The next target was pharmacist Maurice Cohen. On his way to the pharmacy, he shot and killed insurance agent James Hutton when Hutton wouldn’t get out of his way.
Cohen and his wife, Rose, saw Unruh approach the pharmacy’s back entrance. They ran to their apartment above the drugstore. Cohen climbed onto the porch roof while Rose and their 12-year-old son hid in separate closets. Unruh shot Rose several times, killing her, before following Cohen onto the roof and fatally shooting him. Cohen’s 63-year-old mother, Minnie, was shot and killed while trying to phone the police. Young Charles, the Cohens’ son, survived.
The next person on Unruh’s enemies list was tailor Thomas Zegrino. On his way to Zegrino’s shop, he fired at a car driving on River Road, killing the driver, Alvin Day. Zegrino wasn’t at his tailor’s shop that morning, but his wife, Helga, was, and Unruh killed her.
The Capture of Howard Unruh
By now, police had been alerted and were converging on the scene. Unruh retreated to his mother’s apartment, which police soon surrounded. A brief gunbattle ensued. The gunfight ended when police threw two tear gas containers into the apartment. When ordered to surrender, Unruh replied, “I give up. Don’t shoot.” Officers then arrested him without further fanfare.
Howard Unruh immediately confessed to the shooting spree and took full responsibility. However, he didn’t stand trial. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he landed at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital instead.
Howard Unruh killed 13 people ranging in age from 2 to 68 and wounded 3. He remained in the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital until his death on October 19, 2009, at age 88. His “Walk of Death” was America’s first recorded mas murder incident but, sadly, not the last.
Charles Cohen, who survived Unruh’s attack by hiding in a closet, was the maternal grandfather of Carly Novell. By also hiding in a closet, Carly survived the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
You can read more about Howard Unruh in Ellen J. Green’s book, Murder in the Neighborhood.
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