On September 6, 1949, Camden resident Howard Unruh picked up a Luger P08 pistol, stepped outside of his two-story apartment and killed 13 people in 12 minutes in what would then be known as the worst mass shooting in American history.
Unruh had become paranoid that his neighbors were talking badly about him behind his back. He believed his next-door neighbors, the Cohens, in particular, were out to get him. From 9:20 am to 9:32 am, Unruh made his way down River Road and fired 33 shots into store owners, patrons, pedestrians, drivers, even children.
When he ran out of bullets, Unruh retreated to his apartment while an entire community gathered. Over 60 police officers surrounded Unruh’s apartment and a shootout ensued.
During the siege, assistant editor at the Camden Evening Courier, Philip W. Buxton, looked Unruh up in the phone book, found his number and decided to call.
“Hello?” Unruh answered in a “calm, clear voice.”
“This is Howard?” Bruxton asked, surprised that he’d get an answer.
“Yes, this is Howard. What’s the last name of the party you want?”
Asking what he wanted, Buxton answered, “I’m a friend. I want to know what they’re doing to you down there.”
“They haven’t done anything to me – yet. 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.”
Buxton’s unexpected chat with Unruh wasn’t going to last. Police had climbed onto Unruh’s roof and lobbed two tear gas canisters inside. The second one was effective.
“I’m too busy. I’ll have to talk to you later. A couple of friends are coming to get me.” Unruh slammed the telephone down.
As the tear gas permeated, police rained bullets on Unruh’s residence. When the gunfire ceased several minutes later, and the tear gas cleared, Unruh emerged from behind the curtains with his hands up. Police stormed the two-story apartment and arrested the World War II veteran.
Unruh was taken in for interrogation at Camden’s police headquarters where he was questioned for over two hours. Unruh immediately claimed responsibility for the murders and readily divulged all of the details.
After coming home from a double feature in Philadelphia, Unruh discovered that a fence he had built in order to quell a neighborly dispute had been stolen. That was the last straw and he decided that the following morning he would punish everyone he believed was out to harm him.
“What was it that caused you to conceive of this plan to kill these people?”
“It was building for two years or so but this morning was when I came through the gate that I decided.”
“To do something.”
“When you were going through the gate, do you mean when you first entered your home?”
“Yes, the gate to our yard.”
“You say this had been building up for two years or so?”
“What was the first thing that occurred two years ago that started to build this feeling up within you?”
“I had an idea in the back of my mind that Mr. Cohen was butting into my business.”
Unruh lived next door to the Cohens, who owned and ran the pharmacy below Unruh’s apartment. After shooting and killing 27-year-old cobbler John Pilarchik, 33-year-old barber Clark Hoover, and 6-year-old Orris Smith, Unruh made his way to the Cohen’s pharmacy where he shot and killed 45-year-old James Hutton, who was exiting the store.
Unruh made his way through the pharmacy and chased Maurice and Rose Cohen up to their apartment. There he shot three times through a closet and, after he opened the door, shot Rose once in her face, killing her. He then shot Maurice’s mother, 63-year-old Minnie, as she was trying to call the police. Unruh chased Maurice to a porch roof, where he shot his nemesis in the back, sending him to the pavement below.
“In what manner was Mr. Cohen butting into your business a couple of years ago? Can you tell me, Howard, what he did that brought you to the conclusion that he was butting into your business?”
“Well, I had built up in the back of my mind that he had been saying things about me.”
“Did anyone ever come to you and say he was saying these things about you?”
“I have heard people say he had.”
“What was he saying that you considered detrimental to your character? What did he say about you that you objected to?”
“Different things that I just didn’t like.”
After Unruh had eliminated his targets over perceived slights and gossip, he continued his rampage. In the remaining minutes with the remaining ammo he had, Unruh shot and killed 24-year-old Alvin Day, 37-year-old Helen Wilson, 68-year-old Emma Matlock, 9-year-old John Wilson, 28-year-old Helga Zegrino, and 3-year-old Thomas Hamilton.
He killed all of these people over a fence.
“And when you came home at three o’clock this morning you noticed that gate broken down?”
“Did you know who broke the gate down?”
“Did you come to the conclusion that it was Cohen that broke the gate down?”
“Didn’t you tell me that when you saw this gate broken down it was then you made up your mind to get the Cohens for this?”
“That’s when I decided to do what I did, not necessarily the Cohens.”
“How could you obtain revenge against the party who broke your gate down if you say you don’t know who it was that broke the gate down?”
“I couldn’t very well. All I remember is the shoemaker and the barber recently said they were going to give me a chance to use my gun, so I thought it might be them.”
“You just thought it might be them?”
“And it was then you conceived the plan to do away with them or the Cohens or anybody else against whom you had built up a resentment within yourself in the past two years?”
Unruh was charged with 13 counts of “willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought” and three counts of “atrocious assault and battery.” Shortly after his arrest, Unruh was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and found to be insane.
Instead of a trial, Unruh was sent to New Jersey Hospital for Insane, currently Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. After battling years of illness, Howard Unruh died on October 19, 2009, at the age of 88.
His last public words were, “I’d have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets.”