Howard Unruh: America’s First Modern Mass Murderer

(Editor’s note: Howard Unruh died on October 19, 2009 at the age of 88, about nine months after I wrote this piece.)

On September 6, 1949, Howard B. Unruh, 28 years old, a mild, soft-spoken veteran of many

armored artillery battles in Italy, France, Austria, Belgium and

Germany, killed thirteen persons with a war souvenir Luger pistol in his

home block in East Camden, New Jersey.

Yesterday, January 21, 2009, Unruh turned 88 years old. He is still alive, a resident of Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. He wasn’t always there, having started out his incarceration among the mentally ill in the high-security Vroom Building (now Forensic Psychiatric Hosptal), but got transferred to Trenton in 1993 – long after any possibility of criminal charges were put to bed – and has been there ever since. 

The first paragraph paraphrases the opening sentences of a remarkable example of grace under narrative pressure by the eminent New York Times reporter Meyer “Mike” Berger (1898-1959). The 4,000-word piece, which had Berger get on a train to Camden the morning of the shootings, interview 50 people in town and get back to the city in time to write his piece and make his deadline in a little over two hours, won him a Pulitzer for local reporting. Sixty years later it more than holds up as a chronicle of chaos and terror, as a snapshot of a deranged young man, possibly suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder but just as equally an environmentally-made psychopath, and as a memorial to Unruh’s victims, running the age gamut from 2 to 63.

There are a number of reasons why Unruh’s crimes fascinate me. He lives on, sequestered away from the world and likely in severe decline. Before him there were serial murders and mass murders but Unruh essentially created the template for lone gunmen “going postal” or shooting up a school, and for carrying out a grudge with epic, bloody, senseless gunfire. Most of his descendants in mass killings turned the gun on themselves, were shot dead by police, or were sentenced to die in prison – or by the government’s hand. And the biggest reasons are that he’s never talked publicly since that September 6 morning, and we have no real sense beyond stray appearances at annual reviews as to his current state.

There is no getting around what Unruh did. He ruined the lives of an entire town and ripped families apart with the bullets from his Luger. HIs last reported public words, per the Berger article, were “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind. I’d have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough.” But six decades later, I wonder why he’s outlived so many – and whether there’s anything to glean from it other than the cruel randomness that is this universe, and that it truly is the quiet ones to watch out for.