On Howard Unruh

So Howard Unruh is finally dead. I think I’ve been waiting for the news all year, ever since his longtime lawyer, James Klein, informed me some time ago that Unruh’s health was in very bad shape – evidently to the point of no longer being lucid. He’d spent the last 60 years of his life in various mental institutions, most recently the Trenton State Hospital. And at 88 years old, Unruh was 16 years older than Charles Cohen, who had spent those same 60 years hoping and wishing for Unruh – the man responsible for the deaths of his parents and grandmother as the then-12-year-old hid in a closet – to die. That wish came 6 weeks too late for Cohen, who himself died of cancer on September 4 – and was buried on September 6th, the six-decade anniversary of Unruh’s crimes, which became the template for modern mass murder as we know it.

The NYT obit I linked to above is very good – especially for including Meyer Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “you are there” account of Unruh’s spree, which left 13 people dead in Camden, N.J. – but the Philadephia Inquirer’s obit is more immediate, more personal, in large part because it reaches out to Unruh’s living victims, like Charles Cohen’s wife:

“It came six weeks too late,” a tearful Marian Cohen said yesterday,

adding that her husband believed his loved ones never rested in peace

while Unruh was alive. “He waited and he waited. We talked about it so

many times… . I feel his spirit with me.”

Cohen said that, once Unruh died, her husband had planned to bury

all the paraphernalia he kept of that day and to remember the dead with

Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning.

“Our thoughts are with the families of the other victims touched by

this heinous tragedy,” the Cohen family said in a statement released

after hearing of Unruh’s death. “We know that our family members and

the other victims can rest in peace from this day forward….”

….Ron Dale, who still lives in Camden, was 8 years old and waiting to

get his hair cut when he witnessed Unruh kill one of the victims. His

father never let him attend court hearings, fearing Unruh would be

released one day and go after those who helped keep him in custody.

“I figured he would die in there [prison],” said Dale, who is being

treated for lung cancer and seemed unfazed by news of Unruh’s death.

“I’m too old to worry about it and too sick to worry about it. What are

you going to do?”

For some, a bogeyman of sorts will be put to rest, as Unruh is no longer a living symbol of mass horror in a recognizable place. He’s no longer the representative of post-war attitudes on justice and mental health, which ruled he was incompetent – a far cry, I suspect, from how his case would have been handled had it happened in the present day. But for me, it’s a bit more complicated, as I wrote in a post this past January, the day after his 88th and final birthday:

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.


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.

Now that Unruh has passed, we’re left with that very randomness. And it will probably take sifting through what must be a voluminous collection of documents housed at (or at least the property of) Trenton State Hospital to understand, even a little, how and why Unruh was what he was, and why his pathology resulted in crime once terrible and unthinkable, but now, sadly, much less so.