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  • Writer's pictureMacabre Emporium Pod

Episode 61 - Howard Unruh


Howard Unruh "The Walk of Death"

Howard Unruh, Mass Shooting
Howard Unruh, the man behind the first mass shooting.

The late George Carlin had a bit about phrases and one I mentioned in a previous episode “It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for.” Also, you know I like to look up the origins and the first of things as well. This week I am bringing true crime that first the bill as what's considered the first mass murder. But, as terminology and phrases are coined, this is more so the case of America’s first active shooter. 

So what counts as a mass shooting and an active shooter? According to the FBI, their definition of an active shooter is:  An individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. A mass shooting is a violent crime in which one or more attackers kill or injure multiple individuals simultaneously using a firearm. 

There is no widely accepted definition of "mass shooting" and different organizations tracking such incidents use different definitions. Even though the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 defines mass killings as three or more killings in a single incident 

Howard Unruh was born on Jan. 21, 1921, in East Camden, New Jersey to Samuel Shipley Unruh and Freda E. Vollmer. He had a single younger sibling named James, his mother raised them both after his parents separated when he was nine. His father worked for the American Dredging Company so his father would be gone for weeks at a time. 

One psychiatrist noted that Unruh had delayed developmental skills when he didn't walk or talk until he was 16 months old where as most children are doing both of these by 12 months. The broken home found in most backgrounds of mass shooters or serial killers wasn’t present either in Unruh’s life. Whenever his parents disciplined him he was either sent to his room or told to sit in a chair they didn’t seem to use any type of corporal punishment like spanking. 

Even when his brother was born in 1924, he didn't show signs of sibling rivalry or resentment for his brother being born and not being the only child anymore. 

 He attended high school in East Camden and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1939. He was a pretty average student getting mostly B’s and C’s from one of his report cards that you can see online shows, His yearbook would state next to his senior photo: “How is a quiet fellow. Despite his apparently shy demeanor, How has made a getty many friends with his fellow members of the Practical Arts Course. How’s main ambition is to be a government employee and if his previous work is any indication, the position is as good as filled.”

His yearbook also stated that one of his favorite songs was  “Get Out and Get Under the Moon” by Helen Kane. Unrunh’s main hobbies included stamp collecting and model trains.  I did the extra work since I figured you would ask, it's more than likely either O or S scale due to HO scale that you know I have models of wasn’t around until the late 50s and early '60s. Besides model trains, he would often read his bible and attend church regularly. 

After graduation, Unruh held a few jobs, he worked in printing at the Acorn Company, and he worked in metal stamping at Budd Manufacturing, which was probably great for his modeling as the Budd Company was the leading manufacturer of stainless steel passenger cars until 1987. 

Unruh enlisted into the Army in Oct.1942 during WWII and saw combat in France, Italy, and Belgium in the European theater between October 1944 and July 1945. He was even in the Battle of the Bulge which could also be known as Hitler’s last stand. 

He was assigned to the 332nd Field Artillery unit part of General Patton’s third army. He was a crewman for M7 mobile artillery known as the priest. He was remembered by his section chief, Norman  E. Koehn as a good soldier who never swore, drank, or chased girls when on leave. Instead of using some brothels in Italy and France, He would spend his time reading his bible and writing letters to his mother. Even though considered almost a model soldier being a steady shot and unrattled in combat he did have a slight quirk about him during his time in Europe.

Unruh kept a very detailed journal of the Axis soldiers he killed. He kept notes of the time, date, and place of his kills. He would even sometimes write a description of how the bodies looked in death. He would be honorably discharged in 1945 even earning the European Theater of Operations Medal, Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. 

After he is discharged he would return to East Camden, NJ, where his younger brother has moved out and gotten married, and Unruh ends up living with his mother. He ended up taking another job in sheet metal work as he did before the war but this wouldn’t last long and he would use his GI bill to attend Temple University to become a pharmacist. His time at Temple would last only three months before dropping out.

He would start to become more of a recluse spending time reading his bible in his room surrounded by his spoils of war. Being ashtrays and machetes made from shell casing from the M7 priest he was a crewman of, the medals he earned. Instead of trying to find work he is pretty much living off the income that his mother is making from the low-paying job at a soap company she is working. When Unruh would be tired of his trains or stamps, he would spend hours in his homemade shooting range in the basement of his mother’s home firing a P08 Luger pistole he bought in a pawn shop for $37.50(492 dollars in 2024). Here he could only practice shooting in either a kneeling or prone position due to the low ceiling Some of this behavior could be attributed to battle fatigue or as we know it now PTSD.

He did date a girl from his bible study group for two years and abruptly ended their relationship by telling her he was “schizo” and had no plans on getting married. During their entire relationship, he never attempted to hold her hand or give her a kiss of any sort. His neighbors would say he was stiffly formal and not friendly but harmless, the type of guy that wouldn't hurt a flea. As time went on Unruh became paranoid that his neighbors were talking about him behind his back calling him a mama’s boy and a queer. 

The truth is Howard Unruh was gay and due to the law of the time you could face lengthy jail time for being caught with another man. He would make several trips a week to Philadelphia to hook up with other men. Like his time in Europe during the war he would keep a diary of his hookups, some of his partners would be listed by first name and others just listed as “a man.”

He would keep a third diary as he became more paranoid, this one would be a list of grievances against his neighbors. Maurice Cohen and his wife Rose a pharmacist next door he held a grudge against the most as they complained repeatedly about Unruh’s habit of listening to the radio at all hours at high volume. This could be in retaliation of the Choen’s son Charles was free to aggravate Howard Unruh with his trumpet playing. 

 Even though the Cohens did the neighborly thing and allowed him and his mother to use their back gate to access the street their complaints with Howard were he would constantly leave it open. This would allow stray dogs in the Cramer Hill neighborhood of East Camden to come in and eat their garbage. This situation would become so tense between the Unrushs and the Cohens, that his mother would hire a local handyman to install a separate gate for Howard to use instead. Unruh would also make claims that Maurice short-changed him at least five times when making purchases at the drug store the Cohens owned. 

Other neighbors, Unruh had listed in his diary the grievances he had against them. Thomas Zegrino, a tailor, Unruh believed he was spreading rumors about his sexuality. The couple that lived below him threw trash in the back of his lot. Clark Hoover, a barber would put dirt from a construction project in the vacant lot causing the drainage to back up and flood the basement. John Pilarchk, a cobbler or shoemaker, would bury his trash close to his property. A boy by the name of Carl Sorg, tapped into his electricity to run lights for the Christmas trees he was selling. 

Next to some of the people listed in this diary, he had initials next to their names. Either RWTS or DNDR meaning retaliate when time suitable and do not delay retaliation. 

On the evening of Sept 5, 1949, Howard was to meet with a lover that he was already having weeks-long affairs with at the Family Theater in Philly which was a well-known meet-up spot for men but traffic kept him from arriving on time and his date had left by the time he had arrived. Unruh would sit through three showings of the double-feature of “I Cheated the Law” and  “The Lady Gambles” before he would return home after 3 am feeling rejected, here he would discover the newly constructed gate his mother had installed for him had been ripped from its hinges. Thinking this was some retaliation from the Cohens this very well could have been the last straw for Howard Unruh but the gate was actually vandalized by some neighborhood boys. He would lay in bed awake the rest of the night stewing in his rage after finding the broken gate that he believed was done by the Cohens. 

The following morning after Unruh showered and shaved and put on his best suit, After finishing a breakfast of fried eggs and cereal, Howard then goes to the basement to retrieve a piece of lead pipe he had stashed away to deal with Carl Sorg if he had ever returned to steal his electricity to run his lights. He summoned his mother to the living room of their apartment posed as if he intended to hit her. She would ask “Why would you want to do that for Howard?” she would flee the house in terror before he could act.

He then would go to his bedroom and retrieve his prized P08 Luger, an extra magazine, and 30 loose rounds and exited the apartment around 9:20 AM and out onto River Road. He first shot at the driver of a bread truck, shoving his pistol through the door but missed him by inches. This unknown driver failed to warn the residents of Cramer Hill of Unruh’s actions. 

His next stop was to the cobbler John Pilarchik, he entered the store where Pilarchik was busy installing new soles to a pair of shoes and without a word, Unruh shot John Pilarchik twice, once in the stomach and once in the head. 

Here he goes to the Barbershop of Clark Hoover where he is busy cutting the hair of a six-year-old boy named Orris Smith. Unruh would tell Hoover “I got something for you Clarky” as he steps toward the white carousel horse child's chair and shoots both Clark and Orris. Striking Clark in the head and Smith in the neck killing them both. Orris Smith’s mother screamed in horror rushing toward the pair while Unruh calmly exited the Barbershop continuing his walk.

Dominic Latela, restaurant owner next door to the barber shop Orris Smith was getting his hair cut for the first day of school the next day.

From there he proceeded to Cohen’s Drug Store, Maurice Cohen ran out moments after the shooting and started shouting “What's going on here” as he spotted Unruh wielding his pistol, turned, and ran back inside. James Hutton an insurance agent for the neighborhood including the Unruh family, ends up blocking the doorway to see what causing the unfolding chaos of River Ave. “Excuse me sir” Unruh would ask Hutton. Not moving instantly for Unruh, James Hutton is shot in the head and chest as Unruh calmly enters the drug store stepping over James Hutton’s body. 

By this time Maurice has made it upstairs to their apartment warning them of Unruh and to hide. His wife Rose would scream to their son to hide, which Charles would quickly hide in a closet and his mother would  take shelter in another as well. Unruh spots Maurice trying to escape across a rooftop through a window shooting him in the back as Maurice falls and dies on the sidewalk below.  Hearing her cries from a closet Unruh shoots through the door three times then opens it and shoots, 38yo Rose Cohen in the face. Meanwhile, 63YO Minnie Cohen, Maurice’s mother, is trying to call the police and Howard Unruh finds her trying to call for help, shoots her in the head and chest, and heads back downstairs and back onto River Ave. 

Twelve year old Charles Cohen survives by hiding in the closet his mother put him in.

While crossing the street to head to his next target, Thomas Zegrino, a sedan driven by WW2 veteran and Television repairman  twenty-four year old Alvin Day slowed down spotting the body of James Hutton laid out on the sidewalk. Choosing to turn around and before he could escape, Unruh walked up to the drive side of Day’s sedan and shot him in the head through the window, sending his car careening onto the sidewalk.

Men watched from a bar as Unruh continued his walk, he would take shots at them and the men dove back inside. Next door two year old Tommy Hamilton looks outside a window where he was playing with a curtain and is shot and killed by Unruh. Tommy’s caretaker, Irene Rice would collapse in severe shock witnessing little Tommy being shot. 

Thomas was out at the shop at the time Howard Unruh entered but his wife twenty-eight year old Helga. She pleaded for her life as he shot her in the store. From here, even not on his list he decided to kill the manager of the corner grocery, Earl Horner. Luckily he had locked the door after a group of children that had ran past Unruh during the initial shooting, ran in looking to find shelter from the rain of bullets unleashed by Unruh. Unable to get inside he still fired a few shots into the door as those inside hid behind the counter unharmed.

Eighteen year old Charlier Peterson and two friends happened to turn onto River Avenue unaware of what was going on. Unruh would spot this trio taking aim at the three boys and hitting Charlie Peterson in the arm after they had stopped and stared at the body of James Hutton on the sidewalk. Charlie would survive his injuries.

He spotted an approaching car as he turned to head away from the grocery. 37yo Helen Wilson, her mother  sixty-eight year old Emma Matlack, and Helen’s son  nine year old John Wilson. Unruh would shoot into the windshield three times killing Helen and Emma instantly. John survived and died eighteen hours later in Cooper Hospital.

From here he would go to the home of Madeline Harris. Even though not on his list he would shoot at her three times hitting her in the arm as two of the shots missed. She was at home with her two sons Armand and Leroy. Her sixteen year old son Armond would defend his mother but be struck down and shot twice by Unurh in the arm. Aiming at his chest and goes to fire at Armond but his Luger is empty.  He left as fast as he had entered their home, digging into his pocket for more ammo but he was out.  Here he would be shot in the butt by bar owner Frank Engle that got his pistol and shot at Unruh from his apartment window. Engle recalled that Unruh seemed to be unnerved by being shot. 

After twelve minutes from the first shot rang out the police started to swarm into Camden Hills to River Avenue. Unruh would return home and barricade himself in his apartment. 

In twelve minutes Howard Unruh would shoot and kill 12 people, injuring three.

Detective William E. Kelly Sr., was the first officer to  respond to the 9-1-1 calls, and would end up in a shootout with the now barricaded Unruh. In the midst of the gun fight, journalist Philip Buxton of the Camden Evening Courier located Unruh’s number and called him up.

"Is this Howard?"

"Yes ... what's the last name of the party you want?"


(Pause) "What's the last name of the party you want?"

"Unruh. I'm a friend, and I want to know what they're doing to you."

"They're not doing a damned thing to me, but I'm doing plenty to them."

(In a soothing, reassuring voice) "How many have you killed?"

"I don't know yet, because I haven't counted them ... (pause) but it looks like a pretty good score."

"Why are you killing people?"

"I don't know. I can't answer that yet, I'm too busy."

(At that point Buxton heard Unruh move away from the phone as gunfire was heard in the background)

"I'll have to talk to you later ... a couple of friends are coming to get me" ... (voice trails off)

The police were finally able to get Unruh to surrender after smoking him out of his apartment with tear gas. Charles Hance and Cpt. Everett Joslin, stormed up the stairs to Unruh’s apartment shouting to “come down with your hands up” where Unruh would tell them “I give up Don’t Shoot.” He would emerge from his apartment and fall at the feet of the two officers. 

When they searched his apartment and found an arsenal of knives and guns, an ammo press and over 700 rounds he had been making. His war trophies he brought home from WW2 and his shooting range. On a table in his bedroom books on sex hygiene and  they noted that his bible was open to Matthew, Chapter 24 where in this chapter of the bible Jesus predicts the destruction of a temple and end times. Where he also warns his disciples to always need to be spiritually ready for his return as they will not know when it will be.

During his interrogation he would give investigators meticulous accounts of his actions, one of the things he did say during this was he would kill a thousand if he had enough bullets. It wouldn’t be until the end of  his interrogation that he was shut in the butt. He would actually end up in the same hospital where one of his victim,  9yo John Wilson was fighting for his life before dying 18 hours later after being shot. 

 Unfortunately for the victims he would be found mentally unfit to stand trial for 13 counts of murder and three counts of atrocious assault. He would be diagnosed eventually with paranoid schizophrenia by psychologists. He would be sent to live in New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. Where he would be put in a private cell in the Vroom building that was for maximum security patients where he would be known as Case No. 47,077. He never would stand trial for his crimes even though every year he would be reevaluated to see if he was mentally competent with treatments. 


“Murder is a sin and I should get the chair” he would tell doctors. He did claim to feel sorrow for killing children but doctors noted that he didn’t seem remorseful for his actions. There are a lot of other things I have found that allegedly Unruh had said due to having narcosynthesis administered aka truth serum but, scientists discredited the drug being effective in the 1950s due to patients molding truth and fiction together.   

 While here he never spoke much about his actions and declined an interview in 1999 with the LA times, one of the hospital staff did befriend him, Harry Rosell. He said that Unruh was aware that what he did was 100% wrong and he is sorry he did it.He was even aware of the anniversary every year of his shooting spree.

In 1992 Charles Cohen was interviewed by the L.A. Times about the shooting spree. Still bitter and angry for losing his parents and grandmother on Sept. 6, 1949 said.

“I don’t want anyone to see him as a poor old man, He’s a mass killer that has outlived most of the families that he destroyed. I’m just waiting for the call that he’s dead and I’ll spit on his grave and that will be it.”

Unfortunately Charles Cohen did not get this fantasy of his to take revenge on Unruh as he would die Sept 4, 2000. Two days before the 60th anniversary which I'm sure would  open the wounds once again.

  •  However he was spared of having to see and hear the news of his granddaughters high school under siege by another like Howard Unruh at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl 69 years later. Where she to would survive a mass shooting like her grandfather did by hiding in a closet.

Howard Unruh would finally stop wasting our precious air Oct 19, 2009 dying at the age of 88 of an extended illness that I couldn’t find. His last words would be "I’d have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets.”

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