His name, like the names of his victims, is nearly forgotten.
But what Howard Unruh did 70 years ago today in Camden, N.J. foreshadowed the insanity of mass shootings we live with today.
Insanity is the operative word here. From lockdown drills in nursery schools to bullet resistant backpacks, random mass shootings have become part of the “uniquely American” cultural landscape.
Insanity is that of Sept. 1, the 244 the day of the year, there have been 280 American mass shootings. A mass shooting is defined as an incident where at least four people are shot, not including the shooter.
Insanity is that in 2016, there were 477 mass shootings, more than 1.3 a day.
Insanity is that we even keep these statistics.
Insanity was the demon that drove Howard Unruh to step out of the small River Avenue Road apartment he shared with his mother near the corner of River Road and 32nd Street in the Cramer Hill section of Camden, to kill 13 people and wound three, becoming America’s first single-incident mass killer.
He was ordinarily dressed a brown suit, white shirt and bow-tie. He carried a 9 mm German Luger, bought in Philadelphia but identical to one he kept as a war souvenir, a knife and a weapon called a tear gas pen, which could fire a single round of miniature canister or bullet. He was a crack shot, taking target practice in the basement of his apartment building.
With detached calm, he walked up the street expertly shooting neighbors and local shopkeepers, including pharmacy owner Maurice Cohen, with whom he had constant petty run-ins.
One source of Cohen’s irritation was Unruh’s radio being played too loud. Another was Unruh often leaving the gate to their shared apartment yard open. So Unruh cut his own gate into a backward fence the day before the shooting but within hours it was stolen. It fueled his paranoia that his neighbors were all against him. In today’s vernacular, Unruh felt bullied.
In today’s vernacular, he was to become a mass shooter, a term unheard of in 1949.
Unruh was a tank gunner in the final Allied push toward the Rhine following the Battle of the Bulge. His brother would later tell police he kept a log of every German he killed, with the date, place and time. Four year later, at age 28, Unruh would compile another list in his head, and carry it out.
Like many mass shooters, his act was premeditated. Like many school shooters, there were targeted victims and those who were collaterally killed.
He first targeted shoemaker John Pilarchik, 27, then barber Clark Hoover, 33, but also killed the Orris Smith, six-year-old boy who was getting a haircut. He went to Cohen’s pharmacy and killed James Hutton, 45, who was on his way in. Finding the drugstore empty, he went to up to the family apartment, where he shot Maurice Cohen, 39, his wife, Rose, 38, and Cohen's mother, Minnie, 63.
The Cohens’ 12-year-old son, Charles, managed to escape by hiding in a closet.
Outside again, he shot a random motorist, Alvin Day, 24, then went to the tailor shop to kill Tom Zegrino. The tailor was out, so Unruh shot his wife, Hilda, 28.
On the street, he walked up to a car and killed Helen Wilson, 37, her son John, 9, and her mother Emma Matlack, 68. Last, he shot 2-year old Thomas Hutchinson through a window.
The names and ages are being used in this space to remember the real people and real families impacted by Unruh’s insanity. In our media culture, only the names of the killers seem to be remembered once “thoughts and prayers” dissipate with time.
The press hung the label “Walk of Death” on Unruh’s actions. He returned home as calmly as he left. After a brief siege, he surrendered to police and would spend his life in Trenton State prison's psychiatric unit. He died on Oct. 19, 2009, in geriatric care at age 88.
After Unruh, the next random mass shooting of double digit victims didn’t come until 17 years later, in 1966, when the University of Texas clock tower shooter killed 16 people.
The next random shooting of multiple victims was in 1984 at the San Ysidro McDonald’s (21 killed), the Luby’s grocery store in 1991 (23 killed), then Columbine in 1999, when we learned our children were no longer guaranteed safety in our schools. There are eight years between the three, enough time for us to consider them horrible anomalies and remained stunned and shocked.
The acceleration of random mass shootings in the new century has changed both in defining new levels of insanity. The 32 students killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 was the first.
And now, insanely, mass shootings are no longer horrible anomalies and, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School murder of 21 first-graders, what else can shock us? Fifty-eight at Las Vegas? Forty-Nine in Orlando? Does anyone even remember the Sutherland Springs Church Shooting which left 27 dead three weeks after Las Vegas, or did the number of dead no longer seem extreme?
The Stoneman Douglas High Shooting, which killed 17, seemed to galvanize the nation to end the insanity but it was short lived. We continue to live with this, through El Paso and Dayton and Odessa and whatever and wherever is next.
As these numbers and incidents pile up, someday the insanity of random violence will touch us all, as we hand it down from generation to generation.
Remember 12-year-old Charles Cohen, who survived Howard Unruh by hiding in a closet?
Sixty-nine years later, his granddaughter, Carly Novell, survived the Stoneham Douglas shooting by hiding in a closet.
And that is the definition of insanity.