Howard Unruh

The first thing that I found surprising about this case is that although it is technically more modern than the cases I have recently blogged about I found it harder to distinguish the truth from the fiction within the case.  

Howard Barton Unruh was 28 years old on the morning of September 6, 1949 when he stepped out of his Camden New Jersey home and began shooting.  His rampage lasted twelve minutes, left 12 people dead and 4 wounded (one of the wounded would later die), before he returned home after hearing police sirens. Three of his victims were children, one of them was only two years old.  Once home he barricaded himself and had a short standoff with police where gun fire was exchanged.  After throwing in two cans of tear gas Howard surrendered willingly and calmly.  

He was taken to the local police department and interrogated for a few hours before it was discovered that at some point he had been shot in the thigh.  He was taken to the hospital and to surgery.  Some reports state that surgeons could not remove the bullet so although two people claimed to have hit him they were unable to determine exactly which one had succeeded.  While in the hospital his mental state was evaluated.  It was determined that he was criminally insane and was committed for life to an asylum (now often referred to as a mental hospital).  

Some of the discrepancies I found in research had to do with how we consider things today, while others just seemed to be outright fiction.  For example, one website published as late as 2012 called Unruh the "first American serial killer." I dispute this on many levels.  First, most people, I among them, consider H.H. Holmes the first American serial killer for his crimes in the late 1800's. Although even that can be disputed a bit when you consider some of the earlier crimes of poisoners and what not. Secondly, I, and apparently many, take issue with calling Unruh a "serial killer."  In general the definition of a serial killer is someone who over a period of years, with often mass locations kills a significant amount of people... i.e. Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway.  Most agree that Unruh's actions fall into the category of Mass Murder, while a few believe he is considered a spree killer.  

A mass murderer is generally someone who kills four or more people in close succession in one place or close by where a spree killer is considered someone who travels over locations that seem unrelated killing people.  The confusion with Unruh lies with the fact that he moved through the street and to a few business shooting as opposed to say James Huberty, who walked into a McDonald's and began shooting.  Often, and this case is not an exception, while the murderer may have particular people they intend to target, once the shooting begins the targets often seem less important and anyone in the way of the killer is "fair game."  

There were some questions as to what caused Unruh to commit these crimes and those motives and reasons seem to have evolved over the last 60+ years (even after Unruh's death in 2009).  One has to question some of the theories as to if they are speculative today or if they were looked at differently in 1949.  Most believe that if Unruh were to commit this same crime today his punishment would have been differently.  In 1949 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia AFTER the crime and this is what saved him from prison.  Prior to the crime he had been a soldier in World War II and honorably discharged in 1945. Apparently while in the war he had meticulously recorded every time he killed a German soldier and if he was close enough to the corpse he wrote down details.  Once he returned from the war friends and acquaintances says that the always reserved man seemed different.  Not a lot was known about PTSD in soldier in 1949 either because they really did not know or because they chose not to know.  We have to remember that this was still an era in which although mental illness were beginning to at least receive a little care (even if it was not proper care) it still would have been considered almost wrong to categorize something towards a class of people, especially soldiers that had fought for their country. 

Today the fact that he was a paranoid schizophrenia would be acknowledged but unless it could be proven that he still did not know the difference between right and wrong he still would have been brought to trial and likely spend his time in prison rather than a hospital. This is an idea that I have often argued against. I do not believe that the simple act of knowing the difference between legal right and wrong automatically makes someone sane, but that is how the law works today.

When Unruh returned from the war he moved in with his mother and was unemployed.  I was unable to determine if his unemployment was voluntary due to his personality. He decorated his room with military items and created a target range in his basement. He had been an avid church goer until about months before his rampage.  It is at this time that it seems by all accounts things changed, or at least increased.  While Unruh had always been a quiet man and a bit of a loaner it was during this time that he became a recluse.  It was then when his paranoia about his neighbors began to increase. He maintained a diary about his neighbors and their actions (or at least perceived actions)and next to many names he wrote the word "retal" for retaliation. The day before the rampage he and a friend of his mothers had erected a fence giving them easier access to their apartment.  Until that time they had to either go through a neighbors gate (neighbors in which they argued with over the issue) or through a nearly impassible way. Later he went to a movie theater that was showing a double feature and stayed through three showings.  He claimed later that while watching them he perceived actress Barbara Stanwyck as one of his hated neighbors. He returned home around 3 am and found that the newly erected fence had been stolen.  According to Unruh this act is what sent him over the edge and made him decide to shoot his neighbors. Presumably however, he knew the time of day was not right.  

Unruh went inside and went to bed.  The following morning he got up, dressed in his best suit and tie and sat down to eat breakfast with his mother.  When he was done it was nearing 9 am and he began getting his things together.  When he was questioned as to what he was doing by his mother he turned to her and threatened her.  She left and went to the home of a friend, telling them she feared he was going to do something.... she was right.

Something that I have not put in here up to this point is something that has been theorized as something else that aggravated the situation, but once again I am unsure if it is something glossed over at the time, made into something more as time has gone on or had any relevance at all if it is true. During my research a few mentioned that one of the things that neighbors, especially teens, teased Unruh of (or he thought they had) was of being homosexual and accused him of being a "mama's boy."  I found one source that discussed that Unruh was reportedly depressed about some "homosexual liaisons" he had had in the past. Another site claims to have found documents on the situation and published just a few years ago and claim that he had an incestuous relationship with his mother and brings up the claims of homosexuality once again but tends to make them more than were reported earlier.  If these allegations are true, they would fit.  However, I find it odd that it was not mentioned more in the era or any other sources.  It is likely that in that time period homosexuality could have considered as him being insane and yet that did not seem to be a factor in the decision.  I also only found the one report of this sort of relationship with his mother, yes many say they were close but none mentioned anything beyond that.   

Howard Unruh spent the rest of his life in a New Jersey Hospital for the insane. It was said that even there he remained rather reserved and recluse.  He died there on October 19, 2009.


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