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The First Modern Mass Murderer in America: Camden, NJ

In 1949, a man from Camden, NJ became America’s first modern mass murderer. This event shook the city and has had lasting effects to this day. We will explore the motives behind the killings, the aftermath of the incident, and the measures taken to prevent similar occurrences from happening.  

At approximately 7 a.m. on September 6, 1949, Unruh ate a breakfast prepared by his mother, whom then left to visit a neighbor, Carolina Pinner. At about 9:20 a.m., armed with his Luger P08 pistol, an eight-round magazine, and more ammunition carried in his pockets, he left his apartment and walked out onto River Road in Camden. Approaching a bread-delivery truck, Unruh shoved his pistol through the door and shot at the driver. He missed his shot by a few inches and the driver unsuccessfully attempted to warn residents.

Unruh visited the shop of one of his neighbors, shoemaker John Pilarchik, whom he shot and killed instantly.He next visited the barbershop of another neighbor, Clark Hoover, who was cutting the hair of six-year-old Orris Smith; shooting Hoover in the head and Smith in the neck, both fatally. Running to Cohen's pharmacy, Unruh encountered insurance man James Hutton and killed him when he didn't move out of his way.

Unruh proceeded to the rear of the pharmacy and saw Cohen and his wife Rose running up the stairs into their apartment. Once in the apartment, Cohen climbed through a window and onto the porch roof, while Rose hid herself and their son, 12-year-old Charles, in separate closets. However, Unruh discovered the closet Rose was hiding in and shot three times through the door before opening it and firing once more into her face. Walking across the apartment, he spotted Cohen's mother Minnie, age 63, trying to call the police, and shot her several times. He then followed Cohen onto a porch roof and shot him in the back, causing him to fall to the pavement below. Charles, still hiding in the second closet, managed to escape undetected.

Unruh then walked into the middle of River Road and fired at an approaching sedan,killing the driver, Alvin Day, and causing the car to careen onto the sidewalk. He then visited the business of tailor Thomas Zegrino; he was not there, but his wife Helga was and was killed by the gunman. Zegrino would be the only one of

Unruh's intended targets to survive the rampage.

After firing through the locked front door of a grocery store, Unruh approached a car waiting at the intersection and shot the occupants: Helen Wilson, her son John, and mother Emma Matlack; the two women died instantly, while the boy died later at Cooper Hospital. Unruh then fired through an apartment window, killing two-year-old Thomas Hamilton. The child's caregiver, Irene Rice, collapsed upon witnessing the shooting and was treated for severe shock. Unruh would later claim that he didn't know whom he saw in the window or whether he hit them. Unruh next fired upon another car coming down the street; its occupants, Charles Peterson and James Crawford, managed to escape to a nearby tavern and survived.

Witness William McNeely saw Frank Engel run out of the tavern and shoot at Unruh, but he apparently missed and then ran back inside.In fact, he had succeeded in shooting Unruh in the leg, which police would only discover at the end of a lengthy interview with Unruh. Unruh fired at several other people across the street, missing them. He then found Madeline Harris and her son Armand outside their home hanging out blankets to dry and shot at them; both were injured but survived.

Hearing police sirens in the distance, Unruh returned to his apartment, which was soon surrounded by police. The first officer on the scene was Detective William E. Kelly, Sr. A gunfight ensued, during which journalist Philip Buxton of the Camden Evening Courier found Unruh's number in the local telephone directory and dialled it. Unruh answered in what was described as "a strong, clear voice" and had the following conversation with Buxton:

"Is this Howard?"
"Yes ... what's the last name of the party you want?"
"Unruh."
(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).[18]

The gunfight ended when police threw two tear gas bombs into the apartment, the second of which went off, filling the room with gas. Two armed officers, patrolman Charles Hance and Captain Everett Joslin, went up to the first floor of the building and shouted, "Come down with your hands up" to which Unruh replied, "I give up. Don't shoot." Unruh emerged from the room and stumbled down the stairs, fell at the feet of the officers, and was handcuffed by Sergeant Earl Wright.

Detectives found an apartment filled with what was described as an arsenal of weapons, guns, knives, bullet-making equipment, and more than 700 rounds. In a drawer were several marksmanship medals and in the basement was Unruh's target range. On a table was a Bible opened to Matthew, Chapter 24. Police also found books relating to sex hygiene.

Camden Today: The Lingering Effects of the 1949 Murders

High Crime Rates

Despite efforts to lower crime rates, Camden still has one of the highest rates in New Jersey.

Impact on Communities

The 1949 murders left a lasting impact on the community, leading to a distrust of authority and a sense of unease that lingers to this day.

The Role of Gun Laws in Crime Rates

New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the US, but how effective are they in reducing crime rates? We will examine the impact of these laws on Camden and other cities in the state.

"You don't have to be against guns to be in favor of stricter gun laws."

-Joe Biden

The Aftermath of the 1949 Murders

The 1949 murders left the city of Camden in shock and disbelief. We will explore the immediate response of the city and its residents, and the measures taken to restore order in a time of chaos.

Number of Deaths

16

Number of Injuries

3

Suspect

Howard Unruh

Uncovering the Motive Behind the Killings

Howard Unruh's motive for the 1949 murders has been the subject of much speculation. We will delve into his background and explore the theories behind what drove him to commit such a heinous act.

Mental Illness

Unruh suffered from paranoid delusions and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Personal Grievances

Unruh had a history of being bullied and may have felt a sense of revenge towards those he targeted in the shootings.

The Response of the City

The 1949 murders shook the city of Camden to its core. We will examine the response of the city and its residents in the wake of this tragedy.

The city of Camden struggled to come to terms with the 1949 murders.

The police response to the shootings was swift and effective.

The story made national headlines, drawing attention to the issue of gun violence in America.

Preventing Future Occurrences

After the 1949 murders, the city of Camden took steps to prevent similar incidents from happening again. We will explore the measures taken by the city, as well as the impact of these efforts on the community.

Community Outreach

The city worked to improve relationships between the police and the community.

Increased Police Presence

The police department increased patrols and surveillance in high-crime areas.

Gun Control Measures

New Jersey's strict gun laws were enforced more rigorously, making it more difficult for individuals to buy firearms illegally.

The Legacy of the 1949 Murders

The 1949 murders had a profound impact on the city of Camden. We will examine the legacy of this event and its lasting effects on the community.

  • Camden became a symbol of the issue of gun violence in America.
  • Efforts to reduce crime rates continue to this day.
  • Unruh's actions challenged the notion of safety in public spaces and left a sense of unease that persists to this day.

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