One of America’s first mass shootings left 13 dead in Camden

In one of the first modern mass shooting incidents in U.S. history, a deranged 28-year-old World War II veteran Howard Unruh shot and killed 13 people on September 6, 1949.

Unruh’s infamous 20-minute rampage, which became known as the walk of death, was a rarity when it happened 70 years ago today.

Seventy years ago today, Howard Unruh went on a methodical tour of the area where he lived, killing or wounding virtually every man, woman or child he met. Unruh finally was forced from his barricaded apartment by police tear gas shells.

Unruh killed 13 and injured three. Those killed, and their ages, are John Joseph Pilarchik, 27; Orris Martin Smith, 6; Clark Hoover, 33; James Hutton, 45; Rose Cohen, 38; Minnie Cohen, 63; Dr. Maurice J. Cohen, 39; Alvin Day, 24; Thomas Hamilton, 2; Helga Kautzach Zegrino, 28; Helen Wilson, 37; Emma Matlack, 68; and John Wilson, 9.

Unruh was found to have paranoid schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital, dying in 2009.

Unruh enlisted in the Army on October 27, 1942, and from October 1944 to July 1945 saw active service in the Rhineland.

He was awarded the European Theater of Operations Medal, the Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. He was remembered by his Section Chief, Norman E. Koehn, as a first-class soldier who never drank, swore, or chased girls, a smart but quiet man who spent much time reading his bible and writing long letters to his mother.

His hobby was guns, and his marksmanship, noted Koehn, was deadly. He was honorably discharged at the end of the war, after which he returned to New Jersey to live with his mother.

Both his brother and father indicated that Unruh’s wartime experiences had changed him, making him moody, nervous and detached.

For a couple of years, Unruh had been plotting revenge on several of his Cramer Hill neighbors over petty squabbles, perceived slights and name-calling, all which fed into his psychosis.

The evening prior to the killings, he went to Family Theatre in downtown Philadelphia, where he sat through several movies before returning home about 3 a.m. In the morning, he ate a breakfast of cereal, bacon, and eggs prepared by his mother and then left the home armed with a Luger P08 and plenty of ammunition.

He first stopped at the shop of shoemaker John Pilarchik, whom he shot and killed instantly.

He next visited the barber shop of Clark Hoover, who was cutting the hair of a six-year old boy. He shot Hoover in the head and the boy in the neck, killing both instantly.

Ron Dale, a retired ironworker and Navy veteran who died on April 13, 2010, was 8 and waiting to get his hair cut on that September morning. “I heard this bam! He turned around and looked at me,” Dale said in 2009. “He left and went to the barber’s.”

As bystanders scattered for safety, Dale ran home, pale with fear. His mother closed and locked the windows, pulled the blinds, and locked the door, which the family rarely had done before the slayings but regularly did afterward.

Pandemonium ensued. Police flooded the neighborhood. As they searched for the gunman, they used loudspeakers to warn residents to stay inside. Mothers grabbed their babies and ran. Others hid beneath their beds.

A determined Unruh ran to the River Road pharmacy, intending to kill Maurice Cohen.

Outside he encountered James Hutton, an insurance man. Unruh asked him to excuse him, but Hutton didn’t move fast enough for the gunman’s liking, so he shot and killed him. Finding the drugstore empty, Unruh went exited at the rear and went upstairs to Cohen’s apartment.

He shot and killed the pharmacist, whose son managed to escape by climbing out of a window. He then walked into a bedroom where he shot and killed the druggist’s mother, Minnie, and his wife, Rose.

“You get through it, but you never get over it,” Charles Cohen said, 60 years later. “I think about my parents every day.”

Then he went back onto River Road where he walked in the middle of the road causing a sedan to slow for fear of hitting him.

Unruh walked up to the car and shot the driver, Alvin Day, killing him instantly and causing the car to careen onto the sidewalk.

He then visited the tailor shop of Thomas Zegrino, the only one of Unruh’s intended targets who would survive his murder spree. Zegrino was absent, but his wife Hilda was there and was shot and killed by the gunman.

He then went to a food store but found the door locked. He shot through the door but failed to injure anyone.

Finding a car waiting at the intersection, he walked up to it and shot everyone inside, Helen Wilson, her son John, and mother Emma Matlack. The two women died instantly. The boy died later in hospital.

He then shot at someone through an apartment window, claiming he didn’t know who it was or whether he hit them. It was 2-year old Thomas Hutchinson who was killed instantly. His caregiver Irene Rice, witnessing this, collapsed and was treated for severe shock.

As another car came down the street he shot at the occupants, Charles Peterson and James Crawford. They survived and managed to escape to Engel’s, a nearby tavern.

Another witness, William McNeely, saw a man run out of the tavern and shoot at the gunman, but he apparently missed and then ran back inside. In fact he had succeeded in shooting Unruh in the leg, a fact which police would only discover at the end of a lengthy interview with the gunman.

He then shot at several other people across the street but missed. Finding a woman and her son, Madeline and Armand Harris outside their home hanging out blankets to dry, he 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. A gunfight ensued during which journalist Philip Buxton of the Camden Evening Courier, located Unruh’s number in the local telephone directory. When the reporter called, Unruh answered in what was described as “a strong, clear voice”, and had a conversation with Buxton.

The gunfight ended when police threw two tear gas bombs into the apartment, the second of which ignited, filling the room with gas.

Two armed officers, Charles Hance and Edward 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.”

He emerged from the room and stumbled down the stairs falling at the feet of the two officers.

Detectives found an apartment filled with what was described as an arsenal of weapons, guns, knives, bullet-making equipment and more than 700 bullets.

Under police interrogation Unruh gave a meticulous account of his actions, which was later released by Camden County prosecutor Mitchell Cohen. Only at the end of this interrogation did police discover that he had a bullet wound in his left thigh. He was subsequently taken to Cooper Hospital for treatment, while his 13th victim, John Wilson, lay dying in the same hospital.

Unruh has outlived a lot of people who survived the shootings or witnessed their aftermath, including Charles Cohen, who died at 72, three days after giving his final interview to Barbara Boyer, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who wrote about the incident in 2009.


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