Kevin Riordan: Decades later, Camden mass killer still poses a mystery

Files from Howard Unruh's case at the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
Files from Howard Unruh's case at the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
Posted: February 26, 2012

The gun Howard Unruh used to kill 13 people is a well-made thing.

The vintage Luger is surprisingly light despite the weight of my expectations - as if simply holding this handsome firearm might explain why Unruh carried it onto the streets of Camden and into infamy on Sept. 6, 1949.

The gunman massacred adults he had long resented as well as children such as Orris Smith, 6, who was getting a haircut from barber Clark Hoover, who also died.

Unruh shot many of his victims multiple times and at close range, until he ran out of ammunition and went back to the home he shared with his mother, Freda. He wanted to kill her, too.

Newspapers described a 20-minute "walk of death" by a "crazed" combat veteran of World War II.

And the man responsible, a pious loner who loved weaponry and kept meticulous lists of his many sexual encounters with other men, was held in the locked wards of state psychiatric facilities from Sept. 7, 1949, until his death 60 years later.

"I remember firing once into his head," Unruh says, describing his first victim - shoemaker John Pilarchik - in a 67-page confession being made public, at The Inquirer's request, for the first time.

"I heard her still hollering . . . and I fired into her face," Unruh continues, referring to Rose Cohen. "I saw blood running down the head of the boy," he says, describing the deaths of a child and two women in a car at a red light. Their names were Emma Matlack, Helen Wilson, and John Wilson.

I'm reading Unruh's words at the office of Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk, where the case file fills a dozen brick-colored folders. The documents are on a table for my colleague Joseph Gambardello and me to examine, along with the only extant piece of physical evidence: the Luger that Unruh bought for $37.50 at a Philadelphia hobby shop a year or so before his rampage.

The killer confesses just an hour after the shooting stops, answering the expertly crafted questions of then-County Prosecutor Mitchell Cohen. As in a second, equally disturbing interview at Cooper Hospital a day later, Unruh shows little remorse.

Instead, he describes a petty collection of resentments against residents and business owners near 32d and River Streets in East Camden's Cramer Hill section.

Unemployed for nearly a year, Unruh believes people are talking about the fact his mother is supporting him. He claims he's called a "queer" by druggist Maurice Cohen, whom he subsequently decides to decapitate with a mail-order machete.

Instead, the killer shoots Cohen, his wife, Rose, and his mother, Minnie, on that morning of Sept. 6.

Unruh's memory seems prodigious, except he can't recall shooting the druggist, or the boy at the barbershop. Nor can he say why he shot many of his victims, three of whom ultimately survived.

His father, Samuel Unruh, separated from Freda since about 1940, is perplexed as well. He tells authorities the older of his two sons grew up "like any other boy."

But when Howard reached young adulthood, "there was a change in him," the father says. "It seemed he had . . . a shell around him and you couldn't penetrate it.

"There was a change in the boy but not that you would ever [think] he would do such a terrible thing."

During the interview at Cooper, Unruh insists he was "in perfect control" at the start of his rampage. "In the excitement I shot others I did not plan to kill. I should get the chair."

Instead, Unruh gets six decades of psychiatric treatment. The case notes describe a generally docile patient whose desire to have sex with and/or murder his mother, who died in 1985, fades over the decades.

At one point, Unruh becomes infatuated with a much younger male patient. He goes to art classes, plays volleyball, gets fat.

When not lobbying for leniency ("I was legally insane . . . I was not legally responsible," he writes in 1964), Unruh pores over his extensive stamp collection. Mail begins arriving for and about him shortly after the killing, a three-inch-thick stack of correspondence.

One man is so determined to find out what edition of the Bible Unruh's family read that he encloses a self-addressed, stamped envelope. There are various Christian tracts, a story pitch from a detective magazine, and a pamphlet purporting to prove that homosexuality is insanity.

Some writers offer theories, but in the end they're as mystified as anyone about why Unruh did what he did.

After reading the confession and the psychiatric reports, and holding the Luger, so am I.

Psychosis?

PTSD?

Evil?

In a note mailed to prosecutor Cohen about 60 years ago, one man declared: "Only the good Lord above knows."

That still sounds right.


Kevin Riordan:

For a video about the newly unsealed records

on mass murderer Howard Unruh, go to www.philly.com/unruh.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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