Later termed the "Walk of Death," Unruh's rampage lasted 20 minutes before he surrendered to police. In his next-day, Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the murders, New York Times reporter Meyer Berger noted that Unruh had been angry at his neighbors for "making derogatory remarks" about him. Although Unruh had no known history of mental illness, Berger wrote that prosecutors had already decided he was a "psychiatric case" with a "persecution complex." Unruh was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and confined to Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, where he remained until his death in 2009, at the age of 88.
Reason to worry
The newly released case files tell us much more about Unruh than was previously reported by Berger and others. His neighbors didn't simply tease him, the files reveal; they called him a "queer." And when psychiatrists questioned Unruh, they focused squarely on his sexuality.
Unruh told them that he frequented the Family Theater, a Market Street movie house and well-known gay pickup spot. Under the influence of narcosynthesis, a then commonly used "truth serum" that has since been discredited, Unruh said he was supposed to meet a man at the theater on the night before the murders. But traffic delayed Unruh, and by the time he got there, the man was gone. According to the psychiatrists' report, Unruh's recounting of this incident was "the one point ... when he showed any emotion."
Unruh also said he feared that youths from his neighborhood had seen him at the theater and had told others. And he had some very good reasons to be worried about that. In the Army, where Unruh served for three years, homosexuality could get a man locked up and dishonorably discharged. And back home, it could get him arrested.
Between 1941 and 1945, roughly 9,000 soldiers and sailors were discharged from the U.S. military for being gay. Servicemen suspected of homosexuality were frequently forced to strip naked or submit to a "gag test" with a tongue-depressor; if you didn't gag, you were assumed to be gay.
Before they were discharged, gays were detained in "queer brigs" or "pink cells." Some of these brigs were outdoor pens where servicemen awaiting discharge were publicly humiliated by passersby. In private, meanwhile, they were sometimes forced to sexually gratify their guards.
If that sounds a bit like the Nazis' persecution of gays, it's because it was. Ironically, some American homosexuals were inspired to enlist in the armed forces after reading reports of German mistreatment of gays, only to find themselves under attack by their own military.
We can only guess how this environment affected Unruh, who was honorably discharged at the end of the war. The same goes for the antigay measures that civilians faced at the time.
Between 1947 and 1955, 21 states and the District of Columbia enacted so-called "sex psychopath" laws allowing the indefinite incarceration of homosexuals. New Jersey's own statute was passed in April 1949, just five months before Unruh's rampage. Fear was in the air, and Unruh must have felt it.
"You can't blame it on the Army - it's the whole damn world and we were just born at the wrong time," one detained gay serviceman wrote to a fellow soldier.
Howard Unruh was among those born at the wrong time. Army psychiatrists often deemed closeted gay soldiers "paranoid" or afflicted by a "persecution complex," just as Unruh would be diagnosed. But the persecution was real.
No matter what role such persecution played in Unruh's unspeakable crimes, we should never forget it, and we should work hard to make sure it stays in the past.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at email@example.com.