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October 20, 2009


Z. Brockway

So, I'm not the only one who was sitting at the Unruh death watch table. Several years ago I set up a Google news alert to let me know of any news of Unruh. Although I knew nothing of his current physical condition over those last few years, I always had a sense his death was imminent. Why I was fascinated by this story I don't know.

Part of my childhood upbringing was only blocks away from the crime scene, although I don't think I ever heard the story until sometime in the seventies or eighties. I read everything I could find about it, and became a sort of lay expert on the event. I sometimes chastised reporters for getting facts wrong in the occasional history pieces that were written. I caught one south Jersey columnist plagiarizing whole sections from the Wikipedia Web sit entry. And Unruh's being alive and so mute was mystifying.

There seemed something maddening almost about Unruh's silence. In our Oprah world I guess we expect to hear all about it, even hear all about it ad nauseum. But Unruh never uttered a public word, or was never permitted to. You mention the seeming randomness of the whole thing, and that piques more curiosity than normal.

Was Unruh just a random human with a production error -- a screw left loose on the assembly line? Did something in the war experience knock the screw loose? Could one of my screws get loose and lead me to do such a thing? What keeps that from happening from one day to the next with me or people I know? Even if I'm reliably sane, a madman could walk into a barber shop where I'm having my hair cut and shoot me in the head. Or worse, he could shoot my child. If this can happen with such total randomness, how can I feel safe in the world? The Unruh silence seemed to amplify all those questions.

Hitler evokes a similar need to know. You want to grab him by the throat, and yell "Why did you do those thing?" Yet he overruled us by killing himself or having someone kill him, however it actually happened. So even Hitler is not this frightening enigma that Unruh had become.

You alluded to the differences between how the criminal justice system handled the case in 1949 and how it would be handled today. I wrote about that last month suggesting we seemed to understand inherently back then that Unruh was sick.


Today we scream for retribution and will have none of that mental defect stuff!

I am strangely relieved that Unruh is dead. My news alert let me know within a couple of hours. The Philadelphia Inquirer published it first. I immediately called my mother, still living in south Jersey; she had heard nothing. She too was relieved.

Eventually, I'm sure we will hear all sorts of things supposedly derived from that "voluminous collection of documents" at Trenton State Hospital. But I don't expect any real answers. At least at this point, the worm is off the hook, and we know exactly what we're looking at. The temptation to bite has passed.

R. Bennett

I am amazed by comments like ..."a screw left loose on the assembly line? Did something in the war experience knock the screw loose?....Here's a clue: When you hand someone a gun and ask them to shoot at anything that moves, what do you think will happen? War is heinous, Unruh's mass murder, despicable and vile, and a national legacy to train young men to shoot other young men deserves credit as well. Most veterans did not do this when they came back, you say? Witnessing a death is a traumatic, indeed. Participating in mass murder in a wartime situation is hard for anyone to forget but we ask young people just out of high school to kill, and then go home and become a productive citizen. This is hypocrisy of the highest order. This in no way excuses Unruh's actions. He was a vile coward. At the same time, we tolerate the government trumping up charges to start wars and sending young people into harms way to create more people like Unruh who may not be the most stable individual (How many are at 19 years old?)and have nothing to say except "Support The Troops". Let's not be surprised when our veterans come back with a "screw loose"

carl brookins

Irony is abroad in the land

Jean Cole

Very interesting story. I had never heard of Unruh. Seems to me his paranoid schizophrenia, rather than war, led to the shooting rampage. It explains why he kept a diary of what neighbors were allegedly saying about him and why he killed indiscriminantly after someone stole his gate. The saddest fact was the 12-year-old boy who hid in the closet while Unruh fatally shot his parents and grandmother. All of these years, he wanted Unruh to die so he could put the matter, and the memorabilia he had collected, to rest. But he died a month ago – before Unruh. His entire life was spent waiting to let go. Very sad. Unruh was alive all of these years but it couldn't have been much of a life.
Anyway, thank you for writing about Unruh and his victims.

Edward C. Stengel

I, like Jean Cole, had not heard of Howard Unruh for most of my life, and I'm now 64 years old. I only heard of him when I was 63,
doing a search one day of mass murderers. I must say that Howard
was the first, and to me the most amazing, which sometimes happens
when you're the first. He was America's best kept secret. We all
heard about Charles Starkweather,Richard Speck, Dick Hickock and
Perry Smith ("In Cold Blood", Charles Whitmore (the Texas tower
sniper), the Columbine boys (Clebold and Harris), the work-place
shooters and family murderers, and of course the Virginia Tech shooter who set the record of 62 victims, 33 of whom died. But Howard was unique. He outlived them all, was incarcerated before
the age of television, and spent 6 decades sitting in a cell in a
psychiatric hospital. I tried to find out what he did all those
years, and about all I found out was he read, watched TV, listened
to music, played cards, and slept. I never heard a word about any
friendships or close associations of his, except one veteran who
visited him for 16 years said he remembered the anniversary of the
shooting - Sep. 6, 1949 - every year and he said he was sorry he
did it. I'm sorry for all concerned, but I can't help but admit I'm
going to miss old Howie. He was one of a kind.
was a veteran who vis


Can I be the only one who would rather hear more about the VICTIMS than the perpetrator?

It may be, as noted above, a product of our Oprah world but I would like to know how the mother who watched her six year old shot in front of her in a barber's chair fared?

Somehow the most chilling to me was the two-year old baby shot through a window? How chilling that your child wouldn't be safe in your own living room. It also points out how we often think our walls (figuratively and literally) can protect us even when the truth shows they won't.

There is precious little to report on how the survivors moved on. Apparently through the 50's, 60's and 70's no one bothered to go back and interview those people?

"Look at me!" the perpetrator says and, sadly, we all do. They overshadow the victims and become "famous" for their crimes.

russ Harrington

Russ Harrington I read it in 1949, I was 19 & it was the first item I ever read like this,the item said the local kids called Unruh a pet name"old sophisticated" In the item I read one naborhood teen said "old sophisticated is shooting people", I remember it clearly 65 yr. later & the name "Unruh" in nat. news lately, caused me to look up this name. Thank you for the well done Item, Russ.


I would like to correct one error in your story. Charles Cohen (my grandfather) did not die of cancer, but of a severe stroke that left him in a coma for several days before he passed 9/4/09. today is the first anniversary of his death. My Pop-Pop was an amazing man and he lived a very full life. He loved his children and grandchildren and I miss him every day.

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