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N.J. man who killed 13 in 1949 dies at 88

Howard Barton Unruh, who killed 13 people in Camden, N.J. during a psychotic 1949 shooting spree that was the worst U.S. mass murder at the time, dies Monday at 88.
Image: Howard Unruh
Howard Unruh, center, shown after his capture in Camden, N.J., gunned down five men, five women and three children in 1949.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Howard Barton Unruh, who killed 13 people as he walked the streets of Camden in a psychotic 1949 shooting spree that was the worst U.S. mass murder at the time, died Monday. He was 88.

Camden County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk said Unruh died at 3:35 p.m. in a Trenton nursing facility after an extended illness.

Unruh had been confined in a state psychiatric hospital since the killings, which became known as the "Walk of Death." Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he confessed to the killings and was judged mentally competent but never tried for the Sept. 6, 1949, massacre.

Unruh, then a 28-year-old honorably discharged World War II combat veteran and pharmacy student, planned the killings for more than a year. He kept a meticulous journal on his intended victims.

He killed five men, five women and three children. Some Unruh knew and intentionally targeted; others were simply strangers he encountered on the street that morning.

Read bible, loved guns
A recluse who read the Bible and loved guns, he was convinced his neighbors were ridiculing him behind his back and plotting against him. He was also depressed about his homosexual liaisons in a Philadelphia movie theater.

"They have been making derogatory remarks about my character," Unruh would later tell authorities. What finally set him off was his discovery that someone had stolen the gate to his fence.

Unruh, armed with a war souvenir Luger and 33 rounds of ammunition, left the apartment he shared with his mother, Freda, in the blue-collar neighborhood.

With calm and deadly precision, the 6-foot (1.83-meter) Unruh, a tank gunner and expert marksman in the Army, carried out his execution plot in the neighborhood around 32nd Street and River Road. Neighbors screamed "crazy man" and scrambled for cover as bullets flew.

At a shoe repair shop, Unruh shot a cobbler in the head. Next door at a barber shop, he killed a 6-year-old boy on a hobbyhorse chair, and then the barber.

Next on Unruh's list was a tailor, but he had left his shop on an errand. So Unruh shot the man's bride of six weeks in the head as she begged for her life.

Along the way he fatally shot a man at the wheel of his car, two women in another car and a 3-year-old boy peeking out a window at his home. A 10-year-old boy was wounded and died the next day.

Shot by tavern owner
A terrified tavern owner managed to shoot Unruh in the thigh with a .38-caliber pistol from a second-story window, but he continued walking. He then shot one of his prime targets, an insurance salesman who had sold policies to the Unruh family.

Unruh then went to the apartment of a neighbor, who had complained that Unruh played loud music. While a boy hid in a clothes closet, Unruh fatally shot the boy's parents and his grandmother.

He left the apartment and wounded two others before returning to his own apartment. He surrendered after police pumped tear gas into the apartment.

He later told police he had spent the previous evening sitting through three showings of a double feature and had thought that actress Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors.

Unruh provided a detailed account of his actions during the killings, and only at the end of the interrogation did authorities learn he had been wounded as well.

He faced 13 counts of "willful and malicious slayings with malice aforethought" and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery." He was eventually pronounced insane and put in a unit for the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.