Howard Unruh

Howard Unruh - Army Photo

While Unruh has been commonly referred to as America’s first mass shooter, this could be a misnomer. In fact, several similar incidents had occurred before, including a shooting in Chester, Pennsylvania in November of 1948, less than 24 miles away and just 10 months prior, in which a sniper killed seven people before taking his own life.

Unruh grew up in East Camden and attended Cramer Junior High School before graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in January of 1939. He later served in the United States Army and saw significant combat while deployed in Europe. Upon returning home, he became increasingly withdrawn and isolated.

On September 6, 1949, Unruh’s long-standing schizophrenia manifested itself in a horrific shooting rampage during which he killed 13 people. It is worth noting that while Unruh’s actions were undeniably heinous, his mental illness should not be overlooked. Unruh’s neighbors and family had noticed that he was increasingly withdrawn and erratic in the weeks leading up to the shooting, but they had no way of knowing that he was capable of such violence.

Unruh was never brought to trial due to his mental illness. He was sent to Trenton State Prison after his arrest and was subsequently confined to a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane, where he remains to this day. This is a rare instance in which the criminal justice system in New Jersey worked by not involving itself in the proceedings.

If there is a positive outcome to be gleaned from this tragic event, it is that the Unruh affair may have spurred the federal government to put more resources into mental health care for the veterans who returned home from World War II. Unruh’s rampage was arguably the culmination of a chain of events that had been taking place since the middle of the war, as evidenced by a series of suicides and suicide attempts by soldiers on leave and discharged veterans.

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