The post-World War II years were a boom time for America. The economy flourished. Men returned home from overseas, started families, and filled new homes in the suburbs with state-of-the-art gadgets. After 15 years of economic depression and war, Americans were thrilled to lead “normal” lives, where jobs and money were plentiful and the world was peaceful.
Howard Unruh left his native Camden, New Jersey during World War II to serve his country like millions of his fellow young Americans. Unruh served bravely in Europe during the war, including in the famous Battle of the Bulge, and in 1945 he was discharged and returned to Camden with a number of medals for his service.
Unlike many of his fellow veterans, however, post-war life did not suit Howard Unruh very well. His brother James noted that Unruh “didn’t seem the same” after he returned home from the war. Unruh lived with his mother in a 3-bedroom apartment in Camden, but he did not return to work. He briefly took classes at Temple University in nearby Philadelphia, but dropped out after a few months. The unemployed Unruh spent his time hanging around the house while his mother worked at a factory. He reportedly had very strained relationships with many of his neighbors, and teenagers in his neighborhood harassed him because they thought he was a homosexual.
Unruh became wracked with paranoia, thinking his neighbors were out to get him. On the evening of September 5, 1949, the 28-year-old went to a movie theater and sat through a double-feature three times. One of the films shown that night, The Lady Gambles, starred Barbara Stanwyck. Unruh was convinced that the famous actress was one of his many neighbors that he loathed. He returned to his home in Camden at 3 a.m. on September 6, and made a discovery that sent him over the edge: the gate he had built in front of his apartment house had been stolen. Unruh had reached his breaking point. He decided that he would have to take action.
When Unruh woke up the next morning, he dressed in his best suit and had breakfast with his mother. During breakfast, Unruh threatened his mother with a wrench, and she fled to a neighbor’s house. At 9:20 a.m., Howard Unruh left his apartment armed with a 9 mm German Luger pistol. Over the course of the next 12 minutes, Unruh casually walked around his neighborhood, gunning down random people on the street and in businesses that he decided to target, including a barber shop and a tailor shop. The rampage resulted in 13 deaths – including 3 children – and 3 injuries. The youngest victim was only 2 years old, and the oldest was 68.
The gunman fled back to his apartment and barricaded himself inside. Soon after, police surrounded the building. Unruh eventually surrendered to police, but not until they began throwing tear gas canisters into his apartment. Unruh’s rampage became known as the ‘Walk of Death’ because of the casual nature in which he carried it out.
After a thorough psychological examination, Howard Unruh was deemed to be a paranoid schizophrenic and insane, and he did not stand trial for the murders. Instead, Unruh spent the next 60 years in institutions, until he passed away in 2009 at the age of 88 at a nursing home in Trenton, New Jersey.
Howard Unruh’s 1949 rampage stood as the deadliest mass shooting in the United States until Charles Whitman’s assault on the University of Texas in 1966.
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