This was originally published on Feb. 26, 2012.
After methodically shooting and killing 13 people in his East Camden neighborhood on Sept. 6, 1949, Howard Unruh fully expected to die in the electric chair or — at best — spend the rest of his life in prison.
What he did not want, he said, was to spend the rest of his days in an asylum.
"… To be declared insane and remain in this building the rest of my life — well, I would rather have the chair," he is quoted as telling a psychiatrist 17 days after the massacre in a report never before released to the public.
But die he did still a patient at Trenton State Hospital, where he spent the last 60 years of his life as Case No. 47,077, never tried for his crimes.
Hundreds of documents released by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office last week at the request of The Inquirer are helping to fill in the portrait of the man often considered the first modern-day U.S. mass killer.
Psychiatric and investigative reports, including his own long-sealed confession, expose unknown features of his mental landscape before and after the slaughter as well as support much of what is already known.
The basic facts are that on Sept. 6, 1949, Unruh, 28, a 6-foot-tall jobless World War II combat veteran, left his house on River Road in Camden at 9:30 a.m. dressed in a brown suit and bow tie and armed with a 9mm German Luger and a grudge.
In a matter of 20 minutes, in what was dubbed the "walk of death," he killed 13 people — neighbors and strangers, including three children — and wounded three.
He surrendered after police peppered his apartment with bullets and smoked him out with tear gas.
Asked several times why he did not shoot it out with the police, he always replied that he had no quarrel with them, according to the recently released documents.
Within an hour of his arrest, he was sitting in the Camden Police Detective Bureau giving a confession to County Prosecutor Mitchell H. Cohen, details of which made it into the newspapers the next day with a rapidity unknown today.
"I deserve everything I get, so I will tell you everything I did and I will tell you the truth," he told Cohen.
Unruh described his spree in chillingly clinical terms:
"Q: Did you have any conversation with the shoemaker?
"Q: None at all?
"Q: You went into the store, is that right?
"Q: What did you do?
"A: Looked to see who was in there. I went over to the shoemaker, pulled the gun and I shot him."
(Read actual transcript of Howard Unruh's confession here.)
He had been shot in a buttock but did not alert his captors until they noticed blood on him as he gave his confession. The next day, he was taken from Cooper Hospital to the Vroom Building for the criminally insane at Trenton State Hospital and committed — voluntarily.
From Sept. 7 on, a team of psychiatrists questioned him, at least twice with so-called truth serum drugs, to try to understand what would spark such an unspeakable crime.
While the use of truth serum — known as narcosynthesis — is now considered unreliable because of the tendency of patients to mix fact and fantasy, doctors then considered it a useful tool and it colored their view of Unruh and his actions.
Of particular interest to the experts was Unruh's homosexuality.
He told them he "became a homosexual" two years earlier but limited his sexual activity ("three times a week," according to one account), to visits to Philadelphia, especially the Family Theater on the 1300 block of Market Street, a known pickup spot.
On the night before the killing he was supposed to meet a man named Van he had known for three weeks, but traffic held up Unruh and they did not get together.
"He was very much broken up about that," says a report of a narcosynthesis session conducted by four doctors. "This is the one point in the whole narco when he showed any emotion."
After spending nearly seven hours at the Family Theater, he left at 2:20 a.m. and went home, where he found that a rear gate he had installed for his mother to get into their building had been damaged.
That, Unruh said, set in motion the massacre.
His neighbors, he told the psychiatrists, had been talking about him disparagingly for two years because he was jobless, still living with his mother, and a "queer."
He said he could hear them even when he did not see them and believed they could read his thoughts. He also believed some youths from the neighborhood saw him at the Family Theater and had spread the word about him.
Unruh, who had dropped out of Temple University's pharmacy program the year before, said most of his anger was directed at Maurice Cohen, his next-door neighbor and owner of the corner drug store. (Cohen was not related to the prosecutor.)
Despite that, Unruh could not recall fatally shooting Cohen in his confession or in the first psychiatric interview after the spree.
Told that Cohen was dead, he said, "Then in that case I shot him."
Time and again, the reports say Unruh remained remorseless about the killings, except for the deaths of the three children.
Besides the bloodshed, the most troubling theme to emerge from the records is Unruh's relationship with his mother, Freda, who visited him regularly until her death in 1985.
She and Unruh's father had been separated about 10 years at the time of the killings and Unruh lived alone with her in the apartment on River Road. A younger, married brother lived in the suburbs.
Over the years of institutionalization, Unruh told his doctors he loved his mother and he hated her, that he worried about her and he wanted to have sex with her. He also wanted to kill her.
After his arrest, he said in his confession he planned to kill her with a lead pipe before he left the house to slaughter his neighbors, but she ran away.
"He does not know if he would have gone and killed these others if he had first killed his mother," the doctors reported after a narcosynthesis session on Oct. 1, 1949. "Having not killed her, however, he had to go on; he had shown his hand . . ."
In the same session, Unruh described incestuous-type encounters with his mother when he was younger and his father was away during which he fondled her breasts and "their privates touched."
He seemed to have conflicting feelings.
"He never remembers being sexually excited," the report by Dr. Robert E. Bennett says at one point, but concludes: "He showed no emotion whatsoever throughout the entire narco until he started talking about this incident with his mother, being in bed with her, wrestling, etc."
In 1975, one progress report noted Unruh wrestled with murderous and "lascivious" thoughts of his mother and that he believed she could read his thoughts.
A later report goes on to say: "He no longer hates his mother, but only dislikes her and resents her."
On Oct. 20, 1949, Camden County Court Judge Bartholomew A. Sheehan signed the final order of commitment for Unruh after a team of four psychiatrists classified him as a case of "dementia praecox, mixed type, with pronounced catatonic and paranoid coloring."
In modern parlance, he was a paranoid schizophrenic, a classification that would appear again and again in Unruh's records.
The order committed Unruh to the hospital "permanently or until restored to his right mind or until a further order of a court of competent jurisdiction." It also directed his father Samuel to pay $15 a week — a third of his weekly take-home pay — for his son's upkeep.
In 1949, only one psychiatrist, W.H. Minford, went on record saying Unruh was competent enough to take part in his defense at trial.
"To clap him into Vroom too soon would be regarded as psychiatrists coming to the rescue," Minford wrote. "The trial should be a full-dress affair . . . and there are possibilities that legal and psychiatric practitioners may learn from this unusual and interesting case.
"After all the evidence is in, let the court and jury find their verdict."
Instead, Unruh disappeared from sight, and his case did not come before any court until late 1964, when he himself submitted a handwritten petition asking to have his indictment dismissed on the grounds he was insane at the time of the crime. He withdrew the petition two months later when he learned that the grounds he cited only could be used as a defense at a trial, which he did not request.
His case would not emerge again until 1973, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jackson v. Indiana that a state could not hold a defendant deemed incompetent to stand trial indefinitely without recourse to civil court hearings.
Hospital records from Unruh's confinement paint a picture of a patient with many ups and downs — but one who never posed a problem for staff or fellow patients.
Sometimes he heard voices, or talked to imaginary people "on the wall." At others he thought doctors could read and block his thoughts. He would read newspapers and books on science, write letters to former army buddies, and spend time with his stamp collection.
Once in the general population, he moved in and out of programs, including group, art, and occupational therapy, and ate one day and refused food and medicine the next, voicing fear of contamination in one case.
At times he would profess an attraction to another inmate, including one who was "young enough to be his son" in 1975.
He was injured several times in attacks by other patients, including suffering a fractured arm in 1985.
In the series of court hearings that started in 1973, Unruh and his lawyers succeeded in getting his indictment dismissed and having some of his restrictions eased. But he failed to be moved to a less secure facility or a VA hospital.
Unruh's efforts were opposed by prosecutors, members of the public, and Charles Cohen, who lost his mother, father, and grandmother in the attack.
Cohen, who was 12 at the time and hid in a closet as Unruh slaughtered his family, had kept his story a secret from his children until the court hearings began and once said he was waiting for the phone call informing him Unruh was dead.