Howard Unruh was born in 1921 in Camden, New Jersey and, by all accounts, lived a quiet life before enlisting to serve his country in World War Two. His tour of duty as a tank soldier was said to have had a profound effect on him. He even kept notes on every German soldier that he killed, right down to the condition of their corpses. It was after his honourable discharge in 1945 and his triumphant return to his hometown of Camden that things began to spiral out of control for him. Family members and friends all noted a considerable change in him. Despite being a war hero, he remained unemployed and seemed to have little to do with his time except look at the medals and other war memorabilia decorating his bedroom walls and care for his considerable collection of firearms. While the target range that he set up in the basement of the apartment building in which he and his mother lived and his attending of daily church services absorbed some of his energies, they didn't prevent him from getting into trouble with his neighbours. The spectacle of a grown man being financially supported by his mother who worked at a local factory made him the target of considerable teasing as a "mama's boy".
His growing alienation from the world and the feeling of being persecuted did not sit well with Howard. In his diaries, he kept careful note of every personal grievance (real or imagined). When the diaries were later examined, it was found that he had written the word "retal" (short for retaliate) next to the name of every neighbour whom he had thought deserving of special consideration.
On September 6, 1949, Howard came home from a local movie theatre to find that the new gate that he had built onto the front of the apartment building had been stolen. That was the last straw...
Howard slept until 8:00 am on the following morning. He then got up, dressed himself in his best suit, and had breakfast with his mother. She later reported that he seemed like he was "in a trance" and that he had threatened her with a wrench when she attempted to ask him what was wrong. She left the house and went to a friend's house to tell them about her son's strange behavour. Howard then left the house himself armed with a German Luger pistol and thirty-three rounds of ammunition and went hunting for those whom he felt had wronged him. In the twelve-minute rampage that followed, Howard shot at over twenty-six people, killing thirteen and wounding a number of others. Most of the victims were from his list but many others were apparently just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hearing the approaching sirens, he returned to his mother's apartment and prepared to make a final standoff. After he was wounded, Howard was convinced to turn himself in. He was eventually charged with thirteen counts of murder and three counts of "atrocious assault and battery". According to the two psychiatrists who examined him before his trial, Howard stated that "I'm no psycho. I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough".
Despite efforts to blame Howard's violence on his military experiences, Howard was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity. He was sentenced to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital) where he still resides. He is reportedly a model patient who carries out his mopping duties diligently but prefers to keep to himself.
While other returning veterans had committed acts of violence following the end of the war, as the first single-episode mass murderer in U.S. history, Howard's case certainly stood out. It was the beginning of a disturbing new trend: the spree killer.Update: Howard Unruh died in a Trenton, N.J. nursing home on October 19, 2009 following a long illness. His death provided a final closure for the few surviving family members of his victims long before.