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America’s mass murders since the first in 1949

If You Ask Me

This is how Meyer Berger, the legendary New York Times reporter, began the story of what is generally considered the nation’s first mass shooting in modern times: 

“CAMDEN, N.J., Sept. 6 — Howard B. Unruh, 28 years old, a mild, soft spoken veteran of many armored artillery battles in Italy, France, Austria, Belgium and Germany, killed twelve persons with a war souvenir Luger pistol in his home block in East Camden this morning.”

It happened in 1949 and I remember it vividly. Nothing like it had never happened and there wouldn’t be another mass murder until 1966 when another veteran, Charles Whitman, climbed to the top of a tower on the Austin campus of the University of Texas and randomly shot and killed 16 people before turning one of his many guns on himself. Now, we have mass killings occurring with far greater frequency, two within six days of each other in Boulder and Atlanta last month.

According to Berger’s story, Unruh told prosecutors after his 20-minute, neighborhood killing spree that “he had been building up resentment against neighbors and shopkeepers for a long time. ‘They have been making derogatory remarks about my character.’”

He decided to begin taking revenge after 9:30 one Monday morning, when most of the stores on his block would be open. He began with the cobbler, then on to the tailor, the barber shop, an apartment window, the drug store until he had calmly murdered 12 men, women and children with his captured German Luger.

In exploring the modern history of mass shootings in this country, I checked out those that resulted in 10 or more deaths. The FBI defines mass killings as those with four or more victims but other groups use higher numbers.   

After Camden and the Texas tower killing 17 years later, there would be only one more in the 1970s and five in the 1980s. 

But things got much worse in the 1990s and the new century. There have been 24 mass shootings with 10 or more victims since 1991. The worst occurred in Las Vegas in 2017 when 58 people died. Forty-nine were killed in an Orlando nightclub in 2016 and 32 were cut down by a student at Virginia Tech in 2007.

And next in the ranking, the most horrific of all, the slaughter of the innocents and their educators — 26 in all — in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. 

Coincidentally, or maybe not, this upsurge in mass killings occurred as more firearms were sold in the United States and psychotropic drugs were developed, allowing patients to be deinstitutionalized as mental hospitals were closed. In 1955, there were 340 psychiatric hospital beds per 100,000 people in this country; in 2005, there were 17.  Many who would have been hospitalized in earlier times were in community run homes but others were and are homeless or in prison. The new drugs work — but only if they are taken.

America’s love of and possession of firearms has increased along with the population until today, we have 313 million firearms for our 328 million people.  This in a nation with 4% of the world’s population and 46% — nearly half — of its guns.

No coincidence, is this startling fact. In all 29 mass killings that have occurred since Howard Unruh’s rampage with his Luger in 1949, at least one of the weapons in the killers’ arsenals were semi-automatic, the kind you don’t use for hunting but useful in killing many in a short time.  The exception was the student who used a shotgun and revolver to kill 10 students and teachers at their high school in Santa Fe, Texas, in 2018.

Howard Unruh, the Camden killer, never stood trial. He was committed to a New Jersey mental hospital where he died at 88 in 2009, 60 years after that morning in Camden. During his first years in the hospital, Unruh’s divorced father, Sam, was ordered by the state to pay $15 a month for his upkeep.

Berger won the Pulitzer Prize for his remarkable reporting under a tight deadline and gave his $1000 prize to Unruh’s mother. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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