‘Something Has to Change’ – 70 Years of Mass Shootings

By JIM CURLEY | Sep 04, 2019

On Friday, Sept. 6, Camden, N.J., will note an anniversary that will not be celebrated by its citizenry – no parades, no flowery speeches by local officials, no fireworks. Seventy years ago to the day, Howard Unruh killed 13 people during a 12-minute walk through his Camden neighborhood.

One source called these murders the first “mass shooting” in American history.

When locals think of Camden, I’m sure they’d prefer to think of “Rosie the Riveter” building warships at the Camden Naval Yard during World War II, or the first drive-in movie theater in the U.S., or hometown of poet Walt Whitman, or Msg. Michael Doyle of the Heart of Camden community renewal projects or even the aroma of warm Campbell’s tomato soup after shoveling a foot of snow. Anything but a massacre.

Unruh, who was 28 years old in 1949, kept grudges. Lots of grudges. When he left his home that morning on what was later called the “Walk of Death,” he was determined to kill local businessmen who he thought had offended him: shoemaker John Pilarchik, barber Clark Hoover, pharmacist Maurice Cohen and tailor Thomas Zegrino.

An Army veteran of World War II, Unruh was remembered by his section chief, Norman Koehn, as an expert marksman. The ex-GI left his apartment with a fully loaded Lugar P08 eight-round pistol, adopted by the German army back in 1908, and several dozen bullets in his pockets.

First to die was Pilarchik; next was Hoover, the barber. Orrin Martin Smith, a 6-year-old, was in the barbershop awaiting his back-to-school haircut when he was shot and killed. Pharmacist and neighbor Maurice Cohen, his wife, Rose, and Cohen’s mother, Millie, were the fourth, fifth and sixth to die. Cohen’s 12-year-old son, Charles, who was with his father at the time, escaped and hid in a closet.

The only one of the original targets to survive was Zegrino. Unruh entered the tailor’s shop. Zegrino wasn’t there, but his wife, Helga, was. Unruh murdered her.

Those who were also killed, but might be listed under “collateral damage,” included James Hutton, Alvin Day, Thomas Hutchinson, Helen Wilson, Emma Matlack and John Wilson

The final three victims, including 9-year-old John Wilson, were killed when their car was stopped at a red light. The youngest of all the murdered victims was Tommy Hutchinson, age 2. Unruh saw movement in an apartment window, opened fire and killed the toddler. So it goes.

Unruh’s victims also included the physically injured and emotionally traumatized survivors. Young Charles Cohen, who escaped death by hiding in a closet, later married and raised three daughters. One of them, attorney Lori  Greenberg, said her father could not rest until Unruh was dead. Cohen died in 2009. He was buried on the 60th anniversary of the Camden shootings.

Uhruh, who had been committed to psychiatric institutions and hospitals since his arrest in 1949, died in 2009, months after Cohen. His last public statement was "I'd have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets.”

A final irony: one of Charles Cohen’s grandchildren, Carly Novell, survived a mass shooting in 2018 at the school she attended, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Carly included a picture of Charles Cohen in a tweet that read, ‘This is my grandfather. When he was 12 years old, he hid in a closet while his family was murdered during the first mass shooting in America. I also hid in a closet from a murderer. These events shouldn’t be repetitive. Something has to change.”

Lori Greenberg, Carly’s aunt, told the Courier-Post that her father “did not let (the Unruh murders) define him and hopefully we’re going to get Carly through this.”

May all the world’s children have a safe school year.

Jim Curley lives in Ship Bottom.


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