For the offended

What is this?

Thursday, July 7, 2022

"This is a case of gun-madness."

     Thanks to Grizz65, whose comment yesterday led to today's post.

     The current spate of mass shootings is traced back to Columbine, the 1999 massacre where 13 students were killed by a pair of students who then took their own lives.
     But collective memory is faulty — we say we'll never forget, but we do, and the American propensity toward amateur slaughter goes back much further. If you had asked me, I'd point to 1966 sniping off the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, when a former Marine, Charles Whitman, killed 14 people, at the time the greatest slaughter in United States history by a single gunman.
     This was being discussed on my blog, and one reader mentioned Howard Unruh, whose name meant nothing to me. But in 1949, the 28-year-old Army vet walked down River Road in Camden, New Jersey, calmly shooting people with a souvenir German Luger pistol. He killed 13: five men, five women and three children, aged 2, 6 and 9—the 6-year-old, Orris Smith, was slain at point blank range, the gun pressed against his chest as he sat in a barber shop, astride a white carousel horse, getting a haircut because he was starting school tomorrow. His mother sat watching nearby. The barber, J. Clark Hoover, was killed too.
     Frank Engel, a tavern owner, grabbed a .38 he owned and shot Unruh, wounding him, but failing to stop the rampage. Engel could have shot him a half dozen more times. "I don't know why I didn't do it," he said later.
     Friends described Unruh as a quiet kid who kept to himself. "A very quiet fellow" was the way his high school yearbook described him. Indeed, he was oddly polite during the shooting. "Excuse me, sir," he said to one man, shooting him twice. After the murders, as police closed in, Unruh returned to his room at his mother's apartment, where the assistant city editor of the Camden Evening Journal phoned and Unruh picked up. 
    "Why are you killing people?" the editor asked.
    "I don't know," Unruh replied. "I can't answer that yet. I'll have to talk to you later. I'm too busy now."
     By then police had thrown tear gas through the window. Uruh came out with his hands up. 
     "What the matter with you?" one policeman asked. "You a psycho?"
     "I'm no psycho," Unruh replied. "I have a good mind."
     Bystanders kept saying to reporters that they couldn't understand why it had happened. Prosecutors said the cause was "resentment against his neighbors." Unruh was judged insane and committed to the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital for 60 years, until his death in 2009.  He was never found competent to stand trial. 
     "I'd have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets," he later told a psychiatrist.
     Meyer Berger, of the New York Times, won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the killings, which were not, as commonly believed, the first such rampage in America. Nor, needless to say, the last. If you look at the front page story that ran in the Chicago Daily News, you will notice that its editors had no trouble running the photo of a body sprawled in the street, even identifying it as "Maurice Cohen, drug store proprietor." Cohen was Unruh's neighbor, and apparently had set him off by complaining about him cutting through his yard and playing his radio too loud at night.
     So perhaps showing graphic photos of bodies would not have the pacifying effect that some people suspect it might. At the end of October that year, a farmer in Michigan went berserk and shot 10 people with a 12 gauge shotgun. 
     A professor of psychology told the Daily News that he was disturbed that such incidents might inspire each other, and indicate a "social pattern."
     In an odd coincidence that we can expect to see more of as these massacres multiple, Charles Cohen, 12, son of the slain druggist, survived by hiding in a closet. ("Hide, Charlie, hide!" his mother Rose had said, pushing him into the closet before she was killed). The youngster, whose grandmother was killed too, later said, "You get through it, but you never get over it." Through an odd coincidence, he lived to become the grandfather of Carley Novell, who after he died, in 2018 survived the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by also hiding in a closet, as her grandfather had. 
     Then as now, pundits struggled to find meaning, though gave up even more readily then than now.
     "This is a case of gun-madness," wrote syndicated columnist Robert Ruark, throwing up his hands, despairing at an explanation of why "meek, religion-ridden" Unruh went amok. "All you can do is count the corpses, bury the dead, shut up the wild man and thank God that you yourself were out of range at the time."
     Unruh's 2009 obituary noted, "He had a fascination with guns."


  1. In the category of the more things change, the more things stay the same - "I'd have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets," he later told a psychiatrist.

    Wise words: "You get through it, but you never get over it."

    If I was an attorney, this article would be my complete submission for an amicus brief supporting legislation to limit ammunition pending before the Supreme Court.

    I'd also like to finish the sailing accident story.

  2. Humans beings are flawed creatures - at any given time 20% of our brethren are suffering from mental illness. People are the same all around the world. Why does America have daily mass shooting and most of the rest of the world doesn't? Because of the NRA and GOP's demented interpretation of the 2nd amendment - an interpretation that provides battlefield weaponry to every citizen, including the mentally ill. American is broken, and will be until the political Right takes note of the words "well regulated" in the amendment these gun Onanists so fervently worship. What about the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the child whose mother and father were butchered in Highland Park?

    1. Absolutely. I'm surprised at the number of readers who appear mentally ill. And "onanism" is the right term. It's fetishistic. Call them, and they have the anger of someone discovered in mid-act with a magazine.

    2. Thank you muchly for he shout-out, Mister S. Your superb Unruh post was what I expected...truly a bang-up job (sorry, couldn't resist it). His last name is, ironically, the German word for "unrest." The slaughter did not penetrate our consciousness in the Fifties and early Sixties because it was thought of as just a horrible anomalous one-off. Not an everyday occurrence, akin to a baseball game--with its own fatal box scores and statistics

      Why are you so surprised at the vast amount of mental illness among your readership...and elsewhere? The invention of the internet merely brought out the craziness. During the Bush years, I was a very active member at one of the largest message boards in existence. It was the Mexico City or Tokyo of cyberspace...literally tens of millions of users. Death threats happened daily. I was invited to shoot it out at a rest-stop meet-up in West Virginia...and someone else threatened a rape and double homicide at what he thought was my house. They were one county (and 25 miles) off. Mercifully, those days are gone. That stuff doesn't fly under the radar anymore. But there are more sickos than ever out there now. The vultures are everywhere.

      The "good-guy-with-a-gun" mantra is sadly laughable. That logic has always escaped me. Didn't such a guy kill a shooter in Colorado this year, and then become a fatality, the victim of police gunfire? How are the cops supposed to determine who is the "good" guy? Will he have some sort of name tag? When the bullets fly, a gunman is a gunman, and the cops will do what they are trained to do...shoot to kill.

      The graphic image of the Camden cops on the porch roof, with the dead druggist's body in the street below, was, from what I have read, the iconic photo that appeared on hundreds of front pages across the country and around the world, just as the "screaming girl" (Mary Ann Vecchio) did after the Kent shootings. Apparently, he was the only victim whose remains appeared in print.

      Finally, there is the legacy of Meyer "Mike" Berger. His illustrious 30-year career (1928-59) at the New York Times has been largely lost to the ravages of time. His Unruh coverage had to be one of the most amazing singlehanded feats in the annals of journalism, along the lines of a ballplayer hitting five homers...while pitching a perfect game.

      Think about it. When word of the slaughter broke, shortly before noon, he made the hundred-mile trip to the massacre site--by train. That must have taken some time. Then Berger interviewed dozens of people, while retracing Unruh's steps. His chronicle of the carnage is like cinematic footage, or drone images. He wrote his 4,000-word piece in 2 1/2 hours, made the return trip to New York, and filed his story that evening, just before deadline. It ran, unedited, on the next day's front page. Columbia and other J-schools still use it as the finest example of local spot news reporting under time pressure. Berger donated his 1950 Pulitzer Prize money to Unruh's mother.

      And yet, despite two decades as the "About New York" columnist, Berger is forgotten, unless you own his book of NYT columns (I don't). Forgotten like so many other columnists (some of whom I've idolized and revered) are fated to be--Jimmy Cannon, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Jack Griffin, and yes...even Greene and Royko. Time crawls, then it marches on, and runs. The Iceman does his work, and the grass covers all.

      Unruh spent most of the next sixty years watching TV, sleeping, playing cards, and mopping floors. He never talked about his neighborhood stroll. Eventually, he never talked much at all. We know, in excruciating, graphic, almost second-by-second detail, exactly WHAT he did that morning. We still don't know all the reasons WHY he snapped, and we never will. His infamy is now largely unknown. Lost to time, and to the proliferation of shootings in the decades that followed. Truth is, if Howard Unruh did in 2022 what he did in 1949, it would be forgotten in a matter of weeks...or even days. That's where we're at now.

  3. "Fascinated with guns." I too was fascinated. At age 6 or 7, I bragged to my grandmother how fast I could draw my cap pistol. She was delighted, thinking I was talking about drawing pictures, for which I had some facility at that age. But later I lost that fascination...I grew up. Even when I lived around Bughouse Square and later in Uptown, rather dangerous neighborhoods at the time, I had no desire to acquire a weapon, which might have seemed useful, as I couldn't fist fight worth a lick. Recently, I watched the last few minutes of a World War II movie, in which our side slaughtered dozens of admittedly "bad people," but it was repulsive and seemed uncharacteristic of other military films I've watched, in which Americans were usually depicted not only as heroic, but also merciful. "De gustibus non disputandum est," but what else do we have to argue about? Mass murder appeals to certain people. I doubt that we'll ever figure out why, but the "how" should be obvious to all by now. Would it were so!


  4. Evidently, the crazy urge to kill people for no reason is not a recent development. And the guy in Highland Park probably could have killed or wounded some via his knife collection, if he were not armed with a military-style weapon. But he couldn't have attacked nearly as many, nor done it from a rooftop, and he wouldn't have gotten away, afterward. But the gun nuts think crazy guys are gonna kill people AND guns are sacred, so what're you gonna do? As The Onion notes, over and over again: "'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens."

    Recent events have demonstrated a couple things clearly. 2 of the main mantras of the Second Amendment Cult have been invalidated, over and over again. The "only a good guy with a gun" bullshit and the idea that "if guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns." Obviously, guns can be obtained illegally. But there's a long list, the Highland Park guy included, of shooters who "were able to obtain the weapons legally." A sensible nation would at least see to it that such murder tools would not be so easy to get. A rational nation would realize that there's absolutely no reason for citizens to have assault weapons, which has nothing to do with banning hunting rifles, let alone every single gun. There should be a logical invocation of the "well-regulated" part of their sacred amendment.

    People love cars. People love to drive fast. Is there a major political movement that seeks to eliminate all speed limits in the country, because of how they infringe on our freedom?

    Of course, rationality does not rule the day. The current majority on the Supreme Court is more influenced by a warped interpretation of what their Christian religion tells them and their fanciful view of what James Madison would have thought about assault rifles and abortion.

  5. Like john, I would play "soldier" with friends at 6 or 7, but it lost its luster when I learned to read and play sports. Why grown men would still indulge in those childhood fantasies is beyond me. Taking away the assault rifles won't stop all the murders, but let's give it a try anyway. The gun manufacturers should be made to buy back all assault rifles, no one should be allowed to possess these weapons. Gun ranges can rent them onsite to satisfy the idiots who cannot live without the noise. If that doesn't reduce the slaughter in a generation, the issue can be revisited. Not betting on this coming to pass anymore than I expect to see Jesus appear at the Supreme Court to drive out the money grubbers.

  6. You can go to Vegas & shoot fully automatic rifles. Of course it's not cheap, as the ammo is expensive & you really go through a lot of it.

    1. How far we have progressed. Around 1960 or so, Riverview had what they called "machine guns" in their shooting galleries. They resembled the .30 caliber MGs that waist gunners (like my uncle) fired on WWII B-17 bombers. But these had hoses attached, and fired pellets (BBs). The hoses were either compressed air hoses or tubes that fed the ammo...I'm not sure which. I loved those guns when I was in junior high. They were cheap to use, and a lot of fun to fire. But I quickly outgrew them.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.