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A Mass Murderer's Tale

Matt Schudel

Sixty years ago, on an ordinary street in Camden, N.J., Howard Unruh, a quiet man who lived with his mother, began walking up and down River Road with a gun in his hand.

Unruh was a 28-year-old unemployed World War II veteran who liked to read the Bible and practice marksmanship. He had a good deal of Nazi memorabilia at home. He lived in what was then a solidly middle-class section of East Camden. (Camden, which used to be the home of RCA and is still world headquarters of Campbell Soup, has since fallen on desperate times.) Unruh had nursed some grudges with neighbors who didn't like him cutting across their backyard or playing his radio late at night, but was otherwise an unremarkable fellow. He went out that morning, Sept. 6, 1949, wearing a suit and a bow tie.

He walked in and out of shops, shooting people at close range, including defenseless children. He killed people looking out windows and walked up to cars parked at stoplights, opening fire. When he was finished with his rampage, 13 people were dead. (initial reports said there were 12 deaths.) The Associated Press obituary of Unruh, who has died at the age of 88, captures the sad horror of of that day.

The New York Times obituary goes into greater detail (complete with a photo gallery), in part because the Times has a remarkable historical connection to this story.

By 11 a.m. on the day of the killings, wire services were reporting on the shocking events in Camden. A New York Times reporter named Meyer Berger -- known to everyone as Mike -- caught the next train to Camden. It would have taken well over an hour to get there, since Camden is in south Jersey, just outside Philadelphia.

Berger spent the day talking to shopkeepers, neighbors, the police and to people who knew Unruh. He even appears to have visited his bedroom. By 9:20 p.m., he had written a remarkable 4,000-word story that captured the drama and terror of that extraordinary late-summer day. Berger's story ran the next morning in the Times.

It has since been recognized as one of the greatest feats of singlehanded reporting and writing in the history of journalism. The level of detail is remarkable, the pace of the story is relentless but unhurried, the portrait of a shattered community is exact and nuanced. Meyer Berger, who became the "About New York" columnist for the Times, composed an unforgettable work that -- though written in a day, under remarkable pressure and confusion -- has become, in its sad, observant way, a literary classic. In 1950, Berger deservedly won the Pultizer Prize for his story.

By Matt Schudel  |  October 21, 2009; 5:29 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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