Friday, October 23, 2009

After The First, There Is No Other

There is a Newtonian Law in physics that basically states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I'm sure it doesn't quite apply, but Willie Nelson loves to deadpan the story that his home town of Abbot, Texas has the same population it's always had: when a baby is born, a man leaves town.

Obituaries can be guided by physics as well. When someone bites the dust, something else might also take on life. Something from their past, or something resuscitated by their passing. If they've lived a fairly long life, we might learn of an event that few people alive today are even aware of.

Such is the case when I read of Howard Unruh, 88, America's first mass murderer, single episode. Thirteen people in 20 minutes. The award goes to.

It was 1949, and while I was alive at the time, I was hardly old enough to remember it. It was certainly something every adult had to be talking about for a good while. But it receded into the background so sufficiently that even when other nearly similar rampages erupted, I never remember hearing a reference to it.

The New York Times obituary in Tuesday's paper by Richard Goldstein recounts the story. It also tells me that the obituary was on file, and it took a life of 88 years before Unruh's tale hit the paper again.

The obituary makes good use of the reporting that earned the Times reporter, Meyer Berger, a Pulitzer for local reporting. If the obituary leaves you with a bone chilling, hair raising account of the events, an archival retrieval of the story itself positively leaves you with goose pimples.

Camden then, and now, is hardly New York Times territory. There were only two stories in the Times within 9 months of the shootings. The first story is someone's announcement that all firearms should be registered. The second story reports the ruling of insanity and that no trial will take place. According to Mitchell H. Cohen, the Camden County prosecutor, Mr. Unruh will be committed to the state mental hospital and that he, Mr. Cohen, will "vigorously oppose any attempt by anyone at any time to have this man released into society."

Howard Unruh's high school year book shows a pen and ink drawing of "How" and a stated goal of becoming a lifetime government employee.

Mr. Cohen, and likely others, made sure that Mr. Unruh never did make it back into society. He was only released when he passed away in a state psychiatric nursing home, and we once again read about him. A reaction following an action.

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