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Florida shooting survivor’s grandpa saw family slain in 1st US mass shooting

Carly Novell, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, wrote on Twitter that her grandfather went through an oddly similar situation nearly seven decades ago. 

“This is my grandpa. When he was 12 years old, he hid in a closet while his family was murdered during the first mass shooting in America,” Novell wrote. “Almost 70 years later, I also hid in a closet from a murderer. These events shouldn’t be repetitive. Something has to change. #douglasstrong”

Novell survived uninjured, but 17 of her classmates and teachers were killed. The accused shooter, a 19-year-old former student, Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with 17 counts of murder. 

Novell said Thursday that her late grandfather, Charles Cohen, was living with his family in Camden, New Jersey, in 1949, when a 28-year-old man named Howard Unruh committed what is considered the first mass shooting in U.S. history. 

“I didn’t really go through the same thing, because he didn’t turn out as lucky,” Novell said. “But I wish he was still alive because I feel like he could understand how I feel right now.”

It was 3 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1949, when Unruh returned home from a movie to find that the gate on a new fence he’d constructed at the rear of his backyard was missing. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Unruh had erected the fence as part of a squabble with the Cohens, who lived next door and owned the drugstore below the apartment Unruh shared with his mother. 

Unruh, a World War II veteran who had been stewing for years over petty slights with several of his neighbors, went into his apartment and prepared his German Luger pistol and his ammunition, Smithsonian reported. After compiling a mental list of who he wanted dead, he slept for a few hours. 

Pictured is the scene on Sept. 6, 1949, in Camden, New Jersey, where 28-year-old World War II veteran Howard Unruh committed what is considered the first mass shooting in U.S. history. Unruh, who lived in an apartment above the drugstore in the photo, shot and killed the pharmacist, his wife and his mother, as well as other victims in the neighboring barbershop and shoe repair shop. In all, 13 people died that day.
Photo: (AP Photo)

When he awoke that Tuesday morning, Unruh unleashed what was later called his “Walk of Death” through the neighborhood, killing 13 people and wounding three more in the span of about 20 minutes. One of the dead was a 6-year-old boy getting a haircut in the neighborhood barbershop, according to the New York Times

Unruh targeted local business owners, but also fired at several people in the wrong place at the wrong time as he made his way back toward home. He then went after the Cohens, walking into the family’s drugstore and killing a customer. 

The Times reported that pharmacist Maurice Cohen -- Novell’s great-grandfather -- fled to the roof of the family’s apartment, which, like Unruh’s unit, was situated above the drugstore. The pharmacist’s wife, Rose Cohen, 38, hid in a closet after pushing 12-year-old Charles Cohen into another closet. 

Unruh shot Maurice Cohen, 40, in the back, causing him to fall to the street below, the Times said. Rose Cohen was shot and killed through the door of the closet in which she sought refuge. 

Maurice Cohen’s mother, Minnie Cohen, 63, was killed in a bedroom as she frantically tried to call police.

Unruh was eventually captured after barricading himself in his apartment and engaging in a shootout with about 50 police officers.

In this Sept. 6, 1949, photo, Howard Unruh, center, is pictured as police take him into custody for a mass shooting that killed 13 people. The 28-year-old World War II veteran targeted business owners and his neighbors in what is described as the first mass shooting in U.S. history.
Photo: (AP Photo)

Charles Cohen recalled the rampage for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2009, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre. He told the newspaper that he huddled in a closet after his mother yelled, “Hide, Charles! Hide!”

Then 72 years old, Cohen expressed disappointment that the man who killed his family was still alive, although Unruh was in poor physical health at the time. 

“You get through it, but you never get over it,” Cohen said his family’s deaths. “I think about my parents every day.”

Cohen died of a stroke just three days after giving that final interview. The Courier-Post, which serves Camden, reported that Cohen was buried 60 years to the day after his family was murdered. 

Cohen was the last survivor of Unruh’s “Walk of Death.”

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Unruh, 88, died a little over a month after Cohen at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, the Times reported. Diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia, he never stood trial.

He was instead confined to the hospital’s ward for the criminally insane until 1993, when he was moved to a geriatric unit on the grounds. 

During the rampage, as Unruh barricaded himself in his apartment, the assistant city editor of the Courier-Post called him and asked how many people he had killed, the Times said

“I don’t know, I haven’t counted,” Unruh said. “Looks like a pretty good score.”

“Why are you killing people?” the newspaper editor asked.

“I don’t know,” Unruh said

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