The Berger Award, named after the late New York Times reporter Meyer “Mike” Berger, is awarded to a reporter(s) for an outstanding example of in-depth, human-interest reporting.
Berger won a 1950 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for his story on a veteran who went on a shooting spree in Camden, New Jersey, killing several residents (below). He then re-introduced the newspaper’s “About New York” column in the early 1950s, setting the standard for evocative and eloquent human-interest reporting. Berger passed away in 1959. Louis Schweitzer, a New York industrialist who admired Berger’s work, created the Berger Award in 1960.
Members of the faculty of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism judge the entries. The award, which consists of a certificate from Columbia and a $1,500 cash prize, is conferred at the school’s Journalism Day ceremony in May.
Watch the video of the 2014 Mike Berger Prize recipient, Julia O'Malley, as she addresses the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2014 during Journalism Day.
For a distinguished example of local reporting during the year, The New York Times submits the story by Meyer Berger of the mass shootings in Camden, New Jersey on September 6, 1949. Mr. Berger was assigned to the story by The Times City Desk shortly before 11 A.M. He caught the first available train to Camden; personally covered the story and filed approximately 4,000 words. The last of his copy reached The Times office at 9:20 P.M., about one hour before the first edition closing. In the opinion of the editors of The New York Times, Mr. Berger’s story was a brilliant example of thorough, accurate reporting and skillful writing, under pressure.
(Pulitzer Prize submission)
CAMDEN, N.J., Sept.6—Howard B. Unruh, 28 years old, a mild, soft-spoken veteran of many armored artillery battles in Italy, France, Austria, Belgium and Germany, killed twelve persons with a war souvenir Luger pistol in his home block in East Camden this morning. He wounded four others.
Unruh, a slender, hollow-cheeked six-footer paradoxically devoted to scripture reading and to constant practice with firearms, had no previous history of mental illness but specialists indicated tonight that there was no doubt that he was a psychiatric case, and that he had secretly nursed a persecution complex for two years or more.
The veteran was shot in the left thigh by a local tavern keeper but he kept that fact secret, too, while policemen and Mitchell Cohen, Camden County prosecutor, questioned him at police headquarters for more than two hours immediately after tear gas bombs had forced him out of his bedroom to surrender.
Blood Betrays His Wound
The blood stain he left on the seat he occupied during the questioning betrayed his wound. When it was discovered he was taken to Cooper Hospital in Camden, a prisoner charged with murder.
He was as calm under questioning as he was during the twenty minutes that he was shooting men, women and children. Only occasionally excessive brightness of his dark eyes indicated that he was anything other than normal.
He told the prosecutor that he had been building up resentment against neighbors and neighborhood shopkeepers for a long time. “They have been making derogatory remarks about my character,” he said. His resentment seemed most strongly concentrated against Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Cohen who lived next door to him. They are among the dead.
Mr. Cohen was a druggist with a shop at 3202 River Road in East Camden. He and his wife had had frequent sharp exchanges over the Unruhs’ use of a gate that separates their back yard from the Cohens’. Mrs. Cohen had also complained of young Unruh’s keeping his bedroom radio tuned high into the late night hours. None of the other victims had ever had trouble with him. Unruh, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School here, had started a GI course in pharmacy at Temple University in Philadelphia some time after he was honorably discharged from the service in 1945, but had stayed with it only three months. In recent months he had been unemployed, and apparently was not even looking for work.
Mother Separated From Husband
His mother, Mrs. Rita Unruh, 50, is separated from her husband. She works as a packer in the Evanson Soap Company in Camden and hers was virtually the only family income. James Unrah, 25 years old, her younger son, is married and lives in Haddon Heights, N.J. He works for the Curtis Publishing Company.
On Monday night, Howard Unruh left the house alone. He spent the night at the Family Theater on Market Street in Philadelphia to sit through several showings of the double feature motion picture there--“I Cheated the Law” and “The Lady Gambles.” It was pass three o’clock this morning when he got home.
Prosecutor Cohen said that Unruh told him later that before he fell asleep this morning he had made up his mind to shoot the persons who had “talked about me,” that he had even figured out that 9:30 A.M. would be the time to begin because most of the stores in his block would be open at that hour.
His mother, leaving her ironing when he got up, prepared his breakfast in their drab little three-room apartment in the shabby gray two-story stucco house at the corner of River Road and Thirty Second Street. After breakfast, he loaded one clip of bullets into his Lugar, slipped another clip into his pocket, and carried sixteen loose cartridges in addition. He also carried a tear-gas pen with six shells and a sharp six-inch knife.
He took one last look around his bedroom before he left the house. On the peeling walls he had crossed pistols, crossed German bayonets, pictures of armored artillery in action. Scattered about the chamber were machetes, a Roy Rogers pistol, ash trays made of German shells, clips of 30-30 cartridges for rifle use and a host of varied war souvenirs.
Mrs. Unruh had left the house some minutes before, to call on Mrs. Caroline Pinner, a friend in the next block. Msrs. Unruh had sensed, apparently, that her son’s smoldering resentments were coming to a head. She had pleaded with Elias Pinner, her friend’s husband, to cut a little gate in the Unruhs’ backyard so that Howard need not use the Cohen gate again. Mr. Pinner finished the gate early Monday evening after Howard had gone to Philadelphia.
At the Pinners’ house at 9 o’clock this morning, Mrs. Unruh had murmured something about Howard’s eyes: how strange they looked and how worried she was about him.
A few minutes later River Road echoed and re-echoed to pistol fire. Howard Unruh was on the rampage. His mother, who had left the Pinners’ little white house only a few seconds before, turned back. She hurried through the door.
She cried, “Oh, Howard, oh, Howard, they’re to blame for this.” She rushed past Mrs. Pinner, a kindly gray-haired woman of 70. She said, “I’ve got to use the phone; may I use the phone?”
But before she had crossed the living room to reach for it she fell on the faded carpet in a dead faint. The Pinners lifted her onto a couch in the next room. Mrs. Pinner applied aromatic spirits to revive her.
Panic Grips Entire Block
While his mother writhed on the sofa in her house dress, and worn old sweater, coming back to consciousness, Howard Unruh was walking from shop to shop in the “3200 block” with deadly calm, spurting Luger in hand. Children screamed as they tumbled over one another to get out of his way. Men and women dodged into open shops, the women shrill with panic, man hoarse with fear. No one could quite understand for a time. what had been loosed in the block.
Unruh first walked into John Pilarchik’s shoe repair shop near the north end of his own side of the street. The cobbler, a 27-year-old man who lives in Pennsauken Township, looked up open-mouthed as Unruh came to within a yard of him. The cobbler started up from his bench but went down with a bullet in his stomach. A little boy who was in the shop hid behind the counter and crouched there in terror. Unruh walked out into the sunlit street.
“I shot them in the chest first,” he told the prosecutor later, in meticulous detail, “and then I aimed for the head.” His aim was devastating--and with reason. He had won markmanship and sharpshooters’ ratings in the service, and he practiced with his Lugar all the time on a target set up in the cellar of his home.
Unruh told the prosecutor afterward that he had Cohen the druggist, the neighborhood barber, the neighborhood cobbler and the neighborhood tailor on his mental list of persons who had “talked about him.” He went methodically about wiping them out. Oddly enough, he did not start with the druggist, against whom he seemed to have the sharpest feelings, but left him almost for the last.
Newlywed Wife Shot Dead
From the cobbler’s he went into the little tailor shop at 3214 River Road. The tailor was out. Helga Zegrino, 28 years old, the tailor’s wife was there alone. The couple, incidentally, had been married only one month. She screamed when Unruh walked in with his Luger in his hand. Some people across the street heard her. Then the gun blasted again and Mrs. Zegrino pitched over, dead. Unruh walked into the sunlight again.
All this was only a matter of seconds and still only a few persons had begun to understand what was afoot. Down the street at 3210 River Road is Clark Hoover’s little country barber shop. In the center was a white-painted carousel-type horse for children customers. Orris Smith, a blonde boy only 6 years old, was in it, with a bib around his neck, submitting to a shearing. His mother, Mrs. Catherine Smith, 42, sat on a chair against the wall and watched.
She looked up. Clark Hoover turned from his work, to see the six-footer, gaunt and tense, but silent, standing in the driveway with of the Luger. Unruh’s brown tropical worsted suit was barred with morning shadow. The sun lay bright in his crew-cut brown hair. He wore no hat. Mrs. Smith could not understand what was about to happen.
Unruh walked to “Brux”-- that is Mrs. Smith’s nickname for her little boy -- and put the Luger to the child’s chest. The shot echoed and reverberated in the little 12 by 12 shop. The little boy’s head pitched toward the wound, his hair, half-cut, stained with red. Unruh said never a word. He put the Luger close to the shaking barber’s hand. Before the horrified mother, Unruh leaned over and fired another shot into Hoover.
The veteran made no attempt to kill Mrs. Smith. He did not seem to hear her screams. He turned his back and stalked out, unhurried. A few doors north, Dominick Latela, who runs a little restaurant, had come to his shop window to learn what the shooting was about. He saw Unruh cross the street toward Frank Engel’s Tavern. Then he saw Mrs. Smith stagger out with her pitiful burden. Her son’s head rolled over the crook of her right arm.
Mrs. Smith screamed, “My boy is dead. I know he’s dead.” She stared about her, looking in vain for aid. No one but Howard Unruh was in sight, and he was concentrating on the tavern. Latela dashed out, but first he shouted to his wife, Dora, who was in the restaurant with their daughter Eleanor, 6 years old. He hollered, “I’m going out. Lock the door behind me.” He ran for his car, and drove it down toward Mrs. Smith as she stood on the payment with her son.
Latela took the child from her arms and placed him on the car’s front seat. He pushed the mother into the rear seat, slammed the doors and headed for Cooper Hospital. Howard Unruh had not turned. Engle, the tavern keeper, had locked his own door. His customers, the bartender and a porter made a concerted rush for the rear of the saloon. The bullets tore through the tavern door panelling. Engel rushed upstairs and got out his .38 caliber pistol, then rushed to the street window of his apartment.
Unruh was back in the center of the street. He fired a shot at an apartment window at 3208 River Road. Tommy Hamilton, 2 years old, fell back with a bullet in his head. Unruh went north again to Latela’s place. He fired a shot at the door, and kicked in the lower glass panel. Mrs. Latela crouched behind the counter with her daughter. She heard the bullets, but neither she nor her child was touched. Unruh walked back toward Thirty-second Street, reloading the Luger.
Now, the little street--a small block with only five buildings on one side, three one-story stores on the other--was shrill with women’s and children’s panicky outcries. A group of six or seven little boys or girls fled pass Unruh. They screamed, “Crazy man!” and unintellible sentences. Unruh did not seem to hear, or see, them.
Autoist Goes to His Death
Alvin Day, a television repair man, who lives in the near-by Mantua, had heard the shooting, but driving into the street he was not aware of what had happened. Unruh walked up to the car window as Day rolled by, and fired once through the window, with deadly aim. The repair man fell against the steering wheel. The front wheels hit the opposite curb and stalled. Day was dead.
Frank Engel had thrown open his second-four apartment window. He saw Unruh pause for a moment in a narrow alley between the cobbler’s shop and a little two-story house. He aimed and fired. Unruh stopped for just a second. The bullet had hit, but he did not seem to mind, after the initial brief shock. He headed toward the corner drugstore, and Engle did not fire again.
“I wish I had,” he said, later. “I could have killed him then. I could have put a half-dozen shots into him. I don’t know why I didn’t do it.”
Cohen, the druggist, a heavy man of 40, had run into the street shouting, “What’s going on here? What’s going on here?” but at sight of Unruh hurried back into his shop. James J. Huttton, 45, an insurance agent from Westmont, N.J., started out of the drug shop to see what the shooting was about. Like so many others he had figured at first that it was some car backfiring. He came face to face with Unruh.
Unruh said quietly, “Excuse me, sir,” and started to push past him. Later, Unruh told the police: “That man didn’t act fast enough. He didn’t get out of my way.” He fired into Hutton’s head and body. The insurance man pitched onto the sidewalk and lay still.
Cohen had run to his upstairs apartment and had tried to warn Minnie Cohen, 63, his mother, and Rose, his wife, 38, to hide. His son, Charles, 14, was in the apartment, too.
Mrs .Cohen shoved the boy into a clothes closet, and leaped into another closet herself. She pulled the door to. The druggist, meanwhile had leaped from the window onto a porch roof. Unruh, a gaunt figure at the window behind him, fired into the druggist’s back. The druggist, still running, bounded off the roof and lay dead in Thirty-second Street.
Unruh fired into the closet, where Mrs. Cohen was hidden. She fell dead behind the closed door, and he did not bother to open it. Mrs. Minnie Cohen tried to get to the telephone in an adjoining bedroom to call the police. Unruh fired shots into her head and body and she sprawled dead on the bed. Unruh walked down the stairs with his Luger reloaded and came out into the street again.
A coupe had stopped at River Road, obeying a red light. The passengers obviously had no idea of what was loose in East Camden and no one had a chance to tell them. Unruh walked up to the car, and though it was filled with total strangers, fired deliberately at them, one by one, through the windshield. He killed the two women passengers, Mrs. Helen Matlack Wilson, 43, of Pennsauken, who was driving, and her mother, Mrs. Emma Matlack, 66. Mrs. Wilson’s son John, 12, was badly wounded. A bullet pierced his neck, just below in the jawbone.
Earl Horner, clerk in the American Stores Company, a grocery opposite the drugstore, had locked his front door after several passing men, women and children had tumbled breathlessly into the shop panting “crazy man***killing people.***” Unruh came up to the door and fired two shots through the wood panelling. Horner, his customers, the refugees from the veteran’s merciless gunfire, crouched, trembling, behind the counter. None there was hurt.
“He tried the door before he shot in here,” Horner related afterward. “He just stood there, stony-faced and grim, and rattled the knob, before he started to fire. Then he turned away.”
Charlie Petersen, 18, son of a Camden fireman, came driving down the street with two friends when Unruh turned from the grocery. The three boys got out to stare at Hutton’s body lying unattended on the sidewalk. They did not know who had shot the insurance man, or why and, like the women in the car, had no warning that Howard Unruh was on the loose. The veteran brought his Luger to sight and fired several times. Young Petersen fell with bullets in his legs. His friends tore pell-mell down the street to safety.
Mrs. Helen Harris of 1250 North Twenty-eighth Street with her daughter, Helen, a 6-year-old blonde child, and a Mrs. Horowitz with her daughter, Linda, five, turned into Thirty-second Street. They had heard the shooting from a distance but thought is was auto backfire.
Unruh passed them in Thirty-second Street and walked up the sagging four steps of a little yellow dwelling back of his own house. Mrs. Madeline Harrie, a woman in her late thirties, and two sons, Armand, 16, and Leroy, 15, were in the house. A third son, Wilson, 14, was barricaded in the grocery with other customers.
Unruh threw open the front door and, gun in hand, walked into the dark little parlor. He fired two shots at Mrs. Harrie. They went wild and entered the wall. A third shot caught her in the left arm. She screamed. Armand leaped at Unruh, to tackle him. The veteran used the Luger butt to drop the boy, then fired two shots into his arms. Upstairs Leroy heard the shooting and the screams. He hid under a bed.
By this time, answering a flood of hysterical telephone calls from various parts of East Camden, police radio cars swarmed into River Road with sirens wide open. Emergency crews brought machine guns, shotguns and tear gas bombs.
Sergeant Earl Wright, one of the first to leap to the sidewalk, saw Charles Cohen, the druggist’s son. The boy was half out the second-floor apartment window, just above where his father lay dead. He was screaming “He’s going to kill me. He’s killing every body.” The boy was hysterical.
Wright bounded up the stairs to the druggist’s apartment. He saw the dead woman on the bed, and tried to soothe the druggist son. He brought him downstairs and turned him over to other policemen, then joined the men who had surrounded the two-story stucco house where Unruh lived. Unruh, meanwhile, had fired about 30 shots. He was out of ammunition: Leaving the Harrie house, he had also heard the police sirens. He had run through the back gate to his own rear bedroom.
Guns Trained on Window
Edward Joslin, a motorcycle policeman, scrambled to the porch roof under Unruh’s window. He tossed a tear-gas grenade through a pane of glass. Other policemen, hoarsely calling on Unruh to surrender, took positions with their machine guns and shotguns. They trained them on Unruh’s window.
Meanwhile a curious interlude had taken place. Philip W. Buxton, an assistant city editor on the Camden Evening Courier had looked Unruh’s name up in the telephone book. He called the number, Camden 4-2490W. It was just after 10 A.M. and Unruh had just returned to his room. To Mr. Buxton’s astonishment Unruh answered. He said hello in a calm, clear voice.
“This Howard?” Mr. Buxton asked.
“Yes, this is Howard. What’s the last name of the party you want?”
The veteran asked what Mr. Buxton wanted.
“I’m a friend,” the newspaper man said. “I want to know what they’re doing to you down there.”
Unruh thought a moment. He said, “They haven’t done anything to me---yet. I’m doing plenty to them.” His voice was still steady without a trace of hysteria.
Mr. Buxton asked how many persons Unruh had killed.
The veteran answered: “I don’t know. I haven’t counted. Looks like a pretty good score.” “Why are you killing people?”
“I don’t know,” came the frank answer. “I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”
The telephone banged down.
Unruh was busy. The tear gas was taking effect and police bullets were thudding at the walls around him. During a lull in the firing the police saw the white curtains move and the gaunt killer came into plain view.
“Okay,” he shouted. “I give up, I’m coming down.”
“Where’s that gun?” a sergeant yelled.
“It’s on my desk, up here in the room,” Unruh called down quietly. “I’m coming down.”
Thirty guns were trained on the shabby little back door. A few seconds later the door opened and Unruh stepped into the light, his hands up. Sergeant Wright came across the morning-glory and aster beds in the yard and snapped handcuffs on Unruh’s wrists.
“What’s the matter with you,” a policeman demanded hotly. “You a psycho?”
Unruh stared into the policeman’s eyes---a level, steady stare. He said, “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.”
Word of the capture brought the whole East Camden populace pouring into the streets. Men and women screamed at Unruh, and cursed him in shrill accents and in hoarse anger. Someone cried “lynch him” but there was no movement. Sergeant Wright’s men walked Unruh to a police car and started for headquarters.
Shouting and pushing men and women started after the car, but dropped back after a few paces. They stood in excited little groups discussing the shootings, and the character of Howard Unruh. Little by little the original anger, born of fear, that had moved the crowd, began to die.
Men conceded that he probably was not in his right mind. Those who knew Unruh kept repeating how close-mouthed he was, and how soft spoken. How he took his mother to church, and how he marked scripture passages, especially the prophecies.
“He was a quiet one, that guy,” a man told a crowd in front of the tavern. “He was all the time figuring to do this thing. You gotta watch them quiet ones.”
But all day River Road and the side streets talked of nothing else. The shock was great. Men and women kept saying: “We can’t understand it. Just don’t get it.”
Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.
Abi Wright, Executive Director, Berger Award
Columbia University Journalism School
New York, NY 10027