The Las Vegas Massacre and the Ghost of Howard Unruh

The only aspect of the late, unlamented Stephen Paddock’s murderous rampage in Las Vegas on October 1st that genuinely surprised me was the fact that an atrocity on this vast scale had not been perpetrated by an American gunman decades before. It could be argued that the frequency and scale of what in the USA are called mass shootings have risen inexorably in recent times, so perhaps an outrage such as the one visited upon many hundreds of innocents in Las Vegas was inevitable, given that the population of America can be measured in the hundreds of millions, as can the amount of guns there.

Nonetheless, it is still a source of mixed wonder and relief to me that many scores have not been killed and hundreds injured in a shooting long before now, and while the Las Vegas gunman’s precise motivation for mass murder remains a mystery as I write this, the words and actions of one of his homicidal predecessors seem to me to be highly illuminating. Before I come to these prophetic words uttered freely by a monster that some would argue was the prototype for Stephen Paddock, I feel I must deal with a curiosity directly related to these slayings that appears with monotonous regularity in the British media.

When addressing the massacre in Las Vegas, we are regularly told that it’s the worst mass shooting in recent American history, but no clues are supplied as to which time frame we should be considering. From what I have seen, the most frequent objection to the idea that the killings in Las Vegas in 2017 or Orlando were the worst “in recent history” has been in the form of the mention of the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota on December 29th 1890, when 150 or possibly twice that number of Lakota Sioux were shot by a detachment of the famed 7th Cavalry, while it should also be pointed out that these soldiers were almost certainly responsible for the deaths of 25 of their own men and for the wounding of 39 others, such was the nature of the madness that erupted that day.

Wounded Knee is well enough known, but it does not take an investigative genius to learn of other episodes of truly shocking violence that are not mentioned as part of recent American history, even though they are closer to us in time than the awful events at Wounded Knee. The confrontation that has come to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921 was fought between 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers on one side, against 10,000 armed coal miners on the other; in the course of less than a week, something in the region of 1,000,000 bullets were apparently fired, while the lawmen even arranged for aircraft to drop bombs on the opposition. This battle eventually came to an end when the US army and air force were sent in to break up the fight and it seems to me a minor miracle that as few as 130 men died in total, given the truly astonishing amount of lead and shrapnel that was flying around for 5 days.

He wasn’t a gunman, but the farmer Andrew Kehoe was responsible for killing 45 people, 38 of them children, mainly through setting off dynamite in a school in Michigan in 1927. He naturally achieved notoriety for this, although he is nowhere as well-known as he deserves to be for such an atrocity, while he bequeathed us a possible clue to his actions in the form of a stenciled sign he attached to a fence on his property, reading CRIMINALS ARE MADE, NOT BORN.

Two years later, 7 men were murdered in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, but I suspect that I could be here a lot longer, trying to decide what constitutes the precise parameters of both recent history and mass shootings. It would be simpler and more accurate for our media to describe these mass slayings – that will come, as surely as night follows day, because a complete layman can predict their hellish arrival with complete certainty – as the worst since a detachment of the US Army machine-gunned around 150 Lakota Sioux, as well as 25 of its own men, at Wounded Knee in 1890. This might not be palatable to some politically-minded media institutions, but it is nonetheless a fact.

Otherwise, I started this post by expressing my great surprise that a mass shooting on or surpassing the scale of the killings in Las Vegas had not happened long before, and this is why. The first American individual that I know of in the last century to embark on what we would recognise as a modern shooting spree was Melvin Collins, who killed 8 men and wounded 6 others before taking his own life on November 6th 1948 in what became known as the Market Street Massacre in the city of Chester, in Pennsylvania. Despite his ground-breaking rampage, Collins is virtually unknown, unlike the man who embarked on the methodical slaughter of men, women and children in Camden, New Jersey, less than a year after Collins took up a gun in anger.

The 28 year old army veteran Howard Unruh was responsible for what became known as “The Walk of Death” that lasted around 12 minutes, during which time he killed 13 people, 3 of them children. Despite the fairly rapid appearance on the scene of something like 50 good guys with guns, many of them automatic weapons, Unruh survived the hailstorm of lead that was directed at his first floor apartment and he went on to become one of the few mass shooters ever taken into police custody for questioning. His story has been well-documented over the years and if you wish to, you can read more about it in this detailed, illuminating but perhaps not 100% accurate piece in the Smithsonian Mag, while here is a shorter but no less illuminating piece in the New York Times that was published to mark Unruh’s death at the age of 88 on almost exactly this day in 2009, after having spent 60 years in confinement for his awful crimes.

What is not mentioned in either of the otherwise detailed accounts above are some of the final recorded words of Howard Unruh, as spoken to baffled psychiatrists who were trying to understand what had driven this man to a virtually unprecedented assault on his fellow citizens. Unruh told those treating him “I’d have killed a thousand more if I’d had enough bullets” and if we rule out those killers who have targeted family members or former workmates in their deadly sprees, we can see that many of them were clearly driven by precisely the same urges and desires that possessed Unruh [pictured below] back in 1949. Stephen Paddock seems to have been trying to make Unruh’s chilling statement into a prophecy that he did everything in his power to fulfil and if there’s one thing I can be certain about in this world, it is that Paddock will not be the last of his lethal kind.

how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death
E.E.Cummings

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