Not a New Crime
Three years ago, Smithsonian magazine ran an article headlined “The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History.” It was an account of World War II combat veteran Howard Unruh, who in 1949 went on a 20-minute “walk of death,” as one newspaper called it, indiscriminately shooting neighbors in his Camden, N.J., neighborhood with a German Luger. Before his capture, Unruh killed 13 people and wounded three.
It was a shocking tragedy, and the Smithsonian article is riveting. But it wasn’t the first mass murder in U.S. history. Or the second, or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth. It wasn’t even the only mass shooting in that decade. There were at least two others.
In the 1930s, there were two more mass shootings, which followed a psychotic farmer’s 1927 attack on a Bath, Mich., schoolhouse. Using a rifle and explosives, he took 44 lives, 38 of them students. Andrew Kehoe had wiped out most of the children in an entire town – and exacted a death toll greater than Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary combined.
The first mass killing at an American school predates the existence of the United States. In 1764, a teacher named Enoch Brown was gunned down in his Greencastle, Pa., schoolhouse by Lenape Indians, who then tomahawked 10 children and scalped them.
From 1900 to 1928, African-American gunmen killed 40 people in seven separate incidents – six of them in the South, and the last incident in Chicago. Rampant racism of the day mitigated against widespread news coverage: Either the gunmen were targeting cops in response to police brutality — or the victims themselves were African-American, which apparently limited media interest.
Not all of these early 20th century cases would necessarily be classified as “mass shootings” by the FBI. The standard definition excludes killings done in the commission of another crime, which rules out, for example, the Kansas City Massacre and Chicago’s Valentine’s Day Massacre, famous gangland mass killings in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It probably would not include the weeklong crime wave of Charlie Starkweather, who shot, stabbed, or strangled 11 victims as he robbed his way through the Midwest in 1957-58. And most of Andrew Kehoe’s carnage was done with explosives, not his rifle.
And yet, the Las Vegas shooting of Oct. 1, 2017, the deadliest in U.S. history, was foreshadowed more than a century earlier in small-town Kansas. Holed up in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, the Vegas gunman opened fire on patrons at a music concert. On Aug. 13, 1903, 30-year-old Spanish-American War veteran Gilbert Twigg used a .12-gauge shotgun on a crowd at an outdoor concert Winfield, Kan. Twigg killed nine people and wounded many more before turning a revolver on himself.
For more than a century, law enforcement authorities, victims’ families, and the media invariably ask the same question: Why? Why do they do it? The killers, in the cases in which they survive, often wonder that themselves. “I don’t know,” Howard Unruh told a newspaper reporter who telephoned him on a hunch when the killer returned to his apartment for more ammunition. “I can’t answer that yet.”
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