A Historical Perspective on the “Mental Illness as Motive” Narrative

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Cassandra Kearney


In an effort to better understand the historical significance of the “mental illness as motive” narrative, this essay investigates what has been recognized as the first mass shooting in the modern United States—Howard Unruh’s 1949 mass shoot­ing in Camden, New Jersey. Given that mass shootings were an unprecedented phenomenon, the news media played an important role in explaining the event. As will be shown, many Americans felt uncertain about how mental illness man­ifested and who was vulnerable. Given the often undisclosed, albeit perceived threat of schizophrenia, the public needed reassurance that there would be some indicator of insanity. Accordingly, the media used evidence of religious fanaticism and unfavorable physical descriptions of Unruh to cast him as separate, outside, or an “other.” Ultimately, the media’s rhetorical choices differentiated Unruh and attempted to make mental illness easier to identify for an audience afraid of its influence.

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