The New Jersey Ghost Sniper

Photo from 1890 of boys playing with marbles. Did mischievous boys such as these and a child play thing spark a panic in Camden, New Jersey in 1927?

Photo from 1890 of boys playing with marbles. Did mischievous boys such as these and a child play thing spark a panic in Camden, New Jersey in 1927?

Shootings are all too common in the United States. Most of the incidents are straight forward –an argument gets out of hand, someone pulls a gun in the heat of the moment, and someone else ends up dead. That, or some scum bag decides to take out their anger and frustration on a large, unsuspecting group of people.  Gun crime is nothing new; it has existed as long as there have been guns. However, these days you aren’t likely to come across a gun related crime quite as weird as the Camden Ghost Sniper, the name given to the alleged perpetrator of a very odd set of crimes between 1927 and 1928 in Camden, New Jersey.

 

A ghostly assailant

Police officer from the mid-1920s.

Police officer from the mid-1920s.

The Ghost Sniper’s reign of terror first hit the Camden Courier-Post’s front page on January 25, 1928, when a bus windshield and the wind shields of four other vehicles on Camden Bridge were ‘strangely shattered’ by an unknown projectile. The windows appeared to be shot through with a bullet, although no fragments or shell casings were found. So it was with the first five shootings. Most notably, at 4:30am Bridge Policeman John J. Rodgers was also shot by the ghostly assailant. He was hit in the back hard enough to knock him off his feet. The projectile responsible was found a few moments later–it was a blue marble–but the shooter was nowhere to be found.

After these first strange occurrences, reports of the ‘phantom sniper’ began to flood into Camden police stations. Reports of similar attacks came in from Collingswood and Lindenwood, New Jersey as well. Police suspected the culprit or culprits might be using a high-powered air gun or a low-caliber hand gun with a silencer, or some combination of the two. In later incidents bullets were found, one matching a .38 slug and the other a .22. In another case, the Ghost Sniper shot nickel-plated screw a through the windshield of a car owned by a prominent local jeweler, which was promptly recovered.

Perhaps the strangest feature of the case was that witnesses present at most of the incidents never reported hearing a gun go off. The only victim who claimed to hear anything was when Former State Senator Albert S. Woodruff reported being fired upon from a car he was following across the Federal Street Bridge. There was only one case where a possible shooter was identified; he’d shot through a bedroom window, and when the occupants looked outside to see where the projectile had come from, they saw a man running a away shouting: “It’s all right now, Louie.” The mystery man was never caught.

Luckily, no one was seriously injured throughout the ordeal, other than some severe cases of jangled nerves and a couple of officers who suffered nasty bruises after being struck by blue marbles. That is not to say that Camden and the surrounding area were not in a borderline panic over the ‘phantom shooter’ though. Police outfitted themselves with tommy guns and pursuit vehicles to aid in the hunt for the shooter, and throughout the course of the investigation they operated under a “shoot on sight” order. People were genuinely terrified of the Ghost Sniper, and with good reason; after all, since no one could catch him, what was to stop him from shooting to kill?

 

Two arrests, but were they really the culprits?

An illustration of the London Monster, who haunted the streets of London in the 1790s.

An illustration of the London Monster, who haunted the streets of London in the 1790s.

The strange story concluded when police arrested two youths for shooting a hole in a windshield with a slingshot. After the arrests, no more incidents were reported. The story is quite similar to that of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, where a mysterious gas-wielding assailant allegedly assaulted the people of the sleepy Illinois town. No culprit was ever found, and the whole incident was chalked up by authorities as an outbreak of mass hysteria (it has, in fact, become a textbook case.) The situation in Camden was slightly different, as there were no physical symptoms associated with the panic like in the Mad Gasser case. So it technically wasn’t mass hysteria, but rather a case of mass delusion, where a false believe spreads like wild fire throughout a community, such as during the case of the London Monster.

More likely than not, at least some of the incidents were real. For example, Officer Rodgers was struck by some object; it remains to be seen, however, whether or not it was the marble he found nearby. The newspaper report on the case, especially since it involved a public official being attacked, primed the rest of the community to believe they could be attacked too. Every pebble shot through a window by a passing car and every prank by bored school boys became a sign of a mad man on the loose. The panicked mood might have caused pranksters to come out of the woodwork and stoke the flames. As time passed,  the panic eventually peaked. By the time the two youths were arrested, interest in the whole business had waned anyway. The arrests closed the case in most people’s minds.  The term “Ghost Sniper” was an ideal one, because he only existed in the minds of the people of Camden.

 

Source:

Cohen, Phil. “Camden, New Jersey: The ‘Ghost Sniper.'” dvrbs.com. May 6, 2005. DVRBS, Inc. March 17, 2014. <http://www.dvrbs.com/camden/CamdenNJ-TheGhostSniper.htm>

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