On August 1, 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman, age 25, perched himself on the observation deck of Austin’s 231-foot University of Texas (UT) tower. For 96 minutes, he fired upon unsuspecting strangers below. Earlier that morning, Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife at their residences, supposedly to spare them the embarrassment of what he was about to do from atop the tower. Before he was shot to death by police, he had left people wounded and dead on the stairway and reception area of the observation deck and over a four-block area below. The death toll amounted to 14 people (not including Whitman, his mother, and his wife), with 32 others wounded.
Mass murders were a rare occurrence in the United States in 1966. Whitman’s was a very public and random attack by someone who appeared to be the all-American boy. At the time, the nation was still recovering from a shock that had occurred two weeks earlier, when eight student nurses were brutally stabbed and strangled in their shared Chicago townhouse in July 1966 by a down-and-out drifter, and sometime merchant marine, named Richard Speck. Speck had the lifestyle and demeanor of the public’s stereotype of someone who would harm innocent strangers. In contrast, the 6-foot-tall, 198-pound, blonde-haired Whitman had the background and appearance of the proverbial “boy next door.”
Whitman, the eldest of three boys brought up in an intact upper middle-class home, was a former altar boy and, at age 12, the youngest Eagle Scout in the country. He studied piano and excelled at that activity at an early age. He graduated seventh in a class of 72 from a Catholic high school in West Palm Beach, Florida. His father (C. A. Whitman), the owner of a successful plumbing business in Lake Worth, Florida, was a strict disciplinarian toward his sons and physically abusive toward his wife. C. A. Whitman taught his sons to use guns at an early age. In a photograph (now widely viewed) of Charles Whitman taken at age two, he could be seen holding a rifle upright in each hand; the rifles stood taller than the toddler.
Three days after Whitman’s 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Marines, reportedly to escape his domineering father. His time in the Marine Corps had its ups and downs. He won a highly competitive Naval Enlisted Science Education Program scholarship and entered UT-Austin as a mechanical engineering major. However, Whitman dropped out of school and returned to active duty after a year and a half when the military withdrew the scholarship, due to declining grades and prankish behavior (e.g., poaching a deer and then butchering it in a dorm shower). Later, there were also a court martial, time spent in confinement, and a demotion in rank (from lance corporal to private) for lending money to fellow Marines at usurious rates, threatening a Marine, and possessing a personal firearm on base. On the plus side of his experience in the Marines, Whitman received a sharpshooter badge and an honorable discharge.
During his initial enrollment at UT-Austin, Whitman (then age 21) met and married fellow student Kathy Leissner (age 19). After his discharge from the service, Whitman reenrolled at UT, this time majoring in architectural engineering. Upon her graduation, Kathy began teaching high school biology, providing the majority of the household income. Whitman continued to receive financial support from his father, while holding various jobs including that of bill collector and bank teller. Although he obtained a real estate license and became bonded as an insurance salesman, he did not actually sell any real estate or insurance. His last job was that of a research assistant for a civil engineering professor’s highway traffic flow study.
A panel of experts, commissioned by then Texas Governor John Connally, searched for answers to what could have caused the massacre they had at their disposal notes written by Whitman that were left at his home and his mother’s apartment, diary entries that Whitman was in the habit of writing, the records of the psychiatrist he had visited in March 1966 (who also served on the Commission), and, most importantly, the results of an autopsy that Whitman himself had requested be performed. The months preceding the shooting found Whitman overworked at school and stressed by his parents’ marital discord. His grades had been declining and he had been spreading himself too thin, although he did give up a scout master position that he had held for a year. In the spring 1966 semester, he had been carrying a heavy course load, had helped to move his mother from an abusive marriage in Florida to her own apartment in Austin, and was under pressure from his father’s frequent phone calls asking the younger Whitman to convince the mother to move back with the father. During this time he had severe headaches, chewed his fingernails, ate a lot, and gained weight. He took Dexedrine (an amphetamine) to stay awake during long periods of studying for exams and he took two large bottles of Excedrin in a three-month period, for frequent headaches.
In his only session with UT psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Dean Heatly, Whitman admitted that he had hit his own wife on two occasions, hated his father, and had thoughts of shooting people from the tower with a deer rifle. Dr. Heatly made note of these comments and evaluated Whitman as full of hostility, but had no reason to suspect that Whitman would follow through on his thoughts about the tower.
By the summer, Whitman was enrolled in 14 hours of coursework and working at the research job, while his wife took a summer job at the phone company. Apparently Whitman reached his breaking point and began planning the murders. On July 31, he put the plan into action by taking his mother’s life around midnight. It has been reported that, according to the mother’s brothers, the elder Whitman had financially cut off Whitman and his mother effective July 30. If that information is accurate, it could explain Whitman’s timing.
Shortly after 12:00 a.m. on August 1, Whitman apparently strangled his mother, shot her in the head, stabbed her in the chest, and crushed her left hand so severely that the diamond popped out of her engagement ring and a deep impression was left on her finger by her wedding ring. He then left a note expressing his love for her. He posted a forged a note on her door asking that she not be disturbed. Later that morning, he phoned his mother’s employer to say she was ill and would not be in.
At his own home, Whitman stabbed his sleeping wife several times in the chest and left a note dated 3:00 a.m. professing his love for her. He left notes for his brothers and his father. Later, he called his wife’s employer to report that she was ill and would not be in. Among the errands he ran later that morning were purchases of weapons and ammunition, adding to the stockpile of weapons he already owned. The arsenal Whitman brought with him to the tower that day included a 6-mm Remington 700 bolt-action rifle with four-power scope, a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun, a .30-caliber M-1 carbine rifle, a .35-caliber pump-action Remington rifle, a 9-mm Luger pistol, a .357 magnum Smith and Wesson revolver, a 6.35-mm Galesi-Brescia pistol, about 700 rounds of ammunition, a machete, a hatchet, and three hunting knives.
When he drove onto the campus with coveralls over his clothing and showed his research assistant identification card, he received a loading zone permit. At the tower building, he used a two-wheel dolly (rented earlier that morning) to transport his gear, most of which was in his Marine footlocker. In addition to the weapons, Whitman had food, water, a transistor radio to monitor news reports, a flashlight, batteries, and an assortment of other necessities (including toilet paper). He took the elevator to the 27th floor and hauled everything up the rest of the stairs to the observation deck. He eliminated one obstacle–the 28th-floor receptionist– by hitting her on the back of her head with a rifle butt and later shooting her. After encountering the receptionist, he was then greeted by a young couple exiting the observation deck. Whitman returned the greeting and let them pass by. But the next group he encountered presented interference, because they were on their way to the observation deck. He shot and killed two of this group (a woman and her teenage nephew), while wounding the other nephew and his aunt, as the husbands lagged a flight of stairs behind and escaped injury.
The sniping from the tower began at 11:48 a.m. The height of the building, combined with the elevation of the land it was on, gave Whitman about a 300-foot vantage point. Whitman’s gunfire could be seen coming from the parapet surrounding the clock tower, but Whitman himself was hardly a visible target to those on the ground. The dead, shot on campus that day and across the street from campus at a business strip, included the following individuals: Edna Townsley, the 28th-floor receptionist; Margaret Lamport and her nephew, Mark Gabour, who were on their way to the observation deck; Tom Eckman, who was leaning over his wounded girlfriend (who survived, but lost their eight-month-old unborn child); Robert Boyer, a physics professor; Thomas Ashton, a Peace Corps trainee on his way from class; Thomas Karr, a student; Billy Speed, a police officer; Harry Walchuk, a community college professor working on his doctoral degree; Paul Sonntag and his girlfriend, Claudia Rutt, recent Austin high school graduates running errands on the Drag (the commercial area near the campus); Roy Schmidt, an electrician; and Karen Griffith, a high school senior walking along the Drag (who died from her injuries after a week in the hospital). Although officers and civilians returned Whitman’s fire from the ground and even from a small plane, but it was not until two police officers (accompanied by a deputized civilian) reached the tower that an end was brought to the rampage, when those two officers shot and killed Whitman.
There continues to be speculation about what caused Whitman to terrorize so many complete strangers. His actions may have been meant to express his hatred for his father and thereby embarrass the elder Whitman. He may have had a mental breakdown from the work overload, combined with the pressure to get good grades, while coping with his parents’ separation. Amphetamine psychosis has been suggested as well. However, Whitman’s careful planning and preparation on the day of the murders are not indicative of a break with reality. Dexedrine and Excedrin were found in his possession. His blood tested negative for alcohol. Because embalming of the body had been performed before urine and stomach contents could be examined, optimal toxicology testing was not possible.
The note Whitman had left after killing his wife asked that an autopsy be done to determine whether he suffered from a disorder. The initial autopsy had misdiagnosed an astrocytoma (tumor) in his brain, but the Connally Commission (which included the doctor who had performed the initial autopsy) found the tumor to be a glioblastoma (highly cancerous). It remains unclear whether the tumor had a direct bearing on Whitman’s behavior. The Commission’s report was inconclusive on this matter, although the report did say that the tumor could have conceivably played a role. Those who were close to Whitman found comfort in believing that the tumor or his fears of having a brain disorder influenced his otherwise inexplicable actions on that infamous day.
- Douglas, J., & Olshaker, M. (1999). The anatomy of motive. New York: Scribner.
- LaVergne, G. M. (1997). A sniper in the tower: The Charles Whitman murders. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.
- Levin, J., & Fox, J. A. (1985). Mass murder: America’s growing menace. New York: Plenum Press.