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Charles Whitman has gone down in history as the University of Texas Tower Shooter. A man who served his country proudly and would eventually suffer from mental illness and bouts of extreme aggression, Charles may have been a different legacy if he were treated differently. This is the story of Charles Whitman.
Whitman was born June 24, 1941, in Lake Worth, Florida to Margaret E. and C.A. Whitman Jr. He was the eldest of three boys, all of who were expected to act with the utmost respect. Whitman’s father was known to have flares of anger and was said to abuse his wife as well as the children physically and emotionally. C.A. wanting his children to be as perfect as they could be, came from him being a self-described “self-made man”. He grew up in an orphanage and married Margaret at 17 years old. Margaret was a Roman Catholic and so the three boys were as well. They all attended Mass and were altar boys at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.
As a child, Whitman was incredibly determined and intelligent. He was a very talented Eagle Scout and after an evaluation at the age of six, it was recorded that his IQ was 139. The average for a grown man is between 90 and 110. Whitman was also a fan of firearms given the background his father had in the military. His father would take all the boys on hunting trips regularly, teaching them how to aim, shoot, handle and clean their firearms. According to him, “Charlie could plug the eye out of a squirrel by the time he was 16."
September 1, 1955, Whitman began high school at St. Ann’s High School in West Palm Beach where he was said to have had a large group of friends and was recognized regularly for his high intelligence. High school, of course, was a breeze for Whitman and in June of 1959, he graduated, and only a month later, enlisted into the Marines. He didn’t tell his father about this, however, as it was more-or-less a way to get away from his father who’d thrown Whitman into a pool about a month before.
Charles was given an 18-month tour of duty at Guantanamo Bay and between 1959 to 1960, Whitman would be rewarded with a sharpshooter’s badge by the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal. Out of 250 possible points on a marksmanship test, he scored 215 and was known for excelling at moving targets, as well as hitting targets from a far distance in rapid succession. Once his tour was over, he applied to a US Navy and Marine Corps scholarship program and was approved. From there, he went to a school in Maryland to complete courses in mathematics as well as physics. Once that was finished, he transferred over to the University of Texas and to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
Throughout college, Whitman was regarded as a prankster. His grades weren’t up to par with what they normally were and he and two friends were fined $100 ($800 in today’s market) for skinning a deer in the dorm bathroom. Along with this, Charles was known to make some troubling statements. Things that would make anyone suspicious. The best example comes from a friend’s statement when the two were browsing around the bookstore’s main building. Allegedly, Charles said, in reference to the tower, “A person could stand off an army from atop of it before they got him.”
While still pursuing his future at the University of Texas he married Kathleen Frances Leissner in August of 1962. It was his first real relationship and she took great care of him while he was in school. Charles began to see his grades rise a bit, however, the Marine Corps decided they weren’t satisfactory enough to keep him in the scholarship program and so he was ordered back into duty in February of 1963. He would be stationed in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for the remaining five years of his military career.
During his time there, his would begin to show more of his short temper. Despite being promoted to lance corporal the moment he got there, he would soon lose that title for various incidents. He was known to have an affinity for gambling, and like many who do, he wasn’t a fan of losing. In November of 1963, he was court-martialed on many charges including gambling, possession of a personal firearm on base, and threatening another Marine. The threatening was brought on by a $30 loan ($200 in 2017) given to a fellow Marine that he wanted back, with $15 interest. He was given 30 days confinement and 90 days hard labor. He was also demoted from lance corporal to private.
It was during this time he began writing in a journal. Something he titled “Daily Record of C.J. Whitman.” He wrote about the Marine Corps, his marriage, his parents, and much more. However, in December of 1964, he was honorably discharged from the Marines and returned to the University of Texas to continue the architectural engineering program. In order to support himself and his wife he worked as a bill collector and eventually a banker and even too a job as a traffic surveyor for the Texas Highway Department.
Despite how nice things looked from the outside, it was recorded that Charles struck his wife at least twice but did regret it. His journal contains entries of him stating how he never wanted to be like his father and was worried he may be. It was events like these, along with his parents divorcing in 1966 that led Charles down a slippery slope. He began getting extremely stressed and would suffer, what he referred to as “tremendous” headaches on a daily basis. To fight them off, he would abuse amphetamines. Many, including Charles, believe that what took place not long after was a result of mental illness. Something we still don’t completely understand fully today. The before the fatal shootings he purchased a knife and pair of binoculars from a hardware store then headed to pick his wife up from her summer job. At 4 PM, July 31, 1966, the two visited some close friends for a short time before leaving at 10 minutes to six so Kathy could get to work on time. Sometime after she left, Charles began to write a suicide note. The letter read:
“I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man.
"However, lately—I can’t recall when it started—I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.
"In March, when my parents made a physical break, I noticed a great deal of stress. I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come overwhelming violent impulses. After one season I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death, I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.
"It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embarrassment my actions would surely cause her. At this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible."
Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother’s life also. I don’t think the poor woman has ever enjoyed life as she is entitled to. She was a simple young woman who married a very possessive and dominating man. All his life as a boy until he ran away from home to join the Marine Corps (ineligible).
Shortly after midnight on August 1, Charles drove to his mother’s apartment and killed her. Just after this, he placed her body on the bed and placed a sheet over her. In a note left by the bed Charles wrote:
“To Whom It May Concern,
I have just taken my mother's life. I am very upset about having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. I am truly sorry. Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.”
After this, he drove back home where he killed his wife by stabbing her three times in the heart.
On the note, he’d been typing before he wrote in pen, “Friends interrupted. 8-1-66 Monday, 3:00 AM, BOTH DEAD.” Under that, he finishes off his suicide note. “I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job. If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts; donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type. Give our dog to my in-laws. Tell them Kathy loved 'Schocie' very much. If you can find it in yourselves to grant my last wish, cremate me after the autopsy.”
5:45 that morning Charles made calls to his wife’s workplace to inform him she wouldn’t be coming into work. Some hours later he did the same for his mother. At 11:35 PM, Whitman made it onto the University of Texas campus and identified himself as a security guard. He made his way up to the 28th floor of the UT tower and began opening fire on the campus. With him, he had multiple rifles, a pistol, mountains of ammo and a sawed-off shotgun. Shots would ring out for 90 minutes.
Whitman would eventually be killed by police soon after raiding the tower and after the authorities received permission from his father an autopsy was performed. During this, a pecan-sized tumor was located in Whitman’s brain. Dr. Chenar, the neuropathologist that performed the autopsy claimed this has no influence on his actions the day before the shooting, nor the day of. A task force put together for the case later echoed this saying:
“It is the opinion of the task force that the relationship between the brain tumor and Charles J. Whitman's actions on the last day of his life cannot be established with clarity."
John Connally, a Texas Governor, commissioned another task force to look into the findings one last time. The task force concluded that the original findings were incorrect. Their statement read, “the relationship between the brain tumor and Whitman's actions cannot be established with clarity. However, the tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions," Many forensic investigators also theorize the tumor was pressing against Whitman’s amygdala which controls anxiety and fight-or-flight responses.
In the end, the case doesn’t really seem closed, and the 16 who lost their lives don’t seem to have justice. I don’t normally give my opinion here, but I personally believe this was a case of undiagnosed or mistreated mental illness. I’m in no way defending the actions of Charles Whitman, however, I do believe this could have been stopped had he been given the correct care. To those affected, and those lost, let us not forget them. Stay safe, everyone.