A Bloody First of August: Charles Whitman, “Texas Tower Sniper”

** FILE **This 1966 file photo shows Charles J. Whitman, a 24-year-old student at the University of Texas, a sniper who killed 16 and wounded 31 from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in Austin, Texas, Aug. 1, 1966. Until the carnage by a student gunman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Monday, April 16, 2007, the sniping rampage by Whitman from the Austin school's landmark 307-foot tower had remained the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history. (AP Photo, File)

August 1, 1966 was just like any other day in Austin, Texas. It was sunny and hot, and there was a bustling of college students at the University of Texas. All was well until shortly before noon. That was when 25-year-old University of Texas student, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, ascended the Texas Tower to the observational deck and began his notorious shooting rampage. Leading up to this horrendous event, Whitman had spent the prior evening and early morning hours committing the murders of both his wife and mother; he left behind a note that revealed a troubled, violent, and disturbed man with a strong hatred for his father. Whitman shot over one-hundred rounds during his rampage before he was stopped and killed by two Austin police officers, Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, with the assistance of university employee, Allen Crum. At around half past one, officers McCoy and Martinez had finally made it up to the observation deck; with two shotgun blasts from McCoy and one final shot at point-blank range from Martinez, Charles Whitman and his shooting rampage was brought to an end. The aftermath of the tragic event resulted in fourteen fatalities, including an unborn child, as well as thirty-one others who were wounded during the shooting.1 A thorough investigation into the Whitman murders began the following month, initiated by Texas governor John Connally, after learning the results of Whitman’s autopsy revealing that he had a small brain tumor located on the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for numerous functions such as emotional activity. Many speculated back then, and even fifty years later, that Whitman’s tumor had no effect on his actions but I believe otherwise. A week following the Whitman murders, President Lyndon B. Johnson started an initiative for gun control legislation “to help prevent the wrong persons from obtaining firearms.”2 From what we have seen in recent years, the gun control laws have yet to prevent these tragedies from happening and there is much to learn from this story pertaining to how mass tragedies such as this one can be prevented.

On the morning of August 1, 1966, officer Houston McCoy clocked into work at the Austin Police Department at 6:45 a.m., and was out patrolling the streets fifteen minutes later. Officer Ramiro Martinez began his morning by dropping off his two daughters at daycare; he did not have to report for work until three that afternoon. Both McCoy and Martinez had similar backgrounds: both grew up in small West Texas towns, attended college for a short period of time before deciding to join the United States Army; and both men had less than five years of law enforcement experience. At exactly 11:53 a.m., Officer McCoy first received word from the dispatcher, whose voice was incredibly excited and shrill, indicating to McCoy that something was not quite right, that some sort of incident was occurring at the University Tower. Martinez learned of the incident on the news broadcast at noon; both men raced off in their vehicles heading straight towards the University of Texas.3

(L to R) Civilian Allen Crum and Austin police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy are recognized as being the individuals who took down Charles Whitman | Courtesy of AP Photo/Ted Powers, File

In an interview conducted in 2008, while Houston McCoy was nearing death, he was asked about that sunny yet bloody day in 1966. The two most important questions asked was, what kind of training did he have in order to take down a mass shooter, and, did he or Martinez have any sort of plan. McCoy stated that there was no plan nor did he have any form of training to deal with that type of situation. He said, “Nobody had even thought about anything like that ever happening.”4 At the time, the University of Texas did not have any university/campus police as they are known as today. Instead, the closest they had to university police was the UT Traffic & Security Services (T&SS); their job was to write parking tickets, provide security around campus, and conduct investigations concerning a variety of different matters. Neither did the T&SS nor the Austin Police Department have the proper training or resources to take down Charles Whitman. The Austin chief of police, Robert Miles, knew this very well, so that when it came to answering the question of how his officers managed to take down Whitman, it was their courage, not any kind of tactical plan.5 Five years prior to the shooting at the University of Texas, an episode of the local news broadcast Progress Report Austin documents the in’s and out’s of the Austin Police Department. Towards the end of the episode, a brief description as well as an illustration of the police training process is given. The training consisted of a total of 796 hours, or a little over a month, along with learning “everything from oratory to finger-printing, he works in all divisions, and learns from department experts, plus men from outside the department. The rookie policemen will learn law, and some judo to protect himself, and he’ll spend hours on the (gun) range learning to handle his weapon with one hope that he’ll never have to use it.”6 Within all that training, there is no formal training for dealing with mass school shootings, which left the Austin police force very unprepared for the event that would shake the whole city five years later. Had it not been for Officers McCoy and Martinez taking matters into their own hands, who knows how many more lives would have been killed that afternoon.

At 1:24 p.m., Charles Whitman’s shooting rampage was brought to an end as soon as officers McCoy and Martinez fired off shots from a 12-gauge shotgun and a revolver; Whitman’s body was wrapped up and taken to Cook Funeral Home.7 An autopsy would be done the next morning at 8:55 a.m.8 The most startling discovery was when Austin pathologist, Dr. Coleman de Chenar, examined Whitman’s skull and observed how unusually thin it was. Chenar located a tumor composed mainly of elements of connective brain tissue and of blood vessels in an enlarged state.9 On March 29, 1966, several months prior to the Texas Tower Shooting, Charles Whitman had gone to visit the University of Texas Student Health Center where he met with psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Heatly. During this session, Whitman shared with Heatly one of his dark, personal fantasies, and that was how he often thought “about going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.”10 In that moment, Dr. Heatly was not phased by Whitman’s fantasy, as many students spawned sick, twisted jokes referencing the tower. Heatly’s final observation was that Whitman was not considered to be dangerous and allowed him to leave, but recommended Whitman return a week later for further treatment if need be. That was the first and last time Charles Whitman was seen by Dr. Heatly.11 Charles also began to develop extreme headaches in the months leading up to the shooting; and in his suicide note, which he sat down and typed out shortly before killing his wife and mother, he spoke of the headaches he had been experiencing and stated how he had already consumed two large bottles of headache reliever. However, a key point that was not mentioned by him was his consumption of Dexedrine and Dexamyl, two drugs that may have very well been the source of his headaches.12 Referring back to the brain tumor, there was much speculation among experts regarding whether the tumor affected Whitman’s thoughts and actions on August 1, 1966. One expert argued that the tumor’s position pressed up on a part of the brain linked to emotional activity, and that is the amygdala. Another expert stated that although the location of the tumor could have affected his emotional state, it was unlikely to be the sole reason for why Whitman did what he did. So what is the truth?13

Dr. C. de Chenar, Austin pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Charles Whitman, shows an image of the tumor found in Whitman’s brain | Courtesy of AP Wirephoto

The amygdala is described as two lima-bean sized neural clusters in the limbic system. The limbic system is the neural system located below the cerebral systems; this specific system, along with the amygdala, is associated with emotions and drives. Research has directly likened the amygdala to the emotions of fear and aggression. In 1939, twenty-seven years before the tragic tower shooting, psychologist Heinrich Kluver and neurosurgeon Paul Bucy conducted an experiment by surgically removing the amygdala from a rather ill-tempered rhesus monkey, and the results were interesting. The once irritable and grumpy monkey became calm and warm; the same results occurred when this experiment was done with other animals. However, when one feels or acts in an aggressive or fearful way, different structures within the limbic system, not just the amygdala, can evoke emotional responses.14 Many of Charles Whitman’s family members and friends strongly felt that the tumor had played some role in his shooting rampage, along with the killings of his mother and wife the night before. They saw it as “something in his brain had made him somebody else,” but they managed to find comfort in the fact that in his suicide note, he requested an autopsy to be done in order to see if there was any visible physical disorders or problems… as if he already knew.15 In 2016, a news article published by The Daily Texan discussed the matter of how some experts still disagreed with the idea of the role Whitman’s brain tumor played in affecting his actions and thoughts. One expert, Mike Koenigs, an associate professor in psychiatry and expert in brain lesions, stated how previous instances of tumors like Whitman’s indeed had affected an individual’s entire personality. A second expert, N. Bradley Keele, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, states that the tumor could have certainly affected Whitman’s behavior, but could not have been the sole reason for Whitman’s actions. He goes on to say that important factors that are overlooked is how Charles grew up in a home with an abusive father and how he admitted to being violent with his own wife prior to killing her. Gary M. Lavergne, author of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, hypothesized that Whitman’s rage was largely caused by his discontent with how his life was going at the time, as well as the resentment he had towards his father.16

It did not take long for the shooting at the University of Texas to reach the ears of two important individuals, Texas governor John Connally and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate the Whitman murders, it was Governor Connally who took the most initiative of the two men to investigate the causes behind this tragedy. Governor Connally created what became known as “The Connally Commission,” a committee consisting of some of “the nation’s leading medical and psychological experts and charged them with investigating the medical aspects of the Charles Whitman murders.”17 The Connally Commission was composed mostly of the medical school professors, with their chairman, Dr. R. Lee Clark, coming from the University M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. The commission established four investigative objectives: 1. To determine the events and circumstances that surround the actions of Charles J. Whitman on August 1, 1966. 2. To explore the findings and to make such additional examinations as might to be indicated by the factual information available. 3. To prepare the material for its maximal utilization in evaluating the problem for our society. 4. To make recommendations aimed at the detection and prevention of circumstances that might lead to similar incidents. What seemed to have many people puzzled was how Whitman, who was portrayed as being the “golden boy,” could be a mass murderer? His background, health, all documents obtained from the university and his overall behavior was looked at thoroughly by the commission.18 In the end, the Connally Commission could not determine an ultimate explanation for why Charles Whitman had committed the largest mass murder in America at the time without some sort of recent psychiatric evaluation.19 However, there was speculation regarding his upbringing and the separation of his parents as factors. There was speculation about his being exposed to violence in the media that was broadcast nightly, or that it indeed was the pecan-sized tumor pressing up against his amygdala that caused a switch in his emotional state to flip. Others speculated that he was simply fed up with everything and ultimately decided to end it all and go out with a bang.20 A legitimate explanation of the truth was never given, leaving all to continue wondering why did he do it.

Following the Whitman murders, calls for gun control became more frequent than ever. Some implied that if firearms had been regulated at the time, then Charles Whitman would have never been able to go about his shooting rampage. However, he still would have managed to obtain a firearm. If a background check had been done, it would have described Whitman as a “young, literate man with an honorable discharge from the marines, who had no history of violent crime.” A week after the Whitman murders, President Lyndon B. Johnson started an initiative for gun control legislation “to help prevent the wrong persons from obtaining firearms.”21 A Washington Post article released on October 1, 2017 revealed the truth behind the numbers that continue to grow with each mass shooting since the Texas Tower Shooting fifty-two years ago. There has been over 1,118 innocent lives murdered and a total of 156 shootings since August 1, 1966, and many of the most deadly shootings have occurred within the past few years.22 On February 28, 2018, the University of Virginia created the “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” an interdisciplinary group on preventing school and community violence in which the nation can take steps to protect all lives, the youth, adults, and the elderly. Their main message is that school shootings and gun violence are greater in the United States than in any other nation. They say that security measures are important, but simply preparing for shootings are not enough, and that prevention should require more than just security measures. This interdisciplinary group suggests that a public health approach to gun violence would be the first step in protecting children as well as adults from future gun violence. Their idea for a public health approach consists of three levels of prevention: 1. universal approaches promoting safety and well-being for everyone; 2. practices for reducing risk and promoting protective factors for persons experiencing difficulties; and 3. interventions for individuals where violence is present or appears imminent.23 This call for protection against gun violence is something that has been a long time coming since the mass school shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well as at Santa Fe High School, both occurring in 2018. Truthfully, the Texas Tower shooting could have certainly been prevented had Dr. Maurice Heatly, the psychiatrist who met with Charles Whitman that one and only time, reported that troubling statement made by Whitman about his dark fantasy. It is too late to go back and change the tragedy that occurred over fifty years ago, but it is not too late to protect our future generations from such violence and terror.

The UT Tower stands at 307 feet tall, also standing as a reminder of the events that took place on August 1, 1966 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Charles Whitman was a misunderstood, troubled, and mentally disturbed individual. He grew up being a boy scout as a young boy before becoming an Eagle Scout, later joining the Marines and then marrying the love of his life; from the outside, he perfectly fit the picture of being the “golden boy.” However, as some say, sometimes some of the biggest smiles hide the most pain, and while  that is not true for everyone, in this case, it most certainly was. The funeral for Charles Whitman, along with his mother, took place August 5, 1966 in Lake Worth, Florida; he was buried alongside his mother at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery in West Palm Beach.24 The Texas Tower shooting is not discussed much today seeing that many in my generation were not even alive at the time.

There is much that can be learned from this tragedy such as spotting the early signs in troubled individuals and getting them the help and counseling they need, taking stronger initiative to establish better gun control laws, which is already being done with the University of Virginia’s “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” and to equip our police departments with the necessary and proper training when dealing with mass school shootings. It is unfortunate and truly saddening that our country is faced with having to deal with this growing issue, but that is our reality and it all started with Charles Whitman, forever known as the notorious Texas Tower Sniper.

  1.  World of Criminal Justice, 2002, s.v. “Texas University Tower Massacre.”
  2. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 333.
  3. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 190-194, 206-208.
  4. Michael S. Rosenwald, “‘He was looking straight at me’: The brave officers who helped stop Charles Whitman,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2016, accessed October 13, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2016/08/01/he-was-looking-straight-at-me-the-brave-officer-who-blew-away-charles-whitman/?utm_term=.241190e1a2d1.
  5. Justin Kruegar, “Policing Before and After August 1, 1966,” Behind the Tower, 2016, accessed October 20, 2018, http://behindthetower.org/policing.
  6. Gordon Wilkinson, “The Austin Police Force,” Progress Report Austin, 1961, accessed October 13, 2018, https://www.texasarchive.org/library/index.php/2009_00535.
  7. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders(New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 264-271.
  8. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 295.
  9. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 323.
  10. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 89.
  11. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 87-89.
  12. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 115.
  13. Eva Frederick, “Experts still disagree on the role of Tower’s shooter’s brain tumor,” The Daily Texan, July 30, 2016, accessed October 13, 2018, http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2016/07/30/experts-still-disagree-on-role-of-tower-shooters-brain-tumor.
  14. David G. Meyers, Psychology (New York: Worth Publishers, 2011), 65.
  15. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 324.
  16. Eva Frederick, “Experts still disagree on the role of Tower’s shooter’s brain tumor,” The Daily Texan, July 30, 2016, accessed October 13, 2018, http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2016/07/30/experts-still-disagree-on-role-of-tower-shooters-brain-tumor.
  17. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), pp 296.
  18. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 314-315.
  19. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 319.
  20. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 320-326.
  21. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 332-333.
  22. Bonnie Berkowitz, Denise Lu and Chris Alcantara, “The terrible number that grow with each mass shooting,” The Washington Post, October 1, 2017, accessed October 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/mass-shootings-in-america/?utm_term=.ae453e718701.
  23. “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” University of Virginia, February 28, 2018, accessed October 13, 2018, https://curry.virginia.edu/prevent-gun-violence.
  24. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 297-298.
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21 Comments

  • Rember when shootings only happened once in a while instead of weekly? Those were the days. Anyway, great article! After reading some comments I was surprised no one knew about this shooting before. I knew the basics about the shooting, the article did a great job of explaining and giving more details about what happened. I especially like how the author did not just straight out claim the shooter was evil simply to be evil but acknowledged the possibility of mental illness due to his tumor.

  • The Charles Whitman story was shocking to read, I had never heard about the Whitman murders until I read this article. The murders were shocking and the fatalities were tragic to hear about. The author mentions Whitman’s autopsy report showed he had a tumor that affected his emotions and could have been part of the cause of his irrational behavior. I do not think his entire rampage was caused by the tumor and there was a lot of factors that played into his violent rampage.

  • Surprisingly, I had never heard about the story of Charles Whitman before. I will never understand how someone could do something like this. It is so sad that he cause so many deaths and injuries. I believe that his brain tumor might have played a small role in his cold blooded act, but I believe that it was mostly him that committed this horrible crime. I feel so bad for all of the families that had to go through this horrible tragedy.

  • I’m glad I read this article to receive new information about the tower shooting that occurred in the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. I didn’t know that Charles Whitman, who was responsible for the deaths of his wife, mother, and the people in the University campus, had a brain tumor that plays with the emotional responses of an individual. This article does a great job on giving both sides of the argument of whether or not Whitman’s brain tumor had anything to do with his crime.

  • This article was very informative. I was aware that some sort of shooting had taken place at the Texas tower, but never who committed it nor the circumstances around it. It is sad to see much action taken at the time to try and prevent it, but it still occurs today. We can never really know what goes on in the mind of these individuals.

  • Before reading this article I had never heard of Charles Whitman, but this article did a great job telling his story. I find it so hard to believe that people would commit such horrible actions as he did. How is it possible to so mindlessly kill innocent people? it just blows my mind and fills me with sorrow for the victims and their families who have to live with the effects for the rest of their lives.

  • There have been many theories as to why he did this horrible thing. In my opinion it was not due to the tumor. I think he was a sick human being that grew up in a harsh environment and people blamed it on that. He had problems, he even took out some of his issues on his wife and mother who he supposedly loved. He should not be thought of as “misunderstood”, ” troubled”, or “golden boy”. What this man did cannot be blamed on any tumor, or how he grew up. Many people grow up in worse conditions and still make the right decisions to be good people despite their upbringing. It was his own sick actions, and as long as we keep victimizing these people nothing will change. It truly is horrible that things like this keep happening as of today.

    • I’m not sure you’re being entirely fair with your assessment of Whitman. To be clear, this is not an attempt to defend his actions or choose a side. I am simply pointing out areas where you might have made oversights.

      For example, you said you didn’t think it was due to the tumor, but instead proposed the possibility he was an evil person. While absolutely a possibility, why treat the two as if they are mutually exclusive. It should be conceivable that they both may have played a role in his instability–especially with the evidence provided with the monkeys.

      To add to that, no one actually knows what his childhood was like, though I’ll agree with you in saying someone likely had it worse; but all people are not created equally and “worse” is relative. We’d also have to ask ourselves what makes us who we are fundamentally? The subject is really complex, it would be safer to accept both as being possible.

  • I had never heard the story of Charles Whitman before, but the shooting he conducted in the Texas Tower is heartbreaking. Whiteman’s outside appearance was looked upon as someone who was very happy, yet this was not the case at all. His mental state drove him to do unheard of actions. Regardless, I do agree that taking the initiative on receiving help, whether that be yourself or a sense within another, with any mental problems is very important. Overall, very well written.

  • I have never heard of this before, but this was a very extreme read. The thing that I still don’t understand with America is how it is so easy for people to get guns. It makes it so accessible for people that are mentally unstable, and are unknown with what the use of it will be but they can have one. I just don’t understand it and look at the damage it causes to society.

  • This is a very intense story. I really liked how the author manages to give the reader chills since the beginning. This is a horrible story and I don’t know why I had never heard of it. Whitman was a very unstable man, and we will never know if the tumor had anything to do with his crimes. The mental health of students should never go unattended.

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