Portrait of a Mass Murderer

By: Thomas Hobbs     



Reproductions from the Austin History Museum:

Whitman’s last letter.

Autopsy Notes.

State Investigation.

Time Magazine: The Madman in the Tower, Aug. 12, 1966

The New York Times: FATHER SHOCKED BY SON’S CHARGE, Aug. 3, 1966


The UT Tower Shooting

Aug. 1, 1966 is a day that many will never forget. It’s the day Charles Whitman, after killing his mother and wife, took to The University of Texas Tower and gunned down 14 people. This event was the most violent university shooting until the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007. The ’60s were known as a time of change and revolution, mostly for the better, in many people’s opinions. However, the events that took place that day on the UT campus marked a shift toward something darker, something sinister.

What led to this tragedy? What would compel a man with so much potential to commit such an atrocity?



AP Images/Charles Whitman 1966

Whitman’s early ife

 Charles Whitman was born June 24, 1941 in Lake Worth, Florida to Margaret E. and Charles A. Whitman Jr. Charles had by all accounts a fairly normal childhood. He received national attention at the age of 12 being the youngest Scout to achieve the title of Eagle Scout. Whitman was also a fairly decent pianist according to the state investigation. An IQ test taken by a six-year-old Whitman revealed him to have an above-average intelligence, scoring a 139. Whitman wanted for very little. His father provided much for him. However, there were some dangerous currents flowing underneath the tranquil surface of his home life. His father, Charles A. Whitman Jr., reportedly used physical force frequently against his wife and children according to The New York Times article “FATHER SHOCKED BY SONS CHARGE,” Aug. 3, 1966.


AP Images/Flag flies at half-staff Aug. 2, 1966

 Military career and college frustrations

Whitman began his military career joining the Marines 1959. Whitman made an exceptional marine; by 1960 he was awarded a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Whitman then applied to a military scholarship program that eventually brought him to the University of Texas. Whitman began his college career an unremarkable student. His grades weren’t outstanding and he was known as a bit of a joker according to the state investigation. Whitman met his wife Kathleen Leissner in February of 1962. Five months later they were engaged. They married on August 17, 1962 in the company of their families. Whitman’s scholarship was revoked and he was returned to active duty. At that point, Whitman was no longer the model marine he once was. With a penchant for gambling and making small usury loans, Whitman was court-martialed. In 1964 he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines and returned to The University of Texas to continue his studies.


AP Images/Whitman, right, sitting with wife Kathleen, and friend Lawrence Fuess. Image was taken a few months before the shootings.

A troubled Mind

“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,” Whitman typed on July 31, 1966, just prior to the killings in his last letter. “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.” Whitman’s mental health began to deteriorate in 1966. He had been battling intrusive thoughts and painful headaches several weeks prior to the incident. One possible explanation for these symptoms could be the large amount of prescription drugs Whitman was taking. To keep up with the rigor of school and the difficulty of supporting his wife, Kathleen Whitman, he had been taking large quantities of stimulants according to the state investigation. When abused Stimulants can cause headaches, anxiety, aggression, and psychosis. It was also around this time that his parents had divorced which can be emotionally difficult. Whitman’s mother moved to Austin, to be closer to Whitman, her eldest son.

Whitman met with a University of Texas Psychiatrist on March 29, 1966. The session only lasted for approximately an hour. The psychiatrist instructed Whitman to return next week and gave him a number to call if he needed help in the meantime. Whitman did not return. When an autopsy was conducted on Whitman’s body they found a glioblastoma tumor pressing against his brain according to the Cook Funeral Home Autopsy notes. The tumor was the size of an acorn. Neurologists are unsure if the tumor was affecting his mental state, or if so to what extent.


AP Images/Weapons used in the shooting.

 The killings

Whitman’s mother was the first victim. Margaret Whitman, 43, was killed Aug. 31, 1966, the night prior to the tower shootings. She was found with a stab wound to the chest. Whitman then went home and killed his wife Kathleen Whitman, 23, as she slept. She was found with five stab wounds. The next day Whitman purchased supplies and ammunition, made his way to the observation deck of the UT Tower and opened fired on the people below. He was finally taken down by officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy who both fired on Whitman as the made their way to the observation deck, according to the Time Magazine article “The Madman in the Tower.”


AP Images/1966 file head shots of Ramiro Martinez, left, and Houston McCoy.

The firing stopped, Whitman had killed 16 people and wounded 32, some permanently impaired. Whitman’s and his mother’s bodies were taken to Lake Worth, Florida, where they shared a funeral. In proper Marine fashion, Whitman’s coffin was covered with an American flag.


AP Images/A flag drapes Charles Whitman’s coffin. Margaret Whitman’s coffin lays beside.


The University of Texas massacre was global news. It’s not often so many people are killed and maimed so indiscriminately within a peaceful city. The emerging ideas of the time — peace, love and freedom — were rocked at their foundation by such a wanton tragedy. Was there some single cause; a single impetus, or was Whitman’s rampage this simply an aggregate of complex problems occurring in an increasingly complex time?

Failing mental health is now much better understood and is treated with much more importance, yet these kinds of tragedies occur with alarming frequency. What can we learn from these mass shootings? Did Whitman fail society or did we fail him? One thing is certain; this tragedy won’t soon be forgotten.


Thomas Hobbs was born and raised in Austin, TX and is a journalism minor. He can be contacted at tdh69@txstate.edu