Whitman, Charles Joseph (1941–1966)

By: Alwyn Barr

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: September 1, 1995

Charles Joseph Whitman, tower sniper, was born in Lake Worth, Florida, on June 24, 1941, the oldest of three sons of Margaret and Charles A. Whitman, Jr. He attended Sacred Heart grade and junior high schools, was an Eagle Scout at twelve, and graduated from St. Ann's High School in West Palm Beach in 1959. He enlisted in the Marine Corps on July 6, 1959, and was stationed for a year and a half at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He passed a test to enter officer training, was sent to a preparatory school in Bainbridge, Maryland, and then to the University of Texas at Austin in September 1961 to major in engineering. There he met Kathleen F. Leissner, and they were married on August 17, 1962, at Needville, Texas, her home town. Because of low grades he was ordered back to duty as an enlisted man in the Marine Corps on February 12, 1963. While still in the service he attended East Carolina State College in the summer of 1964. He was discharged on December 4, 1964, and returned to Austin, where he reentered the University of Texas in the spring of 1965 to study architectural engineering. In the summer of 1965 he attended Alvin Junior College and then continued at the University of Texas in the 1965–66 school year. He also worked part time and was a scoutmaster. In the spring of 1966 his mother left his father and moved to Austin to be near her eldest son. On March 29 Whitman sought medical and psychiatric advice at the university health center, but he failed to return as directed for further assistance. On July 22 he visited the University of Texas tower observation deck with his brother John.

During the pre-dawn hours of August 1, 1966, Whitman killed his mother in her apartment and his wife at their residence. Later in the morning he bought a variety of ammunition and a shotgun; about 11:30 A.M. he went to the university tower, taking with him a footlocker, six guns, knives, food, and water. After clubbing the receptionist (who later died) on the twenty-eighth floor about 11:45 A.M., he killed two persons and wounded two others who were coming up the stairs from the twenty-seventh floor. On the observation deck of the tower, at an elevation of 231 feet, Whitman then opened fire on persons crossing the campus and on nearby streets, killing ten more people and wounding thirty-one more (one of whom died a week later). Police arrived and returned his fire, while other policemen worked their way into the tower. Several of the dead and wounded were moved to cover by students and other citizens while the firing continued. At 1:24 P.M. police and a deputized private citizen reached the observation deck, where police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy shot and killed Whitman. Altogether, seventeen persons were killed, including Whitman, and thirty-one were wounded in one of the worst mass murders in modern United States history. An autopsy on Whitman's body revealed a brain tumor, but medical authorities disagreed over its effect on Whitman's actions. His body was returned to Lake Worth, Florida, for burial.

Austin American, August 1–8, 1966. Austin Statesman, August 1–8, 1966. Libby Averyt, "The Tower Sniper," Utmost, Spring 1986. William J. Helmer, "The Madman in the Tower," Texas Monthly, August 1986. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Outlaws, Criminals, Prostitutes, Gamblers, and Rebels

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alwyn Barr, “Whitman, Charles Joseph,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/whitman-charles-joseph.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995