Charles Whitman: The Texas Tower Sniper

Although happily married, 25-year-old Charles Whitman was a worried man. He knew that he was in the grip of a terrible compulsion and on the verge of doing something appalling.

Charles Joseph Whitman was born on 24 June 1941 into a wealthy, prominent family with a home that was the envy of the neighbourhood. Young Charlie was a gifted all-rounder, good at both sports and school, a talented pianist and Eagle Scout.

This idyllic lifestyle was not all that it seemed, however; Whitman’s father was a strict disciplinarian, prone to violence towards both his sons and wife. Shortly before Whitman’s 18th birthday, he came home from a party drunk, and was beaten severely by his father, and thrown into the swimming pool, where he nearly drowned. This humiliation proved the final straw for Whitman, and he enlisted in the US Marine Corps a few days later, reporting for training on 6 July 1959.

Determined to prove his worth, Whitman took well to his initial training at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, earning performance medals and excelling at rapid fire shooting, especially where moving targets were involved. He utilised every opportunity to excel, and was granted a scholarship to study engineering, to be followed by Officer’s Candidate School.

Whitman began his studies at the University of Texas in Austin on 15 September 1961 and immediately floundered, without the rigid discipline that he was accustomed to, first at home and then in the Marines. His grades plummeted, he took to gambling and, despite a minor improvement to his behaviour when he married Kathy Leissner in August 1962, the US Marine Corps withdrew his scholarship in February 1963, forcing him to return to active duty.

He was stationed in North Carolina, where he found the return to restricted military life oppressive, and was also court-martialled for gambling, costing him all the rank he had accumulated up to that point. Desperate to escape, he approached his father, who used his connections to reduce Whitman’s enlistment time, and he was discharged in December 1964.

Determined to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, he returned to university in Austin, taking a job to support himself, and serving as a Scout Master in his spare time. Despite his outward application, he seemed to lack any sense of self-worth, recording schemes for self-improvement in his diary, and meticulously listing ways how he could be a better husband to his wife, Kathy.

He disliked the fact that she earned more than he did, thanks to her job as a teacher, and he felt ashamed of himself for continuing to accept both money and expensive gifts from his father. Despite his outward façade of conscientiousness, Kathy became increasingly aware of his inner turmoil, and urged him to seek professional counselling. Initially refusing any help, the final breakdown of his parents’ troubled marriage in the spring of 1966 persuaded him that he needed help.

University psychiatrist Dr. Heatly recognised the latent hostility in Whitman, but was not overly concerned when, during the course of their session, he mentioned a fantasy that involved “going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people,” as Heatly had seen no signs that he might seriously take action. Heatly was unaware that Whitman had repeated this fantasy to many people over the years, who had dismissed it as nonsense. Heatly suggested that Whitman return the following week for further counselling, but he failed to do so.

Throughout the summer of 1966, Whitman attended classes and kept up work commitments with the assistance of the amphetamine Dexedrine, which affected his sleeping patterns and made it difficult for him to deliver both study and work commitments. This exacerbated his feeling of low self-esteem, and his father’s attempts to embroil him in his parents’ ongoing marital trauma only served to concentrate his mind even more on his fantasies of mass murder.