What Charlie Saw
In 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman launched a rain of bullets from Austin’s Texas Tower and held a city in terror. Four decades later, we all live in Whitman’s World, and the bullets haven’t stopped.
The temperature that Monday morning, August 1, 1966, in Austin, was 98 degrees Fahrenheit – the sticky, end of summer heat that rises from the ground in waves, turning the horizon to a shimmering mirage. Thomas F. Eckman, 18, of Toledo, Ohio, walked with his girlfriend, Claire Wilson, an 18 year-old anthropology student, along the tree-lined perimeter of the University of Texas’s South Mall. Claire, eight months pregnant with the couple’s son, had just finished class. Leaving the shade for the South Mall’s upper terrace, an open cement area, Claire and Thomas approached the UT Tower, the 307-foot Spanish Renaissance icon of both the University and greater Austin.
On the Tower’s 28th floor observation deck, Charles Joseph Whitman, Eagle Scout, former Marine, and UT architectural engineering student, lowered his bright blue eye to the four-power scope mounted on his Remington Model 700 bolt-action rifle.
Inside, Whitman had left five bodies. Edna Townsley, 47, the observation deck receptionist (and mother to sons Danny and Terry), lay on the floor, her head caved in by Whitman’s rifle butt. In the blood-spattered stairwell were Marguerite Lampour and Mark Gabour, dead of shotgun blasts. Nearby lay Mike Gabour, wounded and unconscious, with his critically-injured mother, Mary. Above them, beyond the 28th floor doorway barricaded with a heavy desk and set of chairs, Charles Whitman waited.
How long he paused on the observation deck, watching, is uncertain. How many students his crosshairs lingered over before settling on Claire is likewise unknown.
If Thomas Eckman and Claire Wilson held hands; whether he placed his hand on her full belly, rubbed it, asked if the heat bothered her; and if she laughed at his concern, brushed a stray lock of hair from her face, and told him she was fine: we cannot say. Maybe it wasn’t like that.
At 11:45, as usual, the Tower’s 17-bell carillon rang 12 times. Resounding over the campus, its song carried the words, “Lord, through this hour/ Be thou our guide/ For in thy power we do abide.”
What Charles Whitman, former parishioner of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Lake Worth, Fl., thought as he chambered a 6mm Remington cartridge – whether his mind raced or was still, arid and empty as the Texas badlands; whether it was collected, methodical, or the white-noise rush of rage; whether it turned on impulse or calculation: this is unknowable.
Pfc. Whitman’s United States Marine Corps shooting score: 215 of a possible 250 points. Recognized with the degree of sharp shooter, he was “an excellent shot who appeared to be more accurate against moving targets.”
The Tower’s 12 foot gold-edged clock stands at 11:48 as Charles Whitman takes a breath, holds it. He sights down the scope, a white bandanna around his forehead to keep the sweat from his eyes. He sights and slowly lets go of his breath, slides back the trigger, and the rifle exhales its delicate wisp of smoke, a low, whimpering report, and lead launched on fire spirals forward at 3000 feet/sec, outpacing explanation, accelerating beyond the speed of comprehension, meaning, toward Claire Wilson – now an electric lance of pain cutting through her, through her hip, her stomach, her colon and uterus – now claiming its target, the skull of her unborn baby. She screams and falls. Her blood pools on the hot cement, drying to a deep crimson.
Here is bright young Charlie playing piano. He hands flash over keys white and black, conjuring the notes to Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune. The lyrical, melancholic tune drifts through his father’s middle-class house in Fort Worth, Florida, where C.A. and Margaret Whitman made their home after several moves early in their marriage. C.A., an ambitious, driven entrepreneur who never ceased reminding his family of what he had provided for them, raised his sons to excel at everything. Charlie began piano lessons when he was seven, just before he enrolled in Sacred Heart’s Catholic grade school, and by twelve he had mastered the instrument.
He had an IQ of 138.9, young Charlie, and ranked in the top 5% of students nationwide in standardized testing. He had his father’s ambition and craving for financial success. When he turned eleven, Charlie joined the Boy Scouts. Just over a year later, he was an Eagle Scout, having earned 21 merit badges in only 15 months. (He later claimed to be the youngest Eagle Scout ever, though no official records of such a distinction exist.) To make money, he took responsibility for one of the largest Miami Herald paper routes in Lake Worth.
And Charlie had guns. The Whitman house had as many firearms on the walls as pictures. This was a source of pride for the Whitman patriarch, who taught his three sons to shoot as soon as they were physically able. For Charlie, this meant handling firearms before he was in grade school.
Charlie’s teen years were undistinguished – he was just one of the guys, maybe a little more eager to take a dare, a little more eager to please. He, like many high school seniors, slacked off his final year of school, and his grades suffered. One night just before his eighteenth birthday, Charlie came home drunk to find C.A. waiting for him. His disgusted father threw him in the pool, where Charlie nearly drowned. Fed up, he enlisted in the Marines soon after.
After basic training and a stint at Guantanamo Naval Base, Charlie enrolled in a scholarship program that brought him to the University of Texas. There he met Kathy Leissner, and the two were married on August 17, 1962.
The next four years were a strenuous time for the newlywed Whitmans. Charlie’s lack of self-discipline led to poor grades, and the Marines revoked his scholarship, returning him to active duty. While Kathy waited, finishing her own studies, C.A. Whitman pulled strings to have his son released from his military commitment. Charlie returned to school with a new dedication.
Then, in early 1966, Margaret Whitman left her husband. She fled to Austin, putting Charlie between his mother and father. His schoolwork had again begun to falter. At one point he decided to abandon school altogether, leave Kathy behind, and simply bum around the country. Only the intercession of professor Barton Riley, a former Marine, kept him from leaving.
At Riley’s house, Charlie returned to the piano. For a long time he’d refused to play, even when urged by family and friends. This time, though, for whatever reason, he couldn’t resist. He sat down at the baby grand and again played Claire de Lune. Debussy based his piece on a poem by Paul Verlaine, a stanza of which reads:
The notes came out all wrong. They didn’t dance, but thudded loudly and too strong. Yet as he played, Charlie’s stress seemed to ease, and Debussy’s lyricism returned.
It was only a few months later, on the evening of July 31, Charlie’s hands moved across the keys of his typewriter. “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,” he wrote. “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 the victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”
He mentioned failed attempts at professional help with his rising violent impulses, how he’d tried to face his demons alone and lost. He wrote, “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from the telephone company.” So he did, stabbing his sleeping wife five times in the chest. She died instantly. “I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have.” He continued, “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.” Charlie visited his mother’s apartment just after midnight on the morning of August 1, where he strangled her with a piece of rubber tubing. On his unfinished note Charlie scribbled, “8-1-66, Mon., 3:00 AM. Both Dead.”
He spent the next morning preparing. He loaded his Marine footlocker with ammunition, his Remington bolt-action rifle, a Sears 12-gauge shotgun, a Remington 35 caliber pump-action rifle, a M-1 30-caliber carbine, a .357 Magnum, a 9mm Luger, and a 6.35mm Galesci-Brescia automatic pistol. He rented a dolly and donned a pair of overalls. As he wheeled his dolly into the elevator at the UT tower, everyone assumed he was a janitor. Vera Palmer, the elevator attendant who would’ve replaced Edna Townsley at the observation deck 45 minutes later, said to Charlie, “Your elevator is turned off.” She flipped the switch to enable elevator #2, and Charlie mumbled with a polite smile, “Thank you, ma’am. You don’t know how happy that makes me.” The elevator began to climb.
This is how child Charlie to his Dark Tower came.
1.) Drug abuse: Feeling overwhelmed by the demands of a 14-credit college schedule, his part-time job as a research assistant, and an increasingly fractured family life, Whitman began binging on Dexedrine, a powerful amphetamine that kept him awake for days at a time. The lack of sleep ruined his concentration, and he fell behind in his schoolwork. When he could, he took Librium to sleep. Though it’s uncertain just how extreme his drug use became, he often suffered headaches, mood swings, and nervousness in conjunction with his use of Dexedrine, as well as Dexamyl, a barbiturate-amphetamine combo. It’s been suggested that August 1 found Whitman in the grip of amphetamine psychosis brought on by his drug abuse.
2.) The tumor: The autopsy on Whitman’s body revealed, in addition to an “unusually thin” skull, a grayish-yellow tumor 2 x 1.5 x 1 cm in dimensions just below the thalamus. The Conally Commission, a task force assembled by the Texas Governor to review the events of August 1, concluded, “the relationship between the brain tumor and Charles J. Whitman’s actions on the last day of his life cannot be established with clarity. However, the highly malignant brain tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.” Speculation didn’t end there, with some suggesting that compression of the amygaloid nucleus – the area of the brain most related to emotion, especially fear and rage – eventually propelled Whitman into his killing spree. Whitman himself made his last wish for biochemical absolution, writing, “After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.”
3.) Psychological disintegration: On March 29, 1966, Whitman met with UT psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Dean Heatly. Heatly described a “massive, muscular youth ... oozing with hostility,” who believed “something was happening to him and he didn’t seem to be himself.” During his first and only visit to the psychiatrist, Whitman, “self-centered and egocentric,” complained about his failure to surpass the domineering father he hated. He spoke vaguely of his problems, excepting a “vivid reference to ‘thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.’” He wept. Dr. Heatly scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week; Whitman never appeared.
4a.) Disregard for human life, Marine Corps: The Marine Corps, some argue, instilled in Charles Whitman the belief he could take lives at will and without consequence. In Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” Gunnery Sergeant Hartman commends the skill of Whitman and Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, saying, “Those individuals showed what one motivated Marine and his rifle can do.” He says, “God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see! He plays His games, we play ours! To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls!” Whitman, the architect of fear isolated in his high tower, acted as God acts, killing indiscriminately.
4b.) Disregard for human life, religious beliefs: After abandoning Catholicism, Whitman developed his own religious worldview, centered on a God made of omnipresent energy. Humans, too, sprung from this energy; after “death” they returned to it. Since matter can never be created nor destroyed, Charles reasoned, there must be an afterlife – a heaven. There was no hell, because earth was hell. Death – for his mother, for his wife, for him – was a gateway to a better place.
5.) Emotional strain: Since the beginning of 1966, the score to Whitman’s life had descended into a minor key. As his parents’ marriage disintegrated, he and Kathy were caught in the middle. C.A. Whitman called repeatedly, demanding to speak to his wife. Meanwhile, Charles’s vague, frustrated ambitions – his diaries are filled with life plans and money-making schemes that never went anywhere – gnawed at him. He worried that his wife provided more for the family than he; he worried that he’d never best the father he’d grown to hate. His final notes lay the blame for Charles’s impending murders at C.A.’s doorstep. The father’s sins – domestic violence, overwhelming ambition – had become the son’s, and on August 1 they erupted.
6.) Unhealthy view of firearms as problem solvers: Charles Whitman grew up with guns, able to shoot the eye out of a squirrel by the time he was twelve. One infamous photo captures him playing at the beach, a two-year old balancing himself between two rifles taller than he. Whitman’s father said, “Those guns aren’t to blame for anything,” but had his rage been channeled into less potentially violent pursuits, the argument goes, the son’s spree might not have happened.
7.) A heart born deceitful: In the Calvinist interpretation of Charles Whitman, he is an egg with a rotten yolk, flawed from conception. Psychologically, he’d be labeled a sociopath: born with no innate empathy, he soon learned to imitate a concern for others. He knew no aim other than self-satisfaction, but concealed this disregard for the rest of humanity behind a cunning smile. One of his Marine notebooks reads, “Ways to Camof. [camouflage]
The Charles Whitman known to others – the Charlie labeled “Best Looking,” “Friendliest,” and “Most Mature,” by his college English professor – was, in this view, a trick of the light shrouding his heart of darkness.
8.) The stars: In Whitman’s astrological chart, Mars – the planet associated with action and aggression, named for the Roman god of death and war – dominates the top half. Specifically, it draws energy into the 12th House, the realm of psychological disturbances and self-undoing. Even more ominously, Pluto, the planet of extremes, of all-or-nothing ambitions, forms a Square Aspect to the Ascendant Mars. Two planets in the Square Aspect oppose one another, causing unhealthy stress within the individual.
9.) “Maybe he was just mean as hell,” writes Gary LaVergne, author of The Sniper in the Tower.
10.) He was mad at the world.
11.) He was crazy.
12.) He was evil.
Does this collage of grim explanation offer any consolation, reconcile one to the horror of the act? To enter the over-bright eyes of Charles Joseph Whitman, go beyond the yearbook smile into his too-thin skull and illuminate the shadowed spaces there – what would it offer us, the survivors, to make his darkness visible?
The French have a phrase for it: “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” – “to understand all is to forgive all.” The idea pulls with the weight of simple tautology: Understanding = forgiveness. In a proper accounting, with all the facts assembled in their rightful place and context, a picture will emerge. It will remain appalling, but it will be whole, comprehensible. It will be powerless to beckon with its dead zones and known unknowns, a picture in which all shadows are named and thereby made impotent. Such complete understanding offers the possibility of forgiveness, and at the rawest edges of humanity – among the Pol Pots and the Hitlers, the Charles Mansons and the Charles Whitmans, the Dresdens and 9/11’s, where the human capacity for atrocity exceeds our ability to make sense of it – the possibility is more important than its fulfillment. If we cannot move ourselves to forgiveness – because our understanding is necessarily incomplete – we need the belief that somewhere in that abyss a light exists bright enough to hold out the promise: Forgive, and live.
And yet still there is Charles Whitman, shade without color, another mirage in the overheated Texas air, climbing his tower like a man ascending a throne, dark sovereign of the twilight kingdom.
He held Austin hostage for 96 minutes as he fired round after round from the 28th floor. After Claire Wilson collapsed, her boyfriend knelt beside her asking what had happened. Whitman shot Thomas Eckman in the back; he fell dead on top of his girlfriend. Claire spent the next horrific hour-and-a-half pinned to the hot cement as bullets impacted seemingly everywhere within a 500-yard radius of the Tower. Dr. Hamilton Boyer was the next to die, as a 6mm round tore through his left kidney.
Whitman moved around the observation deck as he continued to shoot, leading witnesses to think there were multiple snipers. Many others were slow to realize the popping noises coming from the Tower were gunshots. As a result, for the first fifteen minutes of his spree, Whitman had his choice of virtually any target he could see. And if he could see it, he could hit it. He shot Thomas Ashton, a Peace Corps trainee, in the chest. Ashton died at Brackenridge Hospital.
When reports of gunfire reached Allen R. Hamilton, Chief of University of Texas Traffic Control and Security, he dispatched two policemen to the Tower. They reached the 27th floor by 11:55 AM, but neither were armed. M.J. Gabour, father to Mike and Mark Gabour, husband to Mary Gabour, staggered toward the two, saying, “Give me a gun, he has killed my wife and family.” The officers closed down all exits to the Tower and warned as many people as possible to stay out of sight.
Meanwhile, Austin Police officer Houston McCoy was making his way toward the Tower. The dispatcher’s voice had been garbled when the call came over his radio; all he could make out were the words “University Tower” and “shooting.” On arriving, he too assumed multiple snipers, and the possibility that Austin was under attack by a well-armed radical group. In the time it had taken him to reach the University, citizens had taken matters into their own hands. They were now firing back.
Whitman, though, had the high ground. He used the observation deck’s concrete parapet for cover, firing through rainspouts. He was nearly impossible to hit from the ground. He fired another 6mm round in the direction of policeman Billy Speed. The bullet found a narrow opening in Speed’s own concrete cover, mortally wounding him.
Houston McCoy was getting impatient. The Austin Police Department was in disarray; nothing like this had ever happened before. Though dozens of off-duty officers had arrived to help, there was little communication among them, and no coherent plan. McCoy reached the 28th floor reception area, where he met fellow officer Ramiro Martinez. They had no idea what awaited them outside the observation deck’s glass-paneled door. Martinez kicked it repeatedly, finally dislodging the dolly Whitman had used to barricade it behind him. They waited, listening to the gunshots and trying to decide their next move.
Martinez had a 38 revolver; McCoy a 12-gauge shotgun. As shots came from the northwest corner, Martinez resolved to open the door, entering the deck from the south. With McCoy backing him up, they moved around the southeast corner. Martinez warned McCoy to stay low as ground fire struck over their heads.
Martinez came around the northeast corner and saw Whitman, seated with his back to the northwest corner, carbine aimed at the observation deck door. Martinez quickly emptied his revolver, six shots, in Whitman’s direction as the sniper brought his rifle around. Yet this time Whitman missed. His shots went high and wild. Houston McCoy turned the corner and looked Whitman directly in the eyes. Then he pulled the trigger, aiming for the white headband. The 12-gauge roared and the pellets tore through Whitman’s head, through his blue eyes. McCoy chambered another shell and fired again. Martinez grabbed the shotgun from McCoy and charged, firing a third time into Whitman’s riddled body. At 1:24 PM, over 90 minutes after it had begun, Charles Whitman’s killing spree came to an end. In his last, desperate act, he had killed 15 and wounded 33 others.
In his diary Whitman once wrote, “I have thoughts [sic] very much about the concept of ‘death.’ When it overtakes me someday I must remember to observe closely and see if it is as I thought it would be.” What he thought as the 00 buckshot silenced his mind, whether he thought he was going to his death like a soldier; whether he felt himself transform into pure energy; whether he saw his ambitions satisfied: this is unknowable. Maybe he thought nothing at all.
Charles Whitman is dead, his body and his secrets buried beneath a simple metal plaque in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is dead and we are alive. Just as Claire Wilson survived Whitman’s bullet, Austin, America, the human world outlived his rage.
But Claire’s unborn son did not survive. The possibilities his life held have vanished, and with his death a different world replaces the one he might have known. Charles Whitman left his crosshair benediction on a different future, in which the echoes of his shots are still heard at Columbine and Jonesboro, in the words “going postal” and by every high school student who cringes at the sound of a car backfiring.
William T. Vollmann, writing in the voice of the revolutionary terrorist, captures the hopelessness of Whitman’s thinking, “The fewer possibilities I have, the more urgently I must imagine.” That is Charlie’s revenge: with a single bullet, to move the world into the realm of the unimaginable. The culmination of those urgent imaginings is an enlargement of what sociologists call “the social script” – the historically- and culturally-defined collection of possible human action. Where once we could not imagine a lone gunman in a tower firing at random, or a disgruntled postal clerk taking revenge on the system that’s left him at a dead-end by firing on his co-workers, or a pair of misfit high school seniors plotting to blow up the school that so shamed them – we no longer have to imagine these possibilities, and they are open to every angry young man whose incandescent rage flames from the inside out, until finally, like Charlie, it burns us all. We cannot even recapture the horror of Whitman’s act, because the world it ended is so alien to us, so fast receding, that it might as well be Eden. We cannot feel bitterness, or sadness, as the wound of August 1, 1966 fades to a white scar on the collective consciousness. What Charlie saw from his high tower was a different future, and with his bullets he pushed us into it.
But here I want to counter Charlie’s dead imagination. He was human, but we do not have to forgive him, or overestimate his power. Epochs do not turn on one angry man with a gun; postlapsarian worlds are not born with the whimper of rifle shots, and Charlie is only one more flower of evil on humanity’s long, snaking vine. As long as we are human, we can imagine bigger than he could. We can imagine Charles Whitman and Claire Wilson – C.W. & C.W., Claire and clair obscura – twinned at the moment of conception, linked down the barrel of that Remington Model 700. Imagine the world that didn’t happen, the one where Whitman’s ambition failed him and Claire and Thomas finished their walk across the South Mall. Most directly, it is a world inhabited by Thomas Eckman, Paul Sonntag, Claudia Rutt, Robert Boyer, Billy Speed, Roy Schmidt, Edna Townsley, Marguerite Lamport, Mark Gabour, Harry Walchuck, Thomas Ashton, Thomas Karr, Roy Dell Schmidt, Margaret Whitman, Kathy Whitman (linger over their names, if you can). It’s a world where the vocabulary of violence is diminished compared to our own, where the phrase “going postal” has no gravity. This is the world of August 1, 1966, where the heat shimmers in the air and couples walk hand-in-hand over green grass and under shaded trees. It is a world very far away, in both time and possibility, but as all doors to the past are only windows, it is a world still visible, if only through shattered glass, darkly.