Cultural References to the Shootings



-- Star Gebser created this montage.

Whitman in Art

The University of North Texas will publish Gary Lavergne's A Tower to Climb: The Charles Whitman Murders in 1997. It will be the first academic book to study the Whitman shootings. Mary Gabour Lampourt wrote The Impossible Tree, an attempt to work through her pain after she and other members of her family were criticaly injured, and two others were killed by Whitman. A movie, made for television and filled with factual inaccuracies, was released under the name of "Sniper," and also the name "The Deadly Tower." It starred Kurt Russell as Charles Whitman and used the tower-like Louisiana state capital building as a substitute for the real thing. UT administration officials had refused to allow the film to be made on campus. The Delicate Art of the Rifle, released in 1996, is an art film loosely based on the Whitman shootings.

Other movies make allusions to the Whitman shootings. The classic Austin film "Slacker" features a segment with an aging anarchist, lamenting his absence from the campus on that day. A character in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," in a conversation about stress, quips that it's nothing that going to the top of a tower with a gun couldn't cure. "Parenthood" shows Steve Martin's character's fear that his failure as a father will result in his son's later reenactment of the shootings. The drill sergeant in "Full Metal Jacket" screams to his new recruits about the commendable accuracy of Whitman's and Lee Harvey Oswald's aim. One of the characters in "Natural Born Killers" mentions that his mother was shot and killed by Whitman.

Songs have been written as well. "The Ballad of Charles Whitman," by Kinky Friedman, is a humorous account of that awful day, and Harry Chapin's "Sniper" is a more serious, if less accurate, incarnation. Two other songs were written, but their extremely limited distribution and the fact that they were written in Spanish led to their obscurity. Jose A. Morante wrote and the band "Los Conquistadores" performed "Tragedia en Austin," which lamented the shootings. Morante also wrote "El Policía de Austin; Accion Heroica de Ramiro Martinez," a ballad praising Martinez's bravery which was performed by "Los Rayos del Alamo."

And the tower is even remembered in a medium that no one imagined on August 1, 1966 - several relevant World Wide Web sites exist:

The "Scenes From the Top" web site is a poor substitute for reality, and its inadequacy shortchanges the visitors who go to it in an attempt to learn about the tower. It offers beautiful pictures and fascinating movies of the campus and the tower itself, but its timeline lacks vital information. Without an accurate and complete history it is impossible to understand the tower and its place in memory.

The timeline starts in 28 October, 1974, with the closing of the tower. Project administrators added a page explaining the closure of the observation deck only after information requests from numerous visitors. An excerpt from UT Austin, Traditions and Nostalgia, by Margaret Catherine Berry, recounts a brief history of the Whitman shootings and states that the observation deck was closed "until some form of protective barrier could be designed and erected." There is no mention of why University administrators have failed to take steps to create such a barrier.

The timeline then leaps to 6 June 1995, when UT staff and Apple Computer employees took photographs from the observation deck for use in Project iTower. The rest of the timeline describes the creation and improvement of the web site.

Other than the first entry, the timeline focuses solely on the web site and its history, rather than the history of the tower. It includes no information about the construction of the tower or the main building. Its information about the Whitman shootings is sketchy at best, and it skims over the other tragedies which have occurred at the tower (several suicides and a deadly accident). It incudes no reference to the custom of lighting the tower orange in celebration of victories. It completely ignores the several student groups which have attempted to reopen the tower, and it also neglects to include the administration's responses to those groups. In short, this site offers pretty pictures with no explanation of what those pictures mean, nor any discussion about the history of the tower. UT maintains no other site concerning the tower, and this lack of information is a disservice to the students of UT, and to the public at large.

The University of Texas at Austin serves as a center of learning and wisdom. Its purpose is the dissemination of knowledge and the destruction of ignorance. Inclusion in the site of more complete information about the tower and its past would be more in keeping with the intent of the institution, but instead the site limps along, crippled by a lack of historical reference. The virtual tour, which could have presented a rich and rewarding presentation of the tower and its history, instead serves only as a photo-album and video collection.

The Charles Whitman Fanclub gives a sensationalistic account of the shootings, and the site is questionable in both its sense of taste and appropriateness, and its factual accuracy.

A lyric artist going by the name of "Macabre" wrote a highly irreverent song about Whitman, "Sniper in the Sky." I do not suggest this site to those who are easily offended.

There are other references to the shootings as well. Graffitti inside the tower staircase proclaims "No Snipers Allowed." And every August 1st local talk radio programs receive calls from people who were affected by that day.


Other Tragedies

George Hennard

The deaths in the Killeen Luby's surpassed the Whitman shootings. 35-year-old George Hennard crashed his truck through the front of the crowded restaurant and then proceeded to walk from table to table, using a Glock 17 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol to shoot patrons "as fast as he could pull the trigger." The gun normally carries a 17-round magazine, so Hennard had to reload. Witnesses reported that he screamed "This is what Bell County has done to me." Hennard killed 22 people and wounded at least another 20. Lee Whitney, who was trapped in the restaurant, reported that Hennard asked "Was it all worth it?" as he approached people. A man through a chair through a window, allowing several of the people trapped inside to escape. Police arrived on the scene and exchanged fire with Hennard, and he was wounded when he went into the hallway that led to the bathrooms and fataly shot himself. "You have to push yourself and remind yourself that it's not a movie scene," Department of Public Safety Officer Mike Cox said. "There's that terrible stillness of death." Law enforcement officials could give no explanation as to Hennard's motives. They cordoned off a house Hennard was said to have used. Neighbors reported that Hennard sent them a long, rambling letter which they promptly forwarded to the police. Part of the letter read : "Please give me the satisfaction of some day laughing in the face of all those mostly white treacherous female vipers from those two towns who tried to destroy me and my family."

Richard Speck

Richard Speck died of heard disease on December 6, 1991. Victims' families were bitter that he died in such a peaceful manner. Betty Jo Purvis, sister of victim Patricia Ann Matusek said "I think that it's a shame that it's taken this long for him to leave this Earth." "Judgment Day has finally arrived for that sucker," said retired police Officer Jack Wallenda, one of the first on the murder scene. "And he died an easy death. . . . He should have suffered a lot more than he did." On July 14, 1966, police arrested the then-24-year-old Speck and charged him with the murder of eight student nurses in Chicago. Before that day, the concept of a mass murderer was incomprehensible. Speck's chief prosecutor, William J. Martin, described the shock. "Before July 14th, 1966, . . . it was beyond our national experience that this could happen. The fact that these victims didn't know the killer . . . the randomness of it, gave us a concern for our own safety. Who can be safe?" A jury originally sentenced Speck to death, but when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty he was resentenced to consecutive terms of 50 to 150 years each. Seven automatic parole board hearings took place at three-year intervals, but victims' families testified to help keep him in jail.

George Banks

George Banks served time for an armed robbery in the 1960s, but later cleaned up his act and became a prison guard. He lived in a house in Wilkes-Barre, Pensylvania, which he shared with three girlfriends and their 5 children. Early on the morning of September 25, Banks donned military-style fatigues and packed an AR-15 autiomatic weapon. He then travelled to Jenkins Township, where a former lover, Sharon Mazillio, lived with her mother. Banks had earilier obtained a court order instructing her to give him custody of their son, 5-year-old Kissmayu. He killed Ms. Mazillio and her mother, as well as Kissmayu and Ms. Mazillio's 7-year-old nephew Scott. Two other childern living in the house hid and survived. He went home to Wilkes-Barre, where he shot and killed Regina Clemens, 29, and her child, Montanzima Banks, 6; Susan Yuhas, 23, and her children, Bowendy Banks, 4, and Maritanya Banks, 1, and Dorothy Lyons, 29, and her children, Foraroude Banks, 1, and her daughter from a previous relationship, Nancy Lyons, 11. Banks walked outside and shot two bystanders. James Olson was wounded criticaly; Raymond Hall died. Most of the victims died instantly. Banks then ran several blocks down the street to a vacant house and held off police until 11:15 am, when he surrendered. Banks threatened to kill himself and police held him under 24-hour suicide watch after his arrest. Neighbors and co-workers said Banks loved his children, but that he often threatened to use violence to use his problems. According to Eleanor Monahan, Banks' neighbor, about a year ago he showed a rifle to her husband, and threatened to shoot everyone who lived on the street. She reported that Banks declared "If I go through with it, I'm going to make sure I'm the only survivor." The defence pleaded that Banks was not guilty by reason of insanity. Bank's father was black and his mother was white, and defence psychiatrists testified that he was obsesed with racism. They claimed that, in his obsession, Banks killed his children (who, like him, all had white mothers) to spare them the racism he had experienced. The prosecution countered that, although he was paranoid, Banks was legaly sane at the time of the killings. A jury later convicted him of the 13 murders, and after five and a half hours of deliberation, sentenced him to the death penalty. Banks showed no emotion as the sentence was read, but several of the jurors wept. Cases receiving the death penalty are automaticaly appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Patrick Sherrill

In Sherill, Oklahoma, 44-year-old Patrick Sherrill worked a part-time job at the post office, and taught marksmanship at the local Air National Guard Unit. He was described to have been an expert marksman while in the Marines. He claimed to have served in Vietnam, although official Pentagon records later showed this to have been a lie. He performed poorly at his postal job, and was told on August 19 that he would be fired if his work did not improve. That day, he checked out a pistol from the Air National Guard Unit. At 7 am the next day, Sherrill brought two .45-caliber semi-automatic pistols and a .22 caliber pistol with him in his mailbag when he reported to work. He locked the doors behind him, and roamed the building, shooting employees and reloading. There were about 80 to 90 people in the building when Sherrill began shooting. He wounded seven people and murdered a total of fourteen people: Betty Jarred, Patty Husband, Tom Shader, Rick Esser, Mike Rockney, Patty Gabard, Johnna Gragert Hamilton, Patti Welch, Judy Denney, Patty Chambers, Kenneth Morey, Bill Miller, Lee Phillips and Jerry Pyle. Only one shot was fired after the police arrived. They later surmised that it was Sherrill, shooting himself. Police waited outside the building for two hours, as they tried to get an understanding of the situation inside the building. Negotiators attempted to contact Sherrill by phone, but received no answer. Officers decided that they had no choice but to storm the building at about 9 am, because they did not know how many people, possibly injured, remained inside. The police never fired a shot. Patrick Sherrill was found in an employees' section of the post office, dead. Nearby lay his empty guns.

Marc Lepine

Marc Lepine, angry that he had been denied entrance to Montral's elite Ecole Polytechnique, decided that feminists had ruined his life. He wrote a three-page suicide note and took his gun to the school. He walked into a classroom filled with about 60 students and fired a light, semiautoatic rifle into the ceiling. He ordered the men out of the room and shot the women, screaming "You're all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists." Six of the women died. Lepine spent the next twenty minutes walking around the engineering school and firing at victims before he took his own life. The tragic toll was 27 wounded, 14 dead. All but two of the wounded were women.


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This document was created by:
Wesley Forni forndog@mail.utexas.edu and Star Gebser stargebser@mail.utexas.edu.
This site was last modified on December 6, 1996.