The Whitman Shootings

When most people first hear about Whitman (or any other person who commits so heinous an act) they tend to react in one of two ways. One is to regard him as some sort of anti-hero: "Dude, like, that's so cool how he blew away all those people from so far away." The other reaction is to reagad him as an evil man.

The anti-hero approach is a way to assert a different point of view, rather than simply following along like some lemming. Its main power is in its shock value, and it wouldn't work at all if it wasn't for the fact that the prevailing opinion reviles Whiman and others like him.

What purpose does it serve to simply say "He was an evil man" and push him away? It's a simple, tidy approach to a terrifying problem. If Whiman and his ilk are like us and part of our society, then we are part of his society. To accept Whitman as being like us forces us to admit that we are like him, too. It's always easier to slam the closet door than to face the monsters who lurk within it, and by making Whitman part of the "other" rather than the "self," we avoid our darker aspects. "Whitman was evil but I am not, therefor I don't have to worry that I might ever do something like what he did."

It isn't always the word "evil." More often, people substitute the word "sick." "Whitman had a brain tumor but I'm healthy, therefor I don't have to worry that I might ever do something like that." People blame Whiman's actions on a physiological malfunction because, like calling Whiman evil, it allows them to distance themselves from him and his actions.

The real situation is always more complex than the first glance. Whiman came from a broken, dysfunctional home. His perfectionistic father beat him, his mother and his brothers. One of those brothers later died of AIDS in California, the other died in a barroom fight in Florida. Whitman boasted that he ate amphetamines "like popcorn," and he beat his wife. But he also cared about her, and they had been growing closer in the months before August. He worked hard, with a job and a 19-hour courseload in the School of Architecture. He played piano very well, and served as a scout leader. He had many friends, and was well-liked by most people who knew him.

In all, he was a complex man, with good points and bad points, whose monsters grew too strong for him and finally broke down the closet door.

Some Background


Charles Joseph Whitman was born to Margaret and Charles Whitman on June 24, 1941. Before he was six, he and his family had moved eight times. They finaly settled in Lake Worth, Florida. His brother Patrick was born in 1945, and his youngest brother, John Mike, was born in 1947.

The elder Mr. Whitman was only semi-literate, but he was highly demanding in all other aspects. He was a very succesful plumber and made a good income. He was a perfectionist and made great requirements of the other members of the family. Young Charles joined the Boy Scouts in 1952 at the age of 11. By the time he was 12, he received national recognition as the youngest to ever receive the ranking of "Eagle Scout." He served as an altar boy and was considered to be quite good at the piano.

Whitman's father was also reported to have beaten his wife and children. In interviews immediately following the shootings, he declared that he didn't think he beat his wife "any more than the average man." If he'd had it to do over again, he wouldn't have been so easy on his kids. As he told the Austin-American Statesman, "I don't think I spanked my children enough, if you want to know the truth of it." Physical abuse (link to site about child abuse) during childhood has been shown to cause permanent psychological trauma in the victims.


Whitman graduated from a Catholic high school in 1959, in the upper quarter of his class. He joined the Marine corps at age 18, although he had been accepted to the Georgia Institute of Technology. In September 1961, Whitman received a scholarship from the Naval Enlisted Science Education Program (NESEP), which allowed him to study at the University of Texas ( until February 1963, when his scholarship was withdrawn due to poor academic performance. During his time at UT, Whitman met Kathryn ("Kathy") Leissner, from Needville, Tx. They married on August 17, 1962, after a 7-month courtship.

Whitman returned to active duty with the Marines, and Kathy graduated from UT and worked in Austin as a teacher. Whitman unsuccesfuly attempted to re-enroll in the NESEP in April. By July he had advanced to the rank of Lance Corporal. John Grimm, one of his former superiors, remembered him as a model Marine, whose superior performance served as an example to those around him. "During those six months I had the chance to observe this corporal at close quarters. ...His performance was truly outstanding. He had qualified every year as a Sharp-shooter with the M-14 rifle. He led his thirteen-man squad by example, joining them in all the dirty work." At that time he displayed a strong desire to make the Marine Corps his career.


By coincidence, that same officer served on the board which heard Whitman's court-martial in November 1963. Most of these hearings involved cases of Unauthorized Absence (known as AWOL in other branches), but Whitman's case was out of the ordinary. Whitman was charged with possessing ammunition, possessing a weapon ("a small caliber pistol"), ten counts of lending money for profit, and orally threatening to kill a fellow Marine.

In the ordinary experience of Marine life, most of those things were not considered crimes. Ammunition abounded, and was even sometimes used as a paperweight or doorstop. The charge of possessing a weapon was also bizzare. "We all possessed weapons: M-14 rifles, M-60 machine guns, rocket launchers, mortars, pistols, flame throwers, grenades, knives and bayonets, not to mention the nearby tanks, artillery, and fighter aircraft. A small caliber pistol was simply no big deal." Lending money for profit was also commonplace. The threat to kill someone was taken as a jest, and was even part of common parlance.

-- "Storm Warning"

Whitman pleaded guilty to all of the counts except the last, and explained that he had instead threatened to kick out the man's teeth. The last charge was thrown out, but he was convicted of the rest. The board was truly confused. They surmised that Whitman must have somehow alienated one of his superior officers, who had decided to teach him a lesson. They sentenced him to a reduction of rank to private, and thirty day's restriction. This was the mildest sentence the board had ever handed down.

University of Texas

Whitman requested early release from the marines and was allowed to instead attend UT beginning in January, 1965. He studied for a degree in archtectural engineering.

His parents separated in late February, 1966. On the 2nd of March Whitman drove to Florida and helped his mother move to an appartment in Austin.

Whitman went to the Counseling and Mental Health Center. . He met with M.D. Heathly, M.D. on March 29, 1966 for about an hour and discussed his concerns about his life. Heathly's notes on this meeting recount Whitman's admission that he had physicaly assaulted his wife on two occasions. The court-martial was mentioned, although Whitman said that it was for fighting. He also reported that his father had been calling an average of every 48 hour for the previous several weeks, asking him to convince his mother to return to her former home in Florida. He had no intention of doing anything of the kind, and mantained an intense dislike of his father.

In an interview with a reporter 30 years after the shootings, Whitman's father presented a different story. According to him, Kathy called Florida often; Charles was beating his head against the bathroom wall. He claims that his wife went to Austin to try to help their son. "I didn't want her to go. I was concerned about what might happen. He'd have killed me too, if I'd went there."

Other sources (including the report to the governor) assert that Whitman gambled often, that he was often depressed, and that he suffered financial problems. There is even the rumor that Whitman boasted that he ate amphetamines "like popcorn," but after his death specialists at the Armed Forced INstitute of Pathology, in Washington D.C., examined samples of Whitman's brain, stomach, kidney, and liver. They found no evidence of drug use.

Whitman told the couselor that he sometimes felt overwhelmingly hostile, with very little provocation. His only specific instance of that hostility, though, was a vivid fantasy of going to the top of the tower and shooting people with a deer rifle. He recounted childhood stories of his father's demanding and domineering manner, and hypothesized that this deeply dysfunctional relationship was the cause of his hostility. He was told to return for another appointment in one week, or to call if he felt that he needed help before then, but he never did.

On July 14, 1966, Richard Speck was arrested as America's first serial killer.

On August 1, 1966, American planes destroyed 25 PT-boats in the Tonkin Gulf. This was the first US air strike of that war. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution three days later, legitimizing the action. At that time there were only 16,000 American troops in Vietnam. Oregon's Senator Wayne Morris warned "We're going to be bogged down in Southeast Asia for years to come if we follow this course of action, and we're going to kill thousands of American boys."


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Cultural References August 1, 1966... ...and everything after.

This document was created by:
Wesley Forni and Star Gebser
This site was last modified on December 6, 1996.