Charles Whitman, The ‘Tower Sniper’ Who Shot 45 People At The University Of Texas

Published September 28, 2023
Updated September 29, 2023

On August 1, 1966, an ex-Marine named Charles Whitman fatally stabbed his wife and mother before climbing the clock tower at the University of Texas and carrying out a 90-minute rampage that left 14 dead and 31 wounded.

Charles Whitman

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Joseph Whitman, the ex-Marine sharpshooter known as the “Texas Tower Sniper.”

In August 1966, a 25-year-old ex-Marine named Charles Whitman stabbed his wife and mother to death before hauling a footlocker full of guns and ammunition to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower. There, 230 feet above the campus below, Whitman carried out a 90-minute massacre that left 14 people dead and 31 others wounded.

At the time, Whitman’s murder spree was unprecedented. It was one of the earliest mass shootings in the history of the United States and the first to be broadcast “live” in the media.

Tragically, it all could have been prevented. Months before the attack, Whitman laid out his exact plan to his psychiatrist — who completely ignored it and failed to follow up with the troubled man.

This is the story of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.

Inside Charles Whitman’s Turbulent Childhood

Born on June 24, 1941, in Lake Worth, Florida, Charles Joseph Whitman grew up as the eldest of three sons born to Margaret and Charles Adolphus Whitman.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Whitmans’ marriage was marred by domestic abuse that also affected their children.

Whitman’s father demanded perfection from his son. But although the boy was remarkably intelligent, mastered the piano at a young age, and became one of the youngest Eagle Scouts in history when he was 12, he was never able to live up to his dad’s expectations.

Young Charles Whitman

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Whitman at age two.

By the time he reached high school, Whitman was eager to escape from his abusive home. Despite his academic excellence, he chose not to attend college and instead enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1959.

According to Crime Library, Whitman’s sudden desire to join the military came after an incident in June 1959 in which he came home drunk after a night out with friends. When his father found out, he beat him and threw him into the family’s pool. He nearly drowned that night.

Whitman left for basic training on July 6, 1959.

Charles Whitman’s Military Career And Time As A University Of Texas Student

After completing his training at boot camp, where he qualified as a sharpshooter, Whitman spent 18 months at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

“He was a good Marine,” Captain Joseph Stanton later recalled of Whitman. “I was impressed with him. I was certain he’d make a good citizen.”

Whitman soon earned an appointment to attend officer training school. There, he proved himself once again and received a military scholarship. In September 1961, he began studying mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.

However, Whitman’s newfound freedom soon got him into trouble. After years of suffering under his father’s domineering rule, followed immediately by the disciplined life of a Marine, Whitman let loose.

He and his friends were arrested for poaching deer, and he accumulated an immense gambling debt that he refused to pay off. Meanwhile, his grades were suffering.

Charles And Kathleen Whitman At Their Wedding

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Whitman and his wife, Kathleen, on their wedding day.

In August 1962, Whitman married Kathleen Leissner, and it seemed he was ready to get back on track. Unfortunately, his criminal behavior and lackluster academic performance led to the Marine Corps withdrawing his military scholarship and recalling him to active duty in February 1963.

Whitman continued his poor conduct while stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He got in trouble for gambling, threatening his fellow Marines, and unauthorized firearm possession. He was honorably discharged from the military in December 1964.

The following year, he re-enrolled at the University of Texas to study architectural engineering. Unfortunately, severe changes to his mental health during this period would lead to one of the worst mass shootings in American history.

The Murders Of Margaret And Kathleen Whitman

The catalyst for the sharp decline of Charles Whitman’s mental health came in the spring of 1966 when his mother divorced his father and moved to Austin. Whitman kept a journal at the time in which he wrote about his feelings of rage and confusion as he struggled to deal with violent impulses.

Throughout 1965 and early 1966, Whitman visited several university doctors, who prescribed him various medications. In March 1966, according to HISTORY, he even told a psychiatrist that he had thoughts of going to the top of the University of Texas clock tower and shooting people down below — but the doctor didn’t follow up with him.

University Of Texas Tower

Wikimedia CommonsThe University of Texas clock tower.

Then, on the evening of July 31, 1966, Whitman penned what would end up being his suicide note. It began:

I do not 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. 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 a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

In the note, Whitman requested that doctors perform an autopsy on his remains to determine if he had “any visible physical disorder” that would explain his severe headaches and dark thoughts. He also wrote that he had decided to kill his mother and wife so they wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment of his actions.

Shortly after midnight on August 1, 1966, Whitman drove to his mother’s apartment and murdered her. He left a handwritten note beside her body stating that he was “very upset” about her death. It concluded: “Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.”

Then, Charles Whitman returned home and fatally stabbed his wife in the chest as she slept.

Hours later, Whitman would kill 14 more people from the top of the University of Texas clock tower — just as he’d warned his psychiatrist.

The Tragic Texas Tower Shooting

Around 11:35 a.m. on August 1, Charles Whitman drove to the University of Texas campus and falsely identified himself as an employee who was there to drop off equipment. In truth, he had a footlocker full of weapons, from an M-1 carbine and several pistols to a machete.

Whitman hauled the trunk to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower. On the way up, he killed the receptionist and two visitors who had been admiring the view of campus.

Around 11:45, Whitman began shooting at people on the ground more than 200 feet below. One of his first victims was 18-year-old Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant. The bullet pierced her abdomen, instantly killing her unborn son. Wilson survived, but her fiance, Thomas Eckman, died beside her.

Texas Tower Shooting

X (Twitter)Smoke rising from Charles Whitman’s rifle atop the University of Texas Tower.

Whitman’s murderous spree continued for 90 minutes before three policemen and an armed civilian surrounded him and fatally shot him. Within an hour and a half, he’d killed 14 people and wounded 31 others.

An autopsy later revealed that Whitman had a small brain tumor, though it’s still debated whether or not it contributed to his violent actions.

The Texas Tower Shooting remains one of the most tragic mass shootings in American history. It serves as a landmark event that set a dark and disturbing precedent for similar mass murders that have taken place in the decades since.

After reading about the life of Charles Whitman and the events that led to the University of Texas Tower shooting, learn about Christopher Dorner, the ex-L.A.P.D. officer who went on a vengeance-fueled shooting spree in Los Angeles. Then, go inside the tragedy of the Parkland Shooting through our gallery of 23 dramatic photos.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.