A Bloody First of August: Charles Whitman, “Texas Tower Sniper”

August 1, 1966 was just like any other day in Austin, Texas. It was sunny and hot, and there was a bustling of college students at the University of Texas. All was well until shortly before noon. That was when 25-year-old University of Texas student, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, ascended the Texas Tower to the observational deck and began his notorious shooting rampage. Leading up to this horrendous event, Whitman had spent the prior evening and early morning hours committing the murders of both his wife and mother; he left behind a note that revealed a troubled, violent, and disturbed man with a strong hatred for his father. Whitman shot over one-hundred rounds during his rampage before he was stopped and killed by two Austin police officers, Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, with the assistance of university employee, Allen Crum. At around half past one, officers McCoy and Martinez had finally made it up to the observation deck; with two shotgun blasts from McCoy and one final shot at point-blank range from Martinez, Charles Whitman and his shooting rampage was brought to an end. The aftermath of the tragic event resulted in fourteen fatalities, including an unborn child, as well as thirty-one others who were wounded during the shooting.1 A thorough investigation into the Whitman murders began the following month, initiated by Texas governor John Connally, after learning the results of Whitman’s autopsy revealing that he had a small brain tumor located on the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for numerous functions such as emotional activity. Many speculated back then, and even fifty years later, that Whitman’s tumor had no effect on his actions but I believe otherwise. A week following the Whitman murders, President Lyndon B. Johnson started an initiative for gun control legislation “to help prevent the wrong persons from obtaining firearms.”2 From what we have seen in recent years, the gun control laws have yet to prevent these tragedies from happening and there is much to learn from this story pertaining to how mass tragedies such as this one can be prevented.

On the morning of August 1, 1966, officer Houston McCoy clocked into work at the Austin Police Department at 6:45 a.m., and was out patrolling the streets fifteen minutes later. Officer Ramiro Martinez began his morning by dropping off his two daughters at daycare; he did not have to report for work until three that afternoon. Both McCoy and Martinez had similar backgrounds: both grew up in small West Texas towns, attended college for a short period of time before deciding to join the United States Army; and both men had less than five years of law enforcement experience. At exactly 11:53 a.m., Officer McCoy first received word from the dispatcher, whose voice was incredibly excited and shrill, indicating to McCoy that something was not quite right, that some sort of incident was occurring at the University Tower. Martinez learned of the incident on the news broadcast at noon; both men raced off in their vehicles heading straight towards the University of Texas.3

(L to R) Civilian Allen Crum and Austin police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy are recognized as being the individuals who took down Charles Whitman | Courtesy of AP Photo/Ted Powers, File

In an interview conducted in 2008, while Houston McCoy was nearing death, he was asked about that sunny yet bloody day in 1966. The two most important questions asked was, what kind of training did he have in order to take down a mass shooter, and, did he or Martinez have any sort of plan. McCoy stated that there was no plan nor did he have any form of training to deal with that type of situation. He said, “Nobody had even thought about anything like that ever happening.”4 At the time, the University of Texas did not have any university/campus police as they are known as today. Instead, the closest they had to university police was the UT Traffic & Security Services (T&SS); their job was to write parking tickets, provide security around campus, and conduct investigations concerning a variety of different matters. Neither did the T&SS nor the Austin Police Department have the proper training or resources to take down Charles Whitman. The Austin chief of police, Robert Miles, knew this very well, so that when it came to answering the question of how his officers managed to take down Whitman, it was their courage, not any kind of tactical plan.5 Five years prior to the shooting at the University of Texas, an episode of the local news broadcast Progress Report Austin documents the in’s and out’s of the Austin Police Department. Towards the end of the episode, a brief description as well as an illustration of the police training process is given. The training consisted of a total of 796 hours, or a little over a month, along with learning “everything from oratory to finger-printing, he works in all divisions, and learns from department experts, plus men from outside the department. The rookie policemen will learn law, and some judo to protect himself, and he’ll spend hours on the (gun) range learning to handle his weapon with one hope that he’ll never have to use it.”6 Within all that training, there is no formal training for dealing with mass school shootings, which left the Austin police force very unprepared for the event that would shake the whole city five years later. Had it not been for Officers McCoy and Martinez taking matters into their own hands, who knows how many more lives would have been killed that afternoon.

At 1:24 p.m., Charles Whitman’s shooting rampage was brought to an end as soon as officers McCoy and Martinez fired off shots from a 12-gauge shotgun and a revolver; Whitman’s body was wrapped up and taken to Cook Funeral Home.7 An autopsy would be done the next morning at 8:55 a.m.8 The most startling discovery was when Austin pathologist, Dr. Coleman de Chenar, examined Whitman’s skull and observed how unusually thin it was. Chenar located a tumor composed mainly of elements of connective brain tissue and of blood vessels in an enlarged state.9 On March 29, 1966, several months prior to the Texas Tower Shooting, Charles Whitman had gone to visit the University of Texas Student Health Center where he met with psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Heatly. During this session, Whitman shared with Heatly one of his dark, personal fantasies, and that was how he often thought “about going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.”10 In that moment, Dr. Heatly was not phased by Whitman’s fantasy, as many students spawned sick, twisted jokes referencing the tower. Heatly’s final observation was that Whitman was not considered to be dangerous and allowed him to leave, but recommended Whitman return a week later for further treatment if need be. That was the first and last time Charles Whitman was seen by Dr. Heatly.11 Charles also began to develop extreme headaches in the months leading up to the shooting; and in his suicide note, which he sat down and typed out shortly before killing his wife and mother, he spoke of the headaches he had been experiencing and stated how he had already consumed two large bottles of headache reliever. However, a key point that was not mentioned by him was his consumption of Dexedrine and Dexamyl, two drugs that may have very well been the source of his headaches.12 Referring back to the brain tumor, there was much speculation among experts regarding whether the tumor affected Whitman’s thoughts and actions on August 1, 1966. One expert argued that the tumor’s position pressed up on a part of the brain linked to emotional activity, and that is the amygdala. Another expert stated that although the location of the tumor could have affected his emotional state, it was unlikely to be the sole reason for why Whitman did what he did. So what is the truth?13

Dr. C. de Chenar, Austin pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Charles Whitman, shows an image of the tumor found in Whitman’s brain | Courtesy of AP Wirephoto

The amygdala is described as two lima-bean sized neural clusters in the limbic system. The limbic system is the neural system located below the cerebral systems; this specific system, along with the amygdala, is associated with emotions and drives. Research has directly likened the amygdala to the emotions of fear and aggression. In 1939, twenty-seven years before the tragic tower shooting, psychologist Heinrich Kluver and neurosurgeon Paul Bucy conducted an experiment by surgically removing the amygdala from a rather ill-tempered rhesus monkey, and the results were interesting. The once irritable and grumpy monkey became calm and warm; the same results occurred when this experiment was done with other animals. However, when one feels or acts in an aggressive or fearful way, different structures within the limbic system, not just the amygdala, can evoke emotional responses.14 Many of Charles Whitman’s family members and friends strongly felt that the tumor had played some role in his shooting rampage, along with the killings of his mother and wife the night before. They saw it as “something in his brain had made him somebody else,” but they managed to find comfort in the fact that in his suicide note, he requested an autopsy to be done in order to see if there was any visible physical disorders or problems… as if he already knew.15 In 2016, a news article published by The Daily Texan discussed the matter of how some experts still disagreed with the idea of the role Whitman’s brain tumor played in affecting his actions and thoughts. One expert, Mike Koenigs, an associate professor in psychiatry and expert in brain lesions, stated how previous instances of tumors like Whitman’s indeed had affected an individual’s entire personality. A second expert, N. Bradley Keele, associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, states that the tumor could have certainly affected Whitman’s behavior, but could not have been the sole reason for Whitman’s actions. He goes on to say that important factors that are overlooked is how Charles grew up in a home with an abusive father and how he admitted to being violent with his own wife prior to killing her. Gary M. Lavergne, author of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, hypothesized that Whitman’s rage was largely caused by his discontent with how his life was going at the time, as well as the resentment he had towards his father.16

It did not take long for the shooting at the University of Texas to reach the ears of two important individuals, Texas governor John Connally and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate the Whitman murders, it was Governor Connally who took the most initiative of the two men to investigate the causes behind this tragedy. Governor Connally created what became known as “The Connally Commission,” a committee consisting of some of “the nation’s leading medical and psychological experts and charged them with investigating the medical aspects of the Charles Whitman murders.”17 The Connally Commission was composed mostly of the medical school professors, with their chairman, Dr. R. Lee Clark, coming from the University M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. The commission established four investigative objectives: 1. To determine the events and circumstances that surround the actions of Charles J. Whitman on August 1, 1966. 2. To explore the findings and to make such additional examinations as might to be indicated by the factual information available. 3. To prepare the material for its maximal utilization in evaluating the problem for our society. 4. To make recommendations aimed at the detection and prevention of circumstances that might lead to similar incidents. What seemed to have many people puzzled was how Whitman, who was portrayed as being the “golden boy,” could be a mass murderer? His background, health, all documents obtained from the university and his overall behavior was looked at thoroughly by the commission.18 In the end, the Connally Commission could not determine an ultimate explanation for why Charles Whitman had committed the largest mass murder in America at the time without some sort of recent psychiatric evaluation.19 However, there was speculation regarding his upbringing and the separation of his parents as factors. There was speculation about his being exposed to violence in the media that was broadcast nightly, or that it indeed was the pecan-sized tumor pressing up against his amygdala that caused a switch in his emotional state to flip. Others speculated that he was simply fed up with everything and ultimately decided to end it all and go out with a bang.20 A legitimate explanation of the truth was never given, leaving all to continue wondering why did he do it.

Following the Whitman murders, calls for gun control became more frequent than ever. Some implied that if firearms had been regulated at the time, then Charles Whitman would have never been able to go about his shooting rampage. However, he still would have managed to obtain a firearm. If a background check had been done, it would have described Whitman as a “young, literate man with an honorable discharge from the marines, who had no history of violent crime.” A week after the Whitman murders, President Lyndon B. Johnson started an initiative for gun control legislation “to help prevent the wrong persons from obtaining firearms.”21 A Washington Post article released on October 1, 2017 revealed the truth behind the numbers that continue to grow with each mass shooting since the Texas Tower Shooting fifty-two years ago. There has been over 1,118 innocent lives murdered and a total of 156 shootings since August 1, 1966, and many of the most deadly shootings have occurred within the past few years.22 On February 28, 2018, the University of Virginia created the “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” an interdisciplinary group on preventing school and community violence in which the nation can take steps to protect all lives, the youth, adults, and the elderly. Their main message is that school shootings and gun violence are greater in the United States than in any other nation. They say that security measures are important, but simply preparing for shootings are not enough, and that prevention should require more than just security measures. This interdisciplinary group suggests that a public health approach to gun violence would be the first step in protecting children as well as adults from future gun violence. Their idea for a public health approach consists of three levels of prevention: 1. universal approaches promoting safety and well-being for everyone; 2. practices for reducing risk and promoting protective factors for persons experiencing difficulties; and 3. interventions for individuals where violence is present or appears imminent.23 This call for protection against gun violence is something that has been a long time coming since the mass school shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well as at Santa Fe High School, both occurring in 2018. Truthfully, the Texas Tower shooting could have certainly been prevented had Dr. Maurice Heatly, the psychiatrist who met with Charles Whitman that one and only time, reported that troubling statement made by Whitman about his dark fantasy. It is too late to go back and change the tragedy that occurred over fifty years ago, but it is not too late to protect our future generations from such violence and terror.

The UT Tower stands at 307 feet tall, also standing as a reminder of the events that took place on August 1, 1966 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Charles Whitman was a misunderstood, troubled, and mentally disturbed individual. He grew up being a boy scout as a young boy before becoming an Eagle Scout, later joining the Marines and then marrying the love of his life; from the outside, he perfectly fit the picture of being the “golden boy.” However, as some say, sometimes some of the biggest smiles hide the most pain, and while  that is not true for everyone, in this case, it most certainly was. The funeral for Charles Whitman, along with his mother, took place August 5, 1966 in Lake Worth, Florida; he was buried alongside his mother at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery in West Palm Beach.24 The Texas Tower shooting is not discussed much today seeing that many in my generation were not even alive at the time.

There is much that can be learned from this tragedy such as spotting the early signs in troubled individuals and getting them the help and counseling they need, taking stronger initiative to establish better gun control laws, which is already being done with the University of Virginia’s “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” and to equip our police departments with the necessary and proper training when dealing with mass school shootings. It is unfortunate and truly saddening that our country is faced with having to deal with this growing issue, but that is our reality and it all started with Charles Whitman, forever known as the notorious Texas Tower Sniper.

  1.  World of Criminal Justice, 2002, s.v. “Texas University Tower Massacre.”
  2. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 333.
  3. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 190-194, 206-208.
  4. Michael S. Rosenwald, “‘He was looking straight at me’: The brave officers who helped stop Charles Whitman,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2016, accessed October 13, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2016/08/01/he-was-looking-straight-at-me-the-brave-officer-who-blew-away-charles-whitman/?utm_term=.241190e1a2d1.
  5. Justin Kruegar, “Policing Before and After August 1, 1966,” Behind the Tower, 2016, accessed October 20, 2018, http://behindthetower.org/policing.
  6. Gordon Wilkinson, “The Austin Police Force,” Progress Report Austin, 1961, accessed October 13, 2018, https://www.texasarchive.org/library/index.php/2009_00535.
  7. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders(New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 264-271.
  8. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 295.
  9. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 323.
  10. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 89.
  11. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 87-89.
  12. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 115.
  13. Eva Frederick, “Experts still disagree on the role of Tower’s shooter’s brain tumor,” The Daily Texan, July 30, 2016, accessed October 13, 2018, http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2016/07/30/experts-still-disagree-on-role-of-tower-shooters-brain-tumor.
  14. David G. Meyers, Psychology (New York: Worth Publishers, 2011), 65.
  15. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 324.
  16. Eva Frederick, “Experts still disagree on the role of Tower’s shooter’s brain tumor,” The Daily Texan, July 30, 2016, accessed October 13, 2018, http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2016/07/30/experts-still-disagree-on-role-of-tower-shooters-brain-tumor.
  17. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), pp 296.
  18. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 314-315.
  19. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 319.
  20. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 320-326.
  21. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 332-333.
  22. Bonnie Berkowitz, Denise Lu and Chris Alcantara, “The terrible number that grow with each mass shooting,” The Washington Post, October 1, 2017, accessed October 28, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/mass-shootings-in-america/?utm_term=.ae453e718701.
  23. “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” University of Virginia, February 28, 2018, accessed October 13, 2018, https://curry.virginia.edu/prevent-gun-violence.
  24. Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in The Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 297-298.

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  • Melanie Fraire

    This was my first time hearing about this incident and based on what I’ve just read it seems like the tumor played a major role in Whitman’s actions, it seems pretty logical to come to that conclusion especially when you read about the effects the tumor had on other animals once it was removed. Another thing that stood out to me was how here we are years later and we have yet to move in the right direction when it comes to mass shootings since now they’re very common occurrences.

  • Mauro Bustamante

    Reading this article it seems that Charles Whitman suffered from brain tumor which had a impact on the actions that he took I when he was alive. If he was alive after the crime that he committed I do believe that he will be put in a mental institution rather than actual jail, because of his medical issue that may or may not have caused him to do pursue the crimes he committed. Also, his personally background of this unpleasant childhood does no good for him either which could have also pushed him to what he did. This article was well-written and very interesting to read.

  • James Disrud

    Before reading this article I was never introduced to this story before. From what it seems it looks like it was caused by mental health problems and it also seems like Charles Whitmans actions were due to a brain tumor. I hope that stories like this can show how scary mental health problems can be and hopefully this can give a better way to help people deal with there mental health problems. This article was well written and informative.

  • Sabrina Doyon

    I had never heard of this case but it sure is an interesting one. The idea that the tumor in his brain could be the cause of this murderous breakdown is very cool. I personally think that he was already crazy and the tumor caused his façade to fade away and he just exploded. It is so sad that so many people lost their lives that day.

  • Saira Locke

    I was introduced to this case while in my criminal justice course. We were talking about whether mental illness affects to justice system and how we should handle cases like these. I do believe that Charles Whitman’s actions was due to his brain tumor. All of the science evidence if there to prove it. Yes, Whitman deserved to serve a further consequence if he were never killed because no matter what, everyone is responsible for their actions. I believe that if Charles Whitman had lived, he would be put into a mental institution.

  • Shea Slusser

    I have never heard of this incident before this article, and it in a way is very surprising to me considering I’ve been a Texas fan for quite some time. I hope that scenarios like this are more thoroughly looked at today than they were during this time, so we can avoid issues like this in the future. It seems to me he did have a physical problem with his brain, but I am sure his personally background of this unpleasant childhood does no good for him either. Good article, and I was intrigued.

  • Vanessa Quetzeri

    We learn a lot from the past, that is how some laws are made. It is unfortunate that the psychiatrist Whitman met with didn’t take his threat seriously, especially because she’s heard those disturbing comments before. Although the outcome of this event was tragic, progress was made over gun control laws and extensive background checks in the state of Texas.

  • Sebastian Portilla

    This article was very well written. Just like every mass shooing, mental illness is involved. The article goes into great depth about the reasoning for this shooting and what might have been going through Charles Whitman’s head, while including the questioning about whether his brain tumor had any impact on his malicious acitvities . Although he had a brain tumor that might have effected his mental capcity, many believed that the motives for this shooting had nothing to do with what the medical autopsy found. The article elaborates upon a sensitive topic about mankind, as well as explores the idea of blaming mental illness for causing

  • Skylar De Leon

    This article brings up and talks about a situation that, although having occurred in 1996 Texas, is still a major fear in today’s life. I like how the article starts off stating how the day seemed just as ordinary as any other day, which just adds to how one would not always expect themselves to be put in the chaos these people found themselves in. I find it interesting how before he began his rampage, he also committed the murders of the rest of his family, though I wish the article would have gone into more detail as to why Whitman had such a strong hatred towards his father, as I believe it would have given more context towards his motivation. Though I understand if that information was not easily available.

  • Patricia Arechiga

    It truly breaks my heart knowing that my home city had to experience such a tragic event. Again, it is so heart breaking to hear the fact that a mentally unstable individual seeked therapeutical help but was ignored. It is a pattern that all mass shootings are committed by individuals who sustain mental health issues. It’s unfortunate that mental health holds so stigma to its name as it is something that needs to be taken extremely seriously regardless of sex and age. Its crazy to think that campus police and gun regulations was implemented after this situation which happened almost 15 minutes away from me. Much respect to those who protect us from harm.

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