Charles Joseph Whitman was born in June of 1941 in Lake Worth, Florida. He was the oldest child of Margaret and Charles Whitman, Jr. The young Charles was described as a polite, well-mannered boy who did well in school. In fact, his IQ was once measured to be 139, which is in the Superior range. He was an alter boy at his family’s church, an accomplished hunter, and the youngest Eagle Scout on record (at the time) at only 12-years of age.
Unfortunately, all of Charles’ brilliance and accomplishments couldn’t shield him from the chaos that was transpiring in the home. The elder Mr. Whitman was a very strict disciplinarian who reportedly demanded perfection in his family members. He also physically abused the children and their mother often. Thus, while the family had a near perfect veneer, that’s all it was. The pressure to be perfect was something that young Charles knew from a very young age.
By the time Charles reached high school, he was looking to leave home as soon as possible. In 1959, shortly after graduation, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps…without telling his father. When he left on July 6th of that year (to serve in Guantanamo Bay), his father reacted poorly, calling government offices to try to get his son’s enlistment cancelled. It didn’t work. Charles spent 18 months in the corps, earning sharpshooter medals and commendations. When he was done with his assignment, he applied to the government scholarship fund with plans to become a commissioned officer.
Charles enrolled in school at Texas A&M University in 1961, but despite his enviable intellect, he didn’t perform terribly well in school, and the Marines considered cutting off his scholarship. The silver lining came when Charles met Kathleen Leissner. By 1962 the two were married, and Charles’ grades improved a bit. Sadly, the marks still weren’t high enough for the Corps, and a mere three semesters later, Charles’ college funding was discontinued.
This strained Charles’ view of himself, and he resented the fact that he had to quit his studies. Though he had advanced to the rank of Lance Corporal serving at Camp Lejeune, he began gambling in order to blow of steam. This resulted in several court-martials, and eventually a demotion to Private. By 1964, he was honorably discharged and looking to make a better life outside of the service.
Whitman also started a journal around the same time, titling it, “Daily Record of C. J. Whitman.” He wrote about his hatred of the Marines, and his love/admiration for his wife. He also returned to the University, determined to succeed in an architectural engineering program. All, however, was not well with Whitman’s new trajectory. While he reportedly enjoyed school, he also had to work a succession of jobs to make ends meet. He also admitted to friends that he’d hit his wife, Kathy, on several occasions. These incidents upset Whitman greatly, as he’d always been determined not to be like his father.
On top of the stress Whitman was experiencing in his own home, there was more turmoil brewing in the elder Whitman’s house in Florida. Charles’ mother had finally had enough of his father, and by 1966 she divorced him, moving herself to Austin to be nearer to two of her sons. During this time Whitman received multiple phone calls from his father, attempting to get his mother back – and trying to use Charles as the intermediary. At the same time, Whitman’s mother was close with him and Kathy, and was often at their home. The strain this caused to Whitman was immense, and he began abusing amphetamines to cope. He also began experiencing excruciating headaches on a regular basis.
Just after midnight on August 1st, 1966, Charles traveled to his mother’s apartment and murdered her by stabbing her once through the heart. He then placed her on her bed and covered her with sheets. Whitman then came home to his sleeping wife, and stabbed her three times in the heart as she slept. At 11:35am of the same day, Whitman arrived at the University’s campus and climbed to the 28th floor of the UT Tower. He then opened fire across the crowded campus. In the time he was atop the tower, Whitman killed 14, and wounded 31.
Police shot and killed Whitman after a 96 minute spree.
It is tempting to label Charles Whitman a garden variety Family Annihilator, given the fact that he was failing at handling the stresses of his life, and he took it out on those closest to him. It is also tempting to label him a typical Mass Murderer for similar reasons.
However, there was one tiny glitch in the portrait of Whitman: he had a brain tumor.
On top of it, Whitman seemed to know that something was wrong. He visited no fewer than five doctors in the year leading up to the murders in an attempt to figure out what was ailing him – including his headaches, and his “overwhelming violent impulses.” Though he saw medical doctors and psychiatrists, and garnered many prescriptions, all of them failed to hypothesize that Whitman may have a brain abnormality such as a tumor.
But Whitman was insistent.
He left a suicide note and other writings that indicated his fervent wish to have an autopsy performed after his death in order to find out what was wrong. He also wrote, “I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job […] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts […] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.”
Since then, his autopsy has been studied and there is disagreement over what it shows. Though there was a pecan-sized tumor pressing on his brain, some experts fail to believe that it impacted his actions on the day of the murders.
But regardless of the expert opinions, there is one opinion that was spot-on: the opinion of Whitman himself.
The fact was that he knew something was horribly wrong and that his thoughts were increasingly irrational and difficult to control. He sought help multiple times and took medications faithfully. It seems as though he did everything in his power to understand and treat the pain and abnormal impulses that were plaguing him. But, in the end, he couldn’t resist them any longer, and it resulted in the deaths of many innocent people, and family members who loved him.