UT bell tower

Forty-seven years ago today, on August 1, 1966, a terrible event occurred in Austin, Texas that scarred the psyche of America. On that hot summer afternoon Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old ex-Marine who was studying engineering at the University of Texas, barricaded himself near the top of the 307-foot bell tower on the Austin UT campus, and began shooting people with a variety of weapons he had brought for the purpose. Earlier the same day Whitman had already murdered his mother and wife and left various written evidence behind, suggesting he was fully aware that he would not survive the rampage.

[Photo at top: Larry D. Moore, Creative Commons license].

The horror of the Whitman attack is almost impossible to overstate. From his perch at the top of the UT bell tower–and utilizing his skill as a military-trained sharpshooter (although he was a fair shot even before joining the Marines)–almost everyone who came out into the open in downtown Austin was a potential target. If you were in Austin that awful afternoon, you couldn’t really avoid being a target. Before police broke into the observation deck and shot Whitman, he killed 15 people–including a woman who was eight months pregnant–not including his wife and mother. The specter of random death from the sky blanketed the city of Austin, usually a peaceful place, and the sense of violation and horror was palpable to everyone who lived through this ordeal.

The 1960s were a violent time in America. Based upon per capita statistics, that decade was one of the most violent ones of the 20th century for Americans. Yet looking back on the Whitman massacre seems almost quaint today, after the almost inconceivable horror of gun-related massacres in recent years–such as Columbine in 1999 or the horrifying massacres of 2012, the Batman theater shooting in July and the heartbreaking Sandy  Hook tragedy in December. As cauterized as Americans are today from reports of mass-casualty violence, though, something about the 1966 Whitman event stands out uniquely in American history, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Charles Whitman himself was a sick monster. There is no other way to describe a person who could do something like this. After he was killed by police, an autopsy showed that he was suffering from a brain tumor; medical experts have since differed on whether or not it affected his behavior on August 1. Whitman left behind a journal and various other writings. They paint the picture of a young man who was deeply troubled and felt overwhelmed by his problems. Did it excuse his evil acts? Certainly not. In fact, Whitman’s writings merely add to the mystery of who could have done something like this, and what they were thinking.

whitman dead

[Charles Whitman, after he was shot dead on the UT tower observation deck. Photo courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Creative Commons license].

The Austin massacre resonates in history in interesting ways. The day it happened, August 1, was noteworthy for the UT community for being the 100th anniversary of a local campus bar called Scholz Beer Garden; I understand there are still bullet holes from Whitman’s rifle visible in the woodwork of the place. The observation deck of the UT bell tower has had a checkered history since 1966. After attracting a number of bizarre suicide jumpers in the 1970s, it was closed to the public until 1999, and only then has been available to see by special appointment. The Whitman massacre was mentioned in an episode of the AMC TV show Mad Men and, for complex reasons, became a contentious issue in the life history of alleged UFO abductee Whitley Strieber, who claims to have been present at the massacre.

Although this event happened 47 years ago, the tragedy of such terrible things continues to linger on. Regardless of how we evaluate the meaning of events such as this in our collective history, I do think it’s important to remember them.

The victims of the massacre were:

Margaret Whitman, Kathy Whitman, Edna Townsley, Marguerite Lamport, Mark Gabour, Claire Wilson, Thomas Eckman, Robert Boyer, Thomas Ashton, Karen Griffith, Thomas Karr, Billy Speed, Harry Walchuk, Paul Sonntag, Claudia Rutt, Roy Schmidt, David Gunby.