Charles Whitman: The Texas Bell Tower Sniper
"He was our initiation into a terrible time."
-Guadalupe Street merchant, Austin TX.
By now, Americans are virtually unshockable. When we hear of the latest workplace shooting, the latest school shooting, the latest loner who snapped and took others with him to his final rest, we are saddened, certainly, but not shocked. It has happened so often that we've long since lost count of the shooters and the victims, long since forgotten which towns bear the indelible marks of random violence. So it is difficult for us to understand the horror to which Americans were introduced by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966. Until Whitman undertook his shooting spree in Austin, Texas, public space felt safe and most citizens were utterly convinced they were comfortably removed from brutality and terror. After August 1, 1966, things would never be the same.
Whitman's story stands out for many reasons, not the least of which being that it features a co-star-the University of Texas Tower, from which he fired almost unimpeded for 96 minutes. The Tower afforded Whitman a nearly unassailable vantage point from which he could select and dispatch victims. It was as if it had been built for his purpose. In fact, in previous years Charlie had remarked offhandedly to various people that a sniper could do quite a bit of damage from the Tower.
The Tower is big-307 feet tall. It is a shorter building than the nearby State Capitol, but it stands taller as it is built on higher ground. It opened in 1937 and by 1966, it attracted roughly 20,000 visitors a year, most of whom wanted to take in the spectacular view of Austin from the 28th floor observation deck. The first death associated with the tower came during its construction; a worker slipped and fell twelve floors in 1935. There was another accidental death in 1950. There were also suicides in 1945, 1949 and 1961. Despite these tragedies the Tower stood as a beloved symbol of Texas pride and expansiveness, the figurative heart of the surrounding campus and city.