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A Sniper in the Tower
The Charles Whitman Murders
By Gary M. Lavergne
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2015 Gary M. Lavergne
All rights reserved.
Two Very Different Upbringings
During the post-World War II era, middle class workers populated the community of Lake Worth, Florida, a seaside community along the Atlantic Coast. Hard-working entrepreneurs penetrated markets, cultivated clients, and grew rich while economic Darwinism and American free enterprise eliminated the weak. Lake Worth's population doubled from 7,408 in 1940 to 15,315 in 1955. Charles Adolphus "C. A." Whitman flourished in such an environment. He became a successful plumbing contractor as well as an accomplished, affluent and admired businessman. It had not always been that way.
C. A. Whitman knew his mother, but he spent much of his childhood in the Bethesda Orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. He overcame a lack of formal education by sheer determination and by out-working his competitors. His ruddy, round face and neatly cut slicked-to-the-side hair complimented a stocky, solid body. His appearance suggested he had "paid his dues." Self-made and proud of it, he used his money to buy what he wanted, unapologetically. Some acquaintances, however, found his pride to be monumental egotism; he provided very well for his family—and never let them forget it.
Early in his journey to financial security, he met and married Margaret Hodges. Though she lacked the determination and drive of her husband, she contributed to C. A.'s business success by running the office and keeping the books. For twenty-five years after its founding in 1941, the Whitman plumbing business grew consistently. By 1963, the firm owned four cars and twenty-one trucks, employed twenty-eight full-time workers and recorded gross annual sales of $303,433 on a net worth of $289,463. C. A. Whitman's prominence in the Lake Worth community paralleled the growth of his business. Driven to achieve greater social respectability, he joined nearly every public organization in the Lake Worth area. In his quest for upward mobility, he moved his family eight times between 1941 and 1947. In 1941 and 1942 their moves were between Georgia and Florida. After a brief move to Belle Glade, Florida, the Whitmans firmly settled in Lake Worth. C. A. became an acknowledged civic leader, popular enough to be elected president of the local Chamber of Commerce and the PTA.
C. A. and Margaret Whitman became the parents of three sons: Charles Joseph, born in 1941; Patrick, born in 1945; and John, born in 1949. With his sons C. A. demanded strict discipline; he believed in and used corporal punishment. His marital relationship with Margaret was nearly as turbulent.
I did on many occasions beat my wife, but I loved her.... I did and do have an awful temper, but my wife was awful stubborn, and we had some clashes over the more than twenty-five years of our life together. I have to admit it, because of my temper, I knocked her around.
When discussing his relationships, C. A. Whitman had a propensity for mixing love and violence, often in the same sentence. He unashamedly pointed out that he used only paddles, his fists or a belt to discipline his sons, apparently believing that those restrictions were examples of his moderation.
With all three of my sons it was "yes, sir" and "no, sir." They minded me. The way I looked at it, I am not ashamed of any spankings. I don't think I spanked enough, if you want to know the truth about it. I think they should have been punished more than they were punished.
In spite of his iron discipline, C.A. Whitman believed his sons were "spoiled rotten," and some Lake Worth neighbors agreed. He provided well for the material wants of his entire family, even his mother; he bought the house next door to his home for her. Later, C. A. provided each of the family members with new cars, and all of the boys had motorcycles. In return, however, he expected much. One Lake Worth neighbor characterized the elder Whitman as both "overly permissive" and "overly strict."
Margaret Whitman also demanded strict discipline, although hers was a more gentle firmness. A devout Roman Catholic and a regular churchgoer, she insisted that her sons attend Mass with her. They attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, a rather small congregation that supported a grade school and Boy Scout Troop 119. One Lake Worth neighbor characterized Margaret as a "perfectly good mother." A Lake Worth police officer and family friend described her as one of the most gracious ladies he had ever known. Her eldest, Charlie, would become an altar boy, and win a five-dollar prize for "learning Latin the best." All of her children would attend Catholic parochial schools. She tried desperately to instill her deep religious devotion in her sons.
In June of 1947, the Whitman family moved into a comfortable home at 820 South L Street, eight blocks south of Lake Worth's business district. The neighborhood was distinctly middle class, and the Whitman home was one of the best in the area. Large awnings shielded the windows of the wood-framed house from Florida's radiant heat. The home's front yard had been expertly landscaped and dotted with tropical fruit trees. By the 1950s a swimming pool was installed in the backyard and an upstairs apartment rested above the large garage. By the 1960s the home was valued at $12,000–15,000. Every room was finely furnished. On almost every wall, along with the pictures, guns were displayed. C. A.'s admitted fanaticism for weapons provided his sons with the opportunity to become accustomed to instruments of hunting and aggression.
Charles Joseph Whitman was born to eighteen-year-old Margaret in the Lake Worth office of Dr. Grady Brantley on 24 June 1941 after a full-term pregnancy and normal delivery. The Whitmans brought Charlie home to 2214 Ponce de Leon Street in West Palm Beach. The eldest Whitman son was a healthy boy who had the usual childhood diseases, suffering no long-term effects from any of them. Neighbors described him as "high-spirited" and fun, and never one to make trouble. While many neighbors found C. A. Whitman to be disagreeable, they nearly universally characterized Charlie, along with his brothers, as "good, normal boys." At ages three and four Charlie attended private kindergartens. In September of 1947, Margaret enrolled him in Sacred Heart's Catholic grade school, founded only three years earlier and staffed by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Located next to the church, the barracks-like, two-story school resembled a small dorm or motel amid impeccably maintained and landscaped grounds.
Shortly before entering grade school, Charlie began to take piano lessons, and by age twelve he excelled. Reportedly, C. A. placed a belt on the piano to guarantee Charlie's faithful and determined practice. The elder Whitman later denied the story, asserting that Charlie loved to play. Frank McCarty, a boyhood friend, did observe that Charlie loved to play the piano. For a time Charlie used his musical training to play in a teenage band run by Robert Vrooman; C. A. objected and made him quit.
Even before Charlie began his musical training, he learned to handle guns. As soon as he could hold one, he did. One infamous photograph shows Charlie as a toddler holding two rifles—one a bolt action, the other a pump. In the photograph, taken at a beach with Charlie wearing a swimsuit that looks more like training pants, the rifles stand taller than Charlie. It must have struck other beachgoers as odd to witness a two-year-old playing in the sand with high-powered rifles. The Whitman boys received toy guns as gifts, followed shortly by real ones. C. A. boasted, "I'm a fanatic about guns. I raised my boys to know how to handle guns." In this, as in many other things, the elder Whitman insisted on excellence. He took pride in Charlie's prowess: "Charlie could plug a squirrel in the eye by the time he was sixteen." Given C. A.'s tutoring and the availability of so many firearms, Charlie was very proficient at a young age.
C. A. Whitman had ambitions and wanted a better, more comfortable and accomplished life for his children than he had experienced. He may also have suffered from a need to relive his youth through his eldest son. Their experiences in the Boy Scouts of America provide a good example of the father's pressure on his son to excel. At age eight, Charlie joined the Cub Scouts where he attained the rank of Bear Scout. Two years later, the Lake Worth area experienced a shortage of Cub Scout leaders and Charlie was forced to drop out. In 1952, he attempted to join the Boy Scouts at age ten-and-a-half, but the minimum age for enrollment was eleven. He attended the meetings anyway and joined on or near his eleventh birthday. By that time he was prepared to earn a multitude of badges in a short time. According to Charlie himself, he reached the exalted rank of Eagle Scout and received national recognition for being the youngest Eagle Scout in the world at age twelve years and three months. The scout master, Father Joseph Gileus LeDuc, a close family friend, remembered that Charlie became an Eagle Scout so quickly because of constant pressure from his father. Harold Doerr, a Lake Worth scouting official, said, "This was a fine young man, a real Eagle Scout all the way." On the path to the rank of Eagle, Charlie and another scout named Michael Crook attended the 8 February 1954 meeting of the Lake Worth City Commission. The boys were dressed in full regalia when the Mayor of Lake Worth, James A. Stafford, asked them why they were there. Charlie and Michael stood at attention as they identified themselves and their troop numbers and responded that they were interested in learning about the operations of city government. A reporter covering the city beat was so impressed that he wrote, "They made a fine appearance and reminded the public just why this nation is great." Unfortunately, the two young, eager citizens could only have walked away confused; at the meeting it was revealed that Lake Worth had a zoning appeals board, but no zoning board.
As a scout, Charlie earned twenty-one merit badges in fifteen months—an incredible accomplishment. He attended a National Boy Scout Jamboree in Santa Barbara, Florida, where he received the Ad Altare Dei Catholic Scout Award on 29 December 1953. As a scout leader, the elder Whitman should have been extremely proud.
Sister Marie Loretta, a teacher at Sacred Heart School, described young Charles Whitman as "purposeful," a student who "seeks additional work," is "very capable" and "intelligent." His cumulative guidance record listed only one "B" in the first grade, and throughout the elementary grades (grades one to four) he consistently made the honor roll. On 5 December 1947 he was administered an IQ test and measured a 138.9, clearly a gifted student. During the middle school years (grades five to eight) he scored in the top five percent of students nationwide on standardized reading, language arts, and arithmetic.
A preoccupation with making money started early for Charlie Whitman and remained constant throughout his life. He took responsibility for a very large, probably the largest, Lake Worth paper route for the Miami Herald. Customers noted that papers generally landed at or near doorsteps. During bad weather, the route became a Whitman family affair, and deliveries were made by automobile. Bob Everett, the Herald's Lake Worth circulation manager, remembered Charlie as being very dependable, but not one to take criticism very well. He tended to personalize customer complaints and once asked Everett why his notes "sound so mean." A high school friend claimed, "He was always ... busy working ... and usually had some sort of job." By October of 1955 he had saved enough money to purchase a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for use on his route.
On 1 September 1955, Charlie entered Saint Ann's High School. Founded in 1925 and located in West Palm Beach, the school was decidedly upscale. While not a campus leader or standout, he was modestly popular. At least one friend remembers that Charlie did not hang around with the most popular students and tried to draw attention to himself by exhibiting an eagerness to take dares: "They had a tower at Saint Ann's with some sort of a circus act. It was a real tower and someone bet him he wouldn't go up; we were in the tenth grade. He went all the way to the top." He had normal friendships with many of the other boys and dated several girls, but had no steady relationships. Frank McCarty, a friend, stated, "He was completely normal. Just one of the guys." Sister Estelle, Saint Ann's principal, remembered Charlie as better behaved, and an overall better student than most others. She also recalled that he was popular. There appeared to be nothing peculiar about Charlie Whitman. He pitched for the school baseball team and managed the football team. Ray Roy, a former classmate and later a football coach at Saint Ann's, recalled that Charlie enjoyed squirting players and bystanders with plastic bottles of water that were supposed to be reserved for thirsty players.
Charlie's freshman and sophomore years were noticeably more successful than his junior and senior years. His standardized test scores were high and consistent throughout high school, but his grades dropped as he neared graduation. His grade point averages for the ninth and tenth grades were 3.30 and 3.46 (on a 4.0 scale) respectively; for the eleventh and twelfth grade they were 2.60 and 2.50. He had a mixed attendance record; perfect attendance during his sophomore year, but a total of twenty-six absences during his junior year, largely due to sixteen consecutive absences in February, 1958, when he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot on his left testicle. He graduated in 1959 with a cumulative GPA of 3.30, ranking seventh in a class of seventy-two, still a notable accomplishment in a small private school consisting of students from educated and wealthy households. But clearly, had Charlie been diligent through his junior and senior years he could have done even better.
One evening, very near his eighteenth birthday, like many new high school graduates, Charlie went out with a number of friends and became very drunk. When he returned home, his father reportedly lost all control of his temper. In a conversation with Father LeDuc, Charlie alleged that the elder Whitman had administered a severe punishment and had thrown Charlie into the swimming pool, where he nearly drowned. In spite of his intoxication, Charlie remembered the incident with bitterness. Whatever happened, Charlie finally had enough. Although it was widely reported that he had been accepted as an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech, he never associated himself in any way with the university. Instead, in an attempt to rid himself of his father's financial control and dominance, he applied for enlistment in the United States Marines on 27 June 1959, only three days after his eighteenth birthday. His mother Margaret, who undoubtedly witnessed the swimming pool incident, was the only person he told. She did not stand in his way. Charlie caught a bus to Jacksonville, Florida, and officially entered the marines on 6 July 1959 at the age of eighteen years and two weeks.
Charlie Whitman had a very troubled childhood. While provided for in the material sense, he had little in the way of an emotional support system. In all significant pursuits, even as a very little boy, his father, himself the product of a broken and dysfunctional family (or arguably no family), sought relentlessly to instill a sense of excellence and near-perfection in his eldest. Charlie was never taught to handle failure; it simply was not an option. Few of his accomplishments were a consequence of intrinsic motivation. Success usually resulted from constant supervision, along with a desire to please, or avoid the wrath of, his overbearing father. His mother either did little to curb excessive expectations, or was powerless to do anything. For Charlie, mastery of one task simply meant that another awaited. Even after he had become a talented pianist, one of the youngest Eagle Scouts in the world, handled the largest paper route in Lake Worth, and could "plug the eye out of a squirrel" with a firearm, his father believed him to be spoiled and deserving of more punishment. Charlie escaped his father by joining the armed services. One problem remained, however—the United States Marines awaited the arrival of Charles Joseph Whitman.
What Thomas Jefferson wanted for all of America—an agrarian culture, economy, and spirit—could be found in the little town of Needville, Texas, located thirty-five miles south of Houston. An historical marker gives a nearly-complete history while providing keen insights into what items are important to its citizens: God, work, and school. Needville's founder, August Schendel, opened a general store in 1892 and followed up with a blacksmith shop and cotton gin. By 1894, Needville officially became a village with the opening of a post office. The first church service had been conducted in 1891 and a school was opened in 1897. The village would become a trade center for widely scattered farmers and ranchers and the economy soon centered on their pursuits. The boom of the petro-chemical industry of Texas engulfed Needville as well; its major sources of income changed during the 1920s, but agrarian values survived, evidenced by a Harvest Festival every third Saturday in October and an Annual Youth Fair and Rodeo in the spring.
Excerpted from A Sniper in the Tower by Gary M. Lavergne. Copyright © 2015 Gary M. Lavergne. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Weathered Metal Plaques,
1: Two Very Different Upbringings,
2: The Soldier and the Teacher,
3: Austin Is Different,
4: The Nice Facade,
5: Oozing with Hostility,
6: After Much Thought,
7: The Neat Little House and the Swank Apartment,
8: The Glass-Paneled Door,
9: Strange Noises,
12: The General,
13: Independent Actions,
14: The White Headband,
15: To Whom It May Concern,
17: Why Did He Do It?,
18: Who Killed Charles Whitman?,
Epilogue: The Writer from Austin,
Notes on Sources,