Although the outrage and sorrow over Virginia Tech feels brand-new, this current tragedy isn't the first time some mentally-disturbed student grabbed a gun and started a shooting rampage on a college campus. That distinction goes back to 1966 and University of Texas at Austin architecture student Charles Whitman.
Seung-hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech last Monday killed 32 teachers and students and wounded more than two dozen others. Based on what we now know, it was long premeditated. Planning also went into the act of rage on that hot August day when Whitman went to three different stores to buy his guns and ammo, then went back to the University of Texas campus where he ascended to the observation deck of the limestone tower that soars 307 feet above the grounds. Here is how Time magazine described it in their August 12, 1966 issue in a cover article, "Madman in the Tower."
"Methodically, he began shooting everyone in sight. Ranging around the tower's walk at will, he sent his bullets burning and rasping through the flesh and bone of those on the campus below, then of those who walked or stood or rode as far as three blocks away. Somewhat like the travelers in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, who were drawn by an inexorable fate to their crucial place in time and space, his victims fell as they went about their various tasks and pleasures. By lingering perhaps a moment too long in a classroom or leaving a moment too soon for lunch, they had unwittingly placed themselves within Whitman's lethal reach. Before he was himself perforated by police bullets, Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 31—a staggering total of 44 casualties. As a prelude to his senseless rampage, it was later discovered, he had also slain his wife and mother, bringing the total dead to 15."
Much has been made about the how the system failed to find and deal with Cho before he boiled over. Whitman also had been in the psychiatric system.
"His parents' separation troubled Charlie deeply, and last March 29, he finally went to Dr. Maurice Heatly, the University of Texas' staff psychiatrist. In a two-hour interview, he told Heatly that, like his father, he had beaten his wife a few times. He was making "intense efforts" to control his temper, he said, but he was worried that he might explode. In notes jotted down at the time, Heatly described Whitman as a "massive, muscular youth" who "seemed to be oozing with hostility." Heatly took down only one direct quote of Whitman's—that he was "thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people." That did not particularly upset Heatly; it was, he said, "a common experience for students who came to the clinic to think of the tower as the site for some desperate action."* Nonetheless, Heatly urged Whitman to return the next week to talk some more. Charlie Whitman never went back. Instead, some time in the next few months, he decided to act."
And act he did. The evening before his trip to the tower, Whitman sat at a battered portable in his modest brick cottage. Kathy, his wife of four years (they had no children), was at work. This is what his note said:
"I don't quite understand what is compelling me to type this note. I've been having fears and violent impulses. I've had some tremendous headaches. I am prepared to die. After my death, I wish an autopsy on me to be performed to see if there's any mental disorders. I intend to kill my wife after I pick her up from work. I don't want her to have to face the embarrassment that my actions will surely cause her...Life is not worth living."
After writing that note, he drove to his mother's house and stabbed Margaret Whitman in the chest and shot her in the back of the head, somehow also breaking several bones in her left hand with such force that the band of her diamond engagement ring was driven into her finger and the stone broken loose. This time he wrote a hand-printed note addressed to "To Whom It May Concern."
"I have just killed my mother. If there's a heaven, she is going there. If there is not a heaven, she is out of her pain and misery. I love my mother with all my heart."
Whitman gave less attention than Cho to his post-death PR campaign, though, and more to his actual violent siege in the tower. He stuffed the following Into a green duffel bag and a green foot locker: Spam, Planters peanuts, fruit cocktail, sandwiches and boxes of raisins, jerricans containing water and gasoline, rope, binoculars, canteens, transistor radio, toilet paper, and, in a bizarre allegiance to the cult of cleanliness, a plastic bottle of Mennen spray deodorant. He also stowed away a private armory that seemed sufficient to hold off an army: machete, Bowie knife, hatchet, a 6-mm. Remington bolt-action rifle with a 4-power Leupold telescopic sight (with which, experts say, a halfway decent shot can consistently hit a 6½-in. circle from 300 yds.), a 35-mm. Remington rifle, a 9-mm. Luger pistol, a Galesi-Brescia pistol and a .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver. At home, he left three more rifles, two derringers.
"Then, deciding that he needed even more firepower, he went to Sears, Roebuck and bought a 12-gauge shotgun on credit, sawed off both barrel and stock. He visited Davis Hardware to buy a .30-cal. carbine. And at Chuck's Gun Shop, he bought some 30-shot magazines for the new carbine. All told, he had perhaps 700 rounds."
Whitman opened fire at 11:48 am and had four minutes to pick off his targets before police were notified. Soon more than 100 officers would converge on the scene. But he had the higher ground and his shots continued to be deadly. In contrast, the officers were trying to hit a hidden target and their shots were ineffectual. A sharpshooter was put in a light plane but was driven off by the sniper's fire. Eventually, four men (three cops and a civilian) made their way by subterranean passage to the tower. None had ever fired a shot in the line of duty or combat. Here's how they took him down.
"The four rode to the 27th floor, headed single file up the last three flights, carefully removed a barricade of furniture that Whitman had set at the top of the stairs. While cops on the ground intensified their fire to divert Whitman's attention, Martinez slowly pushed away the dolly propped against the door leading to the walkway around the tower, crawled out onto its south side and began moving stealthily to the east. Crum followed through the door and turned toward the west. Hearing footsteps, Crum fired into the southwest corner to keep Whitman from bursting around the corner and shooting him. Martinez, meanwhile, rounded one corner, then, more slowly, turned onto the north side of the walkway.
Fifty feet away from him, in the northwest corner, crouched Whitman, his eyes riveted on the corner that Crum was about to turn. Martinez poured six pistol shots into Whitman's left side, arms and legs. McCoy moved up, blasted Whitman with a shotgun. Martinez, noting that the sniper's gun "was still flopping," grabbed the shotgun and, blasted Whitman again. As an autopsy showed, the shotgun pellets did it: one pierced Whitman's heart, another his brain. Crum grabbed a green towel from Whitman's foot locker, waved it above the railing to signal ceasefire. At 1:24 p.m., 96 murderous minutes after his first fusillade from the tower, Charlie Whitman was dead."
In the aftermath, an autopsy showed that Whitman had a pecan-size brain tumor, or astrocytoma, in the hypothalamus region. The pathologist, however, did not believe it could have been the cause of the headaches or the "psychic behavior." They also found a number of Dexedrine tablets in Whitman's possession—stimulants known as "goofballs" —but physicians were not able to detect signs that he had taken any before he died.
Here is a link to the entire Time article, "Madman in the Tower."