Monday, September 6, 2010

The Ballad of Charles Whitman

On 1 August 1966, around 11:30 a.m., he entered the University of Texas Tower. Once in the elevator, he asked for help from an attendant, who informed him how to turn it on. "Thank you, ma'am," Whitman said. "You don't know how happy that makes me." (From

In 1966 singer, songwriter, satirist and future gubernatorial candidate Richard "Kinky" Friedman was a senior at The University of Texas At Austin.  On August 1st of that very same year, Charles Joseph Whitman entered the school's administration building.  He took elevator up to the 27th floor. He beat the receptionist, Edna Townsley (who later died), with the butt of his rifle.   He fired at Mark, Mary, Mike Gabour and Marguerite Lampou who were walking up the stairs, killing Margurerite and Mark and leaving Mike and Mary injured.   He went to the observation deck, loaded his gun, and started shooting at the people below.

Before Officer Houston McCoy fired a fatal shot, Whitman took the lives of 14 people and wounded 32 others.  The bodies of Whitman's mother and wife were discovered later.

Kinky would later sing about these events in "The Ballad of Charles Whitman" which can be found on his 1973 album "Sold American".

Unlike Bruce Springsteen's real life killer inspired "Nebraska", Kinky Friedman's "The Ballad of Charles Whitman" is no somber reflection on the nature of man and evil.  Told with a mixture of dark humor, and cold hard facts, it's a "biting examination of the culture that produced Whitman" (Fillpo, Chet. Nashville Skyline: The Subject Was Murder).

Naturally this song, upset a lot of people in Austin.
 The stark reality of the song affected audiences in Austin like nothing I've seen before or since. There were usually people in the audiences who had had friends or relatives shot in the Whitman massacre, and audience reactions often ranged from tears to screams to anger and fury and occasional attempts to attack Friedman. (Fillpo, Chet. Nashville Skyline: The Subject Was Murder)

While the song is hard to listen to, Kinky Friedman isn't lampooning the murders, he's lampooning the society that cause people like Charles Whitman to happen.   Society, and the Eagle Scouts:

I believe there is something in the mind-set of the Eagle Scout that provides an excellent breeding ground for the future mass murderers of America. Maybe it’s that, while the rest of us are desperately trying to extricate ourselves from a turbulent and troubling adolescence, the Eagle Scout is assiduously applying himself to the narrow, maddening craft of knot tying. It’s my theory that in a universe of Eagle Scouts, you’d find an extremely high proportion of psychopaths. (Friedman, Kinky. "Psycho Paths", Texas Monthly. July 2002

In "The Ballad of Charles Whitman" the things America celebrates are the things that also turn Americans into killers.

Other Links:

"The Madman In the Tower". TIme, August 12th, 1966.

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