Waco Mayor Bob Sheehy knows all about what the Mount Carmel standoff and fire this spring meant to some people around the nation and the world. He has a stack of letters to prove it.
“They went all across the spectrum, from people who were very supportive of Waco . . . down to what I can say were the loonies,” Sheehy said. “Some of the things, you couldn’t believe.”
By this time next year, scholars and others interested in one of the watershed events in the city’s history might be able to see for themselves.
That’s when Waco-McLennan County Library officials hope their Cult Research Collection will be ready for those wanting to know more about Vernon Howell and the Branch Davidians.
Eventually, the collection could include letters, books, tape recordings, newspaper and magazine clippings, T-shirts and other items that each tell a small bit of what happened for 51 days this spring on the prairie outside Waco, said library services administrator Mimi Davis.
Davis said she is looking forward to the chance to build an archive from scratch.
“When you do what is called a special collection, which is what this is, it is rare that from the outset, you can put it in order.
“Usually, you inherit lots of letters, books, things, pieces and parts of stuff,” Davis said.
Davis, who has been in Waco since June 1, said she hasn’t had a chance to review the material collected so far. Many of the items, she said, will never make it into the library’s collection.
Scholars, however, don’t have to wait a year to start their research.
At Baylor University, the Texas Collection for several years has included materials telling the history of the Davidians, including a 600-page transcript of interviews done with George Saether, an early member of the sect.
“People didn’t pay that much attention to him, but he was always around,” said Kent Keeth, director of the Texas Collection.
Keeth said the Saether oral history and other items provide insight into the religious roots of the group led by Howell, also known as David Koresh.
Before the siege, researchers asked to look at the collection three or four times a year, but “I guess it has taken on a new life with what has happened with Koresh,” Keeth said.
More recently, copies of the Saether transcript have been traded for copies of photographs and other documents held by groups of Davidians in New York and North Carolina, Keeth said.
Other items headed for the collection, he said, will include research materials gathered by Bob Darden, the co-author of a book about the Branch Davidians, and records of federal government probes of the cult.
The Texas Collection also includes reams of newspaper and magazine clippings, including supermarket tabloids and a Vogue magazine interview with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, in which she discusses her decision to OK a plan to inject tear gas into the Mount Carmel compound on April 19.
Keeth said the Texas Collection will stick to gathering items that help tell the history of what happened, and that he thinks the Baylor archives can co-exist with the collection being put together by the city.
Better with age
Archival collections on Mount Carmel, Keeth said, will be the most useful decades from now when it is history and not a current event.
“People have had enough of it,” he said. “Unless something happens somewhere else . . . I don’t see a whole lot of use.”
The library’s Cult Research Collection will likely include books and articles about cults, Davis said.
What will be unique about the collection, she said, is that it will give researchers a chance to see what a cult is really like.
“It’s highly dramatic local history but it has universal implications because cults are a universal phenomenon,” Davis said.
Who will use the Cult Research Collection?
“You never know,” Davis said. “The minute this broke loose, I was working in a library in another city and our requests for cult material increased dramatically.”
The collection, she said, could also include things not normally found in libraries such as T-shirts and other souvenir items. Davis said she hopes residents and others will share items of interest.
“It’s always going to be part of our history,” said Waco library reference librarian Michael Duncan, who is also working on the project. “School has started just for one day and it already is being assigned.”
During the siege, Duncan said, the library was a popular hangout for out-of-town reporters and federal agents looking for information about Waco and the Branch Davidians. He said he hopes they will be able to share their insights into what happened.
“I’m really interested in the personal recollections of people that were here from out-of-town for so long,” Duncan said.
For his part, Sheehy said he will not give researchers free rein over his letters.
“I probably would be very selective about what I turn over,” he said.
Davis said she, too, will be selective about what is included in the collection. She and other library officials declined to describe some of the odder items turned over to them so far.
“Along with all of that memorabilia, you get a lot of what people would consider strange things that people send in,” Davis said.
“You want to look at that with an open mind because even though it might seem really odd or silly or hokey or crazy to you, it’s somebody’s perception of what went on and how it affected them and they dealt with it so you examine everything that comes in, she said.