Cycles of Tragedy in “Wacky Waco”

Waco, Texas saw its troubles begin in the Late Pleistocene.  Approximately 65,000 years ago, floodwaters from the Bosque River trapped and drowned a nursery herd of nearly two dozen Columbian mammoths, an extinct species once common in North America. Recent studies show that across the next several millennia, more animals, including a camel, a saber-toothed cat, and other mammoths, were killed in natural “events” along the channel.


Remains of a female on display at the Waco Mammoth Site

As these ancient giant mammals faded away with the warming climate, the area’s human inhabitants inherited their own string of misfortunes. The principle village of the Native American Hueco tribe was located in present-day Waco.  As whites migrated into the area in the early nineteenth century, tensions threatened to displace the community. Conflicting tales of Cherokee raids, encroaching settlers, and smallpox epidemics cloud the historical record, but what is certain is that the natives were compelled to abandon Waco after 1830.

The Huecos were neither the first nor last Native Americans to experience a traumatizing displacement. Neither is the Waco Mammoth site the only archeological record we have of mass death. Countless towns and cities across the United States can claim examples of infamous events in their histories. The problem in Waco, however, is that is that many of its inhabitants – tested again and again by modern tragedies, each one seemingly worse than the last – have a uniquely fatalistic attitude towards their city.

In 1998, when the US ambassador to Sweden was travelling back to his home in Texas, an airport porter looked at his ticket and exclaimed, “Waco! Man, you ain’t paying to go there, are you?” The porter was echoing a sentiment that many Waco citizens have heard before. Over the previous century, the town had lived through horrific bouts of racial violence, a tornado ranked among the deadliest in US history, rampant urban decay, and its most high-profile event, the “Waco siege.”


The “Waco Horror:” onlookers stand by as Jesse Washington is burned to death

Each of these events were interpreted in their own time with themes of collective punishment and redemption. On May 15, 1916, hundreds of townspeople participated in the public lynching and burning of African-American teenager Jesse Washington, who was accused of raping and murdering the wife of his employer. Lurid photographs of the lynching were distributed to newspapers nationwide, helping turn public opinion against the barbaric practice. Over thirty years later, on May 11, 1953, a strong tornado destroyed downtown Waco, killing 114 people. The disaster shocked citizens, many of whom had believed an old Hueco legend that the area was forever protected from tornadoes.  Waco resident Mayne Bennett, after realizing he had survived an onslaught of falling bricks and shattered glass during the storm, turned to a friend and said, “Those Indians didn’t know what they were talking about, did they?” But some members of the African-American community believed they had an explanation: the tornado was sent as “divine retribution” for Jesse Washington’s murder.

Residents observe the aftermath of the tornado in downtown Waco

Residents observe the aftermath of the tornado in downtown Waco

Many businesses in downtown Waco never recovered from the damage wreaked by the tornado. In the 1960s, several of the city’s largest employers, including the James Connolly Air Force Base and General Tire and Rubber, shut down their facilities. An ill-fated urban renewal plan transformed Waco’s main thoroughfare into an inaccessible and little-used outdoor pedestrian mall. While surrounding cities such as Austin and Dallas thrived, Waco experienced economic regression.

Oddly enough, the event that some interpret as the catalyst for Waco’s eventual economic upturn began in blood. Between February 28 and April 19, 1993, the FBI attempted to siege a compound northeast of the city that belonged to a religious cult called the Branch Davidians, who had been suspected of weapons violations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. On the final day of the assault, a mysterious fire engulfed the compound, killing 76 people, including the group’s charismatic leader, David Koresh.

The siege became an international news phenomenon and solidified Waco’s notoriety in the eyes of the world. The verb “to be Wacoed” entered English vernacular, meaning “to be overwhelmed in massive numbers by officers of the federal government.”  And despite the fact that the incident did not occur in Waco proper, it was always linked in the media. “Those people were fifteen miles out of town! Waco had nothing to do with it!” exclaimed one exasperated resident when a reporter asked her about the siege.  Further bad publicity ensued when it was discovered that the Waco siege was the primary motivation of the anti-government terrorists behind the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995.

Sometimes, however, bad publicity worked in Waco’s favor.  In the mid-nineties, Waco’s population hit 200,000, the milestone that many large franchises use to begin building branch stores. “When businesses got around to growing again, Waco’s name identity had something to do with it,” according to city official Jack Stewart. Yet the perception of “Wacky Waco” was something the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau was forced to accommodate. “For a time, we didn’t want people to look at the Davidian situation,” Stewart remarked. Now, if visitors ask where to find the site of the tragedy, “we’ll give them a map.”

The complex housing the Branch Davidians goes up in flames

The complex housing the Branch Davidians goes up in flames

One recent event, however, has helped turn attention away from past troubles. On July 10, 2015, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Waco Mammoth Site as a National Monument. Caretakers of the area had been lobbying for years for a full partnership with the National Park Service. “So many of our citizens have worked long and hard to protect these bones and to have this NPS designation,” commented local civic leader Gloria Young. “It is something great for Waco, our area and our state.” Obama’s measure has even garnered widespread bipartisan support, receiving an official endorsement from the Bush family.  The good news also came at a desperately-needed time: only two months earlier, a shootout between rival motorcycle gangs at a shopping center in south Waco had resulted in nine deaths – a bout of violence eerily reminiscent of the 1993 siege.

It still remains to be seen what long-term benefits the National Monument designation will bring to the town, economically and psychologically. Waco shows us that historians are not the only ones who have to come to terms with patterns in history. Having experienced unusually frequent cycles of tragedy and recovery, ordinary residents learned to expect that further events would either redeem or compound their pain. Some, such as those who blamed Waco’s tornado on past sins, rationalized history with their faith. Others, like community leaders desperate to fix an ailing economy, recognized opportunity in misfortune. While the Waco Mammoth National Monument has brought pride to a city in need of it, it is unlikely that many residents will so easily let go of a past that has both anchored and tormented them for so long.

A national park service sign is put up at the Waco Mammoth Site after it becomes a national monument

A national park service sign is put up at the Waco Mammoth Site after it becomes a national monument


Benjamin Dorman, “Scholarly Reactions to the Aum and Waco Incidents,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, 153-177

Joe Holley, “Is Waco Wacko?” Texas Monthly, April 1998.

Lawrence Foster, Joel W. Martin, David Chidester and Nancy T. Ammerman, Forum: Interpreting Waco,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), 1-30

Manny Fernandez, Serge F. Kovaleski and Alan Blinder, “170 Bikers Charged in Waco, in a Rivalry Rooted in the 1960s,” New York Times, May 18, 2015

“President Obama’s designating Waco Mammoth National Monument encourages us all to reconnect with America’s magnificent and wondrous past,” Waco Tribune-Herald, July 14, 2015

Texas Department of Public Safety, “LOOKING BACK AT THE WACO TORNADO OF 1953 AND THE LESSONS LEARNED…” Texas Emergency Management Online, Vol. 60, No. 5, 2013

Texas State Historical Association, “Waco, TX,” The Handbook of Texas


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