Things to do in Dallas when you're bailing your brother out of jail, Part II

Indulge in the prurience of the Sixth Floor Museum & Dallas's Worst Day Ever

This is Well, Actually, a “zippily substantive”1 newsletter devoted to history, culture, and internet rabbit holes. If you like it, consider subscribing or forwarding it to a friend. Or both. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.

(Here is Part I of my Dallas travelogue.)

I. Assassination Vacation

The Sixth Floor Museum, located on the … sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building, commemorates the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. I am here because I like weird museums; I am also here because I need a break from my brother’s very weird company. I am also here in honor of Richard N. Shine, my late father and a full-bore JFK conspiracy theorist who subscribed to the JFK newsletter The Third Decade—we might think of it as a proud Substack antecedent—and occasionally rendezvoused with other enthusiasts at a local Friendly’s. (I only know this because one time he couldn’t find a babysitter and had to take me with him.)  I don’t know whether he ever got to visit the museum, which opened on President’s Day in 1989, but it’s not impossible; it’s more likely that he went to one of the other assassination museums, since closed. (More on that later.) The personal is political, I guess????

I’m skeptical about this enterprise. A couple of years ago, the museum’s CEO told a reporter that “she also wants visitors to understand that the Sixth Floor isn’t stuck in 1963, when he was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.” (The occasion for this remark was the debut performance of a piece for string quartet commissioned by the museum in honor of its thirtieth year.) And when I read that sentence, I thought, “Oh-ho, I shall be the judge of that, ma’am.”

II. What is this place?

It’s not clear to me that it’s possible to create a classy assassination museum, but it’s also not clear that there was any way to avoid building one. City officials and citizens of Dallas were not eager to commemorate the assassination. This was in part because of overwhelming national hostility toward Dallas, subsequently dubbed “the City of Hate” in the tabloid press. As Mayor R.L. Thornton remarked in December 1963,

I've heard people talking about erecting a monument in their sadness. For my part, I don't want anything to remind me that a president was killed on the streets of Dallas. I want to forget.

They certainly tried to forget: a Mayoral committee emphatically wanted to memorialize Kennedy's life in a way that did not include reflection on, or acknowledgment of, the circumstances of his death, and the city donated land for a new memorial plaza nearby; this was where Philip Johnson’s memorial was later erected. No marker of any kind was laid in Dealey Plaza until 1966, and this only occurred after a local woman who had visited the site more than one hundred times undertook a vigorous grassroots campaign for it.

As for the book depository, their feelings didn’t much matter: the building was privately owned by Texas oilman D. Harold Byrd.2 The book distributor, also privately owned, remained in the warehouse until 1970, when Byrd finally sold the building at auction. A pre-sale brochure noted blandly,

Many excellent uses can be found for it. It was from window of this building, the Warren Commission reported, that shots were fired that killed President John F. Kennedy.

Nashville record producer Aubrey Mayhew bought it. (This story is eccentric characters all the way down, so, briefly: Mayhew owned Little Darlin’ Records. He produced Charlie Parker and worked with Clint Eastwood and co-wrote “Take This Job and Shove It”!!!!3)  Mayhew saw one excellent use for the building: a museum for his personal collection of Kennedy memorabilia, which eventually topped 300,000 items. Mayhew also had very poor management skills and lost the building in foreclosure three years later. D. Harold Byrd bought it back; in 1977, the County bought the building and renovated the first five floors for County offices. They planned to just leave the sixth and seventh floors empty. 

So, 1977: there’s a plaque in Dealey Plaza, and someone painted an X in the middle of Elm Street to mark the spot where the President was shot (people would run into the street and stand on the X for photos?) and Byrd took down the giant Hertz billboard that sat atop the Book Depository when he reacquired the building. Otherwise, things look the same. Everything looks the same. 

III. Ghosts of museums past

But again, people wanted to remember, and they found ways to do it anyway. Dealey Plaza remained, stubbornly, a site of tourism or pilgrimage or both. A decade after the assassination, a Dallas travel guide in The New York Times reported that you could find people wandering around the site and environs at all hours of the day. People were attached to the building, too, and had been almost immediately: the Book Depository "already has become a shrine," a reporter observed on November 26, 1963. "People will journey to it in years to come and stand and stare."4

The Sixth Floor Museum is but one in a succession of assassination museums. Against the wishes of the better classes of Dallasites there have been several unsanctioned collections since Kennedy’s death. One of the most significant—though not the first5—was the JFK Museum, which operated from 1970-1982 out of a storefront one block away from the Book Depository.6 Its highlight was a 22-minute multimedia slide show about the assassination called “The Incredible Hours.”

Visitor comments from the inside of the brochure: “a vivid record for posterity”; “I have a much better idea of exactly what happened and where”; “authentic”; “thank you for this excellent memorial.”

“Multimedia slideshow” does not really begin to explain it, honestly. What was “The Incredible Hours”©? (Yes, it was copyrighted.) Viewers looked down on two enormous electric scale models, where the events of November 22 played out, the motorcade’s path of travel illuminated by a spotlight, while screens nearby displayed 140 slides, real news audio played on the speakers, and a narrator spoke in dulcet tones. This is some Surround Sound shit, and I doff my cap to the humble local entrepreneurs who built it. There was also an extensive gift shop. ("’All museums have gift shops,” the woman at the counter told an Associated Press reporter in the early 1970s. “Don't be unfair.”)

But there was still a sense that something should be done with the building itself, and as downtown developers threatened encroachment (they forced the Sissoms’ museum to close), the city began to take the prospect seriously.

In 1979, the Dallas County Historical Commission accepted a recommendation from the NEH to turn the sixth floor into a museum,7 but the process of building it took a decade. Lining up support from the city’s important figures, including luxury retail magnate Stanley Marcus and a member of the Dealey family; recovering from multiple arson attempts at the building; raising nearly six million dollars in private and government funding through a period of recession; and battling with downtown developers over parking garages and proposed transit projects all took time. The museum finally opened on President’s Day, 1989. Admission was $4.8 Today, something like a quarter-million people a year visit the Sixth Floor Museum, including me!

IV. Ambient noise

So. What’s it like? The Sixth Floor Museum is a noisy place. There are no floor-to-ceiling walls in the space, just partial dividers, and the design is poor: sound from various sections of the exhibit leaks everywhere. Several short documentary films are narrated, invariably, in rumbling bass tones and layered with archival audio and chattering typewriters and Super 8 cameras running and dark, pulsing, urgent scoring.9 In one spot, the ABC Radio bulletin announcing the assassination plays in a constant loop. Maybe 20 feet away, a kiosk plays a non-narrated film, also on a loop, that pieces together live audio and video from that day, including a press interview with Lee Harvey Oswald. Gunshots ring out and sirens wail from various corners all day long; the President is killed over and over and over again. 

V. Looking out The Window

A dramatic highlight, of course, is The Window. You can’t get very close to The Window—it’s behind Plexi-glass in a little tableau where they’ve restaged the sniper’s perch with replicas of the original boxes. You can see the plaza from Oswald’s perspective, just not while you’re at the museum: since 1999, the museum has maintained a webcam, positioned “inside one of the replica boxes in the sniper's perch window,” which are “arranged as they appeared when investigators first arrived on November 22, 1963.”10 Now, I’m not sure that any photos were taken after investigators had already been there several times, so it’s not clear that that is how they looked that day, but I digress.

Or … do I? I subsequently learned that The Window might not even be the actual literal window. (The explanation is … very involved, but) D. Harold Byrd had the window removed—or, at least, a window removed—in early 1964 and displayed it like a trophy in his home. His son donated it to the Sixth Floor Museum in 1994, where it was on display for a dozen years; he attempted to auction it off in 2007.

But wait: there's more. Aubrey Mayhew claimed that Byrd had removed the wrong window in 1964. Mayhew, in turn, had carpenters remove the southeast corner windows, which he thought to be the originals, to keep for himself, and replaced them with the windows from yet another corner of the building. In 1992, the former owner of the Book Depository filed this affidavit affirming this—Byrd took the wrong one; Mayhew took the right one.

So The Window is almost certainly not the window. I don’t know where it is now.

But I’m also not sure most visitors really care about that. The window casing there today has become the real thing by virtue of being all there is. 

VI. Elevating conspiracy theories

A significant part of the museum is given over to addressing the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, beginning with the doubts raised about the Warren Commission report. This makes sense, because, at this point, there’s no way to talk about the assassination without talking about the conspiracy theories; in one light, it’s all part of a single event with a horizon that stretches across decades. 

Questions and suspicion surrounded official accounts of the assassination almost from the very beginning. (I’m trying to stay out of the business of evaluating whether those suspicions were logical; if you’d like to know more about them, you will find … lots of sources.) Initially unknown to one another, the men and women who became known as the “first-generation critics” began collecting and analyzing anything remotely evidentiary right away. We’re talking about people of all backgrounds here (though, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively white people): an Oklahoma housewife hauled her four children to Dallas in February 1964 so she could track down and interview eyewitnesses. Bookkeepers and lawyers and philosophy graduate students and small business owners and epidemiologists deluged the official investigative committee with letters and dropped in on FBI field offices across the country.11 Since then, self-fashioned assassinologists, still a motley crew, have published millions of words about their theories and millions more about their internecine disagreements. (The big questions: Did or did not Oswald act alone? If he didn’t, who else was involved? How many bullets were fired from where at what moments, how many struck the President?)   

I was curious, then, about how the museum handles all of this. Do they say anything definitive? No. (Next to the shelves of assassination literature in the bookstore, a sign advertising a 50% off sale bears a Kennedy quotation: “Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors”—their emphasis.) Half of the museum is devoted to explaining each of the five formal investigations and presenting each theory more or less neutrally. Though the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on the Assassination both concluded that Oswald acted alone, the museum labels are written very carefully. One caption reads, “Oswald’s motive died with him in 1963. Most Americans believe he killed the President, or was involved in the assassination.” It’s not like they’re playing to a minority here. Most Americans have believed and continue to believe that there was some sort of conspiracy involved—as of 2013, according to the museum, 61%. The figure has been as high as 80%. So I don’t think they really had a choice here, but, given that difficulty, I’m not sure a museum was a great idea in the first place. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the museum’s not really about the assassination, but about everything that came after. Kennedy himself eventually recedes into the background. 

VII. Repetition compulsion

The museum made me think about how often this sequence of events has been re-staged since November 22, 1963. The Secret Service re-enacted the events of the day on November 27 and again on December 5. The FBI conducted a re-enactment over two days in May 1964 for the Warren Commission’s investigation. In 1978, another forensic re-enactment was staged at the behest of the U.S. House of Representatives Assassinations Committee (this one was focused largely on acoustics). Then there are literally dozens (hundreds?) of TV shows and feature films and documentaries and novels. The repetition compulsion is remarkable. 

Freud and his successors understood the repetition compulsion as an exercise in mastery: we manage grief and distress by reenacting the traumatic event. But Freud was struck by the fact that repetition seems to soothe, rather than inflame, distress. He asked, “How then does his repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with the pleasure principle?" Traumatic childhood events, Otto Feinchel subsequently wrote, "become sources of attraction," repeated in the hopes of mastering or resolving the experience. The implication here is that resolving the conflict relieves that compulsion. But what do we make of the fact that it seems to never end? I guess that’s what you call a fetish.

In 1975, two Bay Area art and design collectives, T.R. Uthco and the Ant Farm, went to Dallas to re-stage the Zapruder footage—not the event of the assassination, just the parts caught on film. All of this is documented in a film called The Eternal Frame

There’s more to it, but I was particularly interested in the interactions between the artists and the people milling around them, tourists who had come to Dealey Plaza and stopped to watch. Many photographed and filmed the spectacle themselves. It seemed to them to be no different than witnessing the original event.

“Oh, no,” one woman says, when the Kennedy figure, called The Artist-President in the film, is shot again, and cries. “I’m really glad we’re here,” she says. “I really am. We made it just in time to see this.  I feel bad and yet I feel good,” and she laughs. “Beautiful enactment. I wish I had a still camera … It was too beautiful.”

Another woman comments that Dealey Plaza doesn’t look the way she expected it to, it looks artificial, the man in drag is obviously not Jackie Kennedy. But after the re-enactment she says, “It looks so real now, the characters look so real.” What does that mean? It looks so real now.

After they’re done filming the re-enactment, The Artist-President and The Artist-Jackie, still in character, go across the street to the JFK Museum, home of The Incredible Hours, and sign some autographs for visitors; the manager asks them to leave. 

My favorite part of the film is this ad lib interview with a guy in character as a secret service agent. “Unfortunately, we fucked up on this one,” he says. “What do you mean?” he’s asked. “Well, he got killed.” Not for the first time, or the last.

The Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas, TX: ✰✰ 2 stars (out of 4)

Psst, if you sign up for an annual subscription today, I’ll send you one of the few remaining print copies of Trying to Make the Personal Political: Feminism and Consciousness-Raising, which I published with Mariame Kaba in 2017, as my thanks.

1

According to Margaret and Sophie of Two Bossy Dames!

2

DHB was the cousin of polar explorer Robert Byrd, who named a mountain range after him. DHB’s son Caruth was a television producer whose Hollywood neighbor was Gene Autry.

3

Mayhew also wrote that classic of the genre, “Don’t Monkey with Another Monkey’s Monkey.” He is the author of the 1966 book The world's tribute to John F. Kennedy in medallic art: medals, coins and tokens--an illustrated standard reference. (Another writer published a book about the “medallic portraits” that year, too. How far down does this thing go? I couldn’t tell you.)

4

The Plaza finally became a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

5

The story of the first one is completely fucking bananas and trying to explain it will take me and this newsletter down.

6

Mr. Sissom, who ran the museum with his wife Estelle, was also a professional magician!

7

Did, uh, anyone ask the Kennedys what they wanted? Yes! They did not like it! Edward Kennedy said that his family found it "disturbing,” though they did not interfere in the project.

8

Two months later, another museum opened up about three blocks away. Admission was $3.99. Stay petty!!!!

9

My understanding is that visitors typically wear headphones and listen to audio tours and they are maybe not doing that during the COVID times, but I can only tell you about the place I saw.

10

I think this is extremely fucked up!!!

11

Oswald’s mother Marguerite also claimed to be a researcher and had an expansive library of assassination literature when a writer for Crawdaddy visited her in 1977. She only agreed to speak to him if he promised to pay her. "This is free enterprise. It's profit-sharing," she said. Here’s a rather chipper photo of Mrs. Oswald standing in front of the Book Depository in 1964.

When Americans burned books

In postwar America, the comic books blamed for juvenile delinquency were sent up in flames

This is Well, Actually, a “zippily substantive”1 newsletter devoted to history, culture, and internet rabbit holes. If you like it, consider subscribing or forwarding it to a friend. Or both. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.

Today, a special from my archives, a story originally published on the Lapham’s Quarterly blog in 2014.

The Great Comic Book Conflagration

In October 1948, the students of Spencer Graded School in Roane County, West Virginia, gained national attention when thirteen-year-old David Mace led his classmates in “burial rites” for their comic books. Newspapers cast Mace, costumed in black slacks and a white shirt, as a grave and sober preacher figure. Mace solemnly reminded the school’s six hundred students that they were meeting “here today to take a step which we believe will benefit ourselves, our community and our country.” Comic books, he said, “are mentally, physically, and morally injurious to boys and girls, [and] we propose to burn those in our possession.”

The “cremation” represented the culmination of a month-long campaign in which Mace, an eighth grader recruited to the cause by his reading teacher, Mabel Riddel, who devoted one class each week to Bible study, had led more than 250 students in a door-to-door collection drive that netted two thousand comic books. The pile was six feet high, but it likely didn’t represent the entirety of the schoolchildren’s comics; one student recalled that he had “selected my oldest, most worn, least valuable comic books to bring,” leaving “all of them that were any good at home.”

Before he started the blaze with a Superman comic, Mace first led the assembled students in a dramatic call and response:

Do you, fellow students, believe that comic books have caused the downfall of many youthful readers?

We do.

Do you believe that you will benefit by refusing to indulge in comic book readings?

We do.

Then let us commit them to the fire.2

The fire lasted over an hour, the flames reaching more than twenty-five feet. While Mrs. Riddel stared into the flames, some of the children cried.

Comics and Comstockery

The invective against comic books followed a well-worn rhetorical pattern. In 1883, anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock called dime novels, introduced shortly before the Civil War, “boy and girl devil-traps [that] are ruining hundreds of youth.” A U.S. postal inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock was responsible for the 1873 law that made illegal the distribution of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material through the mail. Comstock forcefully argued that dime novels “stimulated ambition” in young readers to “imitate deeds of bloodshed and desperation” and were related to every case of violent juvenile crime. 

Such logic was fueled by the sensational trial of dime novel enthusiast Jesse Pomeroy a fifteen-year-old Bostonian who brutally murdered two small children in 1874. Observers claimed that the cheap Western novels he loved had inspired his crimes. Generally, though, such claims were largely a matter of tenuous correlation: dime novels were widely circulated, cheap, and readily available to teenagers like Pomeroy; teenagers sometimes committed heinous crimes; therefore a teenager like Pomeroy must have found inspiration in the novels.

Like dime novels, comics were also extraordinarily popular. The genre took off in the late 1930s, embraced by both children and adults; during World War II, comics made up a quarter of the reading material available at American military exchanges. By the end of the decade, between eight and ten million comics were sold each month, most of them priced at ten cents (about one dollar today). Their circulation was often far greater than sales figures indicated; one popular crime comic sold around one million copies a month, and each copy was passed around to “another six to ten readers.”

The 1948 conflagration at Spencer Graded School was one of fifteen comic-book burnings that took place in post-war communities throughout the United States, which are examined in great detail in David Hadju’s 2008 book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. They were part of a moral panic over comic books that occupied Americans through the mid-1950s. Comics were a convenient target for a range of anxieties prompted by the war and its aftermath, particularly an apparent juvenile delinquency crisis, fueled by unreliable crime statistics from both the FBI and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, and by rhetoric that emphasized moral and social erosion. J. Edgar Hoover himself was “shocked and alarmed.”

The arrests of teenage boys and girls all over the country are staggering. Some of the crimes youngsters are committing are almost unspeakable. Prostitution, murder, rape. These are ugly words. But it is an ugly situation. If we are to correct it, we must face it.

Mass media would increasingly be blamed for growing juvenile crime rates. But on the ground, its influence was negligible. In a pair of papers published in 1938, sociologist Paul Cressey had already demonstrated that “movies did not have any significant effect in producing delinquency,” and similar findings emerged for radio, television, and the comics. In 1950, a Senate subcommittee investigation into organized crime would find “no direct connection between the comic books dealing with crime and juvenile delinquency.” But the solution to the panic would be mustered not from scientific study or government oversight, but fueled by popular media itself.

Doctor Wertham told me to burn things3

The first reported comic-book burning took place in November of 1945 in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, a town of eleven thousand located about a hundred miles north of Madison. The children of Saints Peter and Paul School torched 1,567 comic books accumulated during a school-sponsored collection drive, all titles which a Catholic censor had classified as “condemned” (Batman, The Green Hornet, Wonder Woman) or “questionable” (Dick Tracy, Orphan Annie, L’il Abner). Two years later, students at Chicago’s St. Gall’s School burned three thousand comics after a collection drive organized at the impetus of a ten-year-old student.

These incidents at first received little national attention. The fervor for destroying comic books only caught fire when Frederic Wertham brought the issue to the fore in the spring of 1948. Wertham, the German-born director of psychiatry at Queens Hospital, had also founded the Lafargue Clinic, the first mental health clinic in Harlem. Basing his claims on his extensive study of the children and teenagers he treated there, Wertham debuted as an expert on the subject in Collier’s in March 1948 in an interview titled “Horror in the Nursery.” Two months later, his essay “The Comics—Very Funny!” appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature; a condensed version appeared in the widely read Reader's Digest in August. 

Wertham named many cases in which comic books had inspired violent juvenile crimes—though his argument was merely one of correlation. In Collier’s he named the case of seventeen-year-old Francis Muskavitch, sentenced to twenty-five years to life for the murder of a Bronx storekeeper, expressing astonishment that “judges and district attorneys nevertheless tolerate the invitation of and inspiration to armed robbery offered in millions of comic books.” But none of the reports on Muskavitch’s apprehension and conviction mention comics; a more likely influence was that he was intoxicated during the holdup.

A rash of widely circulated news items convinced many Americans that Wertham was right. In May, two fifth grade boys in Oklahoma City, claiming they “learned to fly by reading comic books,” absconded with a two-engine Cessna and safely completed a 150-mile flight. Days before the Spencer comic book burning, an AP story reported that sixteen-year-old Joseph Manuel committed eight armed robberies and murdered a forty-year-old man because the youth “read comic books and listened to gangster stories on the radio all the time when he was at home.”

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In May 1948, fourteen-year-old David Wigransky responded to Wertham’s piece in the Saturday Review with an eloquent letter to the editor. In late July, after contacting his high school principal to confirm that the letter was real, the magazine devoted a page and a half to the doctor’s lengthy essay. “I sincerely doubt,” the teenager wrote,

if the children and adolescents interviewed by Dr. Wertham would even bring up the subject of comic books at all if he did not first bring it up himself. Being a psychiatrist, he must be able to do an expert job of leading them on, mixing them up, getting them excited, and generally unnerving them. He stirs them up over the subject…just as he has the ability to do on any subject, and then records their nervously blurted-out remarks to use in his attacks on comic books.

While some readers wrote in to question the veracity of the letter, others were “delighted” that the young man reminded “some rather smug adults that they allow their own literature to be ‘vulgar…vicious…depraving…’”

The fourteen-year-old’s elegant reminder that “any who starts to raise his voice in protest to this generation [should] first compare it with any preceding one” fell on deaf ears, as did evidence that mass media was not responsible for juvenile crime. That fall Mrs. Riddel, David Mace and the students of Spencer Graded School in West Virginia would cleanse their comic book anxiety with fire.

Frederic Wertham doubles down

Public alarm bore little relationship to reality. After the panic of the 1950s, public concern over mass media fell to new lows after 1960, despite a significant jump in juvenile crime rates. Dr. Wertham would return as the star of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency’s 1954 hearings about comic books. He reiterated his old arguments in a new book, The Seduction of the Innocent, which went into a second printing later that year. Though the committee sheepishly conceded that there was no clear relationship between juvenile crime rates and comic book content, one senator told a television interviewer that he believed comics were “directly responsible for a substantial amount of juvenile delinquency and public crime.”

The 1954 Senate committee hearings would establish a Comics Code Authority, run by publishers themselves (much like the Motion Picture Production Code), which monitored the content in comic books according to a strict set of rules, beginning with the following:

1. Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
2. In every instance good shall triumph over evil, and the criminal shall be punished for his misdeeds.

Same old, same old

The moral panic over mass media is an old story we revive when we need to make sense of a seemingly brutal and unstable world, one that stubbornly resists reality. Six weeks after twenty-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, Senator Christopher Murphy laid the blame on video games. Speaking at a conference introducing legislation to ban assault weapons, he suggested that the massacre might not have happened if Lanza hadn't had “access to a weapon that he saw in video games that gave him a false sense of courage about what he could do that day.” There was, of course, no evidence that they played any role. These fearful narratives about mass media are as outlandish and fantastic as the cartoon goons, comic book villains, and video game monsters blamed for damaging “the children” in a very real war of good versus evil.

1

According to my friends Margaret and Sophie of Two Bossy Dames!

2

This last line is, imo, the creepiest!!

From the FBI mailbag: Waco, 1993

America's suggestions for handling the Waco standoff, as found in FBI FOIA files

This is Well, Actually, a “zippily substantive”1 newsletter devoted to history, culture, and internet rabbit holes. If you like it, consider subscribing or forwarding it to a friend. Or both. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.

The other day I ran across a cache of stuff I downloaded several years ago—FBI files of the hundreds of letters the public sent in during the FBI/ATF standoff at the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas, in 1993.2

How did I come across these? Glad you asked!

Let’s go all the way back to the year 2016 and I’ll introduce you to a man named The Faucet Guy(TM). I am terrified of my landlord, so when something breaks I panic and try to fix whatever it is myself, even if it is complicated. I was not prepared to replace the valves on my bathroom sink in the 3 days before I left town for Thanksgiving. On a cold, gray November Saturday, I therefore found myself at a plumbing store called The Faucet Guy, slightly manic with fear and wearing damp clothing. I actually went to the store three times that day, first to buy the thinger to replace the valve with, and then because I realized I needed a tool I did not have, and I threw myself on the mercy of The Faucet Guy, who let me leave my driver’s license with him and borrow whatever the tool was, and then I had to go back to return the wrench or whatever. 

I spent a lot of time with The Faucet Guy that day, is my point, and a lot of time reading the newspaper clippings taped to the counter. Included were a couple of obituaries for Mitch Miller, a legendary Columbia Records producer and bandleader and, for nearly twenty years, the best-selling recording artist in the United States. Sing Along with Mitch was also a television show. Anyway, by the time Miller died in 2010, the critical consensus was that his stylings were, uh, corny as fuck. Proof? A Sing Along with Mitch Miller record was among the albums the FBI played at full blast in an effort to flush David Koresh and his followers out of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in the spring of 1993.

Suddenly I had an ardent desire and desperate need to know everything about what I now thought of as the Waco playlist and I submitted a FOIA request for any records relating to music played at the compound during the siege. I got a few references, mostly news clippings— not anything I hadn’t seen. I only found a few references to the recordings; they included Nancy Sinatra’s "These Boots are Made for Walking," an Andy Williams album, a loop of the Reveille, Buddhist chanting.) But I also got an enormous file of hundreds of letters from the public sent to the FBI during the crisis. That’s where I discovered that a lot of people (a LOT) wrote to offer their suggestions for what the agency should do to end the standoff. Some of my favorite selections follow. They are a rich cultural text, proof of the extent to which this event captured the cultural imagination.

Song suggestions

A couple of writers did suggest some audio. This writer recommended “loud and wild gospel songs,” a “wild Banshee scream or the 1812 overture, followed by ‘Hard Rock’ music.”

Get rid of Bob

This one was fairly straightforward: get rid of the current head of the operation (sorry, Bob Hicks) and appoint someone with “the ‘balls’ to terminate that ‘comedy of errors!’”

Try confetti

Shower … the compound with confetti?

The confetti gambit was only one of the eleven suggestions this correspondent offered to the FBI. They also recommended setting up a “drive-in sized rear-projection movie screen” in front of the compound and showing movies of “what tanks and assault weapons can do to houses” in order to capture the imaginations of the children—but to simultaneously “tell them again and again by loud speaker that you will never do this.” Alternately, the FBI could screen “movies of happy children in kindergarten, school, eating together at a table,” or “happy couples dancing, banquets, kite flying, Halloween, and holiday scenes.” Or, they suggested, launch “a skyrocket display as a substitute for a shootout in their psychics [sic].”

Find the underground tunnels

I … yeah.

Beat the man at his own game

A few people recommended speaking to Koresh in the language of Christian symbols and beliefs that he and his followers spoke, by

  • citing Bible verses that would “prove to David Koresh that he is not Jesus Christ”

  • and/or dressing an agent up in a white robe and sending them to the compound to declare “Jesus has spoken to me. Please come out.”

  • and/or playing a Billy Graham speech over the loudspeaker, thereby giving cult members the words of “a very relegious [sic] man whom they can trust to speek [sic] words of truth.” 

Koresh didn’t ever claim to be Jesus, though, and anyway people with messianic fantasies usually can’t be talked out of them?

Use hypnosis

 Another writer suggested that because Koresh is a “hypnotist,” the FBI and the ATF should bring in another “qualified hypnotist” to deprogram him while somehow also remaining in control of the negotiation.

Call him “Vernon Howell”

I thought this one was funny: they should just refuse to call him “David Koresh.” (On reflection, though, I have wondered in the past couple of years why the media calls Robert Kelly by his stage name, R. Kelly, when reporting on his crimes and the subsequent criminal legal proceedings, so obviously I can see something like this working. Perhaps I should write to The Times.)

Take a page from my novel

This writer suggests shutting off the utilities to the compound, which is not that interesting by itself. He goes on to say, however, that he used such a scenario in a novel he wrote in order to “bring out a barricaded group that was making demands on the President, a descendant of slaves who had become President in the course of events.” (I can’t find any record of the novel.) He adds, generously, that they need not credit him—“just get those bums out of there.”

Knock the whole building down

The FBI eventually did try to compromise the compound by force, but this particular writer included these illustrations with the note “(excuse my bad drawing’s).”

Wow, no thank you

All of the correspondence was filed with the FBI’s responses. The formal reply was usually a diplomatically worded variation of this: “Your interest in sharing your views with us is appreciated.” Great use of the passive voice here.

Big Nana energy

This is my favorite item. After the disastrous siege ended the standoff, one lady sent this Hallmark card to “Mr. [William] Sessions & agents who were involved at the compound at Waco,” writing in the salutation above the printed message, a move that has big Nana energy, right?

Thanks, Grandma. I’m sure the FBI appreciated your support!

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Hi, I’m Jacqui! Thank you for subscribing to Well, Actually. You can read my other work here, find me on Twitter, or email wellactually@substack.com. If you like my weird shit, consider upgrading to a paid subscription!

1

According to my friends Margaret and Sophie of Two Bossy Dames!

2

Shortest précis I could manage about Waco: Texan George Roden founded the Branch Davidians, a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group, in 1955. There are some ups and downs over the next 25 years (failed prophecies of apocalypse can really set back a group dynamic). In 1981, a new member, Vernon Howell, challenges Roden’s son for leadership. Fils Roden forces Howell and his followers from the property. A lot of murdering and some arson and some armed confrontation and some unpaid taxes etc follow. By 1990, Howell—now David Koresh— controls the compound. He fathers 13 children with several women in the community (no idea if the “wives” consented—some may have been under 18 and therefore could not consent) and began stockpiling weapons for some sort of holy war.

Government officials claimed the compound was rife with child sex abuse, but this was never proven. In February 1993, the ATF attempted to raid the compound in search of the weapons cache; the deaths of 4 federal agents gave the FBI license to get involved. The 51-day standoff ended with an FBI-led siege, authorized by Attorney General Janet Reno, who claimed, later, that the Justice Department had had “specific evidence that babies were being beaten.” On April 19, ATF and FBI agents released tear gas, used a battering ram, and held on through a prolonged gun battle. A fire erupted (unclear who started it; government says it was the Davidians; government also used flammable tear gas) and magnified the casualties exponentially. All told, 79 people were killed (20, including Koresh, were shot or stabbed; the rest perished in the fire), about a quarter of whom were under 16. It was a horrible nightmare. More? Vox, TX Observer.

A Sulky Preteen Goes to Washington, D.C.

My 8th grade travel diary

Hi friends!

GREAT news, I found the scrapbook I had to make in eighth grade that documented our trip to Washington, D.C., and I have brought you some highlights to enjoy while I work on the rest of my Dallas travelogues. This diary makes me laugh because a) I was a hostile little shit head clearly doing the bare minimum at the last minute, and b) I ended up becoming a historian, and my burgeoning skepticism about the project of American exceptionalism is hilariously evident.

I hated the trip, probably because I didn’t have any friends, so it just meant, like, getting bullied with a change of scenery. Also, it was right around the first anniversary of my dad’s death, so I was probably, um, acting out. Sometimes you don’t realize that people are treating you with generosity while it’s happening!!!

Anyway, enjoy the following selections from my 1996 travelogue, and keep them in mind when planning your OWN trip to our nation’s capital!!!

The cover is adorned with a view of the Mall from the Washington Monument and … a photo of the IRS building. Inside the front cover, you’ll find the rating system key.

Here we go!

Site 1: Embassy Row

Rating: 3 stars

Zagat commentary: How can a place on foreign soil be part of another country? It makes no sense, but it is pretty cool … [Point taken. Nation-states are a figment of the social imagination.] Embassies are cool. They all bring their own country’s culture in, and you can see it in the building design … [I don’t think this is true?] I didn’t know where were SO MANY EMBASSIES!

Site 2: The White House

Rating: 1.5 stars

Zagat commentary: Doesn’t mean very much to me … You see the White House so often in the news that it’s become boring … has no real meaning to me as a sight in our nation’s capital.

[Jean Baudrillard: The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.]

Sight 3: The National Archives

Rating: 2.5 stars

Zagat commentary: So many people think that it [American history? the Constitution?] is totally inaccessible to the average citizen … If only they knew about the National Archives!

Sight 4: The U.S. Capitol Building

Rating: 2.5 stars

Zagat commentary: Saw where our futures as law-abiding citizens were really being formed … [Were we filming “Scared Straight: American Democracy”?????] I liked seeing the House of Representatives gallery. You see it so often on television; it was interesting to see it in person [Wait, I thought we were cynical about the hyperreal?]

Sight 6: Bureau of Printing & Engraving

Rating: 1 star

Zagat commentary: I didn’t like this sight very much. I don’t really like money very much [sksksksksksksk] and the technicalities of its production disinterested me … I did like … the alarms on the ceilings [always interested in the surveillance state] and learning about the replacement star bills [*].

Sight 7: Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House

Rating: 3.5 stars

Zagat commentary: … Always wondered what it looked like (the room where Lincoln died) … It was interesting to see where he drew his last breaths. [Seeing the place where a U.S. president died was “fun.” Sure, ok.]

Sight 8: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Rating: 3 stars

I am Jewish but attended a Catholic school, so I think I was probably preening about being on home turf, as it were.

Zagat commentary: .The children's tile wall told the story of the Holocaust with the innocence and deep contemplation only children could have. I loved it. I cried because I really felt that something was being done to combat hate in our world ... I didn't like [the Daniel's Story exhibit] much, though ... I've actually read the book, and this was nothing in comparison. [Like any good Jewish gal raised in the Reform movement, I was exceptionally well versed in middle-grade books about the Holocaust.]

Sight 11: The Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial

Rating: 4 stars

Zagat commentary: Absolutely lovely … Masterpieces in marble … Great homages to great men.

Sight 11b: The Korean and Vietnam War Memorials

Rating: 4 stars

Zagat commentary: Very pretty … Offered sorrowful thoughts and were beautifully designed memorials … Spoke without saying a word. They said, “War is terrible even for your own country. It stinks.” That is the real story. Not of bravery, but of fear. Excellent.

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Sight 12: Arlington National Cemetery

Rating: 4 stars

I won a class essay contest to participate in a wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is why this was my favorite part of the trip. I cheated. My mom wrote the essay. I wrote about it in 2014 for Pacific Standard.

Zagat commentary: A great way to honor those who died. Also,

Sight 13: Air and Space Museum

Rating: 1.5 stars

Zagat commentary: I was tired … and wanted to get on the bus and leave.

Final Thoughts:

Zagat commentary: Not going to be remembered as a great time. At least by me. [No fuckin’ shit, kid.]

Hi, I’m Jacqui! You can read my work here, find me on Twitter, or email wellactually@substack.com. If you’d like to see more of my weird shit, consider upgrading to a paid subscription; code 9e497643 will get you 20% off.

Relics from your past to consider when you're cleaning out your godforsaken storage unit in Berkeley, CA

Fastest way to regret every single one of your life choices

Greetings from Berkeley, where I’m cleaning out a storage unit I rented eleven years ago. I don’t recommend it! (I don’t recommend Berkeley; I don’t recommend renting a storage unit; I don’t recommend leaving that storage unit untouched for eleven years.)

HOWEVER.

I did find all of the little books and stories I wrote in elementary school, and I wanted to share one with you: my 1992 story “Him!” It is best described as—well, let’s let 1992 Jacqui tell you:

As you can see, the artist (me) has adorned the cover with (from top center, clockwise: a folder labeled RECOVERY ASYLUM—Confidential; a knife (sword? knife.); a folder labored RENO POLICE RECORD—Confidential1; a Wanted poster for one Mark Fisher, a devious-looking brunette with scraggly facial hair; a tape recorder; the front page of the Reno Times, headlined ATTEMPTED MURDER; and a shopping bag from the Gap.

Well! This is all quite mysterious, no??? Who is this Mark Fisher? Ahh, I see:

Let’s crack the cover on this “entierly fictional” semi-mystery, shall we?

A bold in media res opening scene: our main character, Aimee, is speaking with a mystery figure who is calling from a pay phone (either he said so, or there is some omniscient third person mixed in here). The mystery man would like to help her buy a birthday gift for her mother, a task she had apparently struggled with! “So he wasn’t like all the others, giving ‘helpful’ suggestions” without offering real help.

His manner was “brisque.” He suggested a rendezvous at the Burger King the following evening, then hung up. “Weird!” our heroine says. “I don’t think he ever knew my mom, like he said.” Is this foreshadowing???

“Tomorrow” actually meant “today,” apparently. One quick lie to her mother, and she’s off to the Burger King at the mall, where we find her … hiding in a plant. “I had, as I entered the mall, just then, considered the consequences,” she tells us, so she is scoping out the mysterious stranger.

SIXTEEN! Flirts with girls at Burger King! Though he seems to be a scrub, she doesn’t “waste a second,” but sidles out from behind the plant. Totally normal.

She interrupts his “flirting” to introduce herself, but “Mark’s face had a befuddled look on his face.”2 He doesn’t seem to know who she is. When he remembers, however, the look of befuddlement turns into a “sinister smile.” HMMMMMMM.

As soon as they get to her mom’s “favorite store” (the Gap, I guess), he kisses her! Like any good womyn living under patriarchy, she doesn’t protest. “Oh, well!” Perhaps she should have, however:

Mark has grabbed her and is holding a knife to her neck. “Stop kidding around!” she cries. Mark, we learn, is not kidding around, but wants to put her into “real danger.” I think this means that he wants to RAPE her!!!!!! Wait, no, I didn’t know anything about the concept of sexual assault or even the word “rape,” so this is probably an attempted murder.

Luckily, a good Samaritan intercedes, and the day is saved!

Aimee has accidentally married Mark!!!!!!! “I didn’t know who he really was, but I had my suspicions,” as “he talked to alot of detectives and cops.” There are no plants in the marital home, so she hides behind a door and eavesdrops.

“Mr. Fisher, have you ever shoplifted?”

“No, sir. I haven’t.”

“Been imprisoned? Killed anyone? Attempted murder?”3

“Yes, no, no.” I knew he was lying.

She knew he was lying. Did she know he’d done a stint in the bing bing? Also a question the narrative leaves unanswered. Satisfied, the detective leaves.

LUCKILY, she has the cold, hard evidence the detective had been seeking. She "had “taped Mark talking to someone about his murdering”! Mark, perhaps understandably, “wouldn’t answer any questions for me,” so she does “the next best thing”: call her mother-in-law. The dear woman tells the truth. Mark is “an escaped mental case” with “a filthy dirty record.” Aimee “obtained copies of all of this.” (This is very Line of Duty, right? Just collecting the evidence and putting it in carefully labeled folders.)

The next part is a bit confusing. There is enough evidence for a “case against Mark” but it’s Steve who’s being charged. Or Steve was charged? Who is Steve? Well, he’s Aimee’s client: “I was gladly a lawyer (my real profession) for Steve, my rescuer.” Ah! These charges stem from the Mall Incident. When was Steve charged? Why was Steve charged? Was it that he had tried to kill Mark, or was it just that a CRIME had been done and someone had to be held ACCOUNTABLE? (How could Aimee not have known that she had married her attacker?)

In a dramatic courtroom scene, Aimee confronts her husband. “When a baliff asked me which of the two did the dirty deeds, I undauntedly lifted a finger and pointed at Mark. ‘Him!’ I cried, loudly.”

Whew! Now for the denouement. “Now I’m married to Steve,” Aimee says. (Did she know who Steve was when she met him?) She’s also a private eye who knows self-defense. Now that she’s “pretty well off” and doing the work she loves with the man she loves beside her, Aimee has taken time to write this “editorial.” It’s a reminder:

That was a doozy, huh? I was, and I cannot stress this enough, nine years old when I wrote this. Where did I get all of this information from?? Maybe Unsolved Mysteries? Anyway, I got an A+: “Wow, what a story! A great lesson at the end too! Your illustrations are super! Very well done!”

I found a lot of other amazing and questionable material in the storage unit, which I’ll save for another occasion. In the meantime, please forward this email to a friend if you’d like, and if you want to upgrade to a paid subscription, go ahead and smash that button.

I left comments open if you would like to leave one. Please tell me about your own youthful literary efforts.

Love you, mean it!

1

I have never, ever been to Reno.

2

Editors are very important!!!!

3

Wow, that escalated quickly!

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