The cult is a phenomenon that sparks endless curiosity from those on the outside looking in. It’s not exactly surprising, as it’s fascinating for people to try to imagine just what combination of religion and brainwashing results in an abandoned farm full of shoeless people wailing and rolling around with snakes, or whatever their worship method of choice is. Unsurprisingly, the cult, through this fascination, has become a stalwart reference in media both fact and fiction. From an endless font of Netflix docuseries, to even the root of sitcoms like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, including a cult seems to be a good way to get people interested.

Perhaps there’s even renewed interest lately, as we seem to see more and more instances of cult-like behavior enabled by the modern internet allowing people with fringe beliefs to find and reassure one another. If Heaven’s Gate existed today, it would probably be a subforum on a bodybuilding website. Some of these groups, both online communities and traditional, robe-and-bad-haircut cults, end up becoming something much more dangerous and violent than perhaps originally planned or promised.

One of the greatest cult-related tragedies of modern times was the Waco massacre that resulted from a standoff between the ATF, FBI, and the Branch Davidians, led by an all-time psycho named David Koresh. Though the Branch Davidians, who existed before Koresh’s assumption of power, certainly weren’t normal, he was central in accelerating their demise, which would end with dozens, including children, dead. Leading people, to this very day, to wonder, “what the hell was that dude’s deal?” In an effort to answer that, here’s 5 facts about the late, not-so-great David Koresh.

He Believed He Was The Messiah

If you’re looking to be a cult leader, a great starting point is a deep belief that you are the reincarnation of whatever flavor of messiah you prefer. Whether it’s Jesus Christ, someone else, or even some homebrew messiah you cooked up on your own, claiming to be The One Who Is Prophesied will get you immediate clout. Now, this belief seems to be a dime a dozen amongst the seriously mentally ill, so much so that it’s become almost a punchline.

However, when you track down a group of people willing to truly consider that you’re right is when you make the ascension from screaming on a street corner to happily polygamous cult leader. Koresh had voiced the belief that he was sent by God from a young age, but it was when he found the Branch Davidians, a sect that had an imminent messiah figure already baked into their beliefs, that he truly went full bore, believing himself to be the Biblical “Lamb” and also to be a reincarnation of the biblical King David.

David Koresh Wasn’t His Real Name

The above believed relationship with King David was the impetus for him to change his name, as he wasn’t born David Koresh, but the decidedly less biblical Vernon Howell, a troubled child in Texas. Perhaps seeking to both cement his imagined holy heritage and remove himself from the sadness of the real Vernon Howell, He took on the name David Koresh in 1990.

The David here was obviously cribbed from the biblical king he claimed to be version 2.0 of, and the last name Koresh came from a version of the name Cyrus, another ancient king. Cyrus, also known as Cyrus the Great, which seems to be a pretty popular, if uninspired, nickname for kings in general, was the ruler of Persia from 539 B.C. to 530 B.C., and is credited with allowing the Jews to return to Israel.

He Claimed God Had Chosen Wives For Him

Coming along with the general belief that he was the Messiah was Koresh’s frequent belief and urging that God had decided certain things belonged to him. Koresh had a number of these “prophecies” from a young age, most of which sounded like the demands of a petulant child more than a classic, seas turn to blood, fire rains down from heaven religious vision.

One of the most popular of his prophecies was women that he would then inform had been chosen by God to become his wife. Bold pick-up line. “Hey baby, did it hurt? When you were cast down from heaven by God to become my wife?” This started before he ever met the Branch Davidians, including informing the pastor of his church that God had decreed he marry his daughter, which was received about as well as telling the pastor his daughter had a real tight keister.

It wasn’t great, either, that it seemed God wasn’t real big on the age of consent when choosing Koresh’s wives, with some of his wives reportedly being as young as 12 years old.

He’d Been Thrown Out Of Multiple Religious Groups

The Waco Compound

Even in the religious world that is much more friendly to saying some truly insane shit, Koresh was not popular in some of the groups he tried to insert himself in. Before going full cult, he was banned from a more traditional Christian congregation for the aforementioned divine demand to date the pastor’s daughter.

Koresh was not immediately welcome in the Branch Davidians where he’d end his life, either. Originally joining as a guitar player at services, his messianic claims, which quickly turned into somewhat of a power grab, royally pissed off the group’s current leader, a man named Benjamin Roden, who exiled Koresh from the community. Koresh and a splinter group would start another community nearby, sort of like the Branch-Branch Davidians, I guess. When a power vacuum opened with Benjamin’s death, Koresh was quick to return and shortly take the leadership he’d sought.

It became clear quickly why Roden had been right to distrust Koresh, as his prophecies quickly became alienating and violent, most notably preaching a self-fulfilling prophecy that the government would attempt to destroy the sect, for which reason they needed to start hoarding guns and ammunition for the coming war.

The Circumstances Of His Death Are Unclear

The fire that ended the standoff

The greater happenings of the Waco massacre are fairly clear. The ATF conducted a raid of the Waco, Texas compound known as Mount Carmel, probably because they don’t love when someone preaching holy war is building an arsenal, but also spurred by allegations of the physical and sexual abuse of children. Of course, when a group of people have been prepped for holy war, and then a bunch of people show up with guns, they believe it is simply, as God predicted, go time.

The initial raid resulted in a firefight that caused casualties on both sides. With the death of federal agents, the situation was handed over to the FBI, and so began a 51 day standoff, one that would end in tragedy. After 51 days, the FBI gave up on negotiations and stormed the compound by force. At some point during this, a fire began that consumed the compound, and with it, the lives of 76 members of all ages of the Branch Davidians. Koresh was found to be dead of a gunshot wound to the head, but it’s disputed whether the fatal wound occurred as part of the raid, was suicide, or, as some believe, was inflicted by his right-hand man, Steve Schneider, after losing faith and seeing Koresh as a violent charlatan.

The Waco Massacre continues to be a controversial subject in its handling, with questions remaining to this day on the handling of the negotiations, the scale of force used by the government, and even the origin of the fire that would cause so many deaths. At the center of the whole tragic trajectory, however, is David Koresh, née Vernon Howell.

Top Image: Public Domain/Public Domain

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