Cults demand that members cut off ties from the rest of the world, even from family members. But a few go even further and ask their members to kill–sometimes other people, sometimes themselves. Here are some of the most notorious.
1. The Peoples Temple at Jonestown
The name Jonestown will forever be associated with mass suicide. Jim Jones started his Peoples Temple in Indiana as a Christian fellowship. He was out to save the world. In 1974 he brought his small flock to land he had rented in the African nation of Guyana. It was called Jonestown and it was a success. In four years it had grown to nearly 1,000 people. But Jonestown was also attracting attention from the U.S. government. In 1978 Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown to investigate allegations of abuse. Ryan agreed to take some dissatisfied cult members home with him. At the airport, Jonestown security guards opened fired on the deserters. Among the dead was the Congressman.
The next day, Jones ordered all his followers to drink a cyanide-laced drink. It’s not clear how many knew it was poisoned, or how many were forced to drink it. More than 300 of the dead were minors and half of those were under 10. In all, More than 900 people died, including Jones. He didn’t poison himself, though. He died from a gunshot wound to the head. It was the largest mass death of American civilians until the attacks of 9/11.
2. Branch Davidians
The Branch Davidians split from the Seventh-day Adventist Church back in the 1930s. Then in 1981 a splinter group of this sect, hidden away on a ranch in Waco, Texas, fell under the sway of David Koresh. Koresh took the group far beyond Christian teaching, claiming he was the world’s final prophet and his child would be the Chosen One. He took multiple wives, some as young as 12, to begin creating a new lineage of world rulers.
Reports that the group was amassing weapons brought the attention of the federal government. In 1993 armed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Waco compound. One agent accidentally shot himself in the leg climbing a wall, which triggered a gunfight. Four agents were killed along with five Davidians. The FBI then took command and negotiated the release of 19 children inside the compound (but not their parents.) Then the siege settled into an armed standoff that lasted 51 days.
On April 19, 1993 the FBI decided they could not wait any longer. Based on reports from the 19 children freed, they claimed children inside were in danger. The final siege involved tear gas and heavy weaponry.
Then fire broke out inside the building. The FBI claims it was deliberately set by the Davidians, but some survivors dispute that. Seventy-six cult members died that day from fire, falling debris or gunshots. Many were children. Only nine people survived. The FBI says Koresh himself was shot by his right-hand-man.
3. The Manson Family
Charles Manson wanted to trigger a race war he called Helter Skelter. His vision was apparently inspired by the Beatles song. After the war, his followers would emerge from hiding in the desert and rebuild the world.
Manson gathered a collection of drifters and dropouts around him at a ranch in California and fed them large doses of LSD. They came to be called the Manson ‘Family.’ Manson dictated every aspect of their lives: when to take drugs; when to have sex, and with whom. Then he ordered them to kill.
On August 8, 1969 four members of the Family were sent to the home of Actress Sharon Tate and Director Roman Polanski. Polanski wasn’t home, but the pregnant Tate and four others were brutally murdered. The next night, Manson ordered a second slaying: Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. At both murder scenes, the killers scrawled messages in blood on the walls: “Death to Pigs,” and “Helter Skelter.” The crimes were supposed to trigger Manson’s apocalyptic race war.
Manson and four of his followers were sentenced to death. Those sentences were commuted to life in prison when California abolished the death penalty. Manson died in prison in 2017.
4. Aum Shinrikyo
The doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo still exists and has been formally declared a terrorist organization by four countries, including the U.S. In 1995, five cult members dropped plastic bags filled with deadly sarin liquid on five crowded trains in the Tokyo subway system. They punctured the bags with sharpened umbrella tips, releasing clouds of deadly gas. Thirteen people were killed and thousands more were made sick. Many were left blind or paralyzed.
Aum’s founder Shoko Asahara was convicted of being the mastermind of the subway attack and sentenced to death, though he is still awaiting execution. In its early days, Aum Shinrikyo attracted tens of thousands of followers with a message of peace, loosely based on principles of Buddhism. Many early followers were successful businessmen, academics and scientists.
That expertise helped Asahara when he decided to use his followers to precipitate the end of the world, and set up labs to produce poison. One of the Tokyo subway attackers was a medical doctor.
5. Heaven's Gate
Founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles believed that Planet Earth was about to be “recycled” and the only way to survive was to get off it. When the comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the skies in 1997 they thought they had found their ride. Behind the comet, Applewhite told his followers, was hiding an alien spaceship which was going to carry them to the “Next Level.” To get on board, they would have to leave their bodies behind. Nettles had died by this time, but Applewhite persuaded 38 of his followers to come with him.
They rented a mansion outside San Diego, got into bunk beds and took a mixture of phenobarbital, apple sauce and vodka. They put plastic bags over their heads, and covered their faces with blue cloth. All were found wearing identical, brand new Nike sneakers.
6. Ordre du Temple Solaire
The Order of the Solar Temple has a Medieval-sounding name, but it was founded in 1984. It held that the Knights Templar never disbanded with the end of the Crusades, but continued to hang around and meet in secret. In 1994 this shadowy group jumped into international headlines when some of its followers in Canada killed a three-month-old baby with a wooden stake. They believed the baby, born to a member of the Order, was the Antichrist. After that murder, dozens of members around the world were killed or committed suicide. The bodies were discovered wearing black robes and arranged in a circle, with their feet at the center. The victims, including children, had died from gunshots and smothering. Some had been drugged before they died.
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