Cult Tragedies

by | October 8, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back, as he opens in No Qualms (Ed., published on 2018, July 18, i.e., when he was 86), “I’m quite aware that my turn is approaching. The realization hovers in my mind like a frequent companion. My first wife died ten years ago. Dozens, hundreds, of my longtime friends and colleagues likewise came to the end of their journeys. They number so many that I keep a “Gone” list in my computer to help me remember them all. Before long, it will be my turn to join the list.”

[Ed., Thank you, Jim, truly.]

This is the eighth segment of a nine-part series on religious horrors, cruelties, atrocities and tragedies of all types.

Cults are the ugly stepchildren of religion, usually one-man churches run by lone gurus. And they often produce horrors. Here are some:


The most sensational cult catastrophe was the horrific 1978 mass suicide of 900 gullible believers at Jonestown, Guyana.

Paranoid preacher Jim Jones had built a throng of obedient followers in California, where he tricked, exploited and abused adherents. After news reporters probed his operation, he peevishly moved his flock to a jungle compound at the northern edge of South America.

Rep. Leo Ryan of California heard reports that some followers were held against their will, so he flew with aides and reporters to the locale. Some cultists attempted to leave with Ryan, which sent Jones into a slaughter spree. He sent killers to a landing strip, where they murdered Ryan and four others, and wounded eleven.

Then Jones led more than 900 cultists in a mass suicide with cyanide-laced fruit drink. Believers squirted the poison into their children’s mouths before swallowing it themselves. They left a terrible spread of corpses.

Afterward, investigators found about $12 million of Jones loot hidden in banks. Two ex-followers, who had exposed Jones, mysteriously were assassinated a year after the tragedy. One of Ryan’s aides, Jackie Speier, survived five gunshot wounds and today is a member of Congress.


Another stunning cult disaster involved the Branch Davidians, adventists who lived in a Texas compound, eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus. Their group was taken over by a young weirdo who called himself David Koresh and took all females as his bedmates.

Koresh bought machine guns and other weaponry for a looming Battle of Armageddon. When federal agents attempted to seize the illegal guns in 1993, cultists opened fire and a gunbattle killed four agents and six Branch Davidians.

The FBI conducted a 51-day siege, but cultists wouldn’t surrender. When the FBI finally launched a tear-gas assault, the compound 13 miles from Waco burst into flames and about seventy more died, including Koresh.


Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) was a strange Japanese cult mixing Buddhism, the Book of Revelation, Yoga and prophecies of Nostradamus. Founder Shoko Asahara was so beloved by followers that they paid $8,000 to sip his blood and lesser sums to drink his bathwater or kiss his big toe.

The group turned murderous, killing dissidents and the family of a lawyer investigating the cult. Cultists secretly made nerve gas. In 1994, they spread a cloud in the city of Matsumoto, killing eight and sickening 500. At the time, nobody knew the source of the massacre.

The following year, they planted nerve gas in Tokyo’s subway, killing 13 commuters and sickening at least 1,000 more. Founder Asahara and a dozen leaders were arrested. They finally were executed in 2018.


A Bible prophecy believer, Marshall Applewhite, who spent time in a mental hospital, began preaching that he was related to Jesus and would lead believers to an “evolutionary kingdom level above human.” He acquired at least 100 followers. The group used various names, finally settling on the “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”

They met in a $7,000-per-month San Diego mansion, where the leader said they must “shed their containers” (commit suicide) so they could be transported to a UFO following the newly discovered Hale-Bopp comet.

In 1997, Applewhite and 38 believers were found dead in bunks at the mansion – all wearing black sweatsuits and white sneakers, with armbands labeled “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They had taken phenobarbital and tied plastic bags over their heads. Each had a five-dollar bill and three quarters in pockets.

Astronomers didn’t find a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet.


In the 1980s, some Uganda Catholics said they saw visions of the Virgin Mary and launched a group called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

They preached that doomsday was coming soon, and drew about 5,000 followers. Finally, they declared that the world would end as the millennium changed, at midnight Dec. 31, 1999. Many members sold their belongings cheap and donated to the sect.

When nothing happened on Jan. 1, 2000, mutiny arose in the ranks. Some members demanded their money back. Leaders set a new doomsday date, March 17, and invited members to giant farewell party. After the throng gathered in a building at Kanunga, windows and doors were nailed shut and an explosion and fire killed everyone inside.Later, police found hundreds of member bodies poisoned and murdered at other sect properties. The final death count was 924.

At first, the tragedy was considered a mass suicide – but police decided that sect leaders had murdered the entire flock to silence protests over the failure of the doomsday prediction. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called it a “mass murder by these priests for monetary gain.” Warrants were issued for some leaders, but they weren’t found.


A secret society called the Solar Temple grew in Switzerland, France, Canada, Spain, Australia and elsewhere. Members wore ceremonial robes and revered a sword which a leader said was given to him 1,000 years ago in a previous life. The Second Coming of Christ was expected.

In 1994, members stabbed a baby to death with a wooden stake, claiming it was the Antichrist. Soon afterward, more than 50 committed mass suicide with poison and bullets in the head. Bodies were found in an underground Swiss chapel lined with mirrors – all arranged in a circle, feet together, heads outward.

In 1995, another 16 bodies were found in star formation in France, including one of a former Olympic woman skier. In 1997, five more suicides occurred in Quebec. A temple leader was tried, but acquitted.


A Florida preacher called himself Yahweh ben Yahweh, a son of God, and claimed that God and all prophets were black. He drew a large following of blacks.

But Yahweh secretly ordered his lieutenants to murder dissidents and others – and to bring back their ears as proof of success. Altogether, 14 were killed. Some were beheaded. Also, Molotov cocktails were thrown into homes at night.

Yahweh and more than a dozen aides went to prison. Yahweh died in 2007.


In my state of West Virginia, an ornate “palace of gold” was built near Moundsville by the son of a Southern Baptist preacher who switched to Hare Krishna and called himself Swami Bhaktipada. He drew 600 members, making it America’s largest Hare Krishna community. Thousands of tourists visited the palace and its rose garden.

But two followers who had challenged Bhaktipada were murdered. A Krishna was convicted, testifying that the Swami ordered the killings. Bhaktipada himself was sentenced to 20 years for racketeering. After release, he died in 2011 in India.


The Church of Latter-Day Saints abandoned polygamy in 1890, but various polygamists continued in half-hidden communes. One was Ervil LeBaron, head of the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God.

Ervil ordered the murder of his brother, Joel, leader of a rival commune. Ervil was convicted, but the case was reversed on a technicality. Then he ordered the murder of another brother, Verlan, but a raid by Ervil’s agents killed only two of Verlan’s followers.

Ervil ordered some of his 13 wives (with whom he fathered more than 50 children) to kill a different rival, Rulon Allred. And he ordered them to kill rival Dean Vest, plus a wife of his own father-in-law. He was suspected of killing his own 17-year-old daughter Rebecca.

Ervil was sentenced to life in prison. In a cell, he wrote a 400-page holy book including a “hit list” of polygamists to be murdered. The book was smuggled to aides, and a bloodbath began. About 25 more Mormons were killed – three of them simultaneously, at 4 p.m. on June 27, 1988 – and various aides were convicted.

Murders continued for years after Ervil’s death in prison in 1981.


Followers of an Eastern mystic called Bhagwan Rajneesh committed the worst bioterror attack in American history.

They lived in an Oregon commune where they imported foreigners through fake marriages. They decided to control local politics by electing Rajneesh followers to county offices. But they feared that Oregonians in a nearby city, The Dalles, would defeat the commune candidates – so they poisoned the town in 1984.

The commune ordered Salmonella from a medical lab and cultured it – then members sprinkled it in salad bars at ten restaurants. Quickly, 750 townspeople became painfully ill, and 45 were hospitalized, but none died.

Prosecutors sent two women leaders of the commune to prison. Rajneesh himself was convicted of violating immigration laws, was fined $400,000 and deported. Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer said:

“The Rajneeshees committed the most significant crimes of their kind in the history of the United States…the largest single incident of fraudulent marriages, the most massive scheme of wiretapping and bugging, and the largest mass poisoning.”

Many smaller tragedies have occurred. Why on Earth do some people swallow crackpot beliefs so intensely that they commit crimes and lose their money or their lives? It’s baffling.

(Next – Today’s Horrors and Conclusion)

Link here at Daylight Atheism.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

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