These historical cases of cult leaders initiating mass suicide shocked the conscience of the world.
Throughout history, cases of mass suicide have shocked the conscience of the world. Who can forget the kamikaze pilots of Japan, who toasted with shots of sake before hurtling their aircrafts into American ships, or the terrified German citizens in Demmin who, fearing Stalin’s inevitable brutality, killed themselves in large numbers near the end World War II? And though rare cases of mass suicide have occurred during wartime, the majority of cases tend to surround radical religious cults led by paranoid and often charismatic egomaniacs who possess a genuine desire to control and manipulate others. Below are five such cases in world history.
1. Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
Originally founded as an apocalyptic sect of the Catholic Church, the Movement of the Ten Commandments of God was established in the 1980s by founders Mwerinde (a brewer of banana beer) and Kibweteere (a politician) after they reportedly experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. Based wholly on the Ten Commandments, the doctrine prohibited sex, and members often performed biweekly fasting. Members spoke very little, spending days in complete silence, communicating only by sign language. As the leaders gradually became more paranoid, they warned of an impending apocalypse. Followers (adults and children) were urged to repent as doomsday approached. On March 17, 2000, members reportedly assembled in the church and held a celebration, consuming three roasted bulls and excessive amounts of soft drinks. At some point, an explosion was reported, and a massive fire soon encompassed the church. Upon arriving at the scene, police officers found the presence of accelerants and noticed that all the windows and doors of the church had been sealed. While many of the members perished in the fire, investigators concluded that some had been poisoned and stabbed weeks earlier. Bodies were discovered in mass graves at the compound, and nearly 100 were found buried beneath a concrete floor in a leader’s home. The final death toll reached 924.
2. Order of the Solar Temple
Founded in Geneva in 1984 by Joseph Di Mambro (a homeopathic physician and New Age lecturer) and Luc Jouret, the Order of the Solar Temple based its doctrine on the revival of the Knights Templar (a military-religious order founded in the 12th century). Specifically, the teachings of the Solar Temple were based primarily on the belief that the world would face a catastrophic apocalyptic event during the mid-1990s. Headquartered in Zürich, Switzerland, with temples across the globe, the sect first received worldwide publicity in early October of 1994, when the bodies of 53 members were discovered at the Solar Temples in Canada and Switzerland. In Canada a Swiss couple who’d spoken out against Di Mambro was found murdered, along with their infant son Emmanuel Dutoit, who had been ritually sacrificed (wrapped in a black plastic bag and repeatedly stabbed with a wooden stake). In Switzerland 48 adults and children were found ritualistically murdered in a Swiss underground chapel adorned with items of Templar symbolism. The building had been set on fire, and many of the bodies were found dressed in black ceremonial robes, their heads covered by plastic bags. Others had been positioned in a star formation with their feet pointing to the center, some drugged and asphyxiated. Some had been shot in the head, others set on fire. Based on their findings, police concluded that all the departed died by either murder or suicide. In the end, the final death toll reached 74, including several children.
3. The Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists
On February 28, 1993, federal agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided a compound in Mount Carmel (near Waco, Texas). The 51-day standoff that followed between the officers and members of a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians would later come to be known as the Waco Siege. Originating from a Protestant sect founded during a schism with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, “The Branch” was led by a man named Vernon Howell (later renamed David Koresh), who convinced members of the group that he’d been authorized by God to prophesy and reproduce the House of David. The conflict began when federal agents received reports of sexual abuse and illegal weapons violations at the compound. After obtaining a warrant to search the premises, officers attempted to enter the compound but were met with gunfire. Over the next 50 days, the situation worsened. The siege ended dramatically when fires consumed the compound. An Interim Report to the Deputy Attorney General said: “During the morning of April 19, 1993, several Davidians spread accelerants throughout the main structure of the complex, and started fires in at least three locations. The evidence indicates that many of the Davidians did not want to escape the fire.” Among those who died were four federal agents and 82 Branch Davidians, including two dozen children and sect leader David Koresh.
4. Heaven’s Gate
Based on a smorgasbord of Christian apocalyptic beliefs and elements of science fiction, the doctrine of Heaven’s Gate was based on the idea that supernatural forces would inevitably destroy the Earth, and in order to reach ultimate salvation, members had to shed every aspect of their human, earthly existence. Founder Marshall Applewhite encouraged members to avoid ultimate destruction by escaping to the “Next Level” by first detaching from family, friends, earthly possessions and other temptations of modern existence. Once this was accomplished, members were instructed to prepare to board a spacecraft that was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp. Convinced the spacecraft would deliver them to salvation, Applewhite and 38 followers ingested phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and washed the mixture down with vodka. After consuming the lethal dosages of poison, they wrapped plastic bags around their heads and suffocated themselves in order to abandon their terrestrial forms and gain access to the spacecraft. Upon discovering the bodies, officers found the members positioned in bunk beds, dressed in identical outfits: black pants and shirts, Nike sneakers and armband patches.
5. People’s Temple Jonestown Massacre
Founded in the 1950s in Indianapolis, the People’s Temple was originally a Christian sect that preached against racism. After moving to San Francisco temporarily in 1971, Jim Jones (the founder of the movement) relocated his temple to Guyana in hopes of building a socialist utopia at an agricultural commune in Jonestown. Though Jones promoted the commune as a benevolent communist community and sanctuary for racial and social equality, shortly after arriving in Guyana he reportedly claimed to be the Messiah and began regularly abusing and torturing members, demanding their unwavering devotion. In addition to being beaten and humiliated, many members were also coerced into relinquishing their possessions — including homes — and donating them to the church. Officials later discovered $500,000 in U.S. currency and millions more deposited in bank accounts overseas. By 1978 members of the press had begun to ask questions about Jones’ operation. Concerned about rumors that members of the cult were being held against their will and subjected to physical and psychological abuse, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana on November 14 to inspect the Jonestown compound and activities. When his inspection was complete, Ryan boarded a truck and was attacked by temple members. Five people, including Ryan and three members of the press, were shot and killed, and 11 others were wounded. When news of the attack reached Jones, he enacted his “revolutionary suicide” plan, commanding members to ingest cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. By the time the horrific event had ended, the death toll exceeded 900, including 300 minors, making it one of the largest mass suicides in history.
How to get help if you are in crisis: In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text “start” to 741-741. Around the world, go to The International Association for Suicide Prevention or Befrienders Worldwide.