Today In History: Heaven's Gate Members Found Dead

Today In History |

March 26, 1997

Monsters and Critics

Today in 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in Rancho Santa Fe, an affluent suburb of San Diego, California. The cult, led by Marshall Applewhite (pictured above), committed mass suicide under the belief that it would bring them aboard an alien craft that was passing by Earth after the Hale-Bopp Comet.

The cult's website reads, chillingly,

"By the time you receive this, we'll be gone -- several dozen of us. We came from the Level Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came -- task completed."


Heaven's Gate was originally helmed by a woman named Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse who recruited Applewhite, a music professor, following a near-death experience he suffered in 1972. Together, they promoted a narrative in which human beings would be given an opportunity to transcend their Earthly bodies, to be transported to the "kingdom of heaven" by benevolent aliens. Nettles renamed herself "Ti" and Applewhite "Do."

The cult suffered a major setback in the mid seventies when they persuaded twenty people to relocate to Colorado from Oregon, in anticipation of a mass alien abduction. When the abduction never occurred, the cult members returned to their homes.

Applewite, following Nettles's death in 1985, revamped Heaven's Gate. The early nineties saw an influx of new members. This time, allegiance was much stronger. So strong, in fact, that multiple male cult members followed Applewhite's example and volunteered for castration.

The discovery of Hale-Bopp in 1995 precipitated the sequence of events that would lead to all of their deaths. Applewhite convinced his congregation, assembled in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion rented under the false pretense that they were a Christian religious group, that an alien spacecraft was earthbound, hidden behind the body of the comet.

When Hale-Bopp passed by Earth in 1997, Applewhite joined the other Heaven's Gate members in drinking vodka mixed with phenobarbital, laying down and awaiting what they believed to be a journey to the extraterrestrial craft. The police, following an anonymous tip, found the bodies. They were all wearing identical pairs of Nikes.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.