4 Notorious Cults in American History

8 MIN READ

The term “cult” is a controversial one—often, we use the word to describe belief systems that we think are “weird,” or that don’t align with the more standard world religions. For the purpose of this blog, we use “cult” to refer to groups with a leader who exerted an excessive and dangerous amount of control over their followers that resulted in deaths. With the help of HeinOnline, particularly the Law Journal Library and the U.S. Congressional Documents databases, we’ll dive into where each of these four cults in American history came from and how they came to their tragic end.

1. Peoples Temple

Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of Peoples Temple who would go down in history as leading the mass suicide of more than 900 Americans, was born in 1931 in rural Indiana. In the 1950s, he became a self-ordained Christian minister, and he started his own church, Peoples Temple, in 1955 in Indianapolis. Jones ran his church on progressive ideals[1]Charlie Tye, Understanding Jonestown: The Criminal Liabilities of the Port Kaituma Airstrip Shooting and Jonestown Massacre, 2 YORK L. REV. 6 (2021). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.—the congregation was racially integrated, provided free meals and legal aid, offered substance rehabilitation, and created homes for the elderly, while Jones advocated for racial equity and socialist ideals. In 1965, Jones moved the group to Northern California and subsequently relocated to San Francisco. With his charming personality, Jones became highly popular, not just among members, but with politicians too, as he was able to persuade people to vote for Democratic political candidates.[2]Tareq S. Albhlal, Terrorism and Contemporary Religious Cults: Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, 14 J. POL. & L. 32 (2021). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. He also donated a significant amount of money to various charities.

Peoples Temple logo
Peoples Temple logo

However, as people began to leave Peoples Temple, they spoke out about what was going on behind the scenes—members were often forced to give up their belongings and were frequently abused. As public opinion began to turn on him, in 1974 Jones had the Peoples Temple move to “Jonestown” in the jungles of Guyana,[3]The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy : report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. . Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. This committee … Continue reading to create an agricultural “utopia.” Members toiled long, hard days at the commune and suffered from various tropical diseases, while armed guards patrolled the Jonestown compound. Members had their letters and phone calls censored, and they were often required to participate in mock suicide drills,[4]The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy : report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. . Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. This committee … Continue reading while Jones’ paranoia and delusions began to deepen and his drug addiction worsened.

screenshot of excerpt of affidavit of Yolanda D. A. Crawford, a member of Peoples Temple

California Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Jonestown[5]The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy : report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. . Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. This committee print … Continue reading to investigate allegations that people were being held there against their will. He arrived with a group of reporters, and they were invited to dinner that night. However, when the group left on November 18, 1978,[6]The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy : report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. . Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. This committee print … Continue reading Ryan, three journalists, and a defector attempting to escape were ambushed and shot. Knowing that he would be investigated, Jones then led 909 followers into a mass-suicide[7]Charlie Tye, Understanding Jonestown: The Criminal Liabilities of the Port Kaituma Airstrip Shooting and Jonestown Massacre, 2 YORK L. REV. 6 (2021). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid (often mislabeled as Kool-Aid) as guards surrounded the pavilion. Meanwhile, Jones shot himself in the head. Guyanese officials would find the aftermath the next day, and it would become the largest loss of American civilian lives in a non-natural disaster until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

2. The Manson Family

Charles Manson grew up in an abusive household and spent most of his formative years in and out of prison for committing petty crimes.[8]Mark J. Phillips & Aryn Z. Phillips, The Trial of Charles Manson: 50 Years Later, 57 ARIZ. ATT’y 24 (2020). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Bar Journals Library. Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began taking guitar lessons and listening to the Beatles, and he became fixated on a dream to become a singer-songwriter. He also started studying religion and Scientology as methods of controlling others. He moved to San Francisco in 1967 and began projecting himself as a religious, philosophical figure in order to persuade vulnerable young women to “follow” him[9]Gilbert Geis & Ted L. Huston, Charles Manson and His Girls: Notes on a Durkheimian Theme, 9 CRIMINOLOGY 342 (1971). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.—Manson would often trade sex with these girls for favors from others. The “Manson Family,” as they came to be called, moved to Los Angeles, where they began to commit a variety of crimes together. However, the most infamous of these crimes were the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Charles Manson's April 1968 mugshot
Charles Manson’s April 1968 mugshot

At the time, budding actress Sharon Tate and her filmmaker husband Roman Polanski were renting an estate that had previously belonged to a music producer who refused to sign Manson due to a lack of talent and his violent personality. On August 8, Manson ordered his followers Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian to go to the home at 10050 Cielo Drive.[10]Mark J. Phillips & Aryn Z. Phillips, The Trial of Charles Manson: 50 Years Later, 57 ARIZ. ATT’y 24 (2020). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Bar Journals Library. While Kasabian kept watch, the four followers stabbed, beat, and shot to death the 8.5-month-pregnant Tate, along with three of her friends and an unrelated teenager who happened to be on his way to the estate’s guesthouse. Atkins proceeded to write on the walls in the victims’ blood. The following night, Manson, Watson, Atkins, and another follower, Leslie Van Houten, went to the home of wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife,[11]Mark J. Phillips & Aryn Z. Phillips, The Trial of Charles Manson: 50 Years Later, 57 ARIZ. ATT’y 24 (2020). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Bar Journals Library. where they were tied up and killed. Again, they covered the walls with writing in blood. Several other people were also murdered by The Manson Family. There are various theories as to why the murders occurred—was it revenge for Manson’s thwarted Hollywood dreams? Was it to cover up for other crimes that Manson had committed, so that if he went down, the whole group would go down with him? Regardless, Manson, Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten[12]People v.Manson (1976) 61 Cal. App. 3d 102. This case can be found in Fastcase. were all sentenced to death, although their sentences were reduced to life imprisonment when California banned the death penalty. Manson and Atkins have both since died in jail, while Watson and Krenwinkle remain alive. Van Houten was released from jail[13]In re LESLIE VAN HOUTEN on Habeas Corpus (2023). This case can be found in Fastcase. on parole this July. Many have attributed the Manson murders to the end of the 1960s era of “free love,”[14]Andrew J. Atchison & Kathleen M. Heide, Charles Manson and the Family: The Application of Sociological Theories to Multiple Murder, 55 INT. J. OFFENDER THERAPY & COMP. CRIMINOLOGY 771 … Continue reading bringing in a more subdued, cautious culture in the 1970s.

screenshot of excerpt of the case People v. Manson

3. Heaven’s Gate

Former University of St. Thomas professor Marshall Applewhite met nurse Bonnie Lu Nettles in the early 1970s. At the time, both of them were experiencing spiritual crises, and they decided to undergo a spiritual journey together. After exploring Christianity and various New Age religions, they both had a revelation—that God, Jesus, and the angels described in the Bible were actually a superior race of extraterrestrials, and that in the final days of the world, these aliens would arrive in a spaceship, destroy the earth, and save the faithful.

In 1975, Applewhite and Nettles began to offer classes on this belief system. They received more revelations, including that they were both aliens that had been called to prepare humans for the end of time. They took on the names Do and Ti, respectively, and their students were encouraged to practice celibacy—several male members, including Applewhite, underwent castration surgeries. In 1975, the group stopped recruiting and became recluse, moving to eastern Colorado where they believed that an extraterrestrial spacecraft would take them to Heaven’s Gate.

Nettles died of cancer in 1985, which went against the group’s belief that their bodies would be transformed into perfect beings, their “Next Level” alien bodies, while they were still alive. They then decided that this could only happen once members had shed their earthly human selves. Then, in 1995, the Hale-Bopp comet was discovered, and Heaven’s Gate members believed that the alien spacecraft they had been waiting for was hidden behind the comet.[15]Shawn McAllister, Holy Wars: Involuntary Deprogramming as a Weapon against Cults, 24 T. Marshall L. REV. 359 (1999). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. Applewhite rented a home in suburban San Diego to house the group, and when the comet passed its closest point to Earth in March 1997, he and 38 followers consumed a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka[16]Shawn McAllister, Holy Wars: Involuntary Deprogramming as a Weapon against Cults, 24 T. Marshall L. REV. 359 (1999). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. and wrapped their heads in plastic bags. The suicides took place in groups, so that as one member died, another could place the body on a bed and cover the face with a shroud—only the two members who committed suicide last were found without the covering. Additionally, all of the members were found with a $5 bill and rolls of quarters in their pockets, and they were all wearing the same Nike sneakers. However, members did not believe that they were actually committing suicide, but that the spacecraft hidden behind Hale-Bopp would pick them up as they died to take them through Heaven’s Gate and onto their higher existence. They posted about these theories on their website[17]Shawn McAllister, Holy Wars: Involuntary Deprogramming as a Weapon against Cults, 24 T. Marshall L. REV. 359 (1999). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. before committing the mass suicide.

Max has recently created a documentary series about Heaven’s Gate:

4. The Branch Davidians

In 1930, a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff[18]David C. Pham, Anrade v. Chojnacki: The First Great Injustice of the Twenty-First Century, 22 WHITTIER L. REV. 615 (2000). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. left the Seventh-Day Adventist church because he believed that, unlike what the Bible purports, Jesus was not the Messiah, and that the Messiah who would bring the Revelation was still yet to come. He bought a compound in Waco, Texas and called it Mount Carmel. There, he and the small Christian community he fostered believed that they would be the center of a new holy kingdom after the end of the world. Houteff died in 1955, and some of the group began to follow Houteff’s successor, Benjamin Roden, who believed that God was calling him to continue Houteff’s work. This group became known as the Branch Davidians, and they took over Mount Carmel.

Vernon Howell, who would later change his name to David Koresh, didn’t join the group until 1981, after he had been kicked out of his Seventh-Day Adventist church for romantically pursuing a pastor’s daughter. Howell claimed that he was a prophet and steadily rose to power within the Branch Davidians.

Because Howell, now Koresh, believed he was the Messiah,[19]Robin Boyle Laisure, Employing Trafficking Laws to Capture Elusive Leaders of Destructive Cults, 17 OR. REV. INT’l L. 205 (2016). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. he also believed that any of his offspring would be holy as well, so he fathered at least 13 children with various women in the group, many of whom were underage.[20]Materials relating to the investigation into the activities of federal law enforcement agencies toward the Branch Davidians / by the Committee on the Judiciary ; prepared in conjunction with the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of … Continue reading Although this in itself was illegal, the government also caught wind that the group might be stockpiling weapons for the apocalypse, so on February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives attempted to raid the compound.[21]Materials relating to the investigation into the activities of federal law enforcement agencies toward the Branch Davidians / by the Committee on the Judiciary ; prepared in conjunction with the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of … Continue reading The resulting gun battle between the agents and the Branch Davidians killed several people on both sides.

Then, the FBI stepped in. What resulted was a 51-day standoff where the FBI surrounded the compound with military tanks and antagonized those inside with loud music, bright lights, and flash-bang grenades. When 60 hours of negotiating with Koresh came to nothing, on April 19, the FBI raided the compound[22]Materials relating to the investigation into the activities of federal law enforcement agencies toward the Branch Davidians / by the Committee on the Judiciary ; prepared in conjunction with the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of … Continue reading with armored tanks and tear gas. It’s uncertain how it happened, but a raging fire broke out, and in the blaze 76 out of 85 of the Branch Davidians in the complex perished, including Koresh.

photo of the burning of the Mount Carmel complex in Waco, TX

The tragedy incensed many people on the far-right, who believed that the government had overstepped its reach and violated freedom of religion. In fact, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols’s 1995 Oklahoma Bombings were in part a response to the government’s actions at Waco,[23]M. H. Hoeflich, Reflections upon Terrorism, Militias, Law, and the Judicial System: An Essay, 67 U. KAN. L. REV. 713 (2019). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. and the bombings were committed on the second anniversary of the siege’s end.

Branch Davidians still exist today in Waco, and many of them believe that Koresh and the followers killed in the fire will eventually be resurrected.

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HeinOnline Sources

HeinOnline Sources
1 Charlie Tye, Understanding Jonestown: The Criminal Liabilities of the Port Kaituma Airstrip Shooting and Jonestown Massacre, 2 YORK L. REV. 6 (2021). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
2 Tareq S. Albhlal, Terrorism and Contemporary Religious Cults: Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, 14 J. POL. & L. 32 (2021). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
3, 4 The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy : report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. . Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. This committee print can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database.
5, 6 The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy : report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives. . Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off. This committee print can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database.
7 Charlie Tye, Understanding Jonestown: The Criminal Liabilities of the Port Kaituma Airstrip Shooting and Jonestown Massacre, 2 YORK L. REV. 6 (2021). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
8, 10, 11 Mark J. Phillips & Aryn Z. Phillips, The Trial of Charles Manson: 50 Years Later, 57 ARIZ. ATT’y 24 (2020). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Bar Journals Library.
9 Gilbert Geis & Ted L. Huston, Charles Manson and His Girls: Notes on a Durkheimian Theme, 9 CRIMINOLOGY 342 (1971). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
12 People v.Manson (1976) 61 Cal. App. 3d 102. This case can be found in Fastcase.
13 In re LESLIE VAN HOUTEN on Habeas Corpus (2023). This case can be found in Fastcase.
14 Andrew J. Atchison & Kathleen M. Heide, Charles Manson and the Family: The Application of Sociological Theories to Multiple Murder, 55 INT. J. OFFENDER THERAPY & COMP. CRIMINOLOGY 771 (2011). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
15, 16, 17 Shawn McAllister, Holy Wars: Involuntary Deprogramming as a Weapon against Cults, 24 T. Marshall L. REV. 359 (1999). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
18 David C. Pham, Anrade v. Chojnacki: The First Great Injustice of the Twenty-First Century, 22 WHITTIER L. REV. 615 (2000). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
19 Robin Boyle Laisure, Employing Trafficking Laws to Capture Elusive Leaders of Destructive Cults, 17 OR. REV. INT’l L. 205 (2016). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
20, 21, 22 Materials relating to the investigation into the activities of federal law enforcement agencies toward the Branch Davidians / by the Committee on the Judiciary ; prepared in conjunction with the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of Representatives, One Hundredth [sic] Fourth Congress, second session. . Washington, U.S. G.P.O. This committee print can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database.
23 M. H. Hoeflich, Reflections upon Terrorism, Militias, Law, and the Judicial System: An Essay, 67 U. KAN. L. REV. 713 (2019). This article can be found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
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