Inside 5 of the most infamous cults in American history

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Friday, January 5, 2018
Inside 5 of the most infamous cults
Inside 5 of the most infamous cults in American history.

Nearly 25 years have passed since the horror in Waco, yet many still wonder how a cult like the Branch Davidians and leader David Koresh could hold such incredible influence over its followers.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a cult is a religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader, like Koresh.

Here's a closer view of five of the best known cults in the United States, and the story of how their converts showed incredible devotion to beliefs outside the mainstream, often with deadly and horrifying consequences.

JONESTOWN - November 18, 1978

Reverend Jim Jones was embraced by African-Americans after his fiery speeches on racial equality in America. From the 1950's until the end of "The People's Temple" in 1978, Jones was seen as a beacon of peace across the racial divide and a leading advocate for socialism.

But when Jones moved hundreds of cult members to "Jonestown" in Guyana, where he and followers believed they could create a "socialist paradise," concerned family members garnered the attention of California Congressman Leo Ryan.

The congressman sought to investigate whether some cult members were being held against their will, as relatives suggested. When Ryan traveled to Guyana to meet with Jones, he was ambushed on a plane by the reverend's followers, and died after being shot repeatedly in the body and face.

Fearing retribution for the congressman's death, Jones led 918 followers into a mass murder-suicide known now as the "Jonestown Massacre" on November 18, 1978. Most died by drinking cyanide mixed with Kool-Aid. The reverend, however, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.


Ex-convict and singer-songwriter Charles Manson was able to woo followers, especially women, into a non-religious cult that believed a race war known as "Helter Skelter" was imminent.

Manson, who described Scientology and Satanism as influential to his beliefs, told those who joined The Manson Family cult that when the African-American rebels won the war, they would be elevated by the survivors to lead the survivors in the United States.

As leader of The Manson Family, Charles influenced the murders of nine people in California, including the murder of actress Sharon Tate and four others in her home. The family also was involved in a number of crimes, including the plotting of an attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford.

Charles Manson was sentenced to death for his crimes, but because California banned the death penalty, he lived in prison for decades before he died on November 19, 2017.


Formed by charismatic leader David Koresh after his expulsion from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Branch Davidians shared a belief that the end of the world was drawing near.

Koresh, recognized often for his musical talents on the guitar, believed he was a messiah who spoke the true word of God. He also believed all women were his spiritual wives, resulting in multiple relationships with women in the cult, married and single alike.

Members stockpiled weapons at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, preparing for the pending apocalypse. They also caught the attention of ATF agents, who attempted to raid the compound on February 28, 1993, for alleged weapons violations.

An intense gun battle ensued, killing four agents along with six Branch Davidian members. The incident sparked a 51-day standoff that would come to a deadly conclusion on April 19, 1993.

When negotiations stalled following the release of 19 children, the FBI and state authorities moved in on the compound with tanks firing tear gas. As television cameras carried live pictures on cable and network news, a major fire erupted inside the compound as the Branch Davidians set the compound ablaze.

In the end, 76 people were killed in the building. Investigators determined those who did not perish in the fire died of gunshot wounds or from being crushed when a concrete wall collapsed.

HEAVEN'S GATE - 1974-1997

Finding meaning through the cosmos and extraterrestrial life, former University of St. Thomas (Houston) professor Marshall Applewhite led dozens of people in a cult known as "Heaven's Gate."

Launching the society in 1974 after a near-death experience, Applewhite and his followers believed the end of Earth was near, and that the planet was going to be "recycled."

As a result, believers were prepared to leave Earth by boarding a spaceship that was trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet. But in order to leave, followers had to make the ultimate sacrifice by shedding their earthly bodies.

After drinking a mix of cyanide, pineapple juice and vodka on March 26, 1997, 39 people died, including Applewhite, in Rancho Santa Fe, California. When police found their bodies, the members all wore black clothing, matching armbands and tennis shoes.

Before the group committed suicide, their website was updated to read: "Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate ... Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion -- "graduation" from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave "this world" and go with Ti's crew."


Formed by leader Warren Jeffs as a breakoff sect, The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had one fairly obvious difference from believers of the Mormon faith: its practice of polygamy.

Jeffs, who was excommunicated by the church for polygamy, watched as his church membership swelled to more than 10,000 members in Arizona, Utah and Texas.

Amid allegations of ongoing and far-reaching incest and sexual misconduct with minors inside the church, federal officials raided Jeffs' Eldorado, Texas ranch in 2008.

Evidence led investigators to charge Jeffs on multiple counts for sex crimes against children. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years, to be served consecutively.

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