Get the details on five 20th-century cult leaders whose influence led to deadly consequences around the globe.
Shoko Asahara: Masterminded a deadly attack on Japan’s subway system
On March 20, 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”), founded by Asahara in the 1980s, released the poisonous nerve gas sarin on five crowded subway trains during morning rush hour in Tokyo, killing 13 people and sickening thousands more. Aum Shinrikyo targeted the Kasumigaseki station, in the area where many of Japan’s government offices are located, as part of what they thought would be an apocalyptic battle with the government.
Born into a poor family in Japan in 1955, Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto) lost part of his vision at a young age due to illness. He established Aum Shinrikyo as a religious organization that promoted Buddhist and Hindu concepts, along with elements of the Bible and prophecies of Nostradamus. Eventually, Asahara began claiming he could read minds and levitate. In 1990, he and some of his followers ran for parliament but lost. By the early 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo, which attracted members from some of Japan’s top universities, was stockpiling chemical weapons. When the 1995 subway attack took place, the group was estimated to have some 10,000 members in Japan and more than 30,000 around the world, many of them in Russia.
Within several months after the attacks, Asahara was found hiding out at his group’s compound near Mount Fuji and arrested. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004 but remains on death row. Aum Shinrikyo, renamed Aleph in 2000, still exists, although its membership is smaller than it was in the mid-1990s.
Jim Jones: Ordered hundreds of his followers to kill themselves as a “revolutionary act”
onestown, in the South American nation of Guyana. Jones, a self-ordained Christian minister who was born in Indiana in 1931, founded what became the Peoples Temple church in his home state in the 1950s then relocated his congregation to California in the 1960s. He eventually set up headquarters in San Francisco, where he had a large, racially diverse following and ingratiated himself with a number of political leaders by offering Peoples Temple members as campaign volunteers. In 1976, San Francisco’s mayor appointed the charismatic, power-hungry Jones, who traveled with bodyguards, to the city’s Housing Authority and he soon became its chairman. However, in 1977, following a slew of negative publicity about Temple members being physically and mentally abused by Jones, he relocated with some 1,000 of his followers to the Guyanese jungle, where he promised they would create a utopian community. Instead, the followers were subjected to harsh living conditions and punished if they questioned Jones’ authority.
On November 17, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan of California arrived at Jonestown to investigate claims that Temple members were being held there against their will. Ryan and his small delegation were received cordially, but the next day, as the congressman was waiting at a nearby airstrip with his group, which by then included some Temple members who wanted to defect, they were ambushed by gunmen sent by Jones. Ryan and four others in his party were killed. Later that day, Jones, who by then was in declining mental health and addicted to drugs, ordered his followers to commit what he termed a “revolutionary act” by drinking cyanide-laced juice; those who resisted were forced to do so. Jones died from a gunshot wound to his head. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the Jonestown tragedy marked the single largest loss of U.S. civilian lives in a non-natural disaster.
Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret: Founded a murderous doomsday cult
In October 1994, Di Mambro and Jouret, along with 51 of their followers in the Order of the Solar Temple, an apocalyptic cult founded in Europe in 1984, committed suicide or were murdered in Switzerland and Quebec, Canada. The deaths of Di Mambro and Jouret didn’t bring an end to the violence: In December 1995, 16 more members took their own lives or were killed in France, while an additional five committed suicide in March 1997 in Quebec.
Di Mambro, a shadowy figure born in France in 1924, founded the Order of the Solar Temple and made the charismatic Jouret, a homeopathic doctor born in 1947 in the Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo), the organization’s public face. The secretive group was believed to have members in Canada, Switzerland, France, Australia and other countries, and Jouret preached about impending environmental disasters and the coming end of the world, along with a belief system that combined elements of New Age philosophy, Christianity and astrology, among other things.
Following the October 1994 deaths of the 53 sect members, whose bodies were discovered at Solar Temple properties that had been set on fire in Cheiry and Les Granges sur Salvan, Switzerland, and Morin Heights, Quebec, investigators estimated at least 30 of the dead had been murdered—either shot or asphyxiated. It was suspected some had been killed because they were considered traitors for criticizing the group’s leaders. The following year, after 16 Solar Temple members were found dead in a forest in southeastern France, investigations again concluded not all had died willingly. The five Solar Temple members who committed suicide in 1997 left a note indicating they believed their lives would continue on a new planet.
Marshall Applewhite: Orchestrated a mass suicide in conjunction with a comet
On March 26, 1997, Applewhite and 38 other members of a cult called Heaven’s Gate were found dead in a mass suicide at a rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The group members, who killed themselves by eating applesauce and pudding mixed with drugs, believed that a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet (which made its closest approach to Earth on March 22, 1997) would pick them up and take them to a higher plane of existence.
Applewhite, a Texas native born in 1931, worked as a music teacher before co-founding what would become Heaven’s Gate in the 1970s with Bonnie Nettles, a onetime nurse who died of cancer in 1985. The group lived a nomadic, secretive existence and subscribed to a philosophy that combined elements of science fiction and a belief in UFOs with biblical ideas. By the 1990s, some members made money for the group by operating a web design and computer services business. In the fall of 1996, Heaven’s Gate members moved into the Rancho Santa Fe mansion, where they lived a regimented existence. On March 21, 1997, the group went to a local restaurant for what is thought to have been its last meal together; everyone ordered the same thing. The following day, the cult members, 21 women and 18 men ranging in age from mid-20s to early 70s, began killing themselves in shifts. They were dressed in matching black outfits and black Nike running shoes and had a packed suitcase nearby. Investigators later discovered that several months before the mass suicide, Applewhite and six of his followers had themselves surgically castrated as a way, they believed, to reduce unwanted earthly distractions.
David Koresh: Engaged in a bloody battle with federal law enforcement agents
On April 19, 1993, Koresh and more than 70 of his followers, known as Branch Davidians, were found dead after a blaze at their Waco, Texas, compound following a 51-day standoff with federal law enforcement agents. Koresh, born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959 in Texas, was a high school dropout and musician who in 1981 moved to Waco and joined the Branch Davidians, a splinter group of the Seventh-day Adventists. Koresh, who claimed to be a messiah, eventually became the sect’s leader. In that role, he preached that the end of the world was near, stockpiled weapons, fathered multiple children with sect members and had sex with underage Davidian girls.
On February 28, 1993, after agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) went to the Branch Davidian compound to investigate accusations of illegal weapons, a gun battle broke out that left four agents and six Branch Davidians dead. The ensuing standoff lasted until April 19, when government forces launched a tear gas assault on the compound in an effort to make the sect members come out. Instead, a fire broke out, likely set by the Branch Davidians, whose compound burned to the ground. Afterward, the bodies of more than 70 sect members, including Koresh and at least 20 children, were discovered; 9 people escaped the blaze.
In a related story, Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. Army veteran and supporter of right-wing survivalist groups, went to Waco during the siege and was outraged by the government’s actions. On April 19, 1995, the two-year anniversary of the tear gas assault, McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which housed the ATF and other government agencies. The explosion killed 168 people and injured hundreds of others.