Year
1997

Heaven’s Gate cult members found dead

Following an anonymous tip, police enter a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, an exclusive suburb of San Diego, California, and discover 39 victims of a mass suicide. The deceased–21 women and 18 men of varying ages–were all found lying peaceably in matching dark clothes and Nike sneakers and had no noticeable signs of blood or trauma. It was later revealed that the men and women were members of the “Heaven’s Gate” religious cult, whose leaders preached that suicide would allow them to leave their bodily “containers” and enter an alien spacecraft hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

The cult was led by Marshall Applewhite, a music professor who, after surviving a near-death experience in 1972, was recruited into the cult by one of his nurses, Bonnie Lu Nettles. In 1975, Applewhite and Nettles persuaded a group of 20 people from Oregon to abandon their families and possessions and move to eastern Colorado, where they promised that an extraterrestrial spacecraft would take them to the “kingdom of heaven.” Nettles, who called herself “Ti,” and Applewhite, who took the name of “Do,” explained that human bodies were merely containers that could be abandoned in favor of a higher physical existence. As the spacecraft never arrived, membership in Heaven’s Gate diminished, and in 1985 Bonnie Lu Nettles, Applewhite’s “sexless partner,” died.

During the early 1990s, the cult resurfaced as Applewhite began recruiting new members. Soon after the 1995 discovery of the comet Hale-Bopp, the Heaven’s Gate members became convinced that an alien spacecraft was on its way to earth, hidden from human detection behind the comet. In October 1996, Applewhite rented a large home in Rancho Santa Fe, explaining to the owner that his group was made up of Christian-based angels. Applewhite advocated sexual abstinence, and several male cult members followed his example by undergoing castration operations.

In 1997, as part of its 4,000-year orbit of the sun, the comet Hale-Bopp passed near Earth in one of the most impressive astronomical events of the 20th century. In late March 1997, as Hale-Bopp reached its closest distance to Earth, Applewhite and 38 of his followers drank a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka and then lay down to die, hoping to leave their bodily containers, enter the alien spacecraft, and pass through Heaven’s Gate into a higher existence.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Salk announces polio vaccine

On March 26, 1953, American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk announces on a national radio show that he has successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. In 1952–an epidemic year for polio–there were 58,000 new cases ...read more

Israel-Egyptian peace agreement signed

In a ceremony at the White House, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sign a historic peace agreement, ending three decades of hostilities between Egypt and Israel and establishing diplomatic and commercial ties.Less than two years earlier, ...read more

Naval warfare gets new weapon

On this day, Italy attacks the British fleet at Suda Bay, Crete, using detachable warheads to sink a British cruiser. This was the first time manned torpedoes had been employed in naval warfare, adding a new weapon to the world’s navies’ arsenals.The manned torpedo, also known as ...read more

First Battle of Gaza

The first of three battles fought in the Allied attempt to defeat Turkish forces in and around the Palestinian city of Gaza takes place on this day in 1917.By January 1917, the Allies had managed to force the Turkish army completely out of the Sinai Peninsula in northeastern ...read more

Hue falls to the communists

The city of Hue, in northernmost South Vietnam, falls to the North Vietnamese. Hue was the most recent major city in South Vietnam to fall to the communists during their new offensive. The offensive had started in December 1974, when the North Vietnamese had launched a major ...read more

Antiwar demonstration in Washington

A group called Women Strike for Peace demonstrate in Washington, D.C., in the first large antiwar demonstration since President Richard Nixon’s inauguration in January. The antiwar movement had initially given Nixon a chance to make good on his campaign promises to end the war in ...read more

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel published

This Side of Paradise is published, immediately launching 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald to fame and fortune.Fitzgerald, named for his ancestor Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner,” was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a once well-to-do family that had ...read more

American Beauty tops Academy Awards

On this day in 2000, Billy Crystal hosts the 72nd annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.An Oscar crisis had been narrowly averted a week earlier, when Willie Fulgear, a man who made his living recovering and selling discarded objects, found 10 ...read more

Deadly earthquake hits California

An earthquake felt from Mexico to Oregon rocks the Owens Valley in California on this day in 1872, killing 30 people.California, with the large San Andreas Fault running through the entire state, is a prime area for earthquakes. At 2:30 a.m. on March 26, a large quake hit Inyo ...read more

Torture chamber uncovered in Philadelphia

Responding to a 911 call, police raid the Philadelphia home of Gary Heidnik and find an appalling crime scene. In the basement of Heidnik’s dilapidated house is a veritable torture chamber wherethree naked women were found chained toa sewer pipe. A fourth woman, Josefina Rivera, ...read more