Marshall Herff Applewhite was the leader of the Heaven's Gate religious cult in Texas. He was a self-proclaimed prophet, drawing rhetoric from science fiction and scripture. He led his group to commit mass suicide in 1997 in hopes of being lifted into a spaceship. His close partner, Bonnie Lu Nettles, decided they were "The Two" mentioned in the Book of Revelation, meant for an important mission.
Cult leader and professor Marshall Herff Applewhite was born on May 17, 1931, in Spur, Texas. With Bonnie Nettles, Marshall Herff Applewhite created a religious cult commonly known as Heaven's Gate that drew from science fiction as well as scripture. In 1997, he led his followers to commit suicide in hopes of being transported onto a spaceship traveling with Hale-Bopp comet. Before finding his unusual calling, Applewhite seemed to lead a fairly normal life. He graduated from Austin College in 1952 and got married that same year. He spent two years in the Army Signal Corps.
Applewhite was known for his musical and dramatic talents. He sang opera and was a good public speaker, impressing people with his strong baritone voice and good diction. In the early 1960s, he tried for a while to make it as an actor in New York City, but he failed, according to an article in The New York Times. He then became an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, where served as choirmaster for several groups. Then he returned to Texas to head up the music department at a university in Houston.
Turn to Religion
While in Houston, Applewhite's life began to falter apart. He and his wife divorced in 1968; they had two children together. There are some reports that he struggled with his sexual identity. In 1970, he left his job and seemed to be having a sort of nervous breakdown.
Two years later Applewhite met Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse with a strong knowledge of the Bible as well as an interest in more unusual spiritual matters. They would later decide that they were "The Two" mentioned in the Book of Revelation and that they were on an important spiritual mission. Applewhite and Nettles spent months on the road, wandering around the country. Believing that their higher calling allowed them to ignore earthly laws, the pair was arrested for credit card fraud in 1974. Those charges were dropped, but Applewhite had another crime to answer for—the theft of a rental car. He rented one in St. Louis and never returned it.
Applewhite was sentenced to six months in prison. During his confinement, he began trying to refine the beliefs he shared with Nettles. They thought that they came from what they termed the "Level Above Human"—a physical and literal version of Heaven in outer space—and were sent to help others reach this "Next Level." To them, the human body was just a vehicle and that to ascend from this world people had to separate from all that was human in themselves, including their earthly needs and desires. They believed that a UFO would soon take them back to the Next Level after completing their mission.
Wanting to share their knowledge with others, Applewhite and Nettles began traveling again. Applewhite did most of the talking during the informational sessions they held while he relied on her strength and spiritual wisdom. People became interested in them and they started to develop a following. In 1975, they attracted around 20 followers after a meeting in Oregon, which caught the attention of the national news. Applewhite and Nettles were also the subject of a 1976 book entitled U.F.O. Missionaries Extraordinary.
Uncomfortable with increased public scrutiny, Applewhite and Nettles sent their followers to out to travel the country as missionaries while they kept a low profile. At the group's peak, it had about 200 members. Applewhite and Nettles began weeding out their followers, keeping only the most dedicated and obedient members. They spent several years living at campsites with Applewhite and Nettles making sure that their followers kept busy performing tasks for the group or trying to curb their human nature.
The group experimented with several unusual diets and sex, drinking and smoking were forbidden (some male members, including Applewhite, were later castrated.) Lying and breaking the rules were considered major offenses. Uniformity was also important to Applewhite and Nettles—members all wore baggy clothing and had short hair essentially to mask gender and sexuality.
In the 1980s, the group moved indoors, renting houses in several regions, including the Dallas area. Some members even started getting jobs in the outside world using fake names. Applewhite suffered a devastating blow in 1985 when Nettles died of cancer. He had lost his partner in his spiritual enterprise and seemed to flounder for a bit.
By the late 1980s, however, Applewhite regained his zeal for proselytizing, starting spreading the word of the imminent end of the Earth. The group made a series of videos called Beyond Human—The Last Call that featured information about the group and the Next Level in the early 1990s, which were broadcast via satellite. The group also took out ads worldwide, including USA Today in 1993. The headline of that ad read: "'UFO Cult' Resurfaces with Final Offer."
The discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1995 drew the interest of Applewhite. He saw the comet as a sign that a spaceship was coming to take them to the Next Level. By 1996, the group was operating a successful computer business and lived in an exclusive neighborhood in Rancho Sante Fe, California. They also produced more videos encouraging others to leave with them, saying it was the "last chance to evacuate Earth before it's recycled."
As the Hale-Bopp comet drew closer to Earth in 1997, Applewhite and his followers prepared to make their exit from this world. On March 21, they ate a last supper of sorts at a restaurant, all ordering the same thing: turkey pot pie, cheesecake with blueberries and iced tea. A day or two later, when the comet was closest to the planet, Applewhite and his followers took their own lives by drinking a mixture of vodka and barbiturates.
On March 26, the bodies were found all dressed the same with covered purple shrouds. When the news of Heaven's Gate deaths broke, many people were shocked and horrified by the mass suicide. The media showed clips from a rambling video that Applewhite made shortly before the suicides, explaining their mission and encouraging others to follow. Members also recorded exit videos. But these did little to comfort the families of the followers or help the world at large understand their drastic, unfathomable actions.
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