Marshall Applewhite, Heaven's Gate Cult Leader

Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate Cult Leader

As the founder of California’s Heaven’s Gate cult, Marshall Applewhite and 38 followers committed suicide in March 1997 aboard a spacecraft saving Earth.

Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty ImagesOne of the last videos left by Heaven’s Gate leader, Marshall Applewhite, before his suicide.

On March 21, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate Sect sat down together for one last meal. While eating dinner, Comet Hale-Bopp caught fire in the sky, which cult leader Marshall Applewhite said would provide them all with an escape from the planet.

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The meal, at a restaurant in the Marie Callender chain, caught the attention of waiters as each member of the group ordered the same thing: a turkey pie with iced tea, followed by a blueberry cheesecake.

A few days later, when the comet reached its closest point to Earth, Applewhite told his followers to kill themselves – and they did. But who was Marshall Applewhite and how did he master the second largest mass suicide in US history?

Marshall Applewhite Way of Worshiping the Chief

As a child, Marshall Applewhite lived an ordinary life. Born in Spur, Texas on May 17, 1931, Applewhite attended Austin College, got married, and served in the military for two years.

From an early age, Applewhite was talented in public speaking. He also had a rich baritone and an ear for opera. After a failed stint as an actor in New York, Applewhite took a teaching job at the University of Alabama, but lost his job there after having sex with a student.

Later, he became the head of the music department at a college in Houston.

“He was usually the boss of everything,” said Louise, Applewhite’s sister. “He has always been a very charismatic born leader. He can make people believe anything.

In the late 1960s, Applewhite’s life began to unravel. After his wife’s divorce, Apple White abruptly quit his job, citing emotional distress. Applewhite then met Bonnie Lou Nettles, a nurse with a spiritual mission.

Nettle convinced Applewhite that they were prophets mentioned in the Book of Revelation. They concluded that the earthly laws did not apply to them and embarked on a mission across the earth to break the law. In 1974, the authorities arrested the couple for credit card fraud. Later, Applewhite drove off with a rental car and never returned it.

Heaven's Gate Leader

Getty ImagesHeaven’s Gate Keeper Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in August 1974.

The crimes landed Applewhite in prison for six months, but while he was imprisoned, his ideas only developed. Applewhite decided that humans are trapped on the ground level, and his mission was to help others rise to the “next level”.

Applewhite believed that the “next level” was a physical place in space – a kind of paradise in the sky.

As soon as they were released from prison, Applewhite and Nets began recruiting supporters. The prophets said that a UFO will appear in the sky to take them all to the next level.

Be the cult leader of Heaven’s Gate

By 1975, Marshall Applewhite had attracted 20 followers. He ordered these followers to search the country, under the radar, and recruit new members.

The movement slowly grew, eventually reaching the size of 200 members. Applewhite nettles cut off followers until only the most loyal remained.

Human nature was corrupt, Applewhite heralded. As they traveled from state to state, Applewhite and his soldiers followed strict rules. Sex was forbidden, as was alcohol and tobacco. Members cut their hair and wear loose clothing to appear asexual.

Applewhite also neutralized himself. He encouraged his male followers to consider castration, and many underwent the procedure.

Applewhite video

HBO MaxIn the 1980s and 1990s, Applewhite spread its message and recruited new subscribers via video.

“A member of the Next Realm finds favor with someone who is willing to endure all the growing pain needed to completely wean themselves off their human condition,” the Heaven Gate Commander Applewhite preached.

Then, in 1985, nettle died of cancer. Having lost her prophetic partner, Applewhite refused to give up. He declared that the end of the earth was near. Followers made videos warning of the “last call” to leave the planet.

“We were researching what was going on, why we were here, and what the purpose of life was,” explained Robert Rubin, a former member of the cult.

In 1993, the band ran an advertisement in USA Today. He promised that “UFO Cult” would “surface with the final show”.

Comet Hale Bob

Wikimedia CommonsComet Hale-Bopp as it appeared in the sky over Death Valley, California, in the spring of 1997.

Two years later, Marshall Applewhite read avidly about Comet Hale-Bopp. He had decided that this was the celestial UFO that his sect needed to take to the next level. Hill Bob was “the last chance to clear the land before it is recycled,” he told his followers. Then he began preparing them all to “board”.

But it wouldn’t be the sect’s first attempt to leave the planet. In the late 1980s, cult members bought a house in Galveston, Texas, and waited for aliens to take them away. But then the internet boom gave Applewhite a new recruiting tool. The members set up a website and convinced people from all over the country to leave their lives behind and join the sect.

Then, in 1997, the sect made its final preparations to leave Earth. Under the guidance of Applewhite, they plan to commit suicide in order to ascend to heaven.

Mass suicide under comet Hale-Bopp

Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicide didn’t happen all at once. Members took bouts, cleaning up after the previous group before committing suicide.

Heaven's Gate Body

Mike Nelson/AFP via Getty ImagesInvestigators remove the bodies of mass suicides from Heaven’s Gate.

Before dying by ingesting poisoned apple juice with a lethal dose of sedatives, each member of the cult left a video statement. In stunning fashion, they explained how they would board a spacecraft hidden in the shadow of comet Hale-Bopp.

One follower said: “It’s the best day of my life.” Another said: “39 for Beam Up.”

In his last message, Marshall Applewhite looked into the camera and warned: “Your only chance to evacuate is to leave with us. Planet Earth is about to recycle.”

Days later, on March 26, 1997, authorities discovered the bodies of 39 cult members inside a rented home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, all wrapped in purple with bags placed over their heads. They were all wearing identical Nike Decades sneakers.

Two members gave up their place on the spaceship to stay and run the band’s website. “The information must be available to mankind, in preparation for their return,” the anonymous officials later explained. We don’t know when that will happen but those interested will find information.”

The organization is believed to persist today, with the original theories of Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite still at the core of the group.


After this look at Heaven’s Gate Leader Marshall Applewhite, check out some pesky sect leaders like him. Then, learn about life within famous sects like these.

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