Today’s story begins with a website: ‘Heavensgate.com’. Its home page screams ‘old school internet’, with its colorful text in Times New Roman font, set against a starry background.
A relic of the early days of the web, which may induce laughter in the new generations, and even some nostalgia amongst us Boomers. If you skim through the contents of the website you may consider it the rambling, yet harmless front for some New Age group.
But if you look closer you will notice the alarming ‘Red Alert’ blinking at the top. And also the striking sentences below the organizations logo:
“Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion”
“We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world.’”
Again, it may appear as harmless spiritualist content, but this website is one of the most chilling suicide notes you will ever read. The organization Heaven’s Gate, described either as a New Religious Movement or a cult, counted only about 40 members as of March 1997.
On the 26th of that month, local police broke into their communal residence, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego. They found 39 bodies: 21 women and 18 men had willingly come to the end of their journey on planet Earth.
21 women and 18 men had committed suicide to follow the teachings of their leader: Marshall Herff Applewhite.
A Promising Start
Marshall Herff Applewhite was born on May 17, 1931 in Spur, Texas, one of four siblings born in a loving family.
His father Marshall Sr was a Presbyterian minister who moved his family every few years, founding a number of churches around South Texas. During this nomadic existence, ‘Herff’ developed a passion for music and especially for singing.
At the same time, he yearned to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from high school in 1948, Herff enrolled in Austin College in Sherman, Texas, with the intention of becoming a minister himself.
It is common for future cult leaders to display signs of malignant narcissism from their early years, but this was not the case with Herff Applewhite.
His former roommate stated that Herff was smart, popular, extrovert, magnetic, without being pushy at all. He also commented that Applewhite did not show any fanatically religious tendency, dedicating equal amounts of time and energy to theology, pre-Christian philosophy, and choral music.
After graduating from Austin, Applewhite enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary of Virginia in Richmond. After three further years of studies, he would be ordained a Presbyterian minister.
But after his first semester, Herff dropped out of school to pursue a career in music, even if still tied to a religious environment. He moved to Gastonia, North Carolina to take a post as director of music at the local First Presbyterian Church.
By this time Applewhite had married Ann Pearce, and both of them left only fond memories amongst the Gastonia congregation. Colleagues in the music department remembered Herff as a strong but personable leader.
So, another confirmation of Applewhite’s undeniable charisma and leadership skills.
Unfortunately, only two years later the Applewhites had to forcibly leave Gastonia when Herff was drafted into the Army. They were relocated first to Salzburg, Austria and then to White Sands, New Mexico, where he served as instructor in the Signal Corps.
This is the first divergence point in Marshall Applewhite’s biographical accounts.
According to some sources, he served well and received an honourable discharge in 1956.
But according to other accounts, he was dishonourably discharged on alleged charges of homosexual activity with a recruit.
During the 1960s, the Applewhites moved around the States, changing a number of jobs frequently connected to music. According to his own CV, Marshall Applewhite worked as a cantorial soloist in a Houston temple, as a singer and conductor in “cultural and commercial music in New York,” before perfecting his singing studies in Germany.
In 1964, Marshall’s singing career was in full swing. He was signed up by the Houston Grand Opera, with which he sang 10 major roles. In a production of ‘Faust’ by Charles Gounod he even performed alongside tenor Placido Domingo.
In 1966, he took on a second job as the head of music at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, a catholic institution.
Despite his professional commitments, Marshall maintained a good work/life balance and was a loving father to his kids, striving to make their childhood as warm and magical as possible.
According to Marshall’s sister, he once brought home a tree, propped it up in his living room and decked it in white paint and turquoise decorations – just for the sake of it!
So, by the age of 35, Marshall Herff Applewhite was a loving husband, caring father, respected teacher and appreciated opera singer.
All fine and dandy. All instruments in tune and performing on the beat.
But soon, some elements out of scale would enter the symphony and cause dissonance in the harmony.
Bo meets Peep
The turning point in the life of Marshall Herff Applewhite was his first encounter with Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, sometime in 1972.
Bonnie was born in Houston, Texas in 1924. A nurse by trade, she had a strong interest in occultism. In 1966 she had joined the Houston lodge of the Theosophical society, and later enrolled into a group dedicated to channeling non-corporeal entities. She frequently claimed being in touch with one of such entities: a disembodied 19th-century monk named Brother Francis. And apparently, Brother Francis guided and influenced her decisions on a regular basis.
So, how did the two meet?
Well, also here we have not one, but two divergence points which make their love story all the more unconventional.
According to sources close to Heaven’s Gate, Marshall first met Bonnie while tutoring her daughter as a music teacher.
Both Applewhite and Nettles were heading towards the end of their respective marriages, and so they grew very close. Their friendship eventually developed into a romantic relationship, even if of a very peculiar kind – I will get into that.
Another version of the fateful encounter was told by Marshall’s sister, Louise Winant. According to her, in 1972 Marshall was hospitalised in Houston with a heart blockage. The condition was so serious that he had a near death experience.
Upon recovery, Marshall befriended one of the nurses, who told him that
“he had a purpose, that God kept him alive”
That nurse was Bonnie Nettles of course. The third and final version of the event may be the one closest to the truth and relates to what later emerged about Marshall’s troubled sexuality.
In this reality continuum, we have to go back to 1970. At this time, Applewhite was fired from the University of St. Thomas. Administrators had learned that Marshall was in a relationship with a male student, and so they dismissed him for “health problems of an emotional nature.”
The firing led to deep feelings of shame, then depression. Apparently, Applewhite started hearing voices around him. This deterioration in mental health led him to check into a psychiatric hospital in 1971, where he asked to be ‘cured’ from his homosexuality.
Which, by the way, was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1974! It was while in psychiatric care when Marshall first met Bonnie, when they first bonded, she started calling him ‘Bo’, and he referred to her as ‘Peep’.
Peep introduced Bo to occultism, acting as a sort of gateway figure into anything that belonged to the supernatural sphere: disembodied souls, UFOs, different planes of existence. Yet, all of Peep’s teachings were grounded in Christianity. In fact, in 1971 the two formed a partnership called the ‘Christian Art Center’ where they offered classes in religion, art, and music.
Only later the Center was rebranded as the Know Place, and occult teachings became more prominent. Marshall’s sister Louise remembers how this partnership was not exactly formed on a reciprocal basis. Sure, Peep always considered the two of them as co-leaders of the Know Place.
But Bo introduced his partner as the ‘senior’ leader, acknowledging her more advanced spiritual knowledge. After all Peep was the teacher, Bo the learner. Peep was the recruiter, Bo the proselyte.
And a very enthusiastic one at that.
At that time, ‘Bo’ Applewhite was still working in a theatre group in Houston. One of his colleagues was Patsy Swayze, mother of actor Patrick Swayze. She recalled how her usually level-headed co-star had suddenly starting to
“act strangely, talking about U.F.O.’s and preaching this strange religion.”
That’s right: Bo and Peep had created their own New Religious Movement – or cult, depending on the points of view. In 1974, Bo and Peep changed their names to Do and Ti and began an evangelical journey to preach their new ‘gospel’.
By this time the two had become an item, of course, but their relationship, even if romantic, was always platonic. It appears that after his stint in psychiatric care, Do had completely renounced sexuality. And this suited Ti, well, to a … ‘T’.
Both admitted not having the slightest physical attraction to each other, and even later incorporated abstention from sex as one of their cult’s tenets.
At some point after the start of their liaison, Do even had himself castrated.
It sounds like ‘thou shalt not fornicate’ was one of their commandments … but the same did not apply to ‘thou shalt not steal’.
In fact, while touring Texas, Do and Ti were arrested in Harlingen for credit card fraud. The charges were dropped, but police found that Applewhite was also wanted for car theft! He had rented a vehicle in St. Louis and never returned it.
So, Ti got away scot free, while Do spent six months in jail.
Soon after his release, Do and Ti cut off all ties with their respective families.
Marshall visited his sister Louise in Dallas one last time. Louise had realised that her brother had become a different person in a span of just a couple of years and remarked,
“What’s the matter with you? That’s not the real you.”
He replied, “You just don’t know the real me.”
The Two Witnesses
Do and Ti resumed their Odyssey of enlightenment. Ti was pretty much the sage behind the scenes, while Do exploited his natural charisma to preach and present their religious views. It is now time to describe what exactly were the beliefs of the Religious Movement – or cult -which became known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’ … and I must confess it is not an easy task.
Heaven’s Gate always rejected the label of ‘UFO cult’ but it is easy to see how they got that stamp. One central belief is that humans coexist with two celestial races inhabiting space. One of them are those inhabiting TELAH – or The Evolutionary Level Above Human. Members of TELAH can visit Earth inhabiting a human body
This is the case, for example, of the ‘Two Witnesses’, described in the Book of Revelation.
In Revelation 11, 1-14, it is told the story of how the two witnesses spread a message of judgment but were martyred. They were then resurrected and taken to heaven in a cloud. Do and Ti interpreted this cloud to be a spaceship. Furthermore, they were convinced that they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Gospel!
In later stages, Do would even claim that Jesus Christ was a being from TELAH, who had accepted death so that he could return to a higher level of existence on a spacecraft. That being had returned to Earth after 2,000 years inhabiting the body of one – you guessed it – Marshall Applewhite!
The other celestial race were the so-called ‘Luciferians’, or the fallen angels, followers of Satan. They were expelled from TELAH and have plunged into Earth, inhabiting human bodies. These Luciferian-human hybrids are responsible for ruining the planet and any opposition to the truth professed by Heaven’s Gate came from them, of course.
The other central tenet is that every human body is a mere shell for an asexual soul. This soul can be liberated from its earthly bounds and find salvation in outer space, thus reaching TELAH. In his initial teachings, Do preached that the soul could reach the ‘next level’ only while the body was still intact, but we’ll see later how he later contradicted himself.
Time to Recycle
In 1975, Do and Ti made it to the news. After a convention in Waldport, Oregon, they convinced a group of 20 people to follow them to eastern Colorado, where a UFO was due to land in the desert. The proselytes firmly believed that the spaceship would take them onboard and fly off onto the next level.
I hope I am not surprising anybody by saying that this momentous voyage of discovery turned into a rather awkward camping trip. Do and Ti surprisingly maintained most of their following after this disappointment, and the group relocated first to Denver, then to Fort Worth.
In their new base, Do and Ti maintained a low profile, as they had started to attract much unwanted media scrutiny. Instead, they sent some of their followers to travel the nation as missionaries, recruiting up to 200 members.
The two spiritual leaders then subjected their followers to a series of practices, routines and habits which tested their commitment and their beliefs.
Members of Heaven’s Gate had to pledge to a strict rule of uniformity. Their hair was shorn, their clothes replaced with baggy, androgynous outfits which annulled their individuality and gender identities. Their diets were strictly controlled, sometimes consisting of entirely pureed or even liquid foods. Drinking, smoking, and taking drugs were strictly forbidden.
But the strictest set of restrictions concerned sex.
Do and Ti demanded from their acolytes to lead entirely celibate lives. No sex among each other, let along with outsiders.
Sexual abstinence was such an integral component to their lifestyle that, following Do’s example, many male members decided to let go of their, well … male members.
I am talking about elective castration.
Unsurprisingly such a strict lifestyle alienated many followers, but that did not worry Do too much, as long as he had his Ti by his side. Little did he know she, too, would soon leave him behind.
In the early 1980s, Bonnie Nettles was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. In 1983, the disease spread so badly that she had one eye removed. But the tumour continued to progress, and she developed metastases in her liver. There wasn’t much that could be done, and she died in June of 1985.
Applewhite until now had followed Bonnie’s guidance. Now he was on his own and he had to improvise.
He had been teaching that only the living would have been taken aboard a spaceship and onto the higher level. How could he justify Bonnie’s death to his most loyal worshipers?
He simply modified Heaven’s Gate theology: the human soul was an immortal essence which could detach itself from the mortal body and travel to the next level, where it would be reincarnated into another corporeal vessel. Ti had been the first to do so, to prepare a place for the rest of them.
By the late 1980s, Applewhite had resumed his recruiting efforts, adding a new apocalyptic element to his credo. Applewhite’s take on the end of days was later documented in a series of speeches which he circulated on videotape and Public Access TV announcements.
In his talks, Do warned that our planet was about to be
“recycled, refurbished, started over … At the End of the Age the planet is wiped clean – refurbished – rejuvenated. The mess that the humans have made of it during this civilization is cleaned up”
And he prophesied that
“The only ones who survive the recycling are the ones who want to leave”
By 1996, Marshall Applewhite could count on about 40 followers. They lived communally, pooling their resources and exploring innovative income streams. The group was rather tech-savvy and was probably the first cult-like organisation to make extensive use of the internet to communicate their activities.
They even set up a digital marketing agency called ‘Higher Source’, specialised in web design and Search Engine Optimisation. Their success with clients such as the San Diego Polo Club granted them enough income to rent a large house in Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego.
It was in the first weeks of 1997 that Applewhite first claimed to be the second coming of Jesus. He explained to his followers that 2,000 years prior he had accepted his death, so that he could travel back to TELAH. He then asked his group
“What if we had to exit our vehicles by our own choice?”
This is the first time he mentioned the idea of a mass suicide. Only one member objected, packed his bags and left the cult.
What could have motivated Do’s decision?
Probably the appearance of the Hale Bopp comet. Heaven’s Gate saw this as a sign, a portent. Applewhite spread the idea that another celestial object, a spacecraft, was following in its wake. This was the signal that the members were ready to leave their bodies and board the spacecraft where ‘Ti’ was waiting with her crew of higher beings.
And what could have motivated 38 of Do’s followers to yield to his decision?
Unlike Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, the cult was under neither external threat nor internal violent coercion.
Early explanations from popular media have attributed the act to Applewhite brainwashing his followers. But academic writers studying New Religious Movements, such as Prof George Chryssides, have long dismissed the concept of brainwashing, referring to charismatic leadership instead.
According to this principle, charisma is something negotiated between leaders and followers. Those who chose to follow the leader, chose to do so on their own volition, because they agree with his or her teachings.
As time moves on, the demands of the leader may be met with approval or disapproval by some members. This is what happened with Heaven’s Gate: a life of abstinence from sex and human interaction is bound to have a high rate of attrition. There is a natural selection so that only those who really want to stay, do so. And those who stay, develop increasing familiarity and trust with the leader, thus becoming more and more compliant.
Long-term members also find it more difficult to disengage and return to a previous lifestyle of which they have only distant memories. This difficulty allows the leader to make heightened demands and claims upon the follower.
The last of these demands was, sadly, an unusual type of mass suicide. Unusual because, rather than presenting death as the lesser of two evils, it offered it as a necessary passage for a higher reward in heaven.
On March the 21st 1997, the members of Heaven’s Gate ate a last supper at a local restaurant: turkey pot pie, cheesecake with blueberries and iced tea.
They then prepared for their ‘space travel’. They dressed in long-sleeve shirts, black sweatpants and Nike Decades. A patch on their tops read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”.
The suicide ritual was performed in shifts, spread across three days.
First, they drank citrus juices to cleanse their bodies of impurities.
Then, they downed a lethal dose of Phenobarbital, some mixed with applesauce, some with vodka.
Then, they fastened plastic bags over their heads to induce asphyxiation.
One by one, all 39 awaited death, and an ascent to a spaceship that had sailed only through the cosmos of Applewhite’s darkened mind.
The death toll was not complete, though.
Even after Jesus reincarnate Marshall ‘Do’ Applewhite was no longer among them, two further members felt compelled to fulfill his wishes.
They attempted a copycat suicide in a hotel room, and one of them died immediately. The survivor committed his next attempt in February 1998, killing himself in the Arizona desert.
This marked the end of Heaven’s Gate, one of the most puzzling and shocking cults of the later years of the 20th Century. Or was it really the end?
Apparently, two individuals who identify themselves as Mark and Sarah King, aka ‘The TELAH Foundation’ have been keeping alive the message of ‘Do’ on social media and have even provided copies of Applewhite’s videotapes on request.
In a Reddit interview, they claimed that Do and the other 38 who had ‘departed’, had left them behind on purpose.
“The information must be available to mankind, in preparation for their return”
Biographies of Marshall Applewhite and Bo Nettles
The Preachings of Heaven’s Gate
Suicide, Suicidology, and Heaven’s Gate
Higher Source and TELAH Foundation