Applewhite, Jr., Marshall Herff (1931-1997)

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Applewhite, Jr., Marshall Herff (1931-1997)

In March 1997, Marshall Applewhite gained some degree of infamy when 39 members of the small communal group he led committed suicide together. The group, known by various names including Human Individual Metamorphosis and Heaven's Gate, had first emerged in the 1970s when he and the group's cofounder, Bonnie Lu Truesdale Nettles, traveled throughout the United States recruiting people to join them on a flying saucer.

Applewhite was born on March 17, 1932, in Spur, Texas, and grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister. After finishing college he entered the Union Theological Seminary of Virginia to study for the Presbyterian ministry, but did not finish his degree. His talent appeared to be music and he obtained a position as the music director of a church in North Carolina. He served in the Army for two years (1954-56) and after holding several different jobs landed a position as head of the music department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He taught there through the 1960s, but lost his position in 1971.

Soon after his departure from St. Thomas, Applewhite met Nettles, a nurse who was knowledgeable of occult matters, especially astrology and channeling. As their relationship grew, they became convinced that they were the "Two Witnesses" spoken of in the Bible (Rev. 11:1-14). Shortly thereafter they began to tour the country searching for some people who would join them in a movement to transcend their earthly containers (bodies) and ascend to a higher level of existence. Several hundred people responded. During this period Applewhite and Nettles referred to themselves as Bo and Peep.

The group that gathered around the pair fully expected to be taken off the Earth in a flying saucer shortly after they joined the group. When that did not occur, Applewhite, Nettles, and their followers settled first in Denver and then in Fort Worth, Texas, where they lived quietly for the next two decades. Nettles died in 1985, and Applewhite emerged as the leader of the group. He had previously taught that death would cut people off from moving to the higher level and only the living would be taken aboard the saucer. However, he suggested that Bonnie was in fact the one referred to in the Bible as the Father who had gone on before the rest to prepare a place for them.

About this same time, Applewhite underwent surgery to have his sexual organs removed and suggested that the men in the group follow his example. Several did, though castration is not routine surgery, they found it difficult to locate a doctor who would agree to do it. Over the following decade Applewhite kept the group focused upon the approaching Endtime and the need to renounce all earthly attachments.

During the early 1990s, Applewhite came back into the public eye as he led new efforts to recruit members to the dwindling group in what he saw as a final push. These efforts included some programs on public access television and the production and distribution of several video tapes and a book. In the mid-1990s he began to inject the idea that the movement to the higher level might include what was generally thought of as suicide. A short time later he led the group to California, where a large house was rented in an exclusive section of Ranch Santa Fe, a suburb of San Diego. They were there in early 1997 when Applewhite heard of the newly discovered Hale Bopp Comet and of rumors that a spaceship was following it on its approach to Earth. Believing this to be the sign they were waiting for, he prepared the group for their leaving the planet. Finally, as the comet came closest to Earth in March 1997, over a several-day period (March 23-25), Applewhite and the remaining group members committed suicide using vodka and phenobarbital. Because the bodies were not discovered for several days, the exact time of death remains unknown. In the wake of the deaths, Applewhite has joined the list of religious leaders known for the destructive twist they gave to their original vision and the multiple deaths that resulted.

Sources:

Balch, Robert W. "Waiting for the Ships: Disillusionment and the Revitalization of Faith in Bo and Peep's UFO Cult." In James R. Lewis, ed. The Gods Have Landed. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Henry, William. The Keeper of Heaven's Gate: The Religion Behind the Rancho Santa Fe Suicides. Anchorage, Alaska: Earthpulse Press, 1997.