Riding the Comet to Insanity
On this date, March 26, 1997, America was stunned with the news that a UFO cult in San Diego had committed mass suicide, convinced by their leader that they were going to join a UFO that was flying in the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet, which was then crossing the sky. Most who read of the bizarre cult were stunned that anyone could believe such things, but strange cults were nothing new – especially in California. It was in California that the infamous Jim Jones got his start, leading to a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. It was also in California that Charles Manson led his bloodthirsty “family” on a murder spree that effectively ended the peace-loving hippie movement of the 1960s – and still haunts us today.
Marshall Applewhite – Insane Heaven’s Gate leader
California – and Southern California area in particular – was filled with sects and churches in the early 1900s, with ministers like “Fighting Bob” Shuler and Aimee Semple McPherson gaining followers and garnering headlines, but they were far from alone. Starting at about the same time that the film industry discovered Hollywood and made its home among the palm trees, scores of “spookeries” and “fairy farms” began showing up, too.
Decades before the hippie movement made “free love” an international phenomenon, love cults flourished all over Southern California. The first word of them spread in the middle 1920s and began making news a few years later, like one “nest of love” on Santee Street where women were forced to “speak in tongues,” perform “devil dances,” and engage in “soul mating” with “spiritual husbands.”
In 1939, the High Priestess Regina Kuhl captured the attention of the authorities when she was caught indoctrinating male students at L.A. City College into her “Temple of Thelma.” The temple was set up in the basement of one of the dorms and there, she would don robes, chant some suggestive passages from an Aleister Crowley book and “embrace the power of the lifted lance” – or more simply put, engage in sex with multiple partners.
In 1946, Henry “King Daddy” Newson was arrested for running his own sex camp called Ten Oaks. According to newspaper reports, he molested sixteen underage girls over the course of two years. In his defense, he claimed that he was teaching them the “beauty” of sexual intercourse. Several of the girls claimed that he controlled their minds through hypnosis.
THE BLACKBURN CULT
The religious group known as the Blackburn Cult, the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, or the Great Eleven Club, was started around 1925. The group’s founder, May Otis Blackburn, claimed to receive revelations directly from God and believed that she had been charged by the archangel Gabriel to write books that revealed the mystery of heaven and earth, life and death. Apparently, Gabriel thought the goal of teaching the earth should be accomplished though strange rituals that involved animal sacrifice, copious amounts of sex between followers of the cult, and by stealing thousands of dollars from naïve believers.
The horrible state of Willa Rhoads’ body after it was found beneath her parent’s house in 1929. (LAPD Crime Photo)
The cult began to fall apart in 1929 after police officers made a gruesome discovery at the home of the Rhoads family on Vermont Avenue. Under the floor of one of the bedrooms was a specially built, refrigerated “sleeping chamber” that contained the corpse of their 16-year-old daughter, Willa. The girl’s body was covered in spices and salt and was surrounded by seven dead dogs. The Rhoads later confessed that they had placed the girl in the tomb at the direction of May Otis Blackburn, who convinced them that she would be resurrected when the archangel Gabriel came to earth.
Group leaders were indicted later that year for theft and were also investigated in the disappearance of several members. The indictments made newspaper headlines when the strange rituals of the cult were revealed to the public. May Otis Blackburn was charged with 12 counts of grand theft and the cult collapsed after she was sent to prison for stealing $40,000 from group member Clifford Dabney.
Eerily foreshadowing the modern cult of Scientology (on which a religion is based on the writings of a science-fiction novelist) was the Mankind United sect, which was created by another science-fiction writer, Arthur Bell. During the height of the Great Depression, Bell penned a book called Mankind United, a turgid, repetitive text that was filled with bold type and large blocks of capitalized text. It told the story of a malevolent conspiracy that ran the world (the "Hidden Rulers" and "Money Changers") who were not only responsible for war, poverty and injustice – they were also aliens living on earth.
Opposing them was another group of aliens, the “Sponsors,” who had arrived on earth in 1875. According to Bell, the benevolent Sponsors were shortly going to announce their presence and would put in place a world-wide utopia, based on universal employment and a financial system based on credits. The workday would be four hours a day, four days a week. Needless to say, all of this sounded pretty good to tired, worn-out people who were struggling to put food on their tables.
In order for the Sponsors to put their plan into place, they had to receive massive support from the people. The plan would be promoted by the “Pacific Coast Division of North America, International Registration Bureau” – which was, of course, run by Arthur Bell. He announced that when 200 million people accepted the Mankind United plan, the Sponsors would overthrow their rival alien groups and, within 30 days, the new utopia would begin.
Of course, there were no Sponsors, no evil aliens, and no “International Bureau.” The whole thing had been concocted by Bell and it never numbered more than a few thousand followers, if that. The only true beneficiary of the group was Bell, who had several luxurious apartments and mansions, including a swanky place on the Sunset Strip that had an indoor pool, a pipe organ, and a cocktail bar. Bell was spotted in all of the most swinging nightclubs and spent cash freely. He received about $50,000 a year in tax-free income, which adjusted for inflation would be the equivalent of nearly $1 million today. His followers, on the other hand, worked in various cult businesses full-time, including hotels and shops. They were paid less than $40 a month, worked up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week – which was quite a bit more than the utopian work week they had been promised in Bell’s book.
The cult gained the attention of the authorities during World War II. Bell incorporated as a church (the Church of the Golden Rule) to obtain tax exemption and began making even more bizarre claims, such as the idea that he could be beamed to several different places at once, that the Sponsors had advanced technology that allowed the dead to be resurrected on other planets, and more. None of these turned out to be quite enough to gain popular support and in 1951, Bell’s group folded and the cult faded away completely. As some would later discover, though, he was simply a man ahead of his time. If he had started his church a few decades later, he might be able to count some of the biggest stars in Hollywood as his members.
FOUNTAIN OF THE WORLD
One of the most famous cults in Southern California was Krishna Venta’s WKFL (for Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love) and it began as a quiet monastery in Canoga Park in 1948.
The Fountain of the World, as the group became known, first got the attention of the press in the 1940s and 1950s for its members’ habit of dressing in robes and going barefoot. Male members were required to grow beards and wear their hair long. The Fountain was marginally controversial because one of the requirements for membership was that one donate all his or her worldly assets to the group prior to joining. For most, this was irrelevant since they had very little to start with.
The group was responsible for a multitude of positives, including fighting wildfires, offering shelter to those in need, and feeding the homeless. The group gained national exposure in 1949 when the newswires picked up the story that Fountain members had been among the first on the scene to offer aid to the victims of Standard Airlines Flight 897R, which had crashed into the Simi Hills, killing 35 of 48 persons onboard. Krishna Venta also taught his followers to set up free food services for the poor, offer free room and board to the homeless, and help emergency relief groups in times of need.
But things at the commune were stranger than most people knew. In addition to promoting charitable works, Venta also claimed that smoking was healthy, that human beings were evolved from aliens, that he was 244,000 years old and would never die (he did), that he arrived on earth in 1932 on Mount Everest, and led a convoy of rockets here from the extinct planet Neophrates. He also claimed that he was none other than Jesus Christ himself. To prove it, he liked to show his detractors that he had been born without a belly button, proof that he was Jesus, an alien, or something.
Krishna Venta had been born Francis Herman Penovic in 1911. He was married in 1937 and divorced seven years later. He was arrested in 1941 after sending a threatening letter to President Roosevelt. Later, using the name Frank Jensen, he committed a series of crimes including burglary, larceny and kidnapping. He also spent a few months in a mental hospital. In 1948, he changed his name and founded his religion. He also got involved in the California legal system again when he was ordered to pay child support from 1945 to 1951. He claimed a religious exemption but the court ruled against him in 1955.
Venta died on December 10, 1958 in a suicide bombing instigated by two disgruntled former followers (Peter Kamenoff and Ralph Muller) who, although never offering any proof to support their claims, charged that Venta had both mishandled cult funds and been intimate with their wives. Krishna Venta is buried in Valhalla Memorial Park in Burbank. His grave is unmarked but near that of Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame. A monument to Venta still exists in the canyon in Canoga Park where the commune once stood.
A branch of the Fountain of the World cult was also established in Homer, Alaska, in the years prior to Venta's death. Cult members were referred to as the “barefooters” by locals. But Fountain membership at both sites declined rapidly following Venta's death, and the cult ceased to exist entirely by the middle 1970s.
Undoubtedly, the strangest of the modern-day “alien” cults in Southern California was Heaven’s Gate, a UFO religion that was based out of San Diego and led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. At some point in the early 1970s, Applewhite became convinced that he was an alien who was transported to earth and reincarnated into the body of a man – named Marshal Applewhite. From that point on, he believed that it was his mission to teach everyone he came into contact with about the creed of transcendence. With the help of his partner, Bonnie Nettles, he gathered a number of followers and convinced them to give up everything that they owned (including their children) and to prepare themselves for the trip to the “Evolutionary Level Above Human.” Applewhite’s preparation included months of extreme psychological mind control experiments, starvation, and celibacy. Some cult members even went as far as to castrate themselves.
Although mostly unknown to the mainstream media, Heaven’s Gate was known in UFO circles and had been the subject of criticism by respected UFO writer Jacques Vallee. In Messengers of Deception, he described an unusual public meeting organized by the group and expressed concerns about many UFO contactee groups' authoritarian political and religious outlooks, including the views of Heaven’s Gate.
The group's end coincided with the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Applewhite convinced 38 followers to commit suicide, which he claimed would allow their souls to board a spaceship that they believed was hiding behind the comet. The cult believed that the planet Earth was about to be “recycled,” or wiped clean, and that the only chance they had to survive was to leave it immediately.
The Heaven’s Gate crime scene photos
On March 26, 1997, 38 members of the cult, along with Marshall Applewhite, were found dead in a rented mansion in the upscale San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe. As the Hale-Bopp comet approached the earth, the group members drank citrus juice to ritually cleanse their bodies of impurities. The suicides were then accomplished by ingesting phenobarbital, mixed with vodka, and by tying plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. The cult members were found lying neatly on their bunk beds, their faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth – and plastic bags secured over their heads. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike athletic shoes, and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team."
Strange Tales of Southern California cults, weird murders and hauntings can be found in Troy Taylor’s book BLOODY HOLLYWOOD. It’s available in an autographed edition from the website or as a Kindle edition.