Mass suicide involves the simultaneous suicide of a group of people. It’s also known as murder-suicide, since the act can be ordered by an authority figure – particularly a cult leader.
Mass suicides can be cult-led, religiously motivated or, in particularly sad cases, be driven by a desperation to avoid a worse fate at the hands of the enemy…
On November 18 1978, 909 people – including 276 children – killed themselves or, in the children’s case, were ‘helped’ to die, in the Guyana town of Jonestown.
Members of cult group the People’s Temple, they performed the final act by sipping on cups of fruit punch laced with cyanide. The children were injected with the poison. Others were helped along with a knife to the throat.
Led by ‘Reverend’ Jim Jones, the People’s Temple built schools, cottages and grew crops in the tropical heat. Being an undeveloped area, Jonestown was the perfect place for the People’s Temple to establish their commune – especially since their bizarre beliefs were blighted by criticism back in America.
Jones controlled his followers through a combination of isolation and brainwashing, promising (and seemingly performing) Messiah-like miracles. He’d also spy on people, and humiliate them when needed.
Jones split up families, sexually abused people and made them terrified of the outside world.
Former member Tim Carter says the cult relocated to the remote location from America as they were taught that the USA was developing a ‘creeping fascism’, ‘religious extremism’ and race and poverty issues.
But what drove several hundred people to take their own lives? What led to Gerry Gouveia, one of the first members of the military to see the bodies, to describe the sight as, ‘The most horrific scene – it hasn’t left me yet.’
The end came when a party declared they wanted to abscond, escape the commune. Jones allowed them to get as far as the local airway strip, and then had them shot. He then told the rest of the cult that the plane would crash, attracting unfavourable outside attention to the People’s Temple.
The time for ‘revolutionary suicide’ had come, and the cyanide was handed out.
Gerry Gouveia and other rescuers were greeted with the sight of hundreds of corpses splayed around the commune. Dressed in bright colours, most lay face down in the dirt and grass, some lay in pairs.
Today, the site of the commune has been almost entirely reclaimed by the jungle.
On March 26 1997, 39 followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The cult was led by Marshall Applewhite, who believed Jesus was an alien – and that he was related to the son of God.
Applewhite told followers that the planet was about to be destroyed, or ‘recycled’, and that suicide was the ‘only way to evacuate the Earth’ and move to the ‘next level.’
He explained that once their souls had separated from their bodies, they could board a spaceship that trailed the comet Hale-Bopp.
On that day, the 39 faithful – dressed in identical black outfits – drank phenobarbital (a barbituate that depresses the central nervous system) mixed with pineapple and vodka. They tied plastic bags around their heads, just to make sure.
Each member carried money to pay the ‘interplanetary toll’, and the dead, aged 26 to 72, were found lying in their beds with a perfectly square piece of purple cloth covering their head and torso.
Due to the heady heat in California, many of the bodies had started to decompose before they were discovered…
Demmin mass suicide
Not all mass suicides involve dodgy cults. History provides tragic examples of mass suicides as a means to escape persecution.
Nearing the end of the Second World War in May 1945, between 1,000 and 2,500 (the exact number is difficult to pinpoint) residents of the town Demmin in Germany killed themselves by wrist-slashing with razors, gun shots, drowning and hanging.
The reason? They’d rather die than fall into the clutches of Stalin’s notoriously brutal Red Army, which had been encouraged by the dictator to rape, murder and pillage freely as a reward for its success as it marched on Berlin.
Survivor Karl Schlosser was 7 when his townsfolk took their own lives. He recalls: ‘As parts of the town burned, we fled into the woods and later made camp in a nearby field.
‘One morning, after nearly a week, I woke up to see corpses floating in the river. Later I saw people hanged from trees.
‘We moved into a house next door where the family had hanged themselves – they were still dangling from the tree in the garden as we moved in.’
Some mothers who had tried to be merciful and had killed their children by poison or drowning them in the freezing water, found themselves unable to do the same for themselves.