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
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. 111–14). 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 mid1990s
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.
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.