10 Shocking Stories of Cults That Committed Crimes
From the Manson Family to the Peoples' Temple, these are the worst cults that committed crimes against others...or themselves.
Cults have a knack for making people do things they never thought they would do. There have been many people who, after joining a "new religion," have signed away their entire life savings to the cult. Others have chosen an entirely different lifestyle for themselves.
By nature, cults are dangerous—but usually, they are just dangerous for the people involved. That's why many cults end up being ignored by authorities, and why it's so easy for these religions to skate underneath the radar.
Once in a while, though, you'll hear of cults that committed crimes that are shockingly horrific. They are a testament to how dangerous cults are, and frequently become warning stories against joining groups that are just a bit too tight-knit.
Many cults are accused of crimes, but few can top these. Here are some of the worst offenders, plus books you can read about their crimes.
Led by Jim Jones, the Peoples' Temple was known for being a progressive sect of Christianity with many ties to politicians. Jones was particularly popular among people of color, primarily because of his staunch anti-racism views.
To a point, it's hard to believe that this was a cult. While many people have heard of Jim Jones, one of the many things people don't know about Jonetown is that it acted like a regular megachurch. At one point, this cult had a total membership of over 2,000 people.
Things headed South when Jones decided to move his congregation to Guyana. He began to demand loyalty, subservience, and control. It began to get to the point that people wanted to leave.
He became increasingly paranoid, until he finally convinced his followers to commit mass suicide. Many of his followers refused, but were killed by fellow members.
Over 900 people died in this massive killing spree, which has since become known as one of the most famous murders committed by cults. It became known as the Jonestown Massacre.
Suicide Cult is a book that gives you an inside look at what it was like to be part of the People's Temple—all in gruesome detail. The book's shocking content will leave your jaw dropped and make you wonder how people agreed to stay.
Charles Manson was a hippie who hung out with the Beach Boys, loved music, and ran a cult. His teachings said that there would be a massive race war, and that it'd be up to the Manson Family to be able to reunite the world in peace once more.
Like many other cult leaders, Charles Manson wasn't all there. He was a megalomaniac with an extremely keen ability to convince others to do whatever he wanted them to do.
To help his doomsday, or "Helter Skelter" happen, he commanded his followers to murder actress Sharon Tate and a number of other people. They did... and were quickly caught by police.
Four people died by the Manson Family's vicious attacks.
Charles Manson's antics became widely well-known thanks to the publication of Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. The book has become a classic among true crime books and remains one of the most chilling on the topic of Charles Manson.
The Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints was an extremist version of Mormonism that was known for ultra-conservative dressing, having multiple wives, and for being led by Warren Jeffs. For the most part, the cult kept to themselves.
When Warren Jeffs started to take over church leadership, he immediately banned all books and began practicing extreme sexual deviancy with his members. People suspected, but no one knew how bad it was.
International headlines were made when police uncovered that the church involved child marriage and the coerced rape of minors at the behest of Jeffs. He even had a "rape bed" custom made for his use on the FLDS compound.
Women from ages 10 to 66 were systematically raped by the men they were forced to marry, as well as men called "seed bearers." Women were not given the right to consent (or not).
Seed bearers were men who were designated by the church as having a pure bloodline and were given the right to have sex with any women they wanted—married or otherwise. Married women who were chosen had to hold their husband's hand while the seed bearer had sex with them.
Along with sex trafficking and child rape, the FLDS church was known for using child labor. Warren Jeffs fled from the police and ended up being arrested for his crimes. He is now serving life in prison.
Could you imagine living in a compound where you were traded by men like chattel? That's exactly how Rachel Jeff spent most of her childhood, since she was the daughter of cult leader Warren Jeffs.
Breaking Free is her story about life under Warren Jeffs's rule and how she managed to leave the cult that was run by her father.
The Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese cult that was led by Shoko Asahara, a man who was known for his heavy involvement in meditation, Buddhism, and New Age spirituality practices. Shoko himself also espoused a doomsday prophecy involving a third world war sparked by America.
At one point, the Aum Shinrikyo was one of the most powerful organized religions in Japan. Strange things started to happen, though. People who began to challenge the Aum disappeared. Sometimes, they were found dead, other times, they were just gone.
The cult soon was known for deception of recruits, as well as the forced detention of members and non-members alike. The Aum began to gain enough power to start working on weaponry as well as an underground bunker.
In an effort to make the doomsday prophecy come true, the Aum began to work with biological and chemical weapons. In 1995, the Aum Shinryikyo successfully carried out a Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. The attack killed eight and wounded 500 more.
Authorities apprehended Shoko and his top followers, and sentenced them to death.
Cult at the End of the World is one of the most in-depth books about the Aum Shinrikyo cult and how they attempted to wage war against innocent people. From nuclear stockpiles
If there ever was a "cultist's cult," it was Heaven's Gate. This cult was started by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, two individuals who met during Applewhite's stay at a mental hospital. (No, we're not kidding.)
Applewhite, who began to refer to himself as "Do," partnered with Nettles, who called herself "Ti." They decided that they were going to fulfill biblical prophecies and help people transcend physical bodies so that they could join an alien group who hid behind the Hale-Bop comet.
The cult killed themselves as part of a ritual. 39 members died. Suicide is a crime in some areas, which means that this technically falls under the umbrella of cults that committed crimes.
Considering how gruesome and bizarre the Heaven's Gate suicides were, it's not surprising that authors have published several books about the cult. Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion is a book that gives you the details behind Applewhite and his mass suicide.
Most people would be shocked to hear that the Hare Krishna group is one of the most active cults that commited crimes. They are known for being pretty peace-loving hippies with a fondness for boarding schools. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving.
Hare Krishna has been linked to serious counts of child abuse in their boarding schools in both America and India. In 1995, almost a dozen former students came forward in court to discuss Hare Krishna schools' physical and sexual abuse.
Caning, beatings with belts, and even sexual assault at knifepoint have all happened to students who were enrolled in their boarding schools. Scary, isn't it?
The Hare Krishna religion still remains very active, but that hasn't kept people from speaking out about the crimes they faced when they lived within the cult. Nori Muster's Betrayal of the Spirit gives you an amazingly in-depth insight into cult dynamics.
The Branch Davidians are a cult that initially started out as nonviolent and healthy, but quickly devolved after David Koresh gained power in the church. Under Koresh's leadership, the Branch Davidians turned into a doomsday cult that was found guilty of everything from child rape to murder, and became known as one of the most sadistic cults of the 20th century.
After Koresh began to gain traction in the church, he moved his church to a compound in Texas. That's when things really began to go downhill for everyone involved.
Koresh quickly began to sexually abuse female followers and started to marry multiple women under the age of 15. He would go so far as to forcefully split up couples who had attractive wives, just so he could take them for himself.
When Koresh wasn't raping followers, he was exerting his controlling grip on others around him—often with violence. Eventually, he began to stockpile guns and illegal weapons as part of his desire to build up an "Army of God" for the apocalypse.
The FBI and ATF raided his compound in a five-day siege, which resulted in the deaths of over 70 people.
David Thibodeau was one of the few cult members who managed to survive the Waco siege and know David Koresh personally. His tale about life as a member of the Branch Davidians is spellbinding, tragic, and at times, very telling about the human condition.
Osho was started by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh as a unique religion that mixed sex, capitalism, meditation, and a wry take on life. The cult exploded in popularity, with many members signing away their wealth to Rajneesh.
The cult quickly became known for being a wild, "hippie love" commune that involved sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. As the cult's popularity increased, so did Rajneesh's desire for power and control.
Cult members, knowns as sannyasins, came from all over the world to live at the Osho compound in Wasco county, Oregon. The problem is that many of the sannyasins weren't American citizens. The cult worked the immigration system by arranging marriages so they'd stay in the country.
The local town citizens quickly became a major foe of the cult, and the cult responded in like. The cult quickly used dirty deeds (including bussing homeless people into town to vote in elections) to gain political power around their area.
The final coup de grace occurred when Osho followers unleashed a biological weapon in a salad bar in Wasco in hopes of taking over the local government. Over 700 people were sickened, with over three dozen hospitalizations.
It's considered to be the worst bioterrorist attack in American history.
The Osho remains the only cult to have unleashed a bioterrorist attack on the United States. They also happen to be a cult aligned with wild beliefs about sexuality. You can read all the juicy details in The Rajneesh Chronicles.
This might not be an American-based cult, but there's no denying that it's one of the most extreme cults that committed crimes against humanity. This Nigeria-based cult was an extremist religion based on the teachings of Islam.
Known for its violent policies and forced conversions, the United States declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013. Even prior to its declaration, Boko Haram was known for being the source of multiple vicious attacks against nonbelievers.
For years, they were known in Nigeria as dangerous criminals—but it was still not well-known on a global scale. They only recently gained international headlines after they kidnapped several hundred girls to use for slavery purposes.
Boko Haram's terrible crimes still cause serious problems with people throughout Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Stolen Girls tells the stories of girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, and gives you valuable insight into why the jihadist movement blossomed.
The Children of God had a lot in common with the "hippie free love" movements of the 60s, especially when it came to recruiting new members. This cult was known for a full devotion to Jesus Christ and sexuality—and using sex for recruitment purposes.
This would be fine, if it was all between consenting adults. However, it wasn't. Along with adults, children were also used for recruiting. Hundreds of children, some younger than 12 years old, were molested by cult members, potential recruits, and their own families.
Kidnapping, physical abuse, and child rape were very common during the 1970s. The cult rebranded itself as the Family International and continues to operate.
Miriam Williams was a survivor of the Family International and acted as a "sacred prostitute" for 15 years of her life. Heaven's Harlots is a firsthand account of how she handled having sex with strangers—and what made her decide to leave the cult for good.