Everyone in modern American society knows all about mass murderers, or serial killers, as we like to label them. How could we not? The media has been reveling in lurid tales about them since the turn of the 20th century it seems. We’ve seen everything from Lizzie Borden, who may or may not have axed her whole family (I fall firmly on the “She did it” side of that equation) to the small town Kansas murders of the ‘50s that made Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood famous to the recent plague of mass shootings that continue to shock and horrify our country (like the Orlando and San Bernardino incidents of last year).
But what about the far creepier and far more frightening mass murders throughout history that can’t be blamed on a crazy person with a penchant for hiding body parts in their freezer (Hello Jeffrey Dahmer!). What about the more organized sorts of shootings, mass murders and killings that have stalked human history down the centuries? What about the “Lone Gunmen,” cults and “messiahs,”and religions and governments that have wreaked havoc on ignorant believers and unsuspecting citizens alike? Well, don’t worry; I’ve got you covered today.
These aren’t your garden variety monsters, either. You know, the kinds of bad dudes that movies like Seven or J-Lo’s The Cell or even the evergreen Silence of the Lambs celebrate. I’m not even talking about those personal paragons of evil like Charles Manson- guys who brainwashed a few people here and there into doing their evil bidding. Nope- I’m after bigger fish; the just plain crazy who managed to create chaos on their own or those evil charismatics who cajoled, coerced and just plain controlled enough people to create death counts in the dozens, hundreds, thousands, and yes, even millions. Here are some of the worst mass murders in human history by psychos, cult leaders and dictators. Hold on, it’s not pretty.
15. The Branch Davidians
Sometimes insane cult leaders manage to get the Feds involved even before they off their whole group because they’re just so out there somebody has to check them out. Such was the case with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians (an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists- and good luck convincing me that any of these “religions’ are any more than a cult). In 1982 Koresh rose to power in this cult and by 1993 ruled the whole group with an iron fist. Allegations of sexual abuse of women and minors, as well as questions about the group’s arms stockpile and intentions led to the FBI and ATF to surround their “compound,” a standoff that lasted almost two months until the government decided to storm the compound (based on reports of abuse and possible killings inside) on April 19. During the attack a fire broke out; one that was almost certainly set by Koresh and his people although idiotic survivalists blame the government (there’s a shocker). 80 cultists died that day, including almost two dozen children. Nice job, David- I hope you’re happy in Hell.
Well Geez, what can I say about Stalin that I didn’t already say about Hitler? Take one totally evil dictator with a monster chip on his shoulder (in Stalin’s case an inferiority complex due to his being an “ethnic Russian” and not Lenin’s chosen successor), unlimited power and paranoid delusions and let him go. Stand back and watch the disaster unfold. Unlike Hitler, however, Stalin managed to kills tens of millions of his own people long before World War II ever began. You see, Stalin didn’t trust his people, his party or his opponents to let him stay in power in the Soviet Union. So he purged the party in the 1930s- that was a few million deaths right there- starved his own peasantry- another few million- and sent everyone who even looked at him wrong to the Siberian death camps (“The Gulag”) or in front of his firing squads. By the time World War II started, Stalin had murdered 40 million of his own people. Then he went out and dropped another 10 million in his little war with Hitler. What a winner.
13. Seung-Hui Cho
When it comes to crazy shooters and their motives you just never know what you’re going to get- much like the cult leaders and dictators on this list, actually. What you do find out is that these mass killers are always all too effective at their murderer’s game, aren’t they? Cho was a senior at Virginia Tech University in 2007 when, on April 16, he began a rampage through campus that was lowlighted by his ability to massacre people not in just one incident but in two separate ones over the course of the day. First Cho, who had been diagnosed with acute social anxiety and other disorders in high school (those records were never shared with the university), entered a dorm and shot two people. Hours later he entered a classroom building and went on a rampage that ultimately saw him kill 30 people and wound another 23. He then committed suicide. I know this sounds cold but why couldn’t he have just offed himself first, you know what I mean?
Jim Jones will go down in history as perhaps the most infamous cult leader ever. That’s not a good thing. Jones was responsible for the deaths of over 900 people, including a U.S. Congressman. Yay Jim. It all started in 1974 when Jones, a former American communist (too bad he didn’t stay a frustrated political) bought land in Guyana and moved the “church” he had founded there. The charismatic nutjob preached against American media intrusion in people’s lives, against fascism and for faith healing- what a wonderful combo. By 1978 Jones had almost 1,000 followers at “Jonestown.” Unfortunately for everybody except Jim Jones, California Congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit Jonestown to investigate claims of human rights violations and abuse- there were, after all, 1,000 weird American expats living together in the jungle. Ryan tried to help some cult members escape but they were all gunned down at the airport by Jones’s security team. Jones then ordered everybody to swill down poison Kool-Aid (hence the term “You drank the Kool-Aid”) before the authorities could “get” them. Over 900 followers did just that, including over 200 children who probably really, really didn’t want to. Ugh.
Here’s a guy who probably should have a list of atrocities all to himself. The only reason, pretty much, that World War II ever happened is because of this guy. Well, that and some horrible Allied restrictions on Germany at the Treaty of Versailles but I digress. It was mostly this evil madman who couldn’t handle Germany’s defeat in World War I and so went from failed and ridiculous painter to failed human being. As leader of the Nazi Party, Hitler had no problem murdering Jews, Communists and anyone else who got in his way on his rise to power. As leader of the German Reich all he did was expand his program into organized ethnic/religious genocide, i.e. the “Final Solution” (what the rest of us call The Holocaust), organized military genocide (the invasion and destruction of the Soviet Union), and organized political genocide (the murder of everybody else he didn’t like, inside Germany and out; Gypsies, Catholics, social Democrats, Gays, Blacks- you name it, he hated ‘em). When he was done, Adolf Hitler was pretty much directly responsible for 30 million deaths- almost 10 million of them his own people. Great guy.
10. Charles Whitman
Charles Whitman didn’t have a very good day on August 1, 1966. In fact, Whitman didn’t have a very good day the day before either. Unless you consider going completely ballistic (quite literally) and killing or wounding 48 people a good day- I don’t. This wasn’t your usual creepy serial killer scenario either- one that unfolds over months or years. This guy was fine in March of ’66. He was happily married, an ex-Eagle Scout and former Marine. Then his mom left his dad and he fell apart. He told his psychiatrist he was thinking of shooting people from the U of Texas campus bell tower (umm, Doc???). He murdered his mom the night before and his wife that morning. He even left a letter asking the authorities to perform an autopsy on his body to see if they could find anything wrong with him- that’s a wow moment right there, isn’t it? Then he headed on over to the aforementioned bell tower and started taking potshots at the world with a rifle he bought that day- he was, of course, an expert sniper from his time in the Marines. Two hours later, Whitman had killed 14 people, wounded 31 and was shot down himself. What a nightmare.
9. Ordre Du Temple Solaire
Everyone knows about the Knights Templar, right? Either you think that they are an awesome secret organization out to save the true mysteries of the world, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or The Da Vinci Code, or you think they are the shadowy spawn of Satan who help control all of us regular people with the help of the Illuminati, elders of Zion, Bilderberg Group and other imaginary groups conspiracy theorists love to hate. Well, what if a couple of French psychos thought the Templar order still existed and they were their spiritual offspring? What if those self-same whack-jobs, Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret, decided that they needed to cleanse the world of the Antichrist and prepare for the return of Christ so they formed a cult and people actually joined them? I’m sure you can see where this is going. First the cult, in 1994, murdered the baby of one of its members because they thought the innocent infant was the Antichrist. Then these losers decided to off themselves- in Switzerland of all places. Police found 45 bodies; 30 had been shot and 15 took poison. Good riddance I say. Those a-holes murdered a baby.
8. Patrick Henry Sherrill
Do you remember when the term “Going Postal” was a thing? Do you know why? You have this dude, Patrick Henry Sherrill, to thank for it. On August 20, 1986, Sherrill walked into the U.S. post office he worked at and opened fire. When the smoke cleared, Sherrill had killed fourteen people and wounded six more. Here’s the best part in the worst way…Sherrill was just a disgruntled employee. He had received a poor performance review that morning. That’s right, he went from totally normal person to insane shooter in a few hours because his boss told him he needed to show up to work on time and stop screwing around in the mail room. What’s craziest about this story is that this guy was named after the famous Virginia Revolutionary War statesman and orator Patrick Henry. You know, the guy who said “Give me liberty or give me death!” Thanks Patrick, you gave your namesake too many ideas. Sherrill is one of those guys I talked about in the opening who managed to create chaos all on his own with no warning.
7. James Oliver Huberty
Well, it’s time to take a look at another solo psycho. Remember, the guys like this on this list aren’t evil-brilliant serial killers who stayed ahead of the law for years- that’s a different list. Nor are they terrorists. No, these are flat-out crazy people who suddenly snapped to the detriment of all involved. Remember the whole “Going Postal” thing? Well, there was also a time (the mid-80s again) when people seemingly took their lives into their own hands whenever they wanted something as simple as a Big Mac. The worst case in point is this jerk, James Oliver Huberty, who, like Charles Whitman, actually told his wife he thought he had a “mental problem.” When the mental health clinic that he called for an appointment didn’t return his call he snapped. Huberty drove to the local McDonald’s (after calmly saying farewell to his family) and began shooting. When he was finished (literally- by a police sniper) he had killed 21 people and wounded 19 more. All because he didn’t get a doctor’s appointment quickly enough to suit his taste.
6. Heaven’s Gate
Let’s check in on another group of crazy people and their even crazier leaders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. These two total freaks were the founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult, a cult that was pretty damn odd even for cults. They believed that the earth was going to be “recycled” (in the “Great Recycling-“wordsmiths they weren’t) and humans needed to leave the planet somehow before that happened. They also believed that they were aliens in human form- or some such bullsh*t. Somehow those two convinced a whole bunch of gullible people that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997 heralded their exodus from the planet if (there’s always an “If” in cults) everybody committed suicide by washing down sedatives with applesauce and vodka. 39 cult members, including Applewhite, dressed in matching track suits and new Nike sneaks and did just that. I myself spent the night that Hale-Bopp was most visible in the sky watching it from the parking lot of a tiny restaurant in Big Sur while drinking champagne with the other patrons and restaurant staff. I’d choose my way every day.
5. George Jo Hennard
And back to the solo shooters. This guy became infamous for what was essentially a hate crime (newsflash- everything on this list is a hate crime) when he drove his truck into a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas and opened fire, killing 23 people and wounding 27 others. Apparently Hennard was anti-gay, Hispanics, blacks, and women. So he was a real winner. He was also anti- the town and county he lived in, yelling as he shot that it was “payback day” against Bell County, Texas. What a freakin’ loser. I wish I could say this happened sometime in the Dark Ages, when we weren’t enlightened enough as a society to respect people of all races, creeds, genders and beliefs but it occurred on October 16, 1991, which is not that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Then again, look where America is today- maybe we’re not that enlightened after all. George Jo Hennard sure wasn’t.
4. Aum Shinrikyo
These stories don’t ever get easier to research, write or read. We go from a solo shooter back to the awful world of the cults. This time the evil “genius” was a guy named Shoko Asahara, the man who founded the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The cult was a crazy hodgepodge of Buddhist and Christian ideas that basically taught that the return of “Original Buddhism,” whatever that is, would come in a Book of Revelations-type apocalypse. To that end he convinced his followers (in multiple two-man attack teams) to release the deadly nerve agent Sarin in the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995. They hoped to usher in Doomsday. Instead they killed 12 innocent people and wounded over 5,000 more, some of whom have life-long breathing issues because of the attacks.
3. James Eagan Holmes
Most of our shooter so far are guys who basically just snapped and James Eagan Holmes, the “Dark Knight Rises” killer is really no different. Here was a guy with no prior criminal record and perhaps some warning signs (an obsession with killing according to an ex-girlfriend, a tendency to be a loner) but really nothing that anyone would have commented upon. Until he went absolutely apesh*t crazy on July 12, 2012 and began shooting people at a midnight screening of the movie. When his attack was all over he had killed 12 people and wounded 58 more. He also rigged his apartment with homemade bombs that the police had to dismantle. He tried to explain it all away in court as being insane but was instead sentenced to thousands of years in prison with no chance of parole. Good. It’s telling how many of these incidents occur in the summer- people seriously don’t seem to be able to stand the heat.
2. The Movement For The Restoration Of The Ten Commandments Of God
You know that you’re looking at a seriously f-ed up cult when they don’t even have a catchy name. Here’s one of the worst examples. These guys were hardcore believers in Y2K (remember that???) and thought the Apocalypse was coming on January 1, 2000. Joseph Kibwetere was the “mastermind’ behind this Ugandan group- he claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary telling him all about it. Cultists were supposed to strictly follow the Ten Commandments in order to ascend. When the new millennium arrived and nothing happened, Kibwetere and other cult leaders announced the world would end in March of 2000, gathered over 500 of their followers in a church, and then set fire to the place. Everyone died. Or so the police thought. Until they began finding the stabbed, strangled and poisoned bodies of other cult members at the group’s various locations- like hundreds of other bodies. There is now speculation that Kibwetere is still alive and at large. That’s reassuring.
And here’s our winner for our Tinpot Dictator award. If you thought Hitler with the Holocaust and Stalin with his purges were bad then you ain’t seen nothing yet. Mao Zedong, the original Communist leader of China, the “hero” who threw off the corrupt reign of emperor Chiang Kai Shek and saved the Chinese from the Japanese invasion of World War II, was actually an awful, awful man who, through his terrible social programs and personal paranoia, managed to kill off over 60 million of his own people. That’s 60 million. Some of them were murdered by “The Great Helmsman” for not being sufficiently Communist, some of them died in his insane modernization program “The Great Leap Forward,” some of them died in concentration camps or up against firing walls, many, many of them starved to death under his rule.
I don’t know which is worse; being killed by a solitary, psychotic gunman for no reason, losing your mind and dying for some mistaken belief in a cult or living under the rule of an incredibly evil dictator. I’ll choose none of the above, Alex.