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10 Truly Bizarre Cases Of Self-Proclaimed Messiahs

by Adam R. Ramos
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Whether driven by greed or power, countless men throughout history have claimed to be superior beings, amassing followers seeking something to believe in or belong to. As one’s image and reputation grows, often does their ego and lunacy, ultimately leading to an inevitable and tragic downfall. The following 10 cases are of self-proclaimed messiahs throughout the last two centuries, some of whom have not only redefined insanity, but destroyed countless lives in the process.

10 Arnold Potter

Arnold Potter, a self-declared messiah who referred to himself as Potter Christ, was a leader of a schismatic sect in the Latter Day Saint movement during the 1850s. On a mission to Australia in 1856, Potter claimed that he underwent a “purifying, quickening change,” whereby the spirit of Jesus Christ had entered his body causing him to become, “Potter Christ, Son of the living God.”

The following year, Potter returned from Australia and moved to California, where he quickly began to gather followers. Over the next year, Potter, along with his family and followers, moved throughout the country from California to Missouri to Iowa, where he would roam the streets in a white robe, preaching that he was the chosen one. Every week, “Potter Christ” would lead his devoted group in prayer sessions, and in 1872, he declared that the time had come for his ascension to Heaven.

Potter rode a donkey to the edge of a cliff, and with his followers watching in awe, he claimed that he would jump off only to ascend into Heaven, ultimately proving that he was indeed Christ, the Chosen One. While saying so, Potter turned around and leaped from the cliff. To everyone’s surprise, he did not ascend to heavens above; instead, he plummeted to his death. His bewildered and faithful followers ended up collecting their messiah’s mangled body and burying it, along with their shattered dreams and any form of logic.

9 Laszlo Toth

Laszlo Toth

Photo via Wikimedia

Between 1498 and 1499, Michelangelo sculpted out of solid rock the Pieta, a life-size marble statute of the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son, Jesus, after he was removed from the cross. The magnificent work of art would remain unscathed in St. Peter’s Basilica until May 21, 1972, when Australian student Laszlo Toth wielded a hammer and struck the statue more than 15 times while proclaiming, “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.” Toth (pictured lower right above) was eventually subdued by bystanders but not before breaking off Mary’s nose, parts of her eyelid, and her left arm below the elbow. No charges were ever filed against Toth based on his apparent insanity, and he was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital, where he would spend the next two years before being released and deported back to Australia.

The reconstruction of the Pieta became one of the most controversial in art history, dividing many as to how to proceed with the delicate restoration of such a priceless masterpiece. Many art historians wanted the damaged statue to remain as it was as a sign of violent times, while others insisted it should be restored. Ultimately, the Vatican decided to restore the statue, leaving no traces of intervention visible to the naked eye. It took more than five months to identify all the pieces and fragments and more than 10 months after the attack before the Pieta was fully restored, this time behind a panel of bulletproof glass, where it remains to this day in St. Peter’s Basilica.

8 Ernest Norman

Ernest Norman

Photo credit: Ernest L. Norman

The Unarius Academy of Science was founded in 1954 by Ernest L. Norman, an electrical engineer who claimed to be the reincarnation Jesus but now went by the name of Rafael, a fallen angel from the heavens, preached to his followers how humans were reincarnated countless times over on this planet and others. Ernest’s bizarre message was supported by his wife and fellow leader of the “church,” Rita, who claimed to be an archangel named Uriel who had telepathic abilities, which allowed her to communicate with residents of 33 other planets. Like Ernest, Rita also had a past life where she was once lived as Mary Magdalene. That makes complete sense, doesn’t it?

Apparently it did to the Academy’s 150,000 members (although that number was most likely fictitious), who wholeheartedly believed that their leader Ernest was in fact the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that they were the ones who had crucified him, only to be reunited in this life to make up for their past transgressions. If you’re beginning to get a headache, take some aspirin because this tale is only going to get more bizarre: The Unarius Academy of Science, which was based out of El Cajon, California, believed that movies such as Star Wars were in fact biopics of their own lives and that 33 spaceships were headed toward Earth, their destination being Jamul, California.

Upon Ernest’s death in 1971, Ruth took over as the leader of the church, causing the group’s public profile to peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this time, Ruth appeared on many talk shows, dressed in strange, brightly colored wigs and outfits, claiming how the spaceships would land on certain given dates. To everyone’s surprise, no aliens ever visited. Her inaccurate predictions continued throughout the years until her death in 1993 at the age of 93. To date, no spaceships have ever touched down, causing the church to focus more on their spiritual energy as opposed to aliens visiting.

7 John Hugh Smyth Pigott

Agapemone was a Christian religious group in England that was founded in 1846 by Reverend Henry Prince, who declared himself the second coming of the Messiah and that he was immortal. The church had many followers, primarily consisting of women whom Prince deemed appropriate to engage in sexual relations with. Prince led the women to believe that since he was the Holy Spirit, their female mortal bodies would not be able to become impregnated by sex with him. However, this was one of many false promises that would soon come to light following the impregnation of one of his female adherents. Upon her pregnancy, Prince claimed that the child was that of Satan.

When Prince died in 1899, the community was shocked, given their belief of his immortality. However, their worries would soon cease after Prince’s successor, John Hugh Smyth Pigott, assumed the mantle. According to Pigott, Prince had only been a harbinger, but he was the true ever-lasting Messiah, Jesus. Once again, the followers accepted the claims of the false prophet, and Pigott’s power and congregation grew to as many as 6,000.

Pigott preached to his followers how there was no need to search for God, for He was standing right in front of them. As word spread about Pigott’s influence, other religious leaders began to denounce him, warning him to abstain from his preaching or be destroyed and turned into bones and dust. As time went on, Pigott’s mental health began to deteriorate, causing his speech to become muddled and his thought processes to become unstable. His so-called followers began to part ways from the church, and in the end, Pigott spent his last days in a state of mental, physical, and social crisis. Pigott died in 1927 and was buried in his own church.

6 John Nichols Thom

Battle of Bossenden Wood

Photo via Wikimedia

John Nichols Thom was a successful and respected wine merchant and hop dealer living in England in the 1820s. He eventually began a profitable venture in the malt trade, earning a considerable amount of money in Liverpool. However, Thom disappeared without a trace one night, leaving his family and friends to ponder his whereabouts for the next two years.

In 1832, Thom reemerged in Canterbury under the new identity of Sir William Percy Honeycomb Courtenay, knight of Malta. He had long hair and a beard and dressed in exotic costumes, completely disassociating himself with his previous identity and taking residence at the Rose Inn, a local hotel. During this time, Thom began to claim that he was the reincarnation of Jesus. After being found guilty of perjury in court, as well as his former wife testifying about Thom’s history of insanity, Thom was examined by two surgeons, who declared him unsound of mind, ultimately admitting him to Barming Health Asylum in 1833.

There, Thom was viewed as a model patient and was granted a free pardon by Queen Victoria in 1837. Following his release, Thom began to gain followers, preaching promises of a better future and wealth, ultimately persuading countless men to leave their work and follow him. This did not sit well with wealthy landowners, who were losing their workforce, and on May 21, 1838, the parish constable enlisted the help of his assistant and his brother, Nicholas Mears, to find and confront Thom.

Upon the men’s arrival at the Bossenden Farm, where Thom and his followers were staying, Thom shot and killed Nicholas Mears, causing the constable and his assistant to flee the scene and return with soldiers. The 45th Infantry under Major Armstrong, which consisted of about 100 men, tracked Thom and his followers down in the woods, where Thom once again opened fire, killing a lieutenant and wounding another. The following eight minutes consisted of gunfire, ultimately killing Thom and eight of his followers.

5 Krishna Venta

Kirshna Venta

Photo credit: Krishna Venta

Francis Heindswater Pencovic, who changed his name to Krishna Venta, founded the Wisdom, Faith, Love and Knowledge Fountain of the World cult in the late 1940s in Simi Valley, California. Prior to founding his church, he was a burglar, thief, and con artist. However, that supposedly all changed when he realized that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He claimed that Christ’s soul entered his body, having traveled from the planet Neophrates on a rocket ship whose passengers included Adam and Eve.

Venta’s physical presentation consisted of a monk’s robe, long hair and beard, and no footwear. He claimed that there would be an armed race war in the streets of the United States, initiated by communist Russia. Venta claimed that at the end of the war, Armageddon would occur due to the use of nuclear weapons, but he and his 144,000 followers would be safe, taking refuge in a hidden location in the mountains.

Venta’s power would come to an end on December 10, 1958, after several former members of his cult accused him of abusing his power as well as alienating them from their wives (who were still in the cult) and engaging in extramarital affairs. The men had 20 sticks of dynamite and encountered Venta in the administrative building of the group’s communal settlement. They detonated their bomb, killing Venta and nine other members of the cult. Venta’s wife took over as leader of the group and continued to do so until the early 1980s.

4 Marshall Applewhite

Heaven’s Gate Cult Initiation Tape Part 1

As Jesus Christ walked the Earth 2,000 years ago, extraterrestrials from the Kingdom of Heaven descended down from the skies and took over the body of Christ. Jesus’s soul was controlled by these aliens until his crucifixion, and 2,000 years later, they would once again return, this time entering the body of Marshall Applewhite. At least, that’s how the story went according to Applewhite and his bizarre cult, Heaven’s Gate. Although it’s mind-boggling that people actually bought into this idea, that the spirit that once resided in Jesus was now in Applewhite, the false messiah gathered a following of 39 and would make history in 1997.

Applewhite founded Heaven’s Gate in the 1970s. At its peak the cult had around 200 members. However, in time, Applewhite became more paranoid and began to weed out countless members whom he didn’t trust, only allowing the most dedicated and obedient to remain. The cult abided by strict rules involving unusual diets and sexual experimentation. They were forbidden to smoke or drink alcohol, and the men, including Applewhite, were castrated.

Upon the discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1995, Heaven’s Gate believed it was in fact a spaceship that was going to take them to the “Next Level,” whatever that may be. On March 21, 1997, as the comet or “spaceship” drew closer, the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate went to a restaurant to enjoy their last meal—turkey pot pie, cheesecake with blueberries, and iced tea. Over the next two days, all members committed suicide by drinking a mixture of vodka and barbiturates. Their bodies were found on March 26, all dressed the same in black attire and brand-new Nike sneakers, with their heads covered in purple shrouds. It is uncertain whether or not their spaceship arrived safely at its proper destination.

3 Yahweh Ben Yahweh

Yahweh Ben Yahweh EXPLODES

Hulon Mitchell Jr., who went by the name Yahweh ben Yahweh (which translates to “God, Son of God” in Hebrew), created the Nation of Yahweh, a black separatist religious sect in the Miami area, in 1979. Yahweh, who wore a turban and white robes, referred to himself as the reincarnated Messiah and gained a cult following consisting of thousands who believed that he was a prophet.

His followers wore white robes and turbans, took the surname Israel, kept a kosher diet, and were told by Yahweh that the blacks were the true Jews and that they had to worship the sect’s “Temple of Love.” In time, Yahweh became increasingly paranoid and punished those whom he believed were disrespectful or did not follow by his rules. On one occasion, Leonard Dupree, a member of the Nation of Yahweh, was beaten to death with a tire iron in front of 70 other followers inside the Temple of Love.

As time went on, so did the murders of group members whom Yahweh believed disagreed with his teachings, some by decapitation. Yahweh began to order his followers to prove their devotion to him by killing random white people (or “white devils,” as he called them), often vagrants, claiming that it would be an initiation rite. In 1992, Yahweh ben Yahweh and 12 of his followers were convicted of 14 murders, two attempted murders, extortion, and arson. Eventually, Yahweh was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison, only to be released on parole in 2001. In 2007, Yahweh died of cancer in Miami at the age of 71.

2 Shoko Asahara

Tokyo Subway

Photo credit: Tsu

Shoko Asahara was born Chizuo Matsumuto on March 2, 1955, in Japan. A birth defect caused him to be blind in his left eye, leaving him only partial sight in his right. After being denied acceptance to medical school, Asahara began to study herbal medicines, and in 1981, he was convicted of practicing pharmacology without a license and was fined. Following this, Asahara focused his interests on religion as well as studying Chinese astrology and Taoism.

By the late 1980s, Asahara had founded his own religious cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo. By 1990, the cult had amassed 10,000 followers, and Asahara had been calling himself the “Savior of the Country,” the “Holy Pope,” and “Tokyo’s Christ.” Asahara began preaching to his followers how the world would soon come to an end following a series of disasters and instructed his members to gather firearms, develop biological weapons, and acquire supplies of sarin in order to prepare for dooms day.

In March 1995, under the instructions of Asahara, five members of Aum released the nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, ultimately killing 13 and affecting thousands with neurological aftereffects. Dozens of Aum members, including Asahara, were arrested. Aum was officially shut down, and Asahara was sentenced to death in 2004.

1 Jim Jones

Jim Jones

Photo credit: Nancy Wong

Perhaps the most well-known on this list is Jim Jones, the self-proclaimed messiah who asked his followers to call him “Father.” In fact, Jones claimed that he was not only the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, but Vladimir Lenin as well—two historical figures who couldn’t be any more opposite from one another.

Jones’s bizarre tyranny all began with his establishment of the Peoples Temple, which primarily sought members of the black community, outcasts from society, the uneducated, the poor, and those in need who were searching for someone and something to believe in. Those who were drawn to church did so not because of their race, education, or gender, but because they felt a sense of belonging. According to Jones, he and his followers moved from the Midwest to California in order to get away from racial tensions as well as to find a safe place in the event of a nuclear war.

As Jones’s influence and power grew within his congregation, so did his paranoia and his need to control his followers. As time went on, Jones became more and more addicted to drugs and alcohol, and his delusions became increasingly more manic. He believed that the CIA was following him, prompting him to seek new refuge, which he called “The Promised Land.” Ultimately, Jones moved his entire congregation to Guyana, where the Peoples Temple was established, free from the outside world. Although numerous reports of atrocities were occurring in “Jonestown,” given the Temple’s close connections to diplomats as well as the prime minister of Guyana, a blind eye was turned by local law enforcement.

On November 18, 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate the congregation, and upon his departure from Guyana, he and his associates were gunned down on the airstrip by followers of the Peoples Temple. Later that day, Jones, believing it was the beginning of the end and that law enforcement would soon close in, organized a mass suicide of his congregation. His followers forced their children to drink poison-laced Kool-Aid or flavor-aid (both were found in the compound and Jones is seen on film opening a crate containing both products), after which they, too, ingested the concoction. Jim Jones shot himself in the head after the members had all killed themselves. In the end, 900 people committed suicide, the largest mass suicide in modern history.

Adam is just a hubcap trying to hold on in the fast lane.

fact checked by Jamie Frater