Don’t Drink the Koolaid! is Episode 4 (Season One) of the Death in the Afternoon Podcast.
Episode 4: Don’t Drink the Koolaid!
Unfortunately, being in a cult doesn’t always end well. Beyond promises of salvation and immortality, one thing many cults have in common are dead bodies. This week, as we discuss the disturbing world of cults, we confront the questions: Why shouldn’t we drink the Kool-Aid? How many puppies does it take to resurrect a teen queen? And, what shouldn’t you bring into a doomsday cave? (Spoiler: corpses)
When we were discussing subjects for Death in the Afternoon, we all knew we wanted to do an episode dedicated to cult bodies. Sadly, there here are so many cases we could have covered in this episode, but if there’s a second season of the podcast we’ll likely return to this topic.
As we’ve stated many times before, death sucks. It is incredibly painful, complicated, and messy—which is one of the reasons why it is so important to talk about it, and begin to unravel our feelings. Just because we (your hosts) deal with death on a daily basis, doesn’t really make it easier. Here’s Louise with more on this:
This week was a rather SERIOUS podcast, at least for me. I tend to get very emotional when researching heavy topics, and Jonestown was definitely in that realm. I’m the gal most likely to be typing at a computer in a coffee shop, tears running down her cheeks with a buffer of three empty tables around her because well, who wants to sit too close to that person? (NICE PEOPLE THAT’S WHO.)
Everybody loves when I write in public.
But I’ll be honest, when I listened to this week’s podcast, a podcast where I felt like I did more talking than usual, I wasn’t tearing up, I was listening to my S’s. Jim JoneS…JoneStown…SocialiSt…SoCiety.
I do this every week, listen to my S’s, but I did it a lot more this time. You see, in the past I had a slight speech impediment that I’ve always been very nervous about when I’m recorded.
Now you’re all listening for it aren’t you?
Ever so slightly, I used to make this sort of smacking/sucking/whistling sound when I said my S’s and sometimes T’s. I don’t even know if this would qualify as an impediment, I just know I used to get notes about it all the time in theater school, at auditions, at rehearsals, from friends, from “friends”, from myself when I was confronted with the torture of having to listen to my recorded voice back in the day. (I’m better about it now…mostly.)
The whistling lisp sound—“The Whistling Lisp” shall be the name of my first folksy horror novel—typically popped up when I was in that magical state of being both nervous and tired (so all of college). I’d stop thinking about where my tongue was, I’d stop enunciating (or maybe it was because I had dry mouth and was OVER enunciating?), and I’d let that gap in my teeth get the best of me.
After some training and moving around of my teeth, the whistling lisp has not been a part of my life for a long, long time. But it still haunts me.
The day I recorded the Jonestown segment of the podcast, I’ll admit I was anxious, jet lagged, and under caffeinated. My mouth felt like it was full of spiders.
And while now I can’t even make the sound if I’m thinking about it too hard – as Sarah pointed out when I weirdly tried to demonstrate in the studio – I still live in fear that one day I’ll listen to the podcast and I’ll be a smacking, whistling S-mess.
So there you go, there’s a little behind-the-scenes drama for you. O, podcast life! What a world, what a world!
And don’t join a cult. You’ll make me cry.
As Caitlin mentions during the introduction of this episode, Sarah’s segment on The Great Eleven cult is a story that is almost too incredible to be believed. But, it did happen, and it was even more bizarre than we could cover in a single episode. Here’s Sarah with just a few of the things we had to edit out of this incredible story:
- May and Ruth had a handsome, young chauffer who knowingly allowed the women to lead him into a barn to be willingly shot in the foot with a gun by Ruth, all because an angel had commanded it.
- Her Heavenly Highness Queen May would bestow upon each member a special title, such as: The Concord of Taste, Queen of the Scaling Breath on the Inside of the Body, and The Four Winds of the Whirlwind God.
- Cult members included May’s own mother, Grandma Jennie, who was chained to a bed for two months. When questioned about it, she said it was the happiest she’d ever been.
- May’s husband, Ward was also her stepbrother and 20 years her junior. Ward wore his black hair slicked back and sported a fu-manchu style mustache—little, unconnected wisps of facial hair at the corners of the mouth. Ward’s job within the cult consisted of two tasks—stand outside each day and keep count of the number of cars passing by, and when it rained, to collect the rain in a coffee can and measure it, and report his findings back to May.
Ward died alone and broke in 1975. His body would become a cadaver for students at a local chiropractic college to study.
The above photo is from the Historical Crime Detective website, which has some great additional reading on the case.
If you want to do more than just read about The Great Eleven, you should definitely hop aboard the Esotouric bus for their Wild Wild Westside tour, where you can also visit some of the locations and learn more about the Blackburns. I cannot possibly recommend Kim and Richard’s tours and events enough, these passionate and knowledgeable LA historians have been uncovering the city’s unknown, and often macabre history for decades.
Episode 4 Transcript
[00:00:00] [Music plays.]
Jim Jones: [00:00:07] How very much I’ve loved you. How very much I’ve tried my best to give you the good life.
Audience: [00:00:17] [Applause, shouting.]
Jim Jones: [00:00:24] In spite of all of that I’ve tried, a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our life impossible.
[00:00:38] My opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies, which means more congressmen, and there’s no way. No way we can survive.
Caitlin: [00:01:08] It’s November 18, 1978. Guyana. Jim Jones gathered his followers, members of the Peoples Temple, what he called his “socialistic communist cult” in the Jonestown community pavilion. Jones was agitated, distraught, and ready to take deadly action.
[00:01:29] Everything was falling apart at Jonestown. Several outsiders had been murdered, including visiting California Congressman Leo Ryan, members of the media, and a Jonestown defector. This was not a drill; after the murders, surely the outside world would be coming to get them, torture them, destroy their Utopia.
[00:01:53] Jones told his followers that this was it, this was what they had been preparing for: revolutionary suicide. It was the only way. Jones instructed his followers to “drink the Kool-Aid”—actually Flavor Aid—laced with cyanide and little bit of valium. He told them to use needleless syringes and squirt the mixture into babies’ and children’s mouths. They are not crying from pain, he told worried parents, they are crying because it’s bitter.
[00:02:26] Believing Jones, the people of Jonestown passed the drink around, held their children and loved ones as they died, and then drank the poison themselves.
[00:02:37] But as those waiting to die saw the dying people begin to convulse and choke from the blood and saliva that came up in their throats, they had second thoughts. Though it cannot be said for certain how the events unfolded, it’s believed that some who refused to drink the poison were forcibly injected with cyanide.
[00:02:59] Jim Jones died by what is believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Annie Moore, Jones’ personal nurse, also died by gunshot. Everyone else at Jonestown died by poisoning.
[00:03:13] Of the nearly 1000 people who lived at the Jonestown commune, only 20 survived the massacre. 918 people died that day, of those people, over 300 were children. That’s an unthinkable number of casualties. What was to be done with the bodies of Jonestown?
[00:03:37] [Death in the Afternoon theme plays.]
Caitlin: [00:03:49] Welcome to Death in the Afternoon, a podcast about all things mortal from The Order of the Good Death. I’m Caitlin, a mortician and educator, and as always, I’m joined by my fellow researchers and writers Louise Hung and Sarah Chavez. Today’s episode: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid.
[00:04:06] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:04:16] Everything about Jonestown is chilling.
Louise: [00:04:19] It really is, what I actually find the most upsetting is that while the majority of victims were conditioned to follow Jim Jones without any questions, but a lot of people were very afraid, and they were desperate to escape. Not everyone wanted to die.
Caitlin: [00:04:35] Yeah, that part about the syringes is horrible. And, maybe because it’s a cult, I just assumed everyone was brainwashed, but there were people who were injected against their will?
Louise: [00:04:45] Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of speculation. But some people didn’t want to drink the Flavor Aid, and so they were held down and injected, or literally “stabbed in the back” with cyanide.
Caitlin: [00:05:02] So backing up a bit, for folks who aren’t familiar, what exactly was Jonestown?
Louise: [00:05:04] Oh, boy, so… How long do we have? Jonestown was this new society, founded by Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple. Essentially the Peoples Temple believed in socialism and the power of socialism to save the world and “reshape reality for the benefit of all.”
[00:05:24] The Peoples Temple really did have a specific call to social justice, and during the time they were still “IN THE WORLD” as they said, they supported and campaigned for people like Harvey Milk and supported a lot of really great human rights campaigns. But then the media and people caught on to Jim Jones’ more extreme beliefs—like uh, how he believed he was the only heterosexual man on earth—
Caitlin: [00:05:52] What? Come again?
Louise: [00:05:53] Yeah, well, that’s exactly how it sounds. He believed that all other men were homosexual and he was the only one who was not.
Caitlin: [00:06:01] Oh, Jim. That’s—I’m sure that’s not projection at all.
Louise: [00:06:05] Not to mention his drug use and manipulation of women. He was really into breaking up marriages and relationships to create this family around him.
Caitlin: [00:06:17] It sounds like Jonestown was meant to be this socialist utopia in the wilds of Guyana, free from the corruption and poverty, and all of that sounds great, in theory. But not if it’s under this rigid, abusive control of Jim Jones.
Louise: [00:06:33] Right. It was rather rigid and abusive. Jones wanted Jonestown to be this “rainbow family” he dreamed of. He also dentified as Black using, um, certain words that white folks—any non-Black folks, really—SHOULD NOT USE.
Caitlin: [00:06:51] [Horrified gasp.] So, he was like the Rachel Dolezal of cult leaders. Okay, to recap: he was a white man, potentially homosexual, who identified as a black, straight man.
Louise: [00:07:05] Correct.
Caitlin: [00:07:07] So, with this solid foundation, I can’t imagine why it fell apart. How did it—how did it fall apart?
Louise: [00:07:14] So, like you mentioned earlier, it all began with the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan. The Congressman actually visited Jonestown with the media crew to investigate reports that people in Jonestown were being held captive, which they were. And when he left after his investigation, 16 defectors actually left with him.
Caitlin: [00:07:33] Get out of there!
Louise: [00:07:34] Yeah, right?
Caitlin: [00:07:35] Run!
Louise: [00:07:35] But, when they got to the airstrip, one of the defectors turned out to be a spy and opened fire on the media crew and the Congressman, actually killing them, as well as another defector.
Caitlin: [00:07:48] And meanwhile back at the compound… what is going on there while all the visitors are being murdered?
Louise: [00:07:54] Well, Jones was rallying his followers. It was time to die. While he had previously been “training” them to die—giving them Kool Aid that he said was poisoned, but actually wasn’t—this time he was serious.
Caitlin: [00:08:07] So, this time it was poison, and over 900 people died. Do we know what happened to the bodies at Jonestown?
Louise: [00:08:16] Well, it was horrible. First, it had to be decided who was even responsible for collecting those bodies. Time was passing and while the American government is negotiating with the Guyanese government no one was claiming these bodies.
Caitlin: [00:08:29] And all the while, bodies are lying out in the open in the hot jungle, which means they would be decomposing rapidly.
Louise: [00:08:37] Right, lying out in both the heat and heavy rain, which delayed everything even further. Not to mention that the nearby airstrip couldn’t accommodate the landing of the large US military transport planes needed to get the bodies.
Caitlin: [00:08:51] And weren’t the initial estimates of the number of the dead too low?
Louise: [00:08:55] Right. Well, they knew that there was something in the range of a 1000 or so people living at Jonestown, but they could only see 300-400 bodies. So, they assumed there were up to 600 people still alive, out in the surrounding jungle, waiting to ambush them, maybe waiting for help.
Caitlin: [00:09:13] Where were the rest of the bodies?
Louise: [00:09:15] Well, the initial 300 to 400 count more than doubled when they realized that many rows of bodies were several layers deep. They just kept. Finding. Bodies. Rows and rows of piled bodies.
Caitlin: [00:09:30] How did the bo—well, they didn’t pile themselves—how did they layer themselves like that?
Louise: [00:09:33] Well, no, but, nobody knows for sure, but it’s been speculated that Jones and the Jonestown elders ordered the “staging” of the bodies, to make them look more peaceful.
Caitlin: [00:09:45] So now it’s been four to five days, and they’re finally going in to remove the bodies?
Louise: [00:09:49] Right. Well, some of the decomposing bodies actually had to be punctured by the responders so they wouldn’t explode from the bloat of decomposition. In total over 900 people were airlifted to Dover Airforce Base in Delaware. A few were autopsied, but really the bodies were too far decayed and damaged by the removal process to offer much information.
Caitlin: [00:10:13] Because this was a cult, there were all these families back in America who first lost children or loved ones into the cult, and then lost them a second time to this mass suicide.
Louise: [00:10:26] Right, and as the bodies were identified, not everybody wanted those bodies back. I mean, these were controversial bodies. Some cemeteries didn’t even want them. So, if a body went unclaimed or unwanted, or a family couldn’t pay for the burial, the body was buried in a mass gravesite in Oakland, California. There are over 400 bodies buried at Evergreen Cemetery where there is also a memorial to Jonestown.
Caitlin: [00:10:53] First of all, since this happened six years before I was born, I don’t think understood until recently the sheer destruction and loss of life at Jonestown. I always thought it was more like Heaven’s Gate where I think 39 people died.
Louise: [00:11:07] Until September, 11th, Jonestown was the greatest loss of American life in a single event.
Caitlin: [00:11:13] And after 9/11, there was all of this robust discussion about the first responders, and temporary morgues and all the lingering trauma from that experience. And maybe I just remember this because I was alive when it was happening. But I never heard anything about what collecting the Jonestown bodies, especially, all the children, must have been like. Are there still survivors from that time that talk about this?
Louise: [00:11:37] Well, yeah, actually. Jim Jones Jr., the son of Jim Jones, himself, is still around. As recently as 2014, the remains of 5 more bodies found abandoned in a mortuary in Delaware and Jim Jones Jr. actually paid for them to be buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
Caitlin: [00:11:57] Really?
Louise: [00:11:57] Yeah, he’s 54 now, and he said “I have to accept the horrific event, the tyranny that Jim Jones created, but I also have to respect the people who were trying to build a new world. They were trying to build a new world and they really believed that.”
Caitlin: [00:12:16] Jonestown has had such a huge impact on how we talk about all other cults.
Louise: [00:12:19] It’s a grim reminder why we say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
Caitlin: [00:12:24] Yeah, until this episode, I didn’t even know that was from Jonestown, but yes, that would be why we say that.
Louise: [00:12:30] And that is why we need to talk about Jonestown.
[00:12:34] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:12:39] When we were planning this episode, we discussed what story Sarah might want to tell. Did she have anything cult related, that our listeners might like? Not only did she have a story already in mind, she’d been sitting on it for a while. It’s a story almost never told, because it’s a story almost too much to be believed. But it is true. Seven dogs and one corpse under the floorboards and all. Here’s Sarah.
[00:13:06] [Music plays.]
Sarah: [00:13:15] I used to visit the teen queen’s grave on my way home from work, when the weather was nice. I always brought along a snack for myself, and flowers and a little toy dog for Willa, who is buried next to her parents, Martha and William Rhoads. Martha and William kept Willa’s body underneath their bedroom floor in a custom made crypt, along with the bodies of seven dead dogs.
[00:13:43] Willa’s biological parents were teenagers themselves when they had her in Klamath County, Oregon. An out of wedlock baby was, by 1907 standards, quite scandalous. For this reason, a public adoption was out of the question. The families of the young parents needed people they could trust to adopt Willa, people who would keep their secret. That happened to be local cult leader Martha Rhoades and her husband, William.
[00:14:13] William was a successful carpenter that was generally well respected and liked, his wife Martha however, was another story. There had been rumors about Martha claiming she was, in fact, a sort of necromancer. She claimed to possess healing powers, and it was said that she had, on numerous occasions, brought people, animals, and even herself back from the dead. On five separate occasions no less. And it was this reputation that earned her a small following.
[00:14:49] Now, no one is quite sure when or how Martha found out about May Otis Blackburn, another woman with a big reputation, but the two ultimately met while May was on tour recruiting members for her own cult, The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven. Martha brought her now 14-year-old daughter Willa along with her to meet the woman followers referred to as, Her Heavenly Highness Queen May. May was immediately taken with Willa, so much so that she declared the girl was the living link between man and God, dubbing her The Tree of Life.
[00:15:35] The Rhoades family would soon pack up their belongings and follow May Blackburn to Hollywood, where she and her daughter, Ruth, had already established quite a following. The Great Eleven Cult came to fruition when, in 1922, Ruth and May had been visited by Archangels Michael and Gabriel who urged the women to sequester themselves so that the angels could dictate a book to them that promised to reveal such wonders as the mysteries of life and death, the location of hidden gold and mineral deposits that would bring them vast wealth, and grant them immortality.
[00:16:18] Members of the Great Eleven were lured not only by those promises of wealth and immortality, but also by May, who was both charismatic and terrifying. May claimed that she took her direct orders from the angels, who, through May, created many rules, and made outlandish requests, which the cultists were only too happy to comply with.
[00:16:46] When May discovered one of her followers was sewing a style of quilt called a “crazy quilt”, May immediately banned it, stating “We cannot have anything crazy in our organization.” Insisting that the mere presence of the quilt might cause every last member of the cult to go insane, she ordered it to be immediately buried.
[00:17:10] Other forbidden items were walnuts, as they contained the word wall, and according to May, consuming the nuts would risk the creation of invisible walls. T-bone steaks were also forbidden as the T bone mimicked Jesus on the cross.
[00:17:29] May kept her people in line with a combination of threats of certain death, and old seance and magic tricks. On numerous occasions she and an accomplice pulled off convincing displays of disembodied voices, moving objects, and flashes of light to convince others of her otherworldly powers. She once made a pile of what seemed to be gold appear and then, magically disappear, blaming the flighty gold on her undeserving followers because they had “sin in their hearts.”
[00:18:06] Great Eleven members occupied several different areas around LA, in homes usually donated by their numerous well-to-do supporters. The biggest investor was a wealthy oil magnate named Clifford Dabney. Dabney would give May tens of thousands of dollars over the years, including a retreat in the Simi Valley area.
[00:18:27] Here, May planned to construct a tennis court, a printing press, a sunken garden, and a massive, refrigerated morgue, where members could be temporarily stored until resurrection day. The furthest she got was building small cabins for about 100 members, as well as a lavish temple with stained glass windows. There was a 500 pound throne for May, and seats for the other ten queens (hence, the Great Eleven name). In the future it was understood that the angels would provide each queen with a marble palace in the Hollywood Hills, and also assign them 121 men to boss around.
[00:19:12] Devotees often gathered in a natural amphitheater on the property to watch May and Ruth carry out various strange rituals, which unfortunately, often involved animals being sacrificed. Primarily dogs, but also mules they referred to as the “Jaws of Death.” People in the surrounding community would sometimes catch sight of members, naked and cavorting around the encampment. As someone who is from LA, I can say that this is not an uncommon experience—if you haven’t randomly happened across naked people dancing around a bonfire in the moonlight on an LA hillside, you’re probably not a true Angeleno.
[00:19:57] Also on this site, they constructed a makeshift oven out of chicken wire and bricks. They placed paralyzed disciple Florence Turner inside, supposedly in an effort to ease her pain and heal her. The man assigned to keeping the bricks hot said he heard Florence coughing, but that the 30-year-old woman suffered from frequent coughing spells so he just ignored her. She would have had no way to convey that she was in pain, or otherwise in distress, as her condition left Florence without the ability to speak. In the end, after two days, Florence was dead—she had been baked alive. Cultists were told she had been completely healed and left of her own accord. May directed that the bricks from the oven be quickly broken down and reassembled as a decorative pathway leading to her own front door.
[00:20:58] Meanwhile, the Rhoades family had adapted well to their new life in the cult. Willa was described as loving and intelligent, and everyone in the cult adored their new, young queen. Grandma Jennie, rescued a litter of seven puppies and gifted them to the young priestess, suggesting they be named for the solfege, tones of the musical scale—do, re, mi, fa, so, la, and ti.
[00:21:26] [Musical scale plays.]
[00:21:33] On Christmas Day in 1924, now 15-year-old Willa Rhoades had been suffering from a toothache. With a mother and a cult priestess proclaiming healing powers, the girl never received medical attention and developed an infection that would end her life that New Year’s Day.
[00:21:53] May was immediately summoned to the Rhoades home and was distraught over Willa’s unexpected death. Once she collected herself May proclaimed, “Willa will live again!” but, they would need to preserve the body first.
[00:22:11] Willa’s corpse was wrapped in a blanket and seated upright in a car, propped up in the backseat between two cult members and transported to May’s house, where it was placed on ice in a bathroom.
[00:22:25] Things now took a particularly gruesome turn. May insisted that in order for Willa to be brought back to life, her seven puppies would have to die with her, claiming they acted as some sort of key to her resurrection, representing the seven tones of Gabriel’s trumpet. The poor puppies were chloroformed, or poisoned, or both, and were laid out, surrounding their dead mistress in a special room in the house that was decorated with care and always had fresh flowers.
[00:23:00] A few months later, May and the other members of the Great Eleven, would relocate to Santa Monica. Most of them had no knowledge of Willa’s death—they were told she left to get married, or attend school somewhere. May could not risk losing investors or having her followers question her resurrection skills, so she needed to keep Willa’s body hidden.
[00:23:25] William, used his carpentry skills to build a copper-lined coffin for his daughter and a separate one for the dogs. These were hidden away in a secret room within the large house. The cult members who lived there would claim they had no idea they were living with the corpses, despite a weekly delivery of 600 pounds of ice to preserve them.
[00:23:50] May was finally able to arrange for Martha and William to move into a nearby house. It was too dangerous and risky to keep Willa where she was with so many people. Sooner or later someone would find out.
[00:24:06] While William was busy constructing a special crypt, complete with a trap door beneath the bedroom where he and his wife would sleep every night, Martha was paying a visit to the local druggist. She handed a single, torn page from a book to the puzzled pharmacist on duty, and asked him to create a mixture from the herbs and spices listed on it, that would embalm Willa, “in the manner of Christ.”
[00:24:31] Meanwhile, Dabney, the wealthy oilman, had grown increasingly frustrated with the fact that for all May’s promises and his substantial investments, he still didn’t have anything to show for it. No map to a secret stash of gold, or a mineral mine, nor had he gained any of the supernatural powers he had desperately longed for. So, in 1929 he left the cult, and sued May. When the story broke in the LA Times, “Cult Leaders Face Charges,” the police would receive an anonymous tip, with an extraordinary claim about the body of the cult’s teen queen hidden away in a quiet LA neighborhood.
[00:25:15] On the evening of October 6th, 1929, police knocked on the door of the Rhoades residence. They were greeted by Willa’s visibly shaken parents who did their best to avoid answering questions regarding the mysterious circumstances of their daughter’s death and the location of her body. For the next several hours police would try to comfort a sobbing Martha, who kept insisting that Willa’s grave was sacred and could not be disturbed. William, realizing that their continued resistance was futile, confessed the whole bizarre tale. Believing the officers would leave once he assured them that Willa had died from natural causes, he finished by asking them to leave. Instead, they called in a team from LAPD Homicide, and that’s when the media circus began.
[00:26:12] As more officers arrived, Martha steeled herself and tried to employ the persuasiveness and religious arguments that had worked so well for her with her own little group of followers, back in Oregon. Leading them toward the bedroom she revealed that her daughter’s body was buried beneath the floor, along with the seven dogs, awaiting the sound of Gabriel’s trumpet, when all of them would rise from the dead. William lifted the trap door, and officers shined the light of their flashlights 6 feet down, into the darkness of the homemade crypt to reveal the two coffins.
[00:26:52] The boxes containing Willa and the dogs were hauled up by chains and placed on the bedroom floor. Everyone crowded around in the small bedroom, as the lid on Willa’s coffin was slowly opened to reveal the incredibly well-preserved body of a young girl, who was curled up on her side, appearing as life size doll who was serenely sleeping. Water had flooded the coffin, causing Willa’s long tresses to float above her head, like gently swaying seaweed.
[00:27:28] Both coffins were transported outside to the front yard, where a large crowd of excited reporters and photographers waited. Detectives posed behind the coffin with the dogs for photographers and unwrapped one of their little decomposed bodies for all to see. The coroner soon arrived and took possession of Willa and her pets, as police took her parents into custody.
[00:27:54] May and Ruth Blackburn turned themselves in. Ruth and the Rhoades were released—no evidence of foul play in Willa’s or any of the other numerous deaths associated with the cult were found. As for May she would stand trial for the suit brought against her by Dabney. She was convicted but later appealed and was released because after all, America is a country founded on religious freedom.
[00:28:24] Remarkably, May was able to hold on to a few faithful followers, and stayed out of the headlines. She died of heart failure in 1951.
[00:28:36] As for the Rhoades, they moved slightly north to Ventura County. Martha and William, still deeply mourning their daughter, died within a week of each other in 1944. It seems that this time, Martha would remain dead, for good. They are buried alongside Willa.
[00:28:56] Like Martha and William, as parents, we all want to give our children the world. If we thought could guarantee that, how far would each of usgo? For the young girl who was thought to be an immortal queen reigning from a marble mansion, in the end, perhaps Willa already had the best we can expect from any of our lives, found in those moments just laughing and playing with her puppies, simply wanting, as all of us do, to be loved.
[00:29:37] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:29:53] So, our final act today is about a Russian Doomsday Cult with a dead body problem.
Louise: [00:29:59] This is 2007, and the cult we’re talking about is the True Russian Orthodox Church.
Caitlin: [00:30:03] And like any cult, they don’t think they’re a cult, they think they’re a small group that has broken off from the Russian Orthodox Church. And their leader is a man named Pyotr Kuznetsov.
Louise: [00:30:14] Let me guess—he’s a mystical being who has spent his whole life in religious devotion?
Caitlin: [00:30:20] No, more like a 43-year-old divorced architect.
Louise: [00:30:25] Okay, but still, his end of the world message is resonating enough to convince around 35 people, including four children, to barricade themselves in a remote cave in Russia to wait out the end of the world.
Caitlin: [00:30:36] Which he says is about six months away, in May of 2008.
Louise: [00:30:41] So why not leave the cultists alone in the cave to do their thing? When the world doesn’t end maybe they would just come out on their own? I mean, there’s that Parks and Recepisode where that end-of-the-world cult keeps rescheduling the end of the world because to miscalculations and ice cream socials. It’s hard to figure out the end of humanity.
Caitlin: [00:30:59] I think their concern was for the children, one of which was a 16-month old baby. And there were also older people. The oldest one was 82 years old. It’s freezing cold outside, this is deep Russia, and they’re completely barricaded inside the cave. When they attempt to contact them, through a hole in the cave roof, they yell back, “We have a gas tank and we’ll blow ourselves up if you bother us.”
Louise: [00:31:24] Well, if the world’s gonna end, why don’t they just blow themselves up?
Caitlin: [00:31:27] They don’t plan to die when the world ends. Kuznetsov told them they could save themselves from doomsday by going underground into this cave. They don’t want to be out in the world when it’s ending because the apocalypse is going to include cannibalism and everyone having sex.
Louise: [00:31:45] The True Russian Orthodox Church wants to be seen as simple Christians going back to ancient values, but that leads to some fairly bizarre beliefs. Well, bizarre to us at least.
Caitlin: [00:31:56] Right, some beliefs are pretty standard like “no watching TV”. But they also believe that any bar codes, like the ones you find on food in a supermarket, are satanic.
Louise: [00:32:07] And passports are satanic, too. And so are credit cards—which they might be.
Caitlin: [00:32:11] Yeah, maybe credit cards.
Louise: [00:32:14] And didn’t they all wear long black robes.
Caitlin: [00:32:15] And Kuznetsov, the leader, slept in a coffin.
Louise: [00:32:19] No he didn’t!
Caitlin: [00:32:20] I can confirm nor deny, but it was reported in a newspaper and honestly sort of tracks with everything else.
Louise: [00:32:26] And this whole time, by the way, Kuznetsov is not in the cave with with his followers, telling them God had “other tasks” for him.
Caitlin: [00:32:34] Right?! That’s what—that’s the worst for me. I feel like if you’re a self-proclaimed prophet, you have to be in the cave with everyone else. What are other tasks? Ok, sure buddy.
Louise: [00:32:46] Yeah, and this is where the story gets even darker. It’s almost May 2008, and nothing is happening, and Kuznetsov starts to realize that his prediction may have been, you know, wrong.
Caitlin: [00:32:57] So this is where he decides he wants to die by suicide, and how he’s going to do this is lay his head on a tree stump and then hit himself over and over with a log.
Louise: [00:33:08] Okay, I have to say: in general, we don’t recommend discussing in detail the methods an individual uses to die by suicide, but in this case we don’t think anyone is gonna to copy this one. Please don’t.
Caitlin: [00:33:22] Please don’t. It doesn’t work, we know because he survives his head wound and is taken to a psychiatric hospital, where it’s determined he’s likely an untreated schizophrenic.
Louise: [00:33:31] And as this is happening, negotiations are finally working and people, including the children are emerging from the cave where they’ve been for five months. The big push to do so came because the roof had begun to cave in.
Caitlin: [00:33:46] Some followers come out of the cave but there is still a core group still in there, refusing to leave.
Louise: [00:33:53] By mid-May there are nine people in there who still refuse to come out. But there is one problem, which is there are two dead people in the cave. Two of the followers died during the six-month ordeal, one from fasting and one from cancer. And trapped in the cave, with the two corpses, the smell is starting to become unbearable.
Caitlin: [00:34:14] And that is why I was so interested in this story.
Louise: [00:34:17] Nobody is surprised by that.
Caitlin: [00:34:19] So, you have these cult members who are willing to do anything to stay barricaded in the cave, but they become paranoid that the smell of these corpses is so bad that it’s actually toxic and going to kill them.
Louise: [00:34:32] Which I’m sure can feeltrue if you’re trapped in a cave with bloating, liquifying, decomposing corpses, but, real talk, there’s no way that can be true right?
Caitlin: [00:34:42] No, it’s—no, it’s not true. I mean, being in a cave with two decomposing bodies sounds absolutely awful, like a nightmare from which you would never awaken. But I’ve said this time and again, bacteria that causes a body to decompose is different bacteria than the bacteria that causes disease. So, if the cult members had stuck it out a little longer, waited for the smell to dissipate, they would have been fine in their apocalypse cave.
Louise: [00:35:13] It’s also been reported that the authorities and the negotiators told the cult members that if they didn’t come out, the corpse smell would poison them.
Caitlin: [00:35:21] And I wonder if that was that just a smart negotiating tactic on the part of the authorities or did they not know the real science, either?
Louise: [00:35:30] Well, it could be that the cult members saw that it was May, and with no end of the world in sight, and they’re kind of looking for their excuse to finally leave this half-collapsed cave with rotting corpses.
Caitlin: [00:35:39] Yeah that would do it for me.
Louise: [00:35:42] As the cult members emerged, they need to be fed and clothed. So, the government tried to give them food and cartons of milk but they wouldn’t take them because they had bar codes on them, which are satanic.
Caitlin: [00:35:55] Right.
Louise: [00:35:55] So they gave them an entire cow instead.
Caitlin: [00:35:59] To help them mooooove on… from life in a doomsday cult.
Louise: [00:36:04] Ugh. We are done for today.
[00:36:09] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:36:21] Death in Afternoon was written by myself, Louise, and Sarah. Engineering by Paul Tavener at Big City Recording Studios. Editing and original music by Dory Bavarsky. We’ll see you next week, deathlings.