Mass suicide is a form of suicide, occurring when a group of people simultaneously kill themselves.
Mass suicide sometimes occurs in religious settings. Defeated groups may resort to mass suicide rather than being captured. Suicide pacts are a form of mass suicide that are sometimes planned or carried out by small groups of depressed or hopeless people. Mass suicides have been used as a form of political protest, which shows that they can also be used as a statement making tool.
Attitudes to mass suicide change according to place and circumstance. People who resort to mass suicide rather than submit to what they consider an intolerable oppression sometimes become the focus of a heroic myth. Such mass suicides might also win the grudging respect of the victors. On the other hand, the act of people resorting to mass suicide without being threatened – especially, when driven to this step by a charismatic religious leader, for reasons which often seem obscure – tends to be regarded far more negatively.
Historical mass suicides
- Following the destruction of Illiturgis by Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio in 206 BC, people of Astapa – knowing they faced a similar fate – decided to kill themselves and burn the city with all of its treasures.
- During the late 2nd century BC, the Teutons are recorded as marching south through Gaul along with their neighbors, the Cimbri, and attacking Roman Italy. After several victories for the invading armies, the Cimbri and Teutones were then defeated by Gaius Marius in 102 BC at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (near present-day Aix-en-Provence). Their King, Teutobod, was taken in irons. The captured women committed mass suicide, which passed into Roman legends of Germanic heroism: by the conditions of the surrender three hundred of their married women were to be handed over to the Romans. When the Teuton matrons heard of this stipulation, they first begged the consul that they might be set apart to minister in the temples of Ceres and Venus; then, when they failed to obtain their request and were removed by the lictors, they slew their children and next morning were all found dead in each other's arms having strangled themselves in the night.
- At the end of the fifteen months of the siege of Numantia in summer 133 BC most of the defeated Numantines, instead of surrendering, preferred to commit suicide and set fire to the city.
- The 960 members of the Sicarii Jewish community at Masada collectively committed suicide in 73 AD rather than be conquered and enslaved by the Romans. Each man killed his wife and children, then the men drew lots and killed each other until the last man killed himself. Some modern scholars have questioned this account of the events.
- In the 700s, the remnants of the Montanists were ordered by Byzantine Emperor Leo III to leave their religion and join Orthodox Christianity. They refused, locked themselves in their places of worship, and set them on fire.
- In India, the mass suicide, also known as Jauhar, was carried out by women and men of the defeated community, when the fall of a city besieged by Muslim invaders was certain. Some of the known cases of Jauhar of Rajput women are at the fort of Chittaur in Rajasthan, in 1303, in 1535, and 1568.
- In 1336, when the castle of Pilėnai in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was besieged by the army of the Teutonic Knights, the defenders, led by the Duke Margiris, realized that it was impossible to defend themselves any longer and made the decision to commit mass suicide, as well as to set the castle on fire in order to destroy all of their possessions, and anything of value to the enemy.
- During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as "fire baptism".
- In 1792, Revolutionary France abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies. However, in 1802 Napoleon decided to restore slavery. In Guadeloupe, former slaves who refused to be re-enslaved started a rebellion, led by Louis Delgrès, and for some time resisted the French Army sent to suppress them – but finally realized that they could not win, and still they refused to surrender. At the Battle of Matouba on May 28, 1802, Delgrès and his followers – 400 men and some women – ignited their gunpowder stores, committing mass suicide while attempting to kill as many of the French troops as possible.
- During the Turkish rule of Greece and shortly before the Greek War of Independence, women from Souli, pursued by the Ottomans, ascended the mount Zalongo, threw their children over the precipice and then jumped themselves, to avoid capture – an event known as the Dance of Zalongo.
- In the final phase of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, many of the fighters besieged in the "bunker" at Miła 18 committed mass suicide by ingesting poison rather than surrender to the Nazis.
- Germany was stricken by a series of unprecedented waves of suicides during the final days of the Nazi regime. The reasons for these waves of suicides were numerous and include the effects of Nazi propaganda, the example of the suicide of Adolf Hitler, victims' attachment to the ideals of the Nazi Party, a reaction to the loss of the war and, consequently, the anticipated Allied occupation of Nazi Germany. Life Magazine speculated about the suicides: "In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call selbstmord, self-murder."
- On 1 May 1945, about 1,000 residents of Demmin, Germany, committed mass suicide after the Red Army had sacked the town.
- A Balinese mass ritual suicide is called a puputan. Major puputan occurred in 1906–1908 when Balinese kingdoms faced overwhelming Dutch colonial forces. The root of the Balinese term puputan is puput, meaning 'finishing' or 'ending'. It is an act that is more symbolic than strategic; the Balinese are "a people whose genius for theatre is unsurpassed" and a puputan is viewed as "the last act of a tragic dance-drama".
- Japan is known for its centuries of suicide tradition, from seppuku ceremonial self-disemboweling to kamikaze warriors flying their aircraft into Allied warships and banzai charge during World War II. During this same war, the Japanese forces announced to the people of Saipan that the invading American troops were going to torture and murder anyone on the island. In a desperate effort to avoid this, the people of Saipan committed suicide, mainly by jumping off the nearby cliffsides.
Religiously motivated suicides
Peoples Temple (1978)
On November 18, 1978, 918 Americans died in Peoples Temple–related incidents, including 909 members of the Temple, led by Jim Jones, in Jonestown, Guyana. The dead included 276 children. A tape of the Temple's final meeting in a Jonestown pavilion contains repeated discussions of the group committing "revolutionary suicide", including reference to people taking the poison and the vats to be used.
On that tape, Jones tells Temple members that Russia, with whom the Temple had been negotiating a potential exodus for months, would not take them after the Temple had murdered Member of Congress Leo Ryan, NBC reporter Don Harris and three others at a nearby airstrip. When members apparently cried, Jones counseled "Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity." At the end of the tape, Jones concludes: "We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
The people in Jonestown died of an apparent cyanide poisoning, except for Jones (who died of an injury consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound) and his personal nurse. The Temple had spoken of committing "revolutionary suicide" in prior instances, and members had previously drunk what Jones told them was poison at least once before, but the "Flavor Aid" drink they ingested at that time contained no poison. Concurrently, four other members died in the Temple's headquarters in Georgetown. Four months later, Michael Prokes, one of the initial survivors, also committed suicide.
Solar Temple (1994–97)
From 1994 to 1997, the Order of the Solar Temple's members began a series of mass suicides, which led to roughly 74 deaths. Farewell letters were left by members, stating that they believed their deaths would be an escape from the "hypocrisies and oppression of this world". Added to this they felt they were "moving on to Sirius". Records seized by the Quebec police showed that some members had personally donated over $1 million to the group's leader, Joseph Di Mambro.
There was also another attempted mass suicide of the remaining members, which was thwarted in the late 1990s. All the suicide/murders and attempts occurred around the dates of the equinoxes and solstices, which likely held some relation to the beliefs of the group.
Heaven's Gate (1997)
From March 24 to 27, 1997, 39 followers of Heaven's Gate died in a mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, which borders San Diego to the north. These people believed, according to the teachings of their group, that through their suicides they were "exiting their human vessels" so that their souls could go on a journey aboard a spaceship they believed to be following comet Hale–Bopp. Some male members of the group underwent voluntary castration in preparation for the genderless life they believed awaited them after the suicide.
In May 1997, two Heaven's Gate members who had not been present for the mass suicide attempted suicide, one succeeding, the other becoming comatose for two days and then recovering. In February 1998, the survivor, Chuck Humphrey, committed suicide.
In 2007, in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, a family of nine, all members of a novel "Adam's cult", committed mass suicide by hurling themselves under a train. Diaries recovered from the victims' home, "Adam House", related they wanted a pure life as lived by Adam and Eve, freeing themselves from bondage to any religion and refused contact with any outsiders. After leaving Islam, they did not partake in Christian ceremonies and they even used to worship Kali sometimes, practically out of boundaries of any particular religion.
The Burari deaths, also "Burari case" and "Burari kand", refers to the deaths of eleven family members of the Chundawat family from Burari, India, in 2018. Ten family members were found hanged, while the oldest family member, the grandmother, was strangled. The bodies were found on 1 July 2018; in the early morning after the death. The police have ruled the deaths as mass suicide, with an angle of shared psychosis being investigated.
Disputed religiously motivated suicides
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (2000)
On March 17, 2000, 778 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in Uganda. The theory that all of the members died in a mass suicide was changed to mass murder when decomposing bodies were discovered in pits with signs of strangulation while others had stab wounds. The group had diverged from the Roman Catholic Church in order to emphasize apocalypticism and alleged Marian apparitions. The group had been called an inward-looking movement that wore matching uniforms and restricted their speech to avoid saying anything dishonest or sinful. On the suicide itself locals said they held a party at which 70 crates of soft drinks and three bulls were consumed. This version of events has been criticized, most notably by Irving Hexham, and a Ugandan source states that even today "no one can really explain the whys, hows, whats, where, when, etcetera."
Training centre for release of the Atma-energy
This sect was originally a splinter group of the Brahma Kumaris and is known for a police and media scare in which an alleged attempt to commit ritual suicide took place in Teide National Park in Tenerife in 1998.
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- James T. Richardson (2004). Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe. ISBN 978-0-306-47887-1, p. 157. "The case refers to the Atman Foundation (originally a splinter group from the Brahma Kumaris) and made international headlines on January 8, 1998 when it was announced that the Canary Islands police had prevented a mass suicide of “a branch of the Solar Temple” by arresting its leader. German motivational speaker Heide Fittkau–Garthe. and a number of followers During subsequent months‘ the case disappeared from the international media. At the local level, it was clarified that the Atman Foundation has nothing to do with the Solar Temple but, according to a family of disgruntled German ex-members, may be “just as bad". Police investigations in Germany failed to detect any evidence that the Foundation was preparing a mass suicide. However, the accusation is maintained in Spain at the time of this writing, together with some others, although no trial has been scheduled."
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