One of America’s most influential newspapers is the Washington times. So it might surprise you to hear it was founded by a cult. In 1982 it was launched by Sun Moon, a North Korean man who claimed to have met Jesus. Known to his followers as true father, he was revered as a prophet. That same year he was convicted for tax fraud. Yet with millions of followers he was able to fund his newspaper with billions of dollars. He died in 2012 but the cult is still going strong. Since the 1960s they have been famous for their mass weddings – ceremonies where thousands of members marry strangers. This might all sound quite strange but as far as cults go the unification church is pretty basic. There are many strange cults out there that make them look positively banal.

Cargo Cults

In the midst of world war two, European and American military presence increased in the South Pacific Ocean. But many of the islands they occupied already had people living there. Now I know what you’re thinking, why would anyone live on an island? There’s no reason for them to. But they did. And when the army showed up with modern vehicles and equipment they were mesmerized. The soldiers were well fed and supplied, but never actually created the goods themselves. In time they noticed the goods were supplied via cargo, either dropped from the sky or shipped in. Understandably the islanders began to believe the cargo was sent by some kind of higher power. And that the marching the soldiers did was a ritual to summon the cargo.

Some said the soldiers were gods themselves. But in time a more sinister belief emerged. They came to see the soldiers as evil. That the cargo was actually intended for the islanders, and the soldiers steal it with their advanced technology. That might sound silly but remember these people had little knowledge of the outside world. Factories and the age of industrialization was a different universe. So on dozens of islands across the pacific, islanders formed this same belief system, despite being isolated from each other.

Fake Soldiers

If the war had not ended when it did in 1945, there might have been a conflict over it between the soldiers and natives. But instead the soldiers left many of the islands, taking the precious cargo with them. So the natives tried to do the same rituals they had witnessed during the war, marching around with wooden poles to mimic rifles. They dug their own runways and built model air planes out of wood. They carved goggles and helmets and other equipment, hoping their efforts would see the cargo return. But it never did. So the natives either gave up on their newfound beliefs or spiraled into something yet stranger.

John Frum

On some islands a new leader emerged, claiming they knew the secrets of cargo. According to them only by following their commands to the letter would the cargo return. This was the birth of cargo cults. In time these cult leaders were found out as frauds, usually because no cargo actually turned up. To be honest I’m not sure why anyone would claim to have such knowledge. Leading a cargo cult seems like a one way road to getting killed. It’s not a good career move. More than five are still active, mostly on small isolated islands. On the island of Tanna some locals worship a mythical figure called John Frum. Effectively their god, John Frum is said to have been an American soldier who instructed locals to rebel against Europeans.

On dark nights he was said to land his plane on the island and hold secret meetings with the natives. He promised cargo would soon be sent for them from the US. Then when world war 2 broke out, cargo and American soldiers did turn up, proving the prophecy of John Frum to be true. And so the people of Tanna came to worship not only him, but America as a whole. Every Friday the cult hold rituals and sing the praises of John Frum. Over time some members of the cargo cult have died off, so only around 500 members remain today. But they are incredibly devout, equating John Frum to Jesus. It’s thought the myth of John Frum might have began with an American missionary who was unusually kind. Or maybe John Frum really is an all powerful god. Both options are realistic.

The Foot Reading Cult

Another mysterious figure is Hogen Fukunaga. In the 1980s he founded the foot reading cult, a group that could only have been a thing in Japan. Basically what happened is he found himself heavily in debt. So in a desperate way to Japanese his way to freedom, he claimed to be a reincarnation of Buddha. Inspired by fortune tellers who read the palms of people’s hands, he started reading feet. For some reason this proved popular. But he would almost always deliver bad news, predicting personal or financial disaster. Then he would claim the only way to avoid that fate was to attend a seminar. At the seminar he would coerce them into joining his cult and accept him as their spiritual leader. Through gathering a group of followers Fukunaga was able to escape his massive debt. Many cult members were wealthy and well connected.

So he would send them magical objects, which according to him would cure illness. One member paid 34 thousand US dollars for a magical scroll. I am tempted to make a joke about his cult members footing the bill, but I’m just not going to do it. The cult went on for a surprising amount of time, seeing Fukunaga become a millionaire. In the 90s he was able to buy audiences with influential figures like Bill Clinton and Gorbachev. But as Clinton was president at the time it blew up into a big scandal. This in tern drew attention to the cults criminal activity. So Fukunaga was arrested and charged with fraud, eventually being sent to prison for 12 years. Few outside of Japan remember the foot reading cult. Mostly thanks to other strange cults at the time overshadowing it – most notably Aum Shinrikyo.

Strange Cults In Korea

Not far from Japan, similar strange cults were operating in South Korea at the time. In 1987, 32 dead bodies were found in an old South Korean factory. Among the dead was the factory owner and her 3 children. At the time of the incident she was wanted by police, having defrauded millions of dollars. It turns out she was running a fringe religious group and using her factory as a front to steal money followers. At first police assumed it was a simple case of mass suicide. I’m not sure how any mass suicide could be considered simple… but to them it was a closed case. But in time they began to suspect something more sinister was going on. It’s now thought she was operating a doomsday cult.

Married to a local government official, she had a good reputation in the community thanks to years of charity work. But one day she began to claim god cured her cancer, gathering a group of followers who considered her holy. Amassing hundreds of followers, she would have them take out loans and give the money directly to her. This could only go on for so long – hence why police were looking to arrest her for fraud. It seems on realizing there was no way out for her, she somehow convinced a group of die hard supporters to end their own lives. Luckily most cult members had by that point given up on her. But few have ever been willing to speak publicly about what actually happened.

Church of the Lamb of God

Ervil LeBaron was infamously known as the Mormon Manson. Like many Mormons he was born in Mexico. After polygamy was outlawed in the US, large communities of Mormons just moved to Mexico. Some of which are alive and well. But some communities were deeply isolated and led by creeps. Ervil LeBaron was born into a community led by his father. But when the father died a dispute unfolded over who should lead the group. Ultimately Ervil’s brother took charge, so in anger he split off and founded his own group. Then having established his own colony in California, he ordered his followers to murder his brother.

When another of his brothers took over after that, Ervil repeatedly tried to have him killed also. He threatened members of his own group too, promising if they ever leave they would pay with their lives. And it was a very real threat. During his time as leader of the cult at least 25 people were killed. Ervil claimed to be a prophet of god. He preached that only blood could pay for the sins of humanity. So cult members were periodically sent out to kill innocent outsiders, hence why he is known as the Mormon Manson.

He specifically trained women to kill for him, knowing it would be less expected from them. One of his wives was among the killers, being sentenced to life in prison. But don’t worry he still had 12 more. Anyone in the cult could at any time be ordered to kill. In 1974 Ervil was found guilty of his brother’s murder. But in unclear circumstances he was soon released. From then he would focus on killing other Mormon leaders. Only in 1980 would he be sent to prison for good, having been arrested in Mexico.

How Strange Cults Die

In prison he wrote his own bible like a lunatic and died one year later. His rival brother died in a car crash just days after. Many believe it was not a coincidence. But unlike most cults his was able to survive the loss of it’s leader. This is partly because he had a succession plan. On Ervil’s death his son Arturo took over. Arturo was somehow even more of a criminal than his father, basically turning the group into a criminal gang. Where his father sent members out to kill, he ordered them to steal cars. The cult made millions of dollars and selling them on the black market.

But this greed came at a cost. Arturo LeBaron was killed by his own followers. Then when his 20 year old brother took over, the cult split into two smaller groups. The murders continued, the auto theft continued, and police were building cases. So with members either leaving, getting arrested, or murdering each other, the cult just kind of collapsed. A surprising number of strange cults were operating at the time, but this one was certainly unique.

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