March 26, 1997 - This was the day that police found the bodies of 39 members of Heaven's Gate, a religious cult based in San Diego County. A videotape was later recovered in which the group's founder, Marshall Applewhite, spoke of the mass suicide as "the only way to evacuate this Earth".
Funded by the life savings of its members, the group lived in a 9,000 square foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. They believed the recent Hale-Bopp comet was a sign that a UFO would be coming to pick them up for a life in outer space.
The mass suicides took place over a 3-day period starting on the 24th. After a final group meal at a local restaurant, the members donned brand new Nikes and black sweatsuits with "Heaven's Gate Away Team" patches. Most of them ate a phenobarbital-laced bowl of applesauce followed with a vodka chaser. A plastic bag was placed over their heads to induce asphyxiation. They died in shifts so that the remaining members could tidy up after each round. As a final touch, a square purple cloth was draped over each body.
One interesting sidenote was that everybody was found holding a passport, a $5 bill and three quarters. One theory behind this is an excerpt from Mark Twain's 1907 story, Extract from Captain Stormfield's Trip to Heaven. When the Captain sets off on an excursion into outer space he takes along a passport and money for his fare. One line reads, "The fare to get to heaven on the tail of a comet was $5.75."
The Heaven's Gate members videotaped many messages prior to their suicides. Below is news report that includes footage from some those recordings: