Police are on the trail of vandals who attacked ancient standing stones and carved graffiti into one of them.
Shocked Historic Environment Scotland (HES) staff found the markings on a routine monitoring visit to the Machrie Moor standing stones on Arran.
HES said the stones are a scheduled monument, which means they are legally protected and damage to them, such as graffiti, is a criminal offence.
The heritage body said it would be working with Police Scotland to investigate the incident.
HES tweeted: “On a recent visit to monitor its condition, we were concerned to discover that one of the stones has been damaged by incised (i.e. carved) graffiti.
“As well as being a Property in the Care of Ministers, the standing stones are also designated as a scheduled monument.
“This means they are legally protected and damage to them, such as graffiti, is a criminal offence.”
A subsequent tweet read: “Heritage crime can cause damage that can never be repaired and forces us to spend less resources on important conservation work.”
The impressive megaliths are believed to have been used in ancient rituals and ceremonies.
The landscape includes standing stones, stone circles, cairns and other Neolithic and Bronze Age constructions, as well as hut circles and an extensive field system, which all date to between 3500 and 1500 BC.
HES urged anyone with information to contact Police Scotland or Crimestoppers.
The First Minister of Scotland has apologised to thousands of alleged witches who were killed centuries ago.
Politician Nicola Sturgeon says the women suffered “injustice on a colossal scale”.
The decision, which was branded a stunt in some quarters, marked International Women’s Day, in early March, and saw her seek to make amends for Scotland’s witchcraft purge, which took place under the Scottish Witchcraft Act.
An estimated 4,000 Scots were accused of being witches between 1563 and 1736.
The First Minister said the injustice they suffered was “driven by misogyny” and needed to be recognised.
The apology came after a petition looking to grant a pardon for the 4,000 people accused of witchcraft was introduced in the Scottish parliament by campaigners from the organisation Witches of Scotland.
Witchcraft laws, passed by James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England, led to a nationwide search for witches that became known as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597.
It was the second of five national witch hunts in the country.
Like the others it was conducted under the supervision of Royal Commissions.
But it is one of the most poorly documented of the Great Scottish Witch hunts as it was not documented centrally and lacked coherent control leading to wild purges.
Responsibility fell to local authorities, which were left to record the accusations and outcomes of trials.
Around 200 ‘witches’ were believed to have been killed in the 1597 hysteria.
Other Scottish Witch Hunts took place in 1590-91, 1628-1631, 1649-59 and 1661-62.
Of the approximate 4,000 people accused, over half were executed and more than 85 per cent of those convicted were women or girls.
A raft of trumped up witchery-based charges were levelled at the unfortunate women.
These ranged from causing hangovers and turning into an owl, to meeting with the Devil and conjuring up storms to sink the ships of James VI.
Agnes Sampson, an elderly woman, was the first woman convicted of witchcraft in Scotland in 1591 and Janet Horne was the last in 1727.
In one case a woman called Lilias Adie confessed, under duress, to the crimes of casting malicious spells and having sex with the Devil.
She died in 1704 after being sentenced to be burned to death, but she died in prison, possibly by suicide. Her body was buried under a large stone.
Nicola Sturgeon said: “Those who met this fate were not witches, they were people, and overwhelmingly women.
“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable – or in many cases just because they were women.
“It was injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense: hatred of women.
“The pardon the petition calls for would require this parliament to legislate and in future this parliament may choose to do so.
“But in the meantime, the petition also calls for an apology. After all, these accusations and executions were instigated and perpetrated by the State.
“And so today, on International Women’s Day, I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious historic injustice and extend a formal posthumous apology to all those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.”
The campaign group Witches of Scotland, which has called for all those put to death to be pardoned, welcomed the apology.
The organisation said: “This is the first formal recognition of this terrible miscarriage of justice.”
Marking the occasion, the burning of Agnes Sampson was recreated on Calton Hill, in Edinburgh.
Before her death she was subjected to sleep deprivation, a common interrogator’s tool as it eventually produced hallucinations used as ‘evidence’.
In 1563 in Scotland the Witchcraft Act was brought into law and remained in law till 1736.
During this time witchcraft was punishable by death, with many strangled and then burned at the stake.
When accused of witchcraft, suspects were locked up awaiting trial and tortured to confess.
Torture in Scotland was usually by way of sleep deprivation, but other cruel techniques included “pricking”.
This was stabbing the skin with needles and bodkins to see how the person reacted to the drawing of blood and whether they bled – and the stripping and examination of the body to see if any ‘witches mark’ could be found on them.
Often these methods were carried out in public. Torture by crushing and pulling out nails was also used.
King James the VI of Scotland (1566 – 1625) considered himself an expert in witchcraft and penned the book ‘Daemonologie’, 1597.
The grim tome was about witchcraft and other occult matters, including evil creatures like incubi and succubi, effectively sexual vampires that exploited paralysed humans to create demonic entities.
The book also touched on actual vampires and werewolves and is believed to have influenced the rituals and practices of the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s ‘MacBeth’.
The king also attended the North Berwick Witch Trials where one of the complaints was that witchcraft had been used to create storms to cause a bad crossing for James’s ship across the ocean.
James saw plots everywhere, both real and imagined and his obsession fuelled a Satanic panic in Scotland. As King of England he also famously survived the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes, in 1605, after he ruthlessly cracked down on Catholics.
So, what do you think about the apology? Is it too late or is it simply a stunt?
Paul Christian set up Hidden History, in a meaningful sense, at the start of the lockdown as something to do in some very dull times. With the present and future looking a bit bleak he looked to inspiration from the past.
It is a channel dedicated to bringing history to light and to life. The channel covers anything of interest with history news and new discoveries featuring as shorter videos and longer documentary type uploads, often with a particular focus on folklore and comparative mythology.
The controversial Nebra Sky Disc will be at the centre of a forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum.
The ancient object, thought to be the world’s oldest map of the stars, will form part of ‘The World Of Stonehenge’ exhibition at the central London site.
The disc is thought by many to be a Bronze Age relic dating back 3,600 years. Its existence came to light in Germany in 1999.
While many see the disc as one of the most significant archaeological finds in history, some experts believe it to be a fake.
The object was discovered near the town of Nebra in Germany along with swords, axes and other items dating from the Bronze Age.
But it is the criminal manner of its discovery that has caused controversy.
It was located using a metal detector by two illegal treasure hunters and later seized by police officers in a sting operation.
Last year a paper was released by two archaeologists who say the disc is actually 1,000 younger than its Bronze Age designation, placing it in the Iron Age.
The Nebra Sky Disc is owned by Germany’s State Museum of Prehistory and this forthcoming new exhibition will be the first time it is being loaned out in 15 years.
Neil Wilkin, curator of The World Of Stonehenge exhibition, said: “The Nebra Sky Disc and the sun pendant are two of the most remarkable surviving objects from Bronze Age Europe.
“Both have only recently been unearthed, literally, after remaining hidden in the ground for over three millennia.
“We’re delighted that they will both be key pieces in our once-in-a-lifetime Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum.
“While both were found hundreds of miles from Stonehenge, we’ll be using them to shine a light on the vast interconnected world that existed around the ancient monument, spanning Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe.”
On the exhibition in general the Museum released a statement, which read: “Shrouded in layers of speculation and folklore, Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most awe-inspiring ancient stone circle, and its image is famous around the globe.
“This major exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK. It will bring the story of Stonehenge into sharper focus, showing that rather than a shadowy age of mystery, the Britain and Ireland of four millennia ago were places of big ideas, commerce and travel.
“You’ll journey back to the time of its construction around 3000 to 2500 BC and, with the help of objects from across Europe, including stone axes from the North Italian Alps and stunning metalwork from Ireland, the world of Stonehenge will be illuminated like never before.”
Returning to the disc, which is certainly not from the Neolithic unlike Stonehenge, we can assume its presence will be used to demonstrate that knowledge of the stars and their movements across ancient skies were better known than previously believed.
A man has been arrested on suspicion of damaging Stonehenge.
The unnamed 30-year-old was arrested in Bradford, West Yorkshire, on suspicion of four offences, including illegally using a metal detector on the protected site and possessing explosives without a permit.
The offences are alleged to have taken place between August and September, Wiltshire Police said.
He has since been released pending investigation.
The four alleged offences are damaging a protected monument, using a metal detector in a protected place without consent, removing an archaeological or historical interest without consent and possession of explosives without a permit.
West Yorkshire Police also cautioned the man for possession of Class B drugs.
Wiltshire Police said the offences came to light after the suspect “posted his finds and the location” on social media.
PC Emily Thomas, heritage crime officer in the Wiltshire Rural Crime Team, said: “Our heritage assets are protected by specific criminal offences to prevent the damage caused by unlicensed alteration and thereby diminish the enjoyment of heritage sites for others.”
In modern times there have been a number of cults in operation, with some of the most egregious examples based in the United States.
One of these is Heaven’s Gate, whose members believed in their impending transcendence to another plane of existence.
Heaven’s Gate refuses to call itself a cult, but has been referred to by others as one.
The religious organisation was founded in 1974, but gained prominence when the majority of its members committed suicide in 1997.
The movement was bound up with the UFO phenomenon, which was popular in the 1990s thanks, in some part, to the successful TV show The X Files and other elements of contemporary popular culture.
It also aligned itself strongly with the re-emergence near Earth of the Hale-Bopp comet, which passes our planet around every 2,000 years and was associated by the cult, and other theorists, with the Star of Bethlehem that heralded the birth of Jesus, according to the Nativity story.
The cult was established by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, who went by the names Ti and Do.
Nettles was a nurse in a hospital where Applewhite was visiting a friend in 1972 and the two entered into what is believed to have been a platonic relationship. That’s certainly the account according to video recordings made by Applewhite.
The pair went on a tour where they spread the word of their alleged revelation, following a religious journey, where they absorbed every kind of spiritual text they “could get their hands on”.
They gained a number of followers, which ran into the hundreds, but their disciples dwindled when the leaders instituted a more rigid regime banning sex, alcohol and other ‘vices’ and began distancing themselves from wider society.
The hardcore that remained ended up all living together, with Applewhite the effective teacher and the followers cast as “students”. Some of these featured in videos created by Heaven’s Gate. They sported simple short hair cuts and nondescript clothing – effectively they where stereotypical cult members and lived a monk-like existence.
Nettles did not live to see this phase of the movement she co-founded, as she died of liver cancer in 1985.
The group’s doctrine featured elements of Christianity – particularly millenarianism, New Age beliefs and an obsession with extraterrestrials and the burgeoning UFO phenomenon.
The main belief the group held and the one which marked it out at the time and sealed its members’ fates was that adherents could transcend into immortal extraterrestrials by turning their backs on their human nature and the corporeal trappings of their mortal bodies.
Once their bodily shell was shed they believed they would ascend to heaven, referred to as the “Next Level” or “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”.
Nettles’ death focussed their minds further on the nature of this transcendence and led them inexorably down the road of mass suicide.
Prior to her passing they held on to the belief that a UFO would ferry them to heaven alive and intact in their fleshy human ‘containers’.
But, after her death, the group’s doctrine changed, with a greater emphasis on the soul and ethereal consciousness as being the transferable element, with the body and associated earthly mortality seen as expendable in their pursuit of the ‘Next Level’.
Thus only death would achieve the conditions necessary for transcendence. The organisation believed that, post-mortem, they would be rewarded with new “Next Level bodies” in which to continue their onward journey.
And so it was that on March 26, 1997 39 bodies of the cult members, including Applewhite, were discovered by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department in Rancho Santa Fe.
The group had committed ritual suicide coinciding with the closest pass of Hale-Bopp.
Just prior to the mass suicide a fateful message was posted on the Heaven’s Gate website, which read: “Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate …our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion – ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”
The website is actually still in operation, so I contacted the administrators to see whether they would respond.
I asked a few questions to ascertain what the current status of the organisation is.
The questions and answers were as follows.
1. What is the current status of Heaven’s Gate?
The Group actually came to an end in 1997. It has not been active since then. The information is timeless.
2. Do you reject the label of ‘cult’ and, if so, what is your organisation?
Yes, even academia has told us it simply does not fit the definition.
3. What activities does Heaven’s Gate currently do?
Nothing. We joined the Group at the beginning in 1975 and they asked us to disseminate the information, care for the site and intellectual property for a while until we return to the Next Level.
Asked what they specifically meant by “return to the Next Level” They said: “Sometime in our next reincarnation on this planet Do will return and we will leave with him.”
4. What are your beliefs?
The Group’s beliefs.
5. How many members, or affiliates, do you currently have?
Mass casualties were the result of another infamous US cult case at the deadly Waco siege, in 1993.
The siege saw US federal officers, military personnel and Texas state law enforcement pitched in a tense stand-off with Branch Davidian cultists, led by the charismatic David Koresh, between February 28 and April 19, 1993.
The siege began when the finger of suspicion was pointed at Koresh and the group over fears they were stockpiling illegal weapons at their compound, at the Mount Carmel Ranch, in Axtell, Texas.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) obtained search and arrest warrants, which they headed to the ranch to execute.
The members of the cult did not take kindly to this and a firefight ensued, with four agents and six cult members dying in the intense exchanges of gunfire.
A 51-day siege ensued with the FBI eventually launching an all out assault on the compound with tear gas used against the Branch Davidians.
Shortly afterwards a fire took hold and ripped through the building. The blaze caused the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and Koresh himself.
Subsequently both sides blamed each other for starting the fire and the aftermath of the raid saw the Federal forces massed actions called into question.
The authorities’ tactics led to anti-establishment militia groups forming and inspired one of America’s worst ever terrorist atrocities.
For one man who witnessed the chaos at the Mount Carmel Center was Timothy McVeigh.
McVeigh cited the Waco siege as the main driving force behind the Oklahoma City bombing that he perpetrated on April 19, 1995.
He launched a truck bomb attack against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, a US government office in Oklahoma City.
The blast destroyed various other buildings and led to the deaths of 168 people, with the death toll including 19 children under six years old. It was the deadliest act of terrorism on US soil until 9/11.
The Waco siege could also have inspired the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which took place on April 20, with theories suggesting the killing spree was timed to mark the anniversary of the FBI assault on the compound.
This could mean that the ATF suppression of the Branch Davidians not only spawned a new form of domestic terrorism, but also the recurring scourge of school shootings in the United States.
The Branch Davidians were formed in 1995, but came to prominence and infamy under Koresh’s leadership, which began in 1981.
Originally called Vernon Howell, he changed his name to David Koresh to claim a connection to the Biblical King David and Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, who was called Koresh in Hebrew.
Koresh identified with the Lamb of God from the Book of Revelation and wanted to create a new line of world leaders. He was also suspected of committing acts of child abuse, which contributed to the interest shown in his movement by the Federal authorities.
It is clear that the cult led by Koresh and the actions of the US government to suppress it had far-reaching consequences that are still being felt to this day.
Another American-made messianic cult of personality led to a shocking mass suicide.
The Jonestown massacre saw over 900 deaths in November 1978.
The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known by its informal name “Jonestown”, was a remote settlement in the South American country of Guyana, which was established by a San Francisco-based cult.
The commune was led by Jim Jones, who fused Christianity and Marxism into an ideology opposed to US foreign and domestic policy that he derided as “fascist”.
There were multiple accusations of beatings and slave labour taking place at the encampment, along with endless recordings and announcements beamed across the site of Jones’ voice.
The broadcasts used sophisticated mind control techniques and sought to further radicalise the extremist left-wing inhabitants and instil a sense of paranoia that CIA operatives were coming to wipe them all out.
Jones ordered a number of drills to take place which simulated such a raid and it was at one of these that he and the Jonestown settlement became infamous.
The incidents, on November 18, 1978, saw a total of 918 people die at the Jonestown site, the nearby airstrip at Port Kaituma and a Temple bolthole in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown.
A total of 909 died at Jonestown from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide – an incident that spawned the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to people who blindly follow a set of beliefs without question.
This is because the deaths were largely apparently self-administered, in what Jones called an act of “revolutionary suicide”.
As he ordered the suicides Jones told his followers: “Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.”
He also said: “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”
Jones is believed to have shot himself as part of the mass murder-suicide.
The mass poisoning followed the murders of five others at Port Kaituma with US Congressman Leo Ryan among them.
The politician was in Guyana investigating conditions at the Jonestown site following increasing concerns over the welfare and treatment of US citizens who had settled there.
After Ryan had left Jonestown he arrived at the Kaituma airstrip at around 4.45pm and had to wait a little over 20 minutes for transport planes to take him, news reporters and Temple defectors out.
The six-seater Cessna that was transporting Ryan was taxiing to the end of the runway when cult member Larry Layton, who was on the plane, began shooting at the passengers.
Afterwards a posse of Temple members, who had escorted the group, launched a barrage of gunfire at the plane. Ryan died in a hail of bullets along with three journalists and a Temple defector. Many others were wounded in the onslaught.
The death squad hit Ryan with more than 20 bullets to the body before shooting him in the face.
The Georgetown deaths were of four cult members who were ordered to commit murder-suicide by Jones.
Even more horrifying was the fact that 304 of the victims were minors and Jones had ordered guards armed with guns and crossbows to shoot those who attempted to flee the Jonestown pavilion as Jones ordered the mass suicide.
Before enacting the dreadful killings Jones had been feted by the upper echelons of the US centre-left establishment and Civil Rights leaders and had had meetings with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter and others.
This goes to show that cult leaders such as Jones can exert powerful influence through the force of their personalities and there can be little wonder that vulnerable people, especially, are often taken in by them.
As a result of the Jonestown outrage the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a group aimed at deprogramming members of cults, was formed.
The group, which included Congressman Ryan’s daughter Patricia, became involved in a number of cases, including the David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.
Over the centuries Japan has been home to a number of cults and secret societies, such as the Ninja and the knightly Samurai caste, but it is in the modern era that more extreme organisations have been active.
These include the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Shoko Asahara, in 1984, which gained worldwide notoriety for sarin gas attacks in the early to mid-Nineties, including on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
One could also include state-sponsored suicide attacks by kamikaze pilots in World War Two as exhibiting cultic behaviour.
Kamikaze means ‘divine wind’ and the programme consisted of pilots who flew suicide missions by deliberately crashing their aircraft into Allied shipping in the Pacific Theatre.
Around 3,800 pilots died in this way during the war, with more than 7,000 naval personnel falling victim to the attacks.
Before and during the war Japanese armed forces personnel, as well as civilians, were told that their ultimate duty was to give up their lives in defence of their deified Emperor. Fairytales aimed at children lauded the kamikaze tactics as all elements of the information apparatus were mobilised to gain recruits, who volunteered in their droves.
There was also a ritual and religious dimension to the kamikaze programme with flyers taking part in ceremonies before their fateful missions. In these they shared ceremonial cups of sake of water, read ‘death poems’ and carried prayers and other items from their families.
The code of honour surrounding kamikaze pilots was so ingrained that those who failed in their missions through mechanical failure or simply being unable to go through with the act were stigmatised for years afterwards in the way defecting cult members face ostracism from their former friends who remain within these groups.
It is clear that cults are a gratuitous example of the behaviour that groups and apparently consenting, but coerced, individuals within them, are capable of.
But it is also apparent that, given the right conditions, such as isolation, message and mind control, propaganda and real or imagined external threats, that people are indeed capable of deeds that can be considered self-defeating or heinous.
It is also evident, from the other instalments in this series, that, when these organisations form, they can exert considerable influence on local or even global events often for ill, but sometimes for good.
Cults persist to this day and they hold sway in legislatures and executives that make decisions for vast swathes of the population, rather than just their own adherents.
This series or articles and videos has shown how just some of these have shaped our world throughout history from ancient to modern times.
Groupthink is a potent weapon in exerting control, and free inquiry must be an ever-present shield against the excesses of cults, and other echo chambers, that could normalise truly disturbing acts.
This post is the final part of a series on cults, their psychology and their influence throughout history.
Not all historical cult movements were doomsday cults per se, but outlandish beliefs have led their adherents to come to grief.
One such figure was the explorer Percy Fawcett, who believed in the esoteric tenets of the Theosophy movement.
Theosophy was co-founded by the mystic Helena Blavatsky in 1875.
It fused beliefs from a number of religious and philosophical tracts including Qabbala, Sufism and Buddhism, as well as neo-Platonism and other philosophical traditions.
But one of the shibboleths of the movement was a belief in ancient lost cities.
Percy Fawcett got lost in dense jungle looking for one of these so-called civilisations in Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 1925.
The theoretical city was known as ‘Z’ and the hunt for this site most likely led to the deaths of Fawcett, his son and his son’s friend, who all disappeared in the jungle, never to be seen again.
However, the mystery persists and, in March 2004, The Observer newspaper reported that television director Misha Williams, who had studied Fawcett’s private papers, believed that he had not intended to return to Britain but rather meant to found a commune in the jungle based on the principles of Theosophy and the worship of his son Jack.
The fate of Fawcett’s party remains unknown to this day.
Well-heeled men at the heart and height of the British Empire were often involved in cultist activities in the 1800s, with London often a focal point of strange and potentially murderous rites.
Bram Stoker, author of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with a host of other leading literary lights, were rumoured members of, or had connections to, a secret society offshoot of the Freemasons, which formed in 1887.
The organisation, called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was a magical order, concerned with metaphysics, alchemy, the paranormal, geomancy and occultism.
The Order’s first permanent meeting place – the Isis-Urania Temple, in Kensington, London – opened in the spring of 1888, just months before the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel Murders began.
The murders have been suggested to have been ritualised killings inspired by a Masonic conspiracy by some writers in recent years.
The killings could also have been part of an artworld conspiracy, with the post-impressionist painter Walter Sickert being suggested as being Jack the Ripper by some authors.
My own book ‘The Inevitable Jack the Ripper’ dives more deeply into this suggestion.
The current site of the Isis-Urania Temple Is now an average cafe, close to the Olympia exhibition centre, which belies nothing of its otherwordly past.
Ultimately a schism emerged in the Order, with one faction gravitating around the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.
What this illustrates is that this was very much the era of the secret society, of conspirators and cults.
It was an age where the wealthy and influential formed clubs and even pseudo-religious orders and carried out strange rites.
Slightly earlier an organisation existed called the Hellfire Club, which held lavish and depraved rituals in a man-made cave complex in the Chiltern Hills of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Members used prostitutes they referred to as “nuns” and dined on fine foods in large banquets held in the inner sanctum of the cavernous chalk construction.
The organisation was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer and included members such as ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ artist William Hogarth, John Wilkes, John Montague and others.
The gatherings were said to have involved immoral acts and rumoured to have involve Satanic black masses.
The club motto was: “Fais ce que tu voudrais”, which translates to “do what thou wilt”.
The motto was later adopted by the aforementioned Aleister Crowley.
Dashwood’s club meetings often also included strange rituals, pornographic materials, and excessive drinking.
During its active period, up until the early 1760s, the club was known by a number of names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Order of Knights of West Wvcombe and The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe.
It was later dubbed the Hellfire Club and the caves are still there as a rather odd tourist attraction called the Hellfire Caves.
I visited the site in 2014 and was struck by the absurdity of the place. It had a certain magical quality, but also raised questions about the nature and intentions of those who gathered there, in ultra-secret conclaves.
The caves feature a number of mannequins, including one of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who was rumoured to be a member of the club.
The suggestion that Franklin, a prominent Freemason who helped to launch the American Revolution, was present raises the prospect that this effective cult could have sparked what would become one of the most significant geopolitical developments in history – the foundation of the United States.
These unique kinds of group, where members are seemingly willing to do heinous or self-destructive acts in order to maintain their position within the organisation, highlight the most extreme elements of human behaviour.
While I was in my first year at university, studying for a politics degree, the course enabled me to do a few multidisciplinary modules.
One of these was in psychology and an essay was set whereby we had a task to examine how people behave differently in groups as opposed to as individuals.
I decided to focus on cults and, in particular, the infamous cult of Charles Manson, which was known as The Family.
The Family is an excellent example to use to understand some of the main drivers for the behaviour of cult members from a psychological standpoint.
The Family terrorised California in July and August 1969 where, at the direction of Manson, they committed nine murders at four locations.
One of the commune’s most infamous killings was that of the actress Sharon Tate, who was married to film director Roman Polanski and was carrying his child.
I actually recently acquired some original negatives and a brief newswire report on Polanski returning to the US from London’s Heathrow Airport, on 10th August 1969.
The tragic images and text bring to life the awful brutality and devastating impact of the case.
Part of the press wire read: “Polanski’s wife, Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, was one of the five victims of the mass murder at the Polanski’s rented home in Los Angeles yesterday. Three men, and another woman, Abigail Folger, 26, whose family own America’s most famous coffee firm, died in the ritual murder.”
The members of the family’ exhibited some of the key behaviours associated with membership of a group, but to extreme levels.
My essay outlined and explained these behaviours and related them to experimental findings made by social psychologists, such as Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram.
Asch carried out experiments on conformity in the early 1950s and demonstrated that people would willingly lie in order to conform with a group.
Conformity is a very powerful urge and when in an environment of total conformity, such as a cult, it is very hard to resist the consensus of the group.
The members of the Family, who were hippies and social outcasts, or people with so-called ‘alternative’ lifestyles, clearly wanted to remain within the group and experience a sense of belonging. This would lead them to do almost anything, including killing, to remain within the group.
One of the criticisms of Asch’s experiments was that all the members of the group were students, so the subject would feel a level of identification with them; the subject would see the group as a reference group.
It is more likely that there would be agreement within a reference group since the subject would want to be seen as ‘fitting in’ with their own age or social group, Manson was able to utilise this in exerting control over his followers. This was because the Family was comprised of ‘hippies’ who, generally-speaking, had a dislike for authority and society as a whole.
They objected to the moralistic judgements of the stuffy establishment and believed in ‘free love’. Manson’s extreme anti-establishment views would have been particularly attractive to some of the hippies in San Francisco at the time.
Another aspect of group behaviour was demonstrated by Bibb Latané and John M. Darley in 1970. The duo showed, in a series of experiments, that there was a so-called ‘diffusion of responsibility’ within groups.
They discovered that if a confederate to their experiment collapsed on a train, people were less likely to help if there were a large number of people on board.
Also, the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, in 1964, showed this phenomena at work empirically.
Genovese was struggling with a man, who left but then later returned and killed her. Police reports showed that thirty-eight neighbours had heard her screaming, but no one had attempted to stop the attack.
This ‘diffusion of responsibility’ could also account for the murders committed by Manson’s Family – in the confines of the cult they thought and acted as a group.
They did not feel directly responsible for their actions and saw their murders as the
means to bring about ‘Helter-Skelter’, the name Manson gave to his prophesied nuclear doomsday event.
After Helter-Skelter Manson and his acolytes would become the rulers of America with an army of slaves at their disposal.
The ‘diffusion of responsibility’ allowed them to kill with impunity, seeing their actions as a group act and therefore, not feeling directly responsible for them.
The cult members could also shed some responsibility in the structure of the group and their role within it.
In 1958 R.F. Bales highlighted the difference between formal and informal roles and also noted the way groups organised themselves to solve problems. He claimed that there was an “emergence of ‘task leaders’”, which controlled the working of the group. This ‘task leader’ position was the role of Manson within the group.
With Manson occupying this position it was he who controlled the decision-making process, this meant that members of the group did not really have to think for themselves and were merely agents of Manson’s wishes. They did not have to decide to kill, they were told to do so.
In 1974 Stanley Milgram showed in his electric shocks experiment that people would do almost anything, including endangering the life of another person, if reassured and instructed by an authority figure. Manson was seen as an unthreatening harmless
person, who was small in stature, but was authoritative and charismatic.
He also had a reassuring nature and was attractive to the members of his commune. He was older than his followers and yet still seemed to understand them. This meant that he could be seen as a parent they never had: understanding and caring, but not judgemental of their actions, because of this his followers obeyed his authority.
Even if the nature of the Family’s actions did overwhelm and disgust its members there was considerable pressure on them to conform to the norms of the group and to obey Manson.
Bruno Bettelheim (1958) noted that some people interned in concentration camps in the Second World War began to mimic the brutal and oppressive actions of their guards.
This, he noted, confirmed that when the former norms of society are lost to an individual, rule-following of any kind could give the illusion of a semblance of normalcy.
In the Family the rules and norms of the group provided a rigid lifestyle for its members and this climate of group conformity may have provided the sense of reality needed to allow the members to escape from their conscience, and continue to believe in the rectitude of their actions.
Manson encouraged attitude change and reinforcement of his views by the use of rhetoric and the magnification of differences between society and the Family.
He referred to the middle class and, particularly, non-white racial groups as “pigs” and repeated this several times, so that it was etched on Family members’ minds.
This effectively desensitised them and made the murder of these so-called “pigs” more acceptable to the Family, since it had a dehumanising affect on their victims.
Manson also employed methods of ‘mind control’ such as: ‘love bombing’, rejection of old values and a confusing doctrine. These are all heavily associated with cults.
The practice of ‘love bombing’ is used in order to endear membership of a cult to the individual. Manson used this in several ways, notably when Susan Atkins was told to remove her clothes and stand before him. He then told her: “Look, you’re beautiful”. He also complimented his followers in other ways too.
Manson insisted on the renunciation off all belongings in order to assume membership of the Family; this instilled a dependence on the group and, particularly, on Manson (whom all the property was given to), and is seen as the rejection of individuals’ former values. This encouraged absolute obedience to Manson.
Manson’s predicting the onset of a nuclear holocaust, his ‘Helter-Skelter’, was a confusing and complex doctrine. This is another hallmark of cult activity.
These factors encouraged blind, unquestioning, acceptance of Manson’s norms and removed the decision-making process from the individual.
The example of Charles Manson’s Family highlights the extremes to which people will go when they are in a cult.
It is evident that, when in a group, issues such as conformity, obedience, diffusion of responsibility, roles, rules and differences between groups come into potent effect.
A London fish and chip shop business has faced a backlash over a play on words on the nickname ascribed to the Whitechapel Murderer, who is thought to have killed five prostitutes in Whitechapel in 1888.
The Jack the Chipper firm was criticised after using the moniker, which is based on the name of Jack the Ripper.
But the owner of the small chain of two eateries has insisted that the name will stay and said it is “just a play on words”.
Owner Recep Turhan has two chip shops in Greenwich and, perhaps more provocatively, in Whitechapel.
After a customer boycott at the Greenwich location he appeared on ITV’s This Morning and vowed to carry on regardless.
He said: “The other shop is in Brick Lane and I don’t have any kind of problems in that area.”
His son Cagri Turhan, who is the manager of the chip shop, added: “We don’t want to change the name. We don’t want to disrespect anyone. We’ve already shown our respectfulness by offering 50% discount for women just to show we’re not here to be disrespectful or damaging in any sense. We’re just here to provide good food and a good service.”
This Morning host Eamonn Holmes asked how the boycott had affected the firm.
Cagri said: “It’s quite bad at the moment – more online than anything else.
“The customers that we have inside the shop – when they come in they love the food and say our product and customer service is great.”
Asked about the controversy over using the name of a serial killer who preyed on down-at-heel women Recep said: “I totally understand this one. I’m being respectful to women complaining about the name.”
He added: “I’ll give the person 50% discount and everybody will be happy.
“I don’t think we will change the name because this is the history from 160 years ago. I’m only using a play on words for the name and nothing else.”
The Ripper Murders have proven to still be a controversial subject in recent years, with Whitechapel’s Jack the Ripper Museum facing criticism when it opened in 2015.
So what do you think? Is it acceptable to use this play on words as so many years have passed, or is it distasteful?