Although it is widely known as the Jonestown Massacre, the series of strange events that resulted in the deaths of 912 people in the middle of a jungle in Guyana were for the most part a mass suicide. Majority of more than 900 people who died there on November 18, 1978 took their own lives willingly. Those few who had second thoughts either got lucky and sneaked out of sight through the remote jungle, or were shot dead (or forced to drink poison) by the cult’s guards. What lead to such large loss of life? Read on to learn the story of reverend Jim Jones, Peoples Temple cult and an act of “revolutionary suicide” that left the world in shock. The gallery of Jonestown Massacre photos can be found at the end of the article.
Indianapolis preacher Jim Jones (full name James Warren Jones of Crete, Indiana) founded his own cult which he officially named the “Peoples Temple” in 1955. The philosophies of the People’s Temple cult were based on socialist ideologies that highlighted liberal, anti-capitalism sentiments. Although he had no formal theological education, Jim Jones was a charismatic man with great people’s skills so his following kept growing.
After he was ordained by the Disciples of Christ, Jim Jones moved from Indianapolis to San Francisco, California where he established his first church of People’s Temple. Another church was later established in Los Angeles though San Francisco remained the cult’s headquarters. It is estimated that the People’s Temple reached its peak after relocating to California with there being as many as 8,000 active members. Unike Jim Jones, vast majority of People’s Temple members were African Americans, however although in small numbers, other ethnic backgrounds were also represented.
Relocating to Jungle in Guyana
Jim Jones’ radical preaching didn’t go unnoticed and soon enough, Peoples Temple started to receive a great deal of negative press. Things were getting messy and when even IRS got after his ass, Jim Jones came up with a plan to move his congregation to an isolated area, far away from American capitalists who were messing with his cult. He urged his followers to join him in a new community where they would be free from negative criticism and able to practise a more communal way of life.
Anticipating problems, the People’s Temple had purchased a land in British Guyana, developed it and named it Jonestown. In 1977, Jim Jones and about 1,000 of his core followers left their families in the USA and relocated to their newly developed South American jungle retreat. Their relatives didn’t like that one bit and repeatedly approached the US government with demands for official investigation, claiming that Jim Jones brainwashed their loved ones into following him outside of the United States.
California Congressman Leo Ryan Visits Jonestown
Prior to receiving negative press, Jim Jones was a popular community activist in San Francisco. His name kept popping up alongside names of authoritative people, including politicians thanks to his cash donations and support with volunteer coordination. State Assemblyman Willie Brown showed his support for Jim Jones by posing with him before press reporters but showed regret after news of the Jonestown Massacre hit the waves.
Jim Jones was even given a seat on the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission by Mayor George Moscone in 1976 – just year before the People’s Temple followers moved to Guyana. But one of the biggest wins for the People’s Temple was when Governor Jerry Brown was seen attending their services.
As complaints from the relatives kept piling up, California Congressman Leo J. Ryan was forced to respond to them and launched an investigation. Jim Jones granted the congressman the permission to visit Jonestown and on November 17, 1978 he did. Because living conditions for the members of People’s Temple were deteriorating, with many Jonestown residents suffering from diarrhea and high fever, Congressman Ryan was secretly approach by a few of them with request to take them back to the United States.
Formerly bewitched by Jim Jones, several of his followers grew weary of him calling himself a saint and a reincarnation of Lenin and Jesus Christ. They were also not impressed by constant presence of armed guards who wouldn’t allow anyone to leave Jonestown unless with special permission from Jim Jones. Some described their living conditions as those of prisoners in a concentration camps, stating that they were forced to work in the field for up to 11 hours a day, 6 days a week with food wholefully inadequate.
Congressman Leo Ryan agreed to take 15 followers who requested a return home with him, but as the party approached an isolated airstrip where their plane was waiting, they were ambushed by a group of gunmen. Leo Ryan and four other men were killed on the spot, others managed to escape into the jungle. To this day, Leo Ryan remains the only US congressman who died in the line of duty.
Realizing that the death of a congressman who disappears after his trip to investigate the Jonestown cult doesn’t bid well for Jim Jones, the reverend ordered his followers to launch the “state of emergency”. Whole California knew that Congressman Leo Ryan went to Guyana because of complaints about Jim Jones. Complete loss of communication and failure to return as scheduled would prompt further investigation and a certain arrest of Jim Jones. That would ultimately end his ministry and everything associated with it.
State of Emergency was a planned mass suicide that Jim Jones had his followers carefully rehearse. Everyone, including more than 280 children were brainwashed into following through with it. And almost everyone did. Only a few tried escape into the jungle, with a mere handful managing to flee successfully. Others were shot dead or forced into swallowing the deadly concoction. Vast majority, including the children, participated in the Jonestown Massacre voluntarily.
By making the ultimate sacrifice, the followers of Jim Jones were brainwashed to believe that they would preserve their church. The participants were served a purple drink mixed with deadly cyanide, sedatives and tranquilizers. Jim Jones also died in the massacre. He was found dead with a gunshot wound in the head. He is believed to have killed himself. This all went down on the same day Congressman Ryan and his men were killed – on November 18, 1978.
Obviously, Jim Jones wanted his cult to be a one way street. Like in a song Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Once you’ve been taken to Jonestown, you were expected to make Jonestown your life… your whole life. You can come in, but once there, you can never leave. The Jonestown Suicide remains the largest single event mass murder (and/or the largest mass suicide – depending on how you look at it) in history.
30 Years After Jonestown Massacre
According to an investigation from 2008, sources from Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown confirmed that reverend Jim Jones started shipping cyanide to Jonestown as early as 1976 – two years before his followers moved to the jungle. He was clearly planning that mass suicide for a very long time. When it came to it, the investigation reveals that Jim Jones instructed the parents to first poison their children, before killing themselves. Kids from toddlers to teenagers were forced to drink cyanide, those who refused had it injected with a syringe down their throats.
The investigation also revealed that Jim Jones obtained a jeweller’s license in order to be able to purchase large quantities of cyanide. Jewellers use cyanide to clean gold with.
The Jonestown Massacre survivors were mostly people who were given assignments for the day and were not present when the mass suicide went down, though some managed to escape after it already started going down.
Jonestown Death Tape (FBI Tape No. Q-042)
Jonestown Death Tape aka FBI Tape No. Q-042 is a 45 minute audio recording of Jim Jones giving his fateful last sermon. Yes, Jim Jones recorded his last speech as well as the moments during which his followers were committing suicide on an audio cassette.
This “revolutionary suicide” is a very haunting thing to listen to. You can hear the children crying in the background as they are being poisoned by their parents with deadly doses of potassium cyanide while Jim Jones urges them to speed things up. A female voice tells parents that children are crying because the drink is slightly bitter, not because they’re feeling pain.
The audio also contains verbal interaction of Peoples Temple members with Jim Jones and if you pay attention, you will notice that it was mostly women who still showed some common sense and asked about going to Russia instead of dying, with men always backing Jim Jones up, encouraging everybody to go ahead and take their own lives for their leader.
Jonestown Massacre Videos
This video documentary is titled Jonestown: The Final Report and contains well presented details on People’s Cult, Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre, including some really cool footage:
This hour and a half long movie is a documentary on Jonestown Massacre. It is titled Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple.
Gallery of the Jonestown Massacre photos is below: