Forty-one years ago, nearly 1,000 men, women, and children lost their lives — most of them, by their own hands — in a remote village hidden in the jungles of Guyana. Until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it was the largest loss of American civilians in a single, non-natural event: the mass murder/suicide of the members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.
For many, the event is seared into our national memory. The mere mention of the name “Jonestown” sends a dark shiver down the spine. We still say someone “drank the Kool-Aid” when they’ve been brainwashed or willingly duped.
Yet it started with the best of intentions.
Jones was a Born Cult Leader
Born in the small town of Crete, Indiana, Jones had a troubled childhood — by all accounts, his father was an unemployed, neglectful alcoholic, while his mother worked outside the home to support the family. This dynamic left young Jones alone most of the time.
Classmates and friends described him as “weird,” saying “something was ‘off’” about him. They say he was obsessed with religion and death, often holding funerals for animals in his barn. It was rumored that he once killed a cat with a knife, then held a funeral for it.
As a result, he was not exactly the most popular kid in Crete. As an outcast himself, he developed a great deal of sympathy for African-Americans, who he felt endured similar treatment to his. His passion for racial equality would be the hallmark of his entire career.
He eventually found a home in the Pentecostal Church and began preaching to the other kids in town. But his zealotry — and shunning of “sinful” ways like drinking and dancing — turned many off.
Yet he was a good student and a talented public speaker. He was also a voracious reader who studied Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Mahatma Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler. He graduated high school early and entered Indiana University, where he met Marceline, whom he married a year later. Over the years, they had one biological son and adopted seven more children of various races. Jones referred to them as his “rainbow family.”
To support his family, he went door to door selling pet monkeys and traveling on the revival circuit until, in 1952, Jones got a job as a student pastor at the Somerset Methodist Church in a poor, predominantly white neighborhood in Indianapolis. By the following year, Jones had made a reputation for himself in the state as a healer and evangelist.
However, he ran into conflict early on. Jones wanted to hold racially integrated services, but the church did not agree, so Jones struck out on his own.
Jim Jones Founds His Own Church
Jones held a large religious convention in Indianapolis in 1956, and with the proceeds, formed his own church. The church went through some name changes before it became known as the Peoples Temple. To help build his following, he bought time on a local AM radio station to air his sermons.
He also became more well-known for his racially progressive views. In 1960, Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones director of the Human Rights Commission. Ignoring the mayor’s advice to keep a low profile, Jones was an outspoken activist for civil rights, even going so far as to set up sting operations to catch restaurants refusing to serve African-Americans. He was immensely popular with Indianapolis’ African-American community, but many whites and white-owned businesses were critical of him. He faced harassment and death threats — though there is some question as to how many of these were actually instigated by Jones himself. Once again, Jones needed to move to greener pastures.
The Peoples Temple Moves West
After a brief stay in Brazil to scope out a potential safe relocation site in the event of nuclear war (and study Brazilian syncretic religions), he returned to his failing congregation in Indiana. In 1965, predicting that nuclear war was imminent, he convinced more than 100 of his church members to move to a new “socialist Eden” in Redwood Valley, near Ukiah in northern California. The membership increased dramatically as Jones bought Greyhound buses and took them on cross-country tours. He would preach his “apostolic socialism” and promise his listeners a home, a job, and a bed. He also convinced many senior citizens to sell their homes and give the money to the church in exchange for being taken care of. Faced with the prospect of ending up in indifferent or even abusive nursing homes, many seniors accepted this deal, and were in fact quite well cared-for by the Peoples Temple.
The Seeds of a Cult
Services at the Peoples Temple were raucous and soulful, much like those at African-American churches. They went on for hours, starting with lots of singing and dancing. Like Hitler, Jones would wait until the crowd was sufficiently worked up before taking the stage. There he would deliver animated sermons, prophesy, and conduct (staged) faith healings.
The transformation from progressive spiritual congregation to suicide cult happened slowly. As one former member put it, “Jones took us to the edge of what was acceptable, then over that line.” Over the course of several years, he had moved the line so far that nothing was unacceptable.
The able-bodied who followed Jones back to California did indeed have jobs waiting for them. Between the farm, administrative duties, and other tasks, members found themselves working sometimes 20 hours a day. People were made to feel guilty if they slept too much, so most were exhausted and suffering from chronic sleep-deprivation — a situation ripe for brainwashing. In addition, anyone who worked an outside job was expected to hand over their entire paycheck to the church. They were given a meager allowance, but were, for the most part, taken care of: trips to the doctor, new shoes, and other needs were paid for by the church.
Troubling teachings started coming down from the pulpit: Jones began preaching that sexual relationships, and even nuclear families, were “selfish.” He, and other members of the congregation, would work to break up families, since the church was the only “family” and Jones was supposed to be “the father of all.” And while he would shame and punish members for having sexual relations, he was having sex with nearly everyone in the congregation, male and female. He claimed he was the “only true heterosexual” on earth, and that anyone who showed interest in sex was simply overcompensating.
Paranoia also began to take root. People were encouraged to report others — including parents, spouses, and friends — for any infraction. More and more, members began to feel they couldn’t talk to anyone for fear of being reported.
And it was in Ukiah that Jones administered his first test of loyalty: having the congregation drink punch, then informing them that it had been poisoned. It wasn’t, of course, but it gave Jones the first foothold on the ladder that would lead to the events in Jonestown.
The Peoples Temple Expansion
By 1974, Jones saw that the Peoples Temple had expanded as far as it could in Ukiah. He took his congregation to San Francisco (and also opened branches in San Fernando and Los Angeles). There, Jones and his church got involved in politics. When a local activist group needed support for some action — a march or demonstration — Jones would bus in hundreds of Peoples Temple members to support them. Their support likely won George Moscone the governorship, so in thanks, Moscone appointed Jones chair of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.
During this time, Jones enjoyed quite a successful political life, hobnobbing with First Lady Roslyn Carter, vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale, state assemblymen, the vice governor, and even noted activist Angela Davis.
But behind closed doors, the church’s activities began taking a darker turn. As a “family,” the church handled its own discipline. People began to be called up to the altar for things as minor as sneaking off, owning personal “luxuries,” or having sex. The punishments went from slapping and spanking to beatings and torture, using boards and electrical shocks. One woman was made to strip naked and be publicly humiliated. Families turned on each other — one former member said “it was like the Gestapo.” Anyone who tried to leave faced death threats.
At the same time, Jones’ paranoia was growing, as was his drug use — by this time, he was taking a wide range of drugs, including both barbiturates and amphetamines. He was constantly claiming the Peoples Temple was under attack by the US government. At one point the Peoples Temple’s house of worship was burned down by an unknown arsonist and had to be rebuilt.
So in 1975, Jones and several members went to Guyana to find a place, he thought, “to practice, free of the oppression and racism of the US.”
Meanwhile, a few defectors managed to escape and went to the media. Reporter Marshall Kilduff was going to run an expose in New West Magazine. Jones managed to get advance notice of Kilduff’s piece, and after unsuccessfully trying to get the magazine to kill the story, flew his supporters out to Jonestown six hours before the story hit the stands.
Officially called “The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” Jonestown was carved out of the middle of the Guyanese jungle, miles away from any towns or roads. The one radio to communicate with the outside world was tightly controlled by Jones. Armed guards were stationed along the perimeter. Members were made to work long hours in hot temperatures with little food.
In such an isolated setting, Jones’ drug use became more obvious. He ranted incoherently, stumbled, and slurred his words. He broadcast his voice over loudspeakers 24 hours a day, indoctrinating everyone that they were under siege. He claimed he was under attack by the CIA, that he had been cursed by a defector, and there were bugging devices planted in the trees. Sometimes Jones would administer tests over the subjects he broadcasted. Failure was met with beatings.
Any complaint or criticism of Jones or Jonestown would be reported on by informers, and followed by beatings, extra work, withholding of food, drugging, and even torture. Expressing a desire to leave was one of the worst things a member could do — second only to an actual escape attempt.
Not that escape was possible. Even if someone could make it past the armed guards, there were hundreds of miles of thick jungle between Jonestown and Georgetown. Besides, as soon as people arrived in Jonestown, they surrendered their passports and money to the church for “safekeeping.” The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was a nearly perfectly designed prison.
Following Jones’ paranoid rants about being under attack by the US government, the members of Jonestown began rehearsing “revolutionary suicide,” or mass suicide as a political protest.
Back in the US, concerned family members were agitating for someone to investigate the Peoples Temple for human rights abuses against its members. They embarked on letter-writing campaigns and finally got Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) to agree to check out the situation.
After much back-and-forth, Jones finally agreed to let Ryan and his group (aides, journalists, and some family members of Jones’ followers) come to Jonestown. In preparation, he drilled his followers on what to say. When the outsiders arrived, Jonestown put on a great show of happiness and unity. Jones, while less paranoid than usual, was still a rambling, drug-addled mess, but overall, everyone seemed happy and content.
Except for the two people who managed to slip notes to the journalists, begging them to help them escape. When confronted with the notes, Jones claimed the writers were “playing games” and begged the reporters to just leave him and his followers alone.
That night, more people came forward asking the congressman to help them leave.
Jones claimed that the people were free to go, but not much later, someone attacked Ryan with a knife. Thankfully, Ryan wasn’t hurt seriously.
Realizing things were not as happy as they appeared, Ryan and his group immediately gathered their things and left Jonestown for the nearby airstrip at Port Kaituma. At the last minute, Larry Layton joined the group, claiming he was also leaving. Other defectors were immediately suspicious of him.
As soon as they arrived at the airstrip, a tractor pulling a trailer full of armed men arrived. The men opened fire. Inside one of the planes, Layton also drew a gun and began firing. Congressman Ryan, along with NBC reporter Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and Temple member Patricia Parks were killed. Several other members of the party were wounded.
Meanwhile, back at Jonestown, Jones called everyone to the pavilion where he claimed he could see the future: that the plane with the congressman will crash out of the sky, he said, the Peoples Temple will be blamed, and they will be attacked and tortured. The only way out, he argued, was through revolutionary suicide. One woman tried to talk him out of it, but he didn’t budge.
Nurses mixed the punch — likely a mixture of Kool-Aid and Flav-R-Aid — with cyanide and sedatives. They started with the children, administering the poison using oral syringes. As people begin convulsing and dying around him, Jones continued to talk, urging them to hurry, to stop being afraid and die with dignity.
Not everyone drank the poison willingly, though. Some were held down and forced to drink it. Some were injected with it. Others were simply shot.
In all, 918 people died at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978.
Jones is among those who didn’t drink the punch. He died of a bullet wound below his right ear. Whether it was self-inflicted or from one of his followers (or defectors) remains a mystery.