Warning : Disturbing content.
A remote settlement, a charismatic leader and his legion of followers who are ready to follow him blindly. A formula that screams destruction. 42 years have gone by, yet the story of the mass suicide at Jonestown still sends shivers down the spines of those who hear about it. This is a detailed description of that horrific event and what lead to it.
The Man Behind It
Reverend Jim Jones founded the infamous cult Peoples Temple around 1955 in Indianapolis. Jim Jones is known to have consumed a lot of literature about Hitler, Marx, Stalin, Mao as well as Gandhi and had a keen interest on religion. He had also taken a shine to Father Divine, founder of International Peace Mission Movement and studied him extensively.
Over the years, Peoples Temple grew in number with Jones and his band of followers were soon relocating all over the country, creating new branches of the cult in various different places. Jones also often traveled to various places by himself to convince people to join his cult, such as travelling to Cuba after the 1959 revolution and flying to Brazil in the early 1960s as well.
Through his “premonitions” in which he saw nuclear holocausts and creation of a new socialist Eden on earth, he managed to convince his followers to move with him to California, where he established the new headquarters of Peoples Temple.
Settled in Redwood Valley, Jones felt he needed to have a much more urban environment to operate in, and thus he set up services in San Francisco and continued to be active in recruiting more followers for his cause before buying land in Guyana in 1974 that would eventually lead to the establishment of Jonestown.
The population of the settlement at the start of the year was just around fifty. By late 1978 the population of Jonestown was around 900.
Jonestown, formally called Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was promised by Jones to his followers as an utopia and a “socialist paradise”, located just west of Guyanese capital Georgetown. After increased media scrutiny, multiple defections and various allegations against Jones, the cult moved its operations to Jonestown in 1977. Jones had also stated that Jonestown was set up as a communist community, and would not let residents of Jonestown leave the settlement without prior permission. Even though people were promised a land of opportunities and a “paradise”, people who migrated to Jonestown soon realized that it wasn’t the case.
Life in Jonestown Pre-Massacre
Jones used many “mind control” techniques on his followers.
People who migrated to Jonestown were forced to work nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week. Life in Jonestown seemed far from the promised utopia, yet the residents fully followed their leader. According to an article on apa.org by Melissa Dittman (2003), Jones would blast his voice through speakers throughout the settlement, and pre-recorded messages would play all the time to make the residents feel like he was always around them. He also asked them to spy on each other and report any curious findings back to him. The article also says that Jones would ask his followers to list out their worst fears, so that Jones could use it against them whenever the time came.
Jones would often indulge in conversations with the people about current affairs and would show them Soviet documentaries repeatedly. During this time, Jones had also managed to obtain a jeweler’s license that allowed him to receive monthly shipments of Cyanide, the same Cyanide that would be used in the massacre later.
A peculiar thing that regularly occured in Jonestown was simulating mass suicides, an event which was called as “White Nights” by Jones. Jones would draw up an imaginary scenario where they were being invaded, and then would give the people four options — Flee to the Soviet Union, Flee to the Jungle, Stay back and fight or commit mass suicide or as he called it “revolutionary suicide”. During the mass suicide drills, everyone was given a red liquid to drink and were told that they’d be all dead in 45 minutes after consuming the drink. Jones’ idea was to prepare them for when such an event arose in the near future and said that they must take their own lives rather than fall to the hands of the oppressors.
The First Act — Arrival of the US Delegation
On November 17, 1978, Leo Ryan, an American politician arrived at Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse and human rights violations at the Temple. He was accompanied by a few reporters, fellow politicians and relatives of some of the residents in Jonestown.
In Jonestown, Ryan was greeted warmly and noted that everything seemed to be well. However, defection had already begun. People started passing around notes to the US Delegation stating that they wanted to escape the place. By the next morning, eleven Temple members had walked out of the settlement. Ryan stated that none of the people whom he interviewed wanted to leave, and seemed content with staying in Jonestown. Ryan had rounded up a few of the defectors who did want to leave and he along with his delegation prepared to leave Jonestown.
They were also joined by Larry Layton, the eventual perpetrator, who claimed that he wanted an exit too. The other defectors were suspicious of Layton’s involvement because according to some of them he was too close to Jones to be deserting him.
The Second Act — Port Kaituma Shootings
Ryan and the people he was travelling with reached the airstrip at around 4:45 pm that evening. An extra aircraft had to be flown in due to the large number of defectors that had now joined the delegation. The aircrafts, a twin engine Otter and a Cessna, did not arrive on time and landed 25 minutes later than expected.
Larry Layton, who had boarded the small Cessna aircraft began open firing on its occupants which wounded several of them before he was disarmed by one of the people inside. Other Peoples Temple members who had accompanied to see off the group started open firing on the other aircraft. Ryan was killed in the attack, along with four others (including a defector). After Layton was subdued, the Cessna managed to take off and fly out of the airstrip but the Twin Otter remained behind on the airstrip as the survivors who could manage to move fled into the woods nearby, leaving the dead and the wounded on the airstrip.
The Final Act — The Revolutionary Suicide
Nearly 900 people consumed the poison and committed suicide, and one third of them (304) were minors.
After ordering his gunmen to kill Leo Ryan and his entourage, Jones gathered all of his followers inside the pavilion to deliver an announcement. The bone chilling 44 minute announcement can be found in many places on the internet, and is commonly referred to as the “death tape”. He announced that there’ll be an exchange of gunfire at the airstrip and the pilot would be shot. His exact words were — “One of those people on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot, I know that. I didn’t plan it but I know it’s gonna happen. They’re gonna shoot that pilot and down comes the plane into the jungle and we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over, because they’ll parachute in here on us”
He then proceeded to ask them to commit “revolutionary suicide”, stating that the time for the White Night simulated suicide acts are over and that this is now the real thing they are faced with. All the members of Peoples Temple cult drank a poison that was a mixture of cyanide, sedatives and powdered fruit juice. The poison became effective at under five minutes for children and around half an hour for the adults. The next morning when the Guyanese army finally made their way into the camp, they found hordes of dead bodies scattered all over the place. As for Jones, he was found with a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head. In the nearby town of Georgetown, Temple member Sharon Amos was called by Jones in the evening of the mass suicide and asked her to commit “Revolutionary Suicide” as well. Sharon killed two of her youngest daughters, then asked her eldest daughter Liane to kill her, after which Liane took her own life — thus taking the total death toll in this massacre to be 918 .Until 9/11, The Jonestown Massacre was the highest loss of life in a deliberate attempt recorded in U.S History.
The horrific tape recording of that day’s event still circulates around the internet today. Children can be heard saying “I don’t feel good” after being given the poison. Their parents can be heard applauding and cheering as they feed the poison to their children before they drink it themselves. Jim Jones’ menacing voice can be heard congratulating the first person who dies and falls down, as all the other cult members applaud. It is a very disturbing piece of content that can be very easily accessed but I do warn you, it might not let you sleep.