A recent grim discovery of the cremated remains of nine victims present in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978, once again brings this mind boggling atrocity into the forefront of the American psyche. How could a man convince so many people to kill themselves, and for what reason? Perhaps this question will never be fully answered. What is known is that the Jonestown Massacre is, undoubtedly, one of the most catastrophic events seen in recent history. The tragic scene that unfolded that day, involving roughly 900 members of the esoteric group, known as the People’s Temple, along with their leader, Jim Jones, has baffled psychologists and other researchers for nearly four decades. Today we will take a look back at Jonestown and the horrors that occurred there.
The People’s Temple was originally founded in 1956 in Indianapolis, Indiana as a group of racially diverse individuals seeking to help others in need. Led by a charismatic charlatan known as Jim Jones, he was believed by followers to possess otherworldly healing powers and was the incarnation of Jesus Christ, among other phenomenal claims. In spite of the group’s popularity and philanthropistic efforts, harassment from the surrounding community forced the group to seek asylum elsewhere. “Elsewhere” would be the small Californian town of Redwood Valley, based on the belief that the area was safe from nuclear attacks.
In 1966, Jones along with roughly 65 families moved across the country and established the new ministry. There Jones would gain recognition as a pillar to the community, providing housing and other assistance to the elderly, drug addicts, orphaned children, and the mentally disabled. Expanding his congregation to San Francisco, Jones’ organization was honored many times by newspapers and local politicians.
It was during this period that Jones began to become completely unhinged from reality. His ministry took a sharp turn towards political agendas with a strong emphasis on communist philosophies. Jones instructed his followers to reject material possessions and money, forcing members to sign over their social security benefits, welfare checks, and pensions. Some even went as far as to sign over custody of their children to the man that they lovingly referred to as “Dad”.
Jones also started to become increasingly paranoid of the US government, particularly the FBI and CIA. Fearing that he was going to be exposed for the charlatan that he was, coupled with his extreme paranoia, Jones decided that the group needed to set up shop in his idealistic utopia, located in Guyana. Officially known as the Jonestown Agricultural Project, 3,800 acres of jungle had been rented by several People’s Temple members. 35-50 young male members were selected to begin clearing the land and constructing housing for future residents.
By 1977, Jones would have nearly 1,000 members living and working at his South American commune. Members were forced to work long, grueling hours farming in the South American heat. Armed guards were placed around the gates, preventing anyone from entering or exiting the premises. Residents were subjected to Jones’ long-winded, drug-fueled sermons, warning them all of the atrocities they narrowly escaped after settling in Guyana until late into the evening. Members were also forced to forgo “loyalty tests” in the event it was necessary to commit political suicide, which involved the preparation of vats of unflavored Flavor Aid and served to the congregation under the premise that it was poison. Contact from the outside was limited and heavily censored. Family members of Jones’ followers became concerned and contacted authorities.
Congressman Leo Ryan would receive the brunt of these letters from concerned family and friends of People’s Temple members, urging the US government to intervene on the group and rescue those that they believed were being held captive at the compound. After corresponding with Jones, he reluctantly allowed Ryan to visit Jonestown for himself.
On November 14, 1978, Ryan, a group of 18 concerned family members, and nine media representatives embarked on their journey to Jonestown. On November 18, 1978, Ryan and his group were allowed entry into the compound where they were fed and entertained by People’s Temple members.
At first, the Jonestown residents interviewed by the visitors suggested nothing but contentment with their living conditions there in Guyana and that there was no need for concern. It wouldn’t be until later that defectors began coming to the congressman and revealing the harsh truth about what was really going on at Jonestown.
The group along with the defectors decided to flee the compound, with the congressman narrowly escaping a knife attack. The group made it safely to the airstrip but while awaiting their departure they were met with a hail of gunfire. Congressman Ryan, along with 3 members of the media team, and one of the Jonestown defectors had died. Hours later, all 900 members of the People’s Temple, including children and infants, and Jones, himself, would join them.
Audio recordings of the proceedings to the mass suicide reveals Jones reassuring members that drinking the cyanide and Valium cocktails he had prepared was the right thing to do. Any member that didn’t would be beaten and murdered unmercifully by US officials for the death of Congressman Ryan and his cohorts. The chilling recording tells that there was little protest by members and those that did have some reservations on such extreme measures were quickly subdued by the rest of the congregation. Along with being one of the most deadly non-natural disasters to ever be recorded in US history, superseded only by the 9/11 attacks, to date it is the only reported case of a congressman being killed in the line of duty.