Back in November 1978, Americans were shocked by newspaper headlines about the deaths of more than 900 people in the South American nation of Guyana, in what appeared to be a combination of mass murder and suicide by poison. The carnage took place at a jungle camp known as Jonestown. Its founder was a charismatic American religious leader, the Rev. Jim Jones, who had led many of the cult followers of his former San Francisco-based Peoples Temple sect there.
The trigger apparently was a visit by a member of Congress, Rep. Leo Ryan of California, who had flown to Guyana to investigate whether Jones' followers were being forced to remain there against their will. Ryan and NBC journalist Don Harris confronted Jones on camera about a Peoples Temple member who had pleaded for help in getting away. Later Both Ryan and Harris were ambushed and shot to death on an airport tarmac as they attempted to return to the U.S., along with two other journalists and a defector from Jones' group, according to this retrospective Rolling Stone account published around the 40th anniversary of the event.
A Horrific Tragedy in the Guyanese Jungle
But those killings were just small part of a larger tragedy. Back at Jones' camp, approximately 900 Peoples Temple members were told by Jones that it was time to commit "revolutionary suicide," according to the Rolling Stone account. Some willingly drank a flavored drink mix laced with deadly cyanide and other chemicals, and even gave it to their children. Others, who didn't want to die, were forcibly injected. Jones didn't take the poison himself, but died of a gunshot wound to the right temple, according to an autopsy later conducted by U.S. authorities. (The wound was consistent with suicide, but the pathologist who wrote the report noted that "the possibility of homicide cannot be entirely ruled out.")
According to FBI's summary of its extensive investigation, Jones — in a twisted tangle of delusional thinking — decided that everyone at Jonestown had to die, in order to avoid retaliation in response to the killings of Ryan and others in his delegation. (Here's a link to the FBI's collection of documents on the case, later released through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.)
Decades later, what has become known as the Jonestown Massacre remains the subject of both horror and lurid fascination. Who was Jones, and why did so many leave home and follow him to a faraway place — and even, ultimately, comply with his order to kill themselves? The event encoded itself into popular culture, spawning the expression "Drink the Kool-Aid" to describe someone who embraces cultish beliefs — although, it should be mentioned, it was a different brand of flavored beverage that Jones used to make the lethal drink, according to Tim Reiterman's 1982 book "Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People," and other sources.
The Early History of Jim Jones
Jones himself was a puzzling figure. As this 1978 New York Times biographical sketch describes, he was born in 1931 in Lynn, Indiana, a rural town so small that it had a single traffic light, where one of the main businesses was making coffins. He was the son of a World War I veteran who had difficulty making a steady living, and a mother who worked in factories and as a waitress to make ends meet. Jones' mother pushed him to make something of himself and he eventually enrolled in Indiana University with the plan of eventually becoming a doctor.
But after Jones joined a fundamentalist Christian church in Indianapolis, he abandoned his medical ambitions, and instead decided to become a minister. According to the Times, he saw religion as a way to organize people to achieve change and fix social problems such as racial discrimination and poverty. In 1953, he left the white congregation that he originally joined and established his own church, which he opened to all ethnic groups. Low on funds, Jones supported himself and his religious organization with an exotic sideline: He imported monkeys and went from door to door to sell them as pets for $29 apiece.
Jones' congregation in Indianapolis grew, and he eventually attracted hundreds of followers, according to the Times account. He made a reputation for himself by opening soup kitchens and helping poor people — both Blacks and whites — to find jobs, and for a time served as the city's Human Relations Commissioner. At the same time, though, he also became fascinated with Father Divine, a flamboyant, flashy-dressing Depression-era preacher who mixed bits and pieces of various religions to forge a movement that operated scores of restaurants, gas stations, hotels and other businesses. Jones was impressed by the loyalty of Father Divine's followers, and decided to reshape his own image in imitation. Jones also started conducting faith healings, claiming that he could miraculously cure people who suffered from cancer and arthritis.
After Jones came under scrutiny in Indianapolis for real estate transfers made by church members to a corporation that Jones and family members controlled, his preaching took a darker, apocalyptic tone. He warned his followers that a nuclear war would occur within a few years, and that they needed to move with him to a supposedly safer place — northern California.
In 1965, he led 70 families to relocate with him there in a rural town in Mendocino County. But by the early 1970s, Jones decided that his real calling was preaching in low-income Black resident in the cities. He opened a church in San Francisco and eventually, a second branch in Los Angeles. Jones' blend of social activism and his seemingly tireless organizing efforts bore fruit. At his peak, he claimed to have 20,000 followers, the Times reported.
While people were attracted to Jones by idealism, they gradually were drawn into a cult that became increasingly extreme. One psychology textbook cites Jones as an example of narcissistic personality disorder, in which a person has an inflated sense of importance and a craving for admiration, coupled by a lack of empathy and intolerance to the slightest criticism. To exacerbate matters, Jones also became addicted to pharmaceutical drugs — and used them heavily that his autopsy revealed tissue levels of pentobarbital, a tranquillizer, that were "within the toxic range."
Jones gave marathon sermons that sometimes lasted six hours, and made his followers work so hard that they became too tired to complain — or too afraid of his "catharsis sessions," in which participants had to confess personal secrets at the risk of being beaten with a paddle. There were rumors of members being forced to sell their homes and turn over their savings to the church.
"It's a mistake to think that Jim Jones was all one thing or another — a skillful manipulator or an extreme personality," investigative journalist Jeff Guinn says via email. He's the author of the 2018 book "The Road to Jonestown," and executive producer of the Sundance TV docuseries "Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle."
Jones "was always something of both. Over the years drugs and hubris pushed him ever closer to the extreme aspects of his psyche," Guinn says.
Jones Takes His Ideology to South America
After Jones, who was bisexual, was arrested in 1973 after allegedly making sexual advances to an undercover police officer in the men's room of a Los Angeles theater, he decided to leave the U.S. altogether, and establish a utopian agricultural commune in South America. Many of his followers uprooted their lives to accompany him to Jonestown.
"Most people followed Jones not because of what he promised to give them, but for what he promised they would help him do — set a shining example of a group where race, gender and financial status meant nothing and everyone was equal," Guinn explains. "The rest of the world would see them and change for the better. Day by day, step by step, he gradually pulled them in deeper until, at the end, many felt they must ignore Jones' eccentricities because the noble Peoples Temple objective might still be achieved. By the end, most were in thrall to the goal of helping bring about a better world rather than in thrall to Jones."
Things got progressively weirder. As this 2011 account in The Atlantic by a former Jonestown resident describes, the compound was wired throughout with loudspeakers, and Jones' voice — either live or recorded — was heard continuously around the clock. He bombarded his followers with misinformation, such as claims that African Americans in the U.S. were being herded into concentration camps, and that U.S. authorities eventually would descend upon Guyana to destroy the commune because of its socialism. Jones even would stage fake raids, firing gunshots in the forest to make it seem as if Jonestown was under attack. Then members would be given cups of a flavored drink that they believed contained cyanide, and then were pressured or forced into drinking it, in what turned out to be macabre rehearsals for what was to come.
When Jones wasn't training members to commit suicide, he sometimes forced them to engage in boxing matches, in which members who didn't follow his rules were beaten by stronger fighters, while he watched in amusement, according to Reiterman's book.
According to Guinn, it's easy to get the wrong idea about the people who died at Jonestown. "The first dangerous myth is that all the people who died that day were sheep-like followers who followed the instructions of an obviously deranged leader," he explains via email.
Instead, Guinn says, they were "mostly exhausted and disillusioned. They were in the middle of the jungle, a U.S. congressman had just been murdered, and most of those who died willingly did so more to get their suffering over with than to honor Jones with their obedience. At least one-third were infants, toddlers and young children, and another third of the dead were elderly people who weren't physically capable of fleeing through the jungle. Many old people were injected with poison while they lay in their Jonestown dormitory beds." Those who wouldn't take the poison were held down by guards and forcibly dosed, he explains.
"It was mass murder, not mass suicide," Guinn says.
It's also dangerous to view the Jonestown massacre as an aberration that won't ever recur. In an era when cults that spread misinformation and conspiracy theories and preach extreme beliefs are spreading over the internet, we might be in more danger than ever of a reoccurrence.
"History is cyclical. In the 1960s and early 1970s, America was in a time of social and political upheaval and many awful events resulted, from race riots to leaders who in retrospect should have been recognized as too flawed to follow," Guinn says. "I think there are current parallels. What I learned in researching and writing 'The Road to Jonestown' scares the hell out of me when I see America today."