What transpired at the so-called Jonestown settlement in remote north-western Guyana on November 18, 1978, is sometimes referred to as a massacre and sometimes as a mass suicide (via cyanide-laced punch). Either way, the agricultural commune run by the former Indianapolis preacher, James Warren Jones, played host to the most deadly non-natural disaster in American history up until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The final death toll at Jonestown that day was 909, of which a third were children. It was also the only time in history in which a U.S. congressman was killed in the line of duty.
In the mid-1950s, Jim Jones rented a small building in a racially-mixed section of Indianapolis and founded a religious group called Wings of Deliverance. A year later, Wings of Deliverance was renamed Peoples Temple and became known in the area for its social activism and for the services it provided for society’s disadvantaged – a soup kitchen, an orphanage and services for the disabled. Twenty years later, Jones moved to Northern California and media reports were beginning to paint a picture of a religious cult whose members weren’t allowed to leave and were cut off from their families and the rest of society. In 1977, Jones moved his congregation of several hundred followers from San Francisco to Jonestown. With his trademark dark glasses, suits and slicked-back dark hair, he delivered fiery sermons from the pulpit and new members were drawn into the fold as word spread of his remarkable “healings” (fraudulent psychic-healing demonstrations using rotting animal organs as phoney tumours).
At this point in history, American society was in the grip of widespread fear of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo following the 1955 bus boycott and young people were feeling increasingly disillusioned and alienated. In that context, it is perhaps understandable that Jones’ revolutionary ideas appealed to a wide range of unhappy and disenfranchised Americans. Many of his followers had been addicted to drugs or were homeless or were fleeing abusive situations. The Temple represented a safe haven where they could work on rebuilding their lives. Presented with an idealistic picture of a society which was inconceivable to them as consumers of mainstream culture, they responded to Jones’ attacks on capitalism and his dreams of a Utopian society in which all members were treated equally. Membership rocketed from several hundred to approximately 20,000 at the Temple’s peak in San Francisco. Mesmerised by Jones’ personal charisma and powerful oratory, inductees flocked to the Temple and turned over their assets, allowing him to purchase and develop a tract of land in Guyana.
Construction of the new compound was slow, because building supplies had to be shipped in. It was far from ready when Jones and several hundred Peoples Temple members flew to Guyana and moved in, having received word that an article exposing him was about to be printed in the national media. Far from a utopia, life in Jonestown was not what members had expected. Since there were not enough cabins to house them all, each cabin was overcrowded and filled with bunk beds. They were also segregated by gender, so married couples were forced to live apart. Receiving little food and required to work long days, often up to eleven hours, in the stifling heat, they toiled away as Jones’s voice barked at them through a loudspeaker. The compound was surrounded by miles and miles of jungle and patrolled by armed guards. Iron-fisted Jones did not want anyone to leave.
Eventually, allegations of tyranny and cruelty under Jones’ rule from relatives of Temple members prompted Congressman Leo Ryan and a group of journalists, including a NBC film crew, to travel to Jonestown to investigate. All went smoothly at first. Jones entertained his guests with a big dinner and dance in the pavilion. However, when someone secretly passed a note to one of the film crew with the names of a few people who wanted to leave the compound, it soon became clear that people were being held against their will. The following day, November 18, 1978, Ryan announced that he was willing to take anyone who wished to leave back with him to the United States. Worried about Jones’s reaction, only a few people accepted his offer and scrambled on board a truck with Ryan’s entourage. Suddenly, Ryan was attacked by an assailant who attempted to cut his throat. Pandemonium reigned and several people were killed, but Ryan managed to escape on the truck. They made it safely to the airstrip in Port Kaituma, but the planes were not ready to leave. As they waited, a tractor and trailer pulled up near them and Peoples Temple guards started shooting. On the tarmac, five people were killed, including Congressman Ryan. Many others were severely wounded.
Back in Jonestown, Jones ordered everyone to assemble at the pavilion. Agitated and upset that some of his members had left, he told the congregation to expect an attack. “When they start parachuting out of the air, they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies,” he told them. According to Jones, the only solution was to commit the “revolutionary act” of suicide. When news broke that Ryan had been killed, Jones told the congregation to hurry. Large drums filled with a concoction of grape Flavor-Aid, Valium, Phenergan and cyanide were placed in the open-sided pavilion. Babies and children were brought up first. Syringes were used to pour the poisoned juice into their mouths. Mothers then drank some of the poisoned punch. Guards with guns and crossbows were on hand to encourage them. It took approximately five minutes for each person to die. Only a handful or so people survived, either by escaping into the jungle or by hiding somewhere in the compound. Jones died from a single gunshot wound to the head, but it is unclear whether or not it was self-inflicted.
Many questions remain, among them: why was there so little governmental oversight of Jim Jones’ operation? The deaths of these hapless people will not have been in vain if governments around the world take action to monitor and prevent the growth of cults, radical organisations and extreme single-issue pressure groups.