On November 18, 1978, cult leader Jim Jones directed 909 members of The People’s Temple, Jonestown, Guyana, to commit suicide through cyanide poisoning – over 200 children were also murdered by their own parents. It was the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until September 11th, 2001.
How did Jim Jones manage to convince so many people to take their lives that day? Here we look at the inner workings of the deadliest cult in American history…
Pastor Jones founded and led The People’s Temple in Indiana during the 1950s, which was often described as having cult-like qualities. He then moved his following to California in the mid-1960s, before gaining more members in San Francisco in the early 1970s.
Tired of being scrutinized by the media for his activities, Jones relocated to Jonestown, Guyana, where he began to build a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” away from the glare of the press. The rules were simple yet restrictive: no member of The People’s Temple was permitted to leave Jonestown.
Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, revealed Jones used mind control methods in order to retain his power – he was also a drug addicted bully. Followers were warned against running from the cult as the nearest town was a two-day journey away and were scared into believing the surrounding jungle-like area was home to deadly tigers and snakes. The message was: if you run – you will die.
Jones had also begun to set the idea in his follower’s minds that they would all sacrifice their lives together. One of his beliefs was called “Translation”, where they would all die collectively and spend the after-life on another planet living in perfect bliss.
One survivor revealed to Vice, “Everyone, including the children, was told to line up… we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink… poison… When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands.”
Another Jonestown survivor Leslie Wagner-Wilson, told Vice that she was made to work a backbreaking 10 hours a day, 7 days a week in 30-degree heat (86 degrees Fahrenheit). She revealed they were constantly near starvation, with only plain rice or rice water to feast on, and sleep deprived. “The tetherball and basketball hoop were there to cover the distress and abuse that we all endured… similar to prisoners attempting to find some normalcy.”
She added, “We were starving. But (Jones) was cashing the social security cheques of African Americans. He had millions of dollars hidden away, and our children were malnourished. People were manipulated and fooled into turning over houses, businesses… After all, if you have given everything, what would you return to the (US) with?”
The Death of Congressman Ryan and his delegates
A concerned group of former Temple employees managed to successfully convince Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate what was happening over at Jonestown. On November 17th, 1978, the Congressman arrived along with a group of journalists and many other observers to check out what was going on.
The visit appeared to be going well until Ryan’s group tried to leave and several cult members pleaded to go with them. Jones, angered by these members turning against him, ordered the ambush and Ryan was attacked with a knife – he managed to survive this first attack but a second was planned…
Following his escape, Ryan was killed by shotgun blasts at Port Kaituma airport. 42-year-old NBC television reporter Don Harris, 36-year-old NBC cameraman Robert Brown, 27-year-old San Francisco Examiner photographer Gregory Robinson and 18-year-old cult member Patricia Park were also killed.
Leslie Wagner Wilson escaped from Jonestown with her son Jakari just hours before the massacre
On the morning of the massacre, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, who had been a member of The People’s Temple since she was 12-years-old, managed to escape Jonestown with her 2-year-old son tied to her back using a bedsheet. In her book Slavery of Faith, she details how she trekked 48 kilometers through the surrounding jungle and they were amongst the very few survivors of the massacre.
Wagner-Wilson, who was part of a group of eleven people that escaped, details the struggle of trying to integrate back into society after suffering within the cult for so long. She revealed, “Because I didn’t trust anyone, I wasn’t capable of seeking out the help I needed when I came back to the USA. I knew I was in a bad way but I wasn’t able to put a label on my problems. I spent most of my time drinking and for a short while I did drugs as well. I just wanted the pain to end. For many years I had so much anger in me, but I didn’t know why. The only thing I knew was that I was angry at God every day when I woke up because he had let me live.”
“You Will All Go Down In History”
“The Death Tape” is a 44-minute audio cassette recording discovered by the FBI of a meeting called by Jones before the suicide took place. He told the cult members, “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 added, “The (children) that they take captured, they’re gonna just let them grow up and be dummies” and encouraged them to commit “revolutionary suicide” so they could all “go down in history, saying you chose your own way to go, and it is your commitment to refuse capitalism and in support of socialism.”
The cyanide poison took 5 minutes to cause death – the cult members used syringes to squirt the poison into the mouths of their infants. When members began to show a reluctance to dying, Jones would walk around the crowd and encourage them to continue.
When members of the cult became distressed as they witnessed the poison take effect on the other members, Jones stated, “Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.”
Adding, “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries…death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”
“All they’re doing is taking a drink, that takes, to go to sleep. That’s what death is, sleep.”
A total of two people – including Jim Jones – died of gunshot wounds. Only 7 people survived the poisoning in Jonestown; 79-year-old Grover Davis was hearing impaired and he missed the announcement that the assembly was taking place and 76-year-old Hyacinth Thrash realized it was a mass-suicide and hid under a bed until it was over.
Another survivor Jordan Vilchez said he struggles with being a survivor of the notorious collective suicide, stating, “I, and many others who survived, have had feelings of guilt and shame. Because I grew up in People’s Temple I had to build my own personality from the ground up and find out who I was outside of the mold I was cast in previously. To be connected with People’s Temple and that horrible last day has caused a complicated mixture of emotions.”