What Was The Jonestown Massacre?

The Jonestown cult moved from the United States to the remote wilderness in Guayana, where the tragic massacre ultimately took place.
The Jonestown cult moved from the United States to the remote wilderness in Guayana, where the tragic massacre ultimately took place.

Before the US September 11, 2001 attacks, the Jonestown massacre was notable as the deadliest harrowing experience in the nation's history. More than 900 individuals died on the fateful day of November 18, 1978, including more than 200 children. The members had been adherents of a cult popularized by Jim Jones and dubbed the People's Temple. Jones had led his followers out of the US to a remote jungle in Guyana with the promises of establishing a utopian community.

Who Was Jim Jones?

Jim Jones was born in rural Indiana in the Crete community on May 13, 1931. Jones' mother, Lynetta Putnam, reportedly believed Jones was a messiah. Jones was of Welsh and Irish ancestry. In 1934, the family relocated to the town of Lynn where they lived in a shack with no plumbing. Jones indulged in the works of Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mahatma Gandhi, and Karl Marx during his childhood and he also cultivated a profound interest in religion. Jones was, by all means, a social outcast and childhood acquaintances described him as a "really weird kid." Jones began to sympathize with the African-American population in his country which he noted was oppressed. He later explained how he conflicted with his father on the race issue. Jones relocated with his mother to Richmond, and after graduating from high school in 1948 married a nurse named Marceline Baldwin in 1949. Jones undertook studies at the Indiana University Bloomington and then at Butler University where he earned a degree in secondary education.

Origin Of The People’s Temple

Jim Jones developed communist ideals believing it to be the most appropriate social order. To Jones' surprise, a Methodist Superintendent oversaw his absorption into the Church despite him knowing of Jones' love-affair with communism. Jones earned the post of student pastor in 1952 in the Indianapolis-based Southside Methodist Church which he left since it did not welcome the African-American congregation. He subsequently founded a church in a rented place which he named the Community Unity Church. Jones and other members of the new church faked healings in a bid to increase the congregation size. Jones managed to purchase a church building in 1956 in a racially mixed neighborhood in the state. He initially titled it "Wings of Deliverance" but later changed it to the "Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church." The Temple staged massive religious conventions where Jones and other Pentecostal pastors executed healings and revealed private information to impress the crowds. Jones, accompanied by fellow Temple members, drove through cities in Ohio and Indiana to recruit members and raise funds. The Temple preached egalitarian ideals and hired Archie Ijames as a preacher, whose African-American stature signaled the inclusion of the nearly 50% African American congregation. The Church was then absorbed into the Christian Church and named the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. The Church rolled out social service programs, and Jones even earned an appointment to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission.

Expansion And Move To Guyana

By the 1960s, Jones had begun adopting socialist concepts in his sermons. He further warned of an impending holocaust and moved his church to Redwood Valley, California in 1965. He established permanent facilities in San Francisco in 1971 and Los Angeles in 1972. Jones began to infiltrate political circles and fashion himself as a respected churchman. The People's Temple was however accused of inhumane treatment towards the members, brainwashing, financial fraud, and blackmail. In 1974, a small team of Jones' disciples left for Guyana where they developed an agricultural co-operative to facilitate the arrival of the other members in 1977 accompanied by Jones. Jones lured the followers to establish a socialist utopia settlement.

Human Rights Abuse

The members arrived in Guyana to hostile conditions. As there were inadequate cabins, the available ones were fitted with bunk beds and were overcrowded. The cabins were further segregated by gender meaning married couples lived separately. The members spent their days working in the fields, and they attracted punishments upon questioning the authority of Jones. The medications and passports of the followers were also confiscated, and several members got sick from the heat, humidity, and tropical diseases. The establishment was surrounded by large tracts of jungle and further encircled by armed guards to discourage defectors. The followers were encouraged to participate in long late-night meetings and suicide drills. The members' letters and phone calls were carefully monitored. Reports of the terrible things unfolding at the settlement reached Leo Ryan, a US Congressman who traveled to the community on November 17, 1978, accompanied by several journalists and observers. The first day of the visit went well, but the delegation was approached by some of the residents as it prepared to leave the following day. Ryan invited anyone who wanted to leave to join his delegation, and one of the members attempted to slit his throat convincing Ryan of the danger that lay in Jonestown. A group of gunmen from the community caught up with the delegation in the airstrip killing five individuals including Ryan and wounding 11 others.

The Horrific Case Of Mass Suicide

The killing of the US delegation made Jones panic as he knew the US government would descend on the community. Jones ordered all members to congregate in the main pavilion to execute his "revolutionary suicide plan" which they had practiced before. He convinced the congregation that there was no other way out of the dangerous situation. Large kettles of grape-flavored Flavor Aid were assembled in the pavilion. The drink was laced with cyanide and Valium. The babies were fed the mixture first followed by the adults. The guards stood by armed to encourage everyone to take the deadly mixture.

Aftermath Of The Event

918 people lost their lives in the mass suicide including 276 children. The event made history as the deadliest single loss of America's civilians in an intentional event. The relatives of the dead members and the media staged a siege at the San Francisco headquarters of the Temple. The bodies of the Temple members were airlifted to Dover Air Force Base situated in Delaware, and some of them were identified. More than 400 bodies were buried in a mass grave located at Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery. The event helped embed the notion that New Religious Movements are deadly in the public mind. The church subsequently declared bankruptcy in 1978, and its buildings in California, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis remain intact, and congregations even use some. The San Francisco base was devastated by the Loma Prieta earthquake (1989) and a Post Office branch was erected at the site.


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