*Post contains matter involving mass suicide and murder. If these subjects are distressing to the reader, I would advise not reading this article.*
Now, it’s been quite some time since I’ve dipped into some of the histories that are little more uncomfortable to talk about, but I, fortunately, have both a fondness for history and a stomach for the harsh realities of past atrocities. One of the most vicious events I’ve read about is one called The Jonestown Massacre. For the sake of adequately warning the audience, the recount of the massacre is brutal and not for the faint of heart.
With over 900 people poisoned, it went down in history as one of the most brutal and horrific tragedies to take place in the 1970s, and it’s one that isn’t often talked about as it doesn’t have any immediate historical value. It’s not World War II or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a tragedy that took place in a compound in the jungles of Guyana. So let’s examine the event and the major players behind it.
Jim Jones, upon which Jonestown was named, started the People’s Temple in Indiana in the mid-1950s. A churchgoer in his youth, Jones would later graduate from Butler University and marry his wife, Marceline Baldwin. Jones established himself as a man of the people, becoming a vocal proponent of racial equality and his belief that socialism was superior to capitalism.
Jones began to exhibit paranoid tendencies, moving the church to Ukiah and San Francisco, believing that a nuclear war was imminent. At about this time, Jones began to show disassociative habits, likening himself to Christ-like figure or at times even calling himself “The Prophet,” (The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica). With his worsening paranoia and accusations of abuse and other crimes and mismanagement, as well as unrest among some members of his congregation, Jones began to believe that their safest option would be to leave the country, eventually settling in Guyana in 1977 and establishing their “safe haven,” Jonestown.
The tragedy that would become the Jonestown Massacre takes place on November 18, 1978. U.S. Congressmen Leo Ryan flew to Guyana on November 14th to investigate the People’s Temple after pleas from family members who were part of the congregation. On November 17th, Ryan was allowed onto the grounds and upon his departure, allowed anyone that wished to return to the states to come with him, an offer which a few individuals accepted the offer. There was a small altercation before Ryan left the compound, but no was harmed as they departed Jonestown.
Shortly after that, as Ryan and the others boarded their plane, they were attacked by members of the People’s Temple. They opened fire on the plane, killing five people in total, including Ryan. Their attackers then fled back to Jonestown, where the massacre begins.
Upon on their return, Jones declared that it was only a matter of time before the Guyanese military would descend upon them because of the attack and instructed his followers to commit suicide. Using a mixture of fruit-flavored drinks with cyanide and sedatives, a majority of the compound consumed the poison, while some fled into the surrounding woods while others attempted to but couldn’t make it before they were either gunned down or captured. A majority of the survivors had either were previously defected or were out of the compound on the day of the massacre.
Jones gave one final address, which was recorded, and the sounds of his followers dying can tragically be heard in the background. Shortly after ending his speech, it’s believed that Jones committed suicide by shooting himself, but it’s also been theorized that one of his followers may have shot Jones before poisoning him or herself. Jonestown claimed the lives of 913 people in total and is without a doubt, a tragic and brutal event. The People’s Temple filed for bankruptcy shortly after and was disbanded.
I suppose that the story of Jonestown peaks my interest so much is the power that Jim Jones held over those who followed him. A lot of atrocities took place under Jones’ watchful eye and command, and they did so with little resistance. The power of his charisma was so abundant that he had almost no one to answer to. His followers believed he was a prophet, and that his words were God’s own, and as the base of his followers were minorities abused and let down by their own government, The Peoples Temple provided a safe place, and Jim Jones was a leader who would not let them down.
Cults have a tendency to appeal to the disenfranchised, those who are outsiders, and The People’s Temple is no different. Unfortunately, this story has no happy ending, and it only ends in tragedy and a great many lives cut short. It can only be hoped that events like these can be retold and that their circumstances will never occur again.
Chiu, David. (2017, November 17). Jonestown: 13 Things You Should Know About The Cult Massacre. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/jonestown-13-things-you-should-know-about-cult-massacre-121974/
Conroy, J. Oliver. (2018, November 17). The Guardian. An apocalyptic cult, 900 dead: remembering the Jonestown Massacre, 40 years on. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/17/an-apocalyptic-cult-900-dead-remembering-the-jonestown-massacre-40-years-on
Eldridge, Alison. (2018, November 19). Jonestown Massacre. Encyclopedia Britannica. Mass Murder-Suicide Guyana . Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Jonestown-massacre
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018, November 14). Jim Jones. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jim-Jones
Melton, J. Gordon. (2014, November 20). Peoples Temple. Encyclopedia Britannica. Religious Groups. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Peoples-Temple