What exactly happened on 18 November 1978?

The full truth about what exactly happened in Jonestown, Guyana on 18 November 1978 is not known. Was it suicide? That is, did people voluntarily take poison? Certainly we cannot say that the children who died that day committed suicide, and thus must refer to the event at least as suicides/murders. Was it murder? Were people forced at gunpoint to drink the liquid? Or were people shot, and those victims undetected in the hasty disposal of the bodies? Some argue that Jonestown was a CIA mind-control experiment, and that Jim Jones was a rogue CIA agent. Others claim that the U.S. government could not tolerate an inter-racial and socialist group of ex-patriate Americans to survive, and hence murdered them. Still others believe that repeated suicide rehearsals had prepared the group to die. There are many theories, none of which have been adequately answered by any federal investigations.

The generally accepted scenario follows. Temple members had practiced suicide drills for years. That is, they pretended to drink poison and then fell down “dead” as part of a loyalty test to Jim Jones and to Peoples Temple. This is step one, the mental preparation, as well as physical re-enactment, required to get people to accept the idea of suicide. Step two was the hostile visit by U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, who was accompanied by members of the media and Peoples Temple critics. The people in Jonestown saw this visit as an “attack” by its “enemies.” Step three: the defection of about 16 people from Jonestown who decided to leave with the congressman. This defection was a great blow to Jones and to the community. They felt betrayed. The next step was the attack on Ryan, the media, and the defectors at the Port Kaituma airstrip. This attack appears to have been made by individuals sent by Jones from Jonestown. They came up on a truck, fired on the group, and left once they had targeted Ryan and reporters. The final step was the gathering at the central pavilion in Jonestown. An audiotape seems to indicate general agreement with the plan to commit suicide. One woman dissents, but others argue with her and she relents. Jim Jones is heard encouraging people to quiet their children, and exhorting them to take the last step, so that they would see each other again on the “other side.”

 

 

Last modified on October 13th, 2013.
Skip to main content