Was It Suicide or Murder?

This question, relating to the actions of Jim Jones and his followers on that fateful day, has haunted the thoughts of many for years. While searching for a topic for a school project, I happened to stumble upon his story. When I first read a short summary on the life of Jim Jones, I was bewildered at how just one single person could mesmerize so many individuals. I was astonished to learn that his followers were willing to give up family, friends and their lives to devote themselves to living a life with him. These followers blindly gave him their unyielding trust, thinking that he would lead them to a better life. Naturally, I was curious as to how he could accomplish such a feat.

Upon further research, I discovered that warning signs appeared early on. Some of these signs included erratic behaviors such public beatings as punishments for both major and minor infractions. However, on the flip side, Jim Jones and his followers were great proponents of social change and volunteerism. I guess perhaps at the time the positive outweighed the negative. By the time the glaringly outlandish behaviors began, the followers trusted and believed him so much that they were able to overlook these events. Announcing himself as a messiah and performing false healings would surely have raised red flags if this behavior had begun in his earliest days as a Pentecostal preacher. By biding his time, he was able to secure himself as a permanent leader to his followers.

As time went on, Jones’ hold over his followers began to waiver. Some defected from Peoples Temple due to the aforementioned activities. In realizing that the general public was learning of his private actions within the Temple, he became more and more irrational and paranoid. He moved his followers to Jonestown, in Guyana, South America earlier than planned. Living in the compound in Guyana, allowed him complete control of his followers. He controlled the information going in and out of the compound. He provided his version of the daily news to his followers through the use of a public address system. He controlled all aspects of life in Jonestown.

As the defected members of Peoples Temple began to disclose information relating to Jones and his actions, the public grew concerned, especially a group of relatives of individuals who were living in the Jonestown compound. By convincing Congressman Ryan to investigate Jones, Peoples Temple and the Jonestown compound, this group thought they would be able to get some answers and be able to “rescue” any members who were being kept against their will. The well-known events following Congressman Ryan’s visit to Jonestown were tragic.

The deaths of so many people shocked the world. Stating this was a mass suicide, I believe, is a grave injustice to the many innocent people who were murdered in Jonestown. Eight percent of the individuals who died that day were babies (ages 5 and under); how can small children of this age decide to commit suicide? Another 9% were young children aged 6 to 11; once again, how can children of this age make an informed decision to decide to end their lives. Among the first to die were infants, elderly, the handicapped and those reluctant to ingest the poison. By telling his followers that they as a collective whole would be held responsible for the death of Congressman Ryan, Jim Jones coerced many to believe that they had no choice but to commit suicide or to face certain death due to his actions.

While I know there are many differing opinions in regards to the events on November 18, 1978, my research led me to the following conclusion. After interviewing (via email) several surviving members of Peoples Temple, I am convinced that this was primarily a mass murder. While I am sure some of his followers willingly committed suicide, the great majority were murdered. According to statistics given by Jonestown survivor Tim Carter, 829 people were murdered, while a mere 84 people willingly committed suicide. These statistics definitely lean more towards a mass murder rather than a mass suicide.

Regardless of whether one believes this tragic event is a mass murder or a mass suicide, there is much to learn from Jim Jones and his followers. It is much too dangerous to give any one person unquestioning authority over any aspect of one’s life. This lesson is applicable to all individuals no matter what age they are. Even in a group of school age students striving to belong to a certain crowd, each student needs to stand on their own two feet and think about what they believe in, not what someone else tells them to think or believe.

This lesson is also applicable to adults to ensure that nothing like this happens again. Questioning leaders is a must for everyone. I am not advocating mass rebellion, just advocating that people need to think for themselves. When you stop thinking for yourself, you lose a part of your humanity. That is not acceptable for anyone.

Researching Jim Jones and the events that transpired in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 has had a tremendous effect on my life. I believe that everyone needs to have a firm grasp on their personal beliefs and views and hold fast to those. I further believe that more emphasis should be placed on Jim Jones and other cult leaders like him in history classes. Most students today have never heard about the Jonestown Massacre, nor do they know that it was one of the largest losses of American lives in a non-war related situation. Students in middle and high school need to be able recognize individuals who have the potential to cause destruction. By knowing and being aware that such individuals exist, young people – the most likely targets – are better equipped to handle and reject such causes as they are presented to them. Finally, as best stated in a sign that hung in the pavilion at Jonestown, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”