The Sacrament of Suicide

The first word of the deaths in Jonestown to reach the U.S. early on the morning of November 19 came through NOIWON, a CIA radio communications channel, which characterized the deaths as mass suicides. Survivors of the Jonestown tragedy had reached Port Kaituma and reported the news to American Embassy personnel who had accompanied Rep. Leo Ryan’s party. We can only speculate as to which of the people the survivors talked to was the source for the CIA’s information: it could have been U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Dwyer, although Jim Hougan reports in a story in this issue of the jonestown report that the information came from James Adkins, the CIA Chief of Station in Guyana.

The description of the deaths as suicide persisted in subsequent news accounts. Within a week or so, however, African American news sources began referring to the deaths as murder, accusing the U.S. government of detonating a neutron bomb, or deliberately practicing mind control through the CIA’s notorious MK-ULTRA drug testing program. The ever-changing body counts the first week also gave rise to other conspiracy theories which claimed that people ran into the jungle and were shot by either British or U.S. troops.

I initially called all the deaths suicide, and I continued to label them as such for several years, in large part as a critique of conspiracy theories. These theories violate the fundamental rules of Ockham’s Razor: the simplest explanation is best. I later came to change my own conception of the deaths, however, once I faced the logical impossibility of children committing suicide. In addition, the seniors found dead in their housing units – injected with cyanide – do not appear to be suicide victims.

This begged the question of whether or not the other residents of Jonestown who died – the able-bodied adults and teenagers – chose suicide or were murdered. As Skip Roberts, the Assistant Commissioner for Crime in Guyana who investigated the deaths, asked us in 1979: once you kill your children, what do you have to live for? This question continues to haunt me and drive my thinking, in part, regarding the volition of those who believed in the necessity of killing their children in order to save them, and who then chose to kill themselves. I see this as a perfectly logical next step.

My thoughts on the murder-suicide question have developed further, however, in light of the large amount of evidence which indicates that mass suicide was frequently discussed, rehearsed, and accepted for quite a few years by members of Peoples Temple, and by residents of Jonestown especially. When I read my sister Annie’s statement that she was willing to die for what she believed in, I did not interpret it as a suicide threat, but in the context of other data, it is clear that this is what she meant. There are other letters, tapes, radio transmissions, and public statements that not only indicate a willingness to die for the cause, but actually specify suicide as the means of death.

In short, by 18 November, suicide had been ritualized within the group.

Item: Many survivors describe at least one suicide rehearsal occurring in San Francisco – even before the mass migration to Guyana – in which Jim Jones distributed punch, told them it was poison after they drank it, and then informed them that this was a loyalty test.

Item: In a tape from fall 1977, Jim Jones and a number of others on one of the Temple’s boats threatened suicide when Guyanese leaders were out of the country and they believed they were under attack.

Item: In March 1978, Pam Moton wrote a letter in response to what the people of Jonestown considered as threats from several agencies of the U.S. Government, which she concluded: “I can say without hesitation that we are devoted to a decision that it is better even to die than to be constantly harrassed [harassed] from one continent to the next.”

Item: In numerous tapes from Jonestown (see e.g., Q 642, Q 245, Q 592), different residents announced that they were willing to commit revolutionary suicide in order to protest the Concerned Relatives and the injustices occurring back home in the United States.

Item: In June 1978 – a month after her defection from Jonestown – Deborah Layton Blakey wrote an affidavit in which she warned that the group was threatening and planning mass suicide.

Item: Although Christine Miller proposes alternatives to suicide in the Death Tape (Q 042), she does not seem surprised or nonplussed that suicide is on the agenda.

Item: After receiving the order via shortwave radio to commit suicide, Sharon Amos took her children into the bathroom of the Temple’s Lamaha Gardens headquarters in Georgetown, slashed their throats, and then slashed her own. This, in small scale, mirrored what happened in Jonestown.

Item: Many, though by no means all, Temple members who were in Georgetown or San Francisco on 18 November still believe that, had they been in Jonestown that day, they would have taken the poison.

When we couple these specific items with Jones’ constant discussions of torture, dying, and death, we can argue that many of those present on 18 November were effecting an action which had been ritualized, and perhaps even sacralized, in the community. Jonestown survivors contend that no one ever took the suicide drills seriously, and that they just went along with an empty ritual. While this may well have been the case, it in no way negates the actual effect repetition has to desensitize one to the unthinkable. We need look no further than military basic training to find that humans’ natural aversion to killing one another is broken down in order to create a successful fighting unit. The “basic training” in Peoples Temple was to accept the reality of death, and death by one’s own hand at that.

With that said, I would never discount the fact that this training might not have been completely successful, and that some would have resisted on 18 November. I have no doubt that some individuals – in addition to children and the seniors who were injected – were murdered by being forced to ingest, or to be injected with, the poison.

At the same time, I reject the notion that guards coerced people into taking poison. Given the chaos of the day and the event, and the real possibility that many children were killed before the majority of people even knew what was happening exactly, I feel that witnessing the deaths of the future of Jonestown – namely, the children – drove most people to voluntarily (in a rough manner of speaking) take the poison themselves. If it tasted awful, as by some accounts it did, they might well have requested injection as a faster, preferable way of dying. I would have.

If the children died first, in a scene in which no one had the big picture or fully grasped what was happening, this would explain why no one “rushed the vat” to overturn it. There was no vat to overturn, at least not at first. It isn’t until the very end of the death tape that we hear Jim say “Where’s the vat, the vat, the vat? Where’s the vat with the Green C on it? … Please? Bring it here so the adults can begin.” Why would he say this, well after the deaths had begun? One explanation is that children had already been killed off-stage, so to speak, and now it was time for the adults to take their turn. Further, if children were already dead, what was the percentage in overturning the vat? The worst damage had been done. It was all over but for drinking the final, bitter dregs.

* * * * *

I have wrestled with the question of murder and suicide from the very beginning. Early on, I thought perhaps that my sister Ann Moore was shot because she resisted suicide, or resisted the plans entirely. Evidence has come to light, however, through FOIA documents released by the Federal Prosecutors’ office in the Larry Layton case, that she herself discussed various means by which those in the community might die. A note found next to her body indicates that the deaths in Jonestown were about over, if not completely over, as she was writing. Thus, her own emphatic suicide – a gunshot wound to the temple – is more readily understandable if she was among the last to die.

The judge in Guyana who oversaw the inquest into the Jonestown deaths initially said that only two people committed suicide: Jim Jones and Ann Moore. All the rest had been murdered. Guyana’s Chief Pathologist Leslie Mootoo said he found evidence of people being injected with poison, and stated that he felt the crime scene indicated mass murder as well.

Arguments for murder, however, ignore the fundamental fact that the threat of suicide was an ever-present reality for those in Peoples Temple. They discussed it, rehearsed it, and accepted it with little dissent. This made suicide not just an option, but rather an inevitability. And that is what happened.

(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), and an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University.

(Rebecca’s complete collection of writings which appear on this site are collected here. She may be reached at