The Tragedy of 1978

by Raul Kohl

(Introductory Note: My name is Raul Kohl. I am a senior at Fallbrook High School, in Fallbrook, California. Last year, I wrote a term paper in U.S. History. I chose the topic of Jonestown because my mother Laura Kohl was involved in Peoples Temple and lived in Georgetown and Jonestown, Guyana for almost two years.)

The mass suicide of 1978 in the jungles of Guyana shocked the American public. Peoples Temple was a shelter for many members who hoped to escape the American society of the 1970’s. This paper will chronicle the life of leader Jim Jones, the background of Jonestown, and the members of Peoples Temple. This paper will also include what happened during the final days of Jonestown, including the assassination of Congressman Ryan and the suicide itself. Finally, this paper will include information on the aftermath of one of the most horrific stories of the twentieth century.

James Warren Jones was born on May 13, 1931, in Lynn, Indiana, famous for making caskets. James’ father was James Thurmond Jones. When James was born, his father was in poor health because of exposure to poisonous gasses from the First World War. James also was identified as being a part of the Ku Klux Klan by his son. James mother was Lynetta Jones. a factory worker. She taught her son to love animals, to have an active imagination and to care for the underprivileged persons. Lynetta also inspired James to become a minister. As a child, James was nicknamed “Dennis the Menace of Lynn, Indiana.”

Although he was a rowdy child, he was kind to animals and would preach to stray animals he brought home, along with neighborhood children. James’s way of preaching seemed to take the forms of those in Pentecostal churches which he attended. Even when attending church he was mischievous. In 1945, Jim’s parents divorced and Jim moved with his mother to Richmond, Indiana. While attending high school in Richmond, Jim worked as an orderly at a hospital. While at the hospital he met a nurse, Marceline Baldwin. On June 12, 1949, Jim and Marceline were married and moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. It was in Indianapolis that Jim developed his two areas of concern, which were racial integration and socialism. In 1954, Jones left his church where he was a pastor over racial issues. He then founded the Wings of Deliverance. In 1955 the Wings would be renamed the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. As Jones built his ministry he also expanded his family with the birth of Stephan Gandhi Jones in 1959, and by adopting children into his “rainbow family” “.had adopted Jim Jr., an African American, as part of their plan to have a multiracial ‘rainbow family.”” (Jim Jones Jr. Battles The Ghosts of Jonestown, 1999, p. 238) In 1961, Jim Jones apparently had a vision of a nuclear holocaust which would destroy the American Midwest. After the vision, Jim took his family to Brazil for almost two years. After returning to the United States, Jones moved the Peoples Temple to Redwood Valley, California, a complex nicknamed “Happy Acres.” In 1970, Peoples Temple branched out to San Francisco. In the early ­1970’s, Peoples Temple claimed to a total membership of twenty thousand. In October 1973, Jim Jones resolved to establish a Peoples Temple mission in the South American country of Guyana. At this point in time, Jim Jones was admired and even worshipped by his followers as well as even being considered a god. “‘Jim Jones was the greatest man in America” Laurie Efrein says…'” (Efrein, 1979, p. 1)

On March 1974, the first Peoples Temple member arrived in South America, in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. By June, approximately 15 people began clearing the leased area which would later be known as Jonestown. Jonestown was an area of twenty-five thousand acres in northwest Guyana near the border of Venezuela. By 1975, about fifty members of the Temple were stationed in Jonestown. Here they cleared the jungle, built houses, and cleared out an area for agriculture. In 1976, the Guyanese government officially granted the Peoples Temple a long-term lease on 3,824 acres. On August 31 1977, Jim Jones left the United States for the final time in his life. At this time both Jim and the Temple were receiving recognition for their activities. “‘American Life,’ a national interfaith organization, listed Jones as one of the ‘100 most outstanding clergymen’ in 1975. The Los Angeles Times named him ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ in 1976. Later that year, Jim Jones was appointed to a housing commission in San Francisco. In 1977, the National Newspaper Publishers presented their annual Freedom of the Press Award to Peoples Temple.” (Stephenson, 2005, p. 69) By September, 1977, nearly one thousand people had left California for the jungles of Guyana. As Jim had done in the United States, he made Jonestown an interracial and intergenerational community. “Regarding the demographic composition of this community, 75 percent were black, 20 percent were white, and 5 percent were Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans; approximately, two-thirds were women, almost 300 were under the ace of eighteen, and over 150 were seniors over the age of sixty-five.” (Chidester, 1988, pg. 11) With so many people in the new community, feeding, clothing, and housing, all of them took hard work. Despite this Jonestown grew and created an amazing agricultural project. Jonestown also had a nursery, a bakery, soap factory, piggery, schools, adult education programs, medical services and entertainment. With all of this, Jonestown was characterized as heaven on earth, “Gerry Groop said. ‘The five months I spent in Jonestown were wonderful.”” (Stoen, 1997, p. 44)

Despite Jonestown being considered the greatest place in the world, there were a few reports that people in Jonestown were being mistreated by Jim Jones. One news article about a friend’s involvement with the Peoples Temple gave a congressman an interest in Jonestown. Peoples Temple, and Jim Jones in November 1977. The Congressman was California Congressman Leo J. Ryan. Ryan began interviewing relatives who were concerned with the Jonestown situation and former residents of Jonestown in August, 1978. Although some reports were supportive of Jim, many of the relatives felt anxiety for their family members. With these reports, Leo Ryan formally requested congressional approval to go on a mission to find facts about Peoples Temple in October 1978. Accompanying him on his trip would be Illinois Congressman Ed Derwinski and staff from their committee. In November 1978, before Ryan and his party arrived, Jim Jones told his residents not to leave the community. The week before Leo Ryan was to arrive in Jonestown, hundreds of residents of the community signed a petition stating that they had in no way invited Congressman Ryan or his party to their community. As reports were created concerning all aspects of community life, the Jonestown basketball team left to face a Guyanese team in their first tournament. Although Jim saw Ryan’s visit as an intrusion, there were some residents who felt that this visit would give them the opportunity to show off their community. While the residents continued to try and prevent Ryan’s visit, they also prepared for their visitors. Despite the protests, Congressman Ryan left Georgetown on November 17. In his party, were Ryan, his aide, an escort officer, two members of the American Embassy, Georgetown, four relatives, two lawyers, and eleven newsmen. At 3:30 on Friday, November 17, 1978, the plane carrying Congressman Leo Ryan and his party landed on the Port Kaituma airstrip. As the party left the plane, they were greeted by six Peoples Temple representatives who told the lawyers that only they should go to Jonestown and confer with Jim Jones about the rest of the party’s admittance into the community. After a few minutes, the lawyers stated that only Ryan, his aide, and one of the staff of the embassy would be permitted to enter Jonestown. After Ryan discussed with Jim Jones about free travel into a free community, Jones allowed the newsmen and the concerned relatives to enter Jonestown. Jim then informed the Congressman that he and his party would stay in Jonestown overnight while the rest of the group would only have dinner in Jonestown, but spent the night in Port Kaituma and return the next day. While waiting for the others to arrive Leo Ryan and his aide interviewed residents of Jonestown. When the newsmen arrived they began interviewing Jim Jones and others. During a musical the next day, Jim Jones’s wife introduced Ryan and he told the residents about his investigation so far. Ryan stated that he had heard Jonestown was as the greatest place on earth and would continue interviewing residents. Despite the enormous support for Jonestown, several residents approached Ryan’s party and asked to leave with them the next morning which Jim Jones had approved of. The next morning, Saturday, November 18, Ryan concluded his interviews. As Leo Ryan prepared to leave Jonestown, a total of only half a dozen people said they wished to leave Jonestown with the Congressman. As the people who wished to leave were preparing to go, shouts were heard from the center pavilion. There Congressman Ryan, who was with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, was attacked by a knife-bearing member of Jonestown who was distraught. Although the Congressman was unhurt, he had blood on him which was from a minor wound the assailant had gotten when he had the knife taken from him. After speaking with Jones about the incident, Ryan was urged by his party to leave that day and Ryan accepted. With this, the Congressman and his party joined the people who wished to leave and headed for the airport at Port Kaituma which was approximately an hour away. Before leaving the gates of Jonestown, a guard joined the truck. As Ryan and his party arrived at the airfield, the two airplanes that were to have arrived an hour and a half earlier to take them back were not there. As the party arrived at the field all the people who wished to leave were searched, especially one person who was thought to be a fanatic supporter of Jim Jones. As the two planes that had finally arrived were being boarded, a shot rang out from a tractor and two trailers that belonged to the Peoples Temple which were parked at the side of the airfield nearest the two planes. The Congressman quickly ran under the plane, after which he was shot once. One or two of the others from the group were quickly hit as well while others took cover. While under cover, the member of the embassy was shot in the leg. As the firing was commencing, several of the assailants went by the wounded. shooting several of them but not others. As the truck and tractors drove away, the unwounded and slightly wounded began to get up. Through all the firing however, one of the plane’s pilots was not targeted and the engines were still running. After the shooters of the attack left, the casualties were counted. The Congressman Leo Ryan had been shot and was dead, as were three of the news reporters. Ryan’s aide was also seriously wounded, along with one of the relatives. One of the members of Jonestown who was leaving also lay dead. The plane in which the party was preparing to board was shot in the left-hand tires and was unable to fly. The wounded were taken into the brush in case the assassins were to come back to finish the job. After the shooting, Larry Layton, who was the supposed fanatic supporter of Jim and alleged shooter, was taken by Guyanese officials to jail because of his assumed part in the shooting. As soon as possible, the plane which was undamaged, left with several of the wounded. The rest of the survivors hid in the bush. Several Guyanese began to help the survivors and supplied them with painkillers as well as informing them that they could go into Port Kaituma by vehicle and thus must wait for a plane. Several more people were found to be wounded and were taken into cover after dark by the soldiers near the airfield. Approximately 120 troops from Port Kaituma were sent to escort the survivors during the night as they waited about a mile away from the airport. The next morning, a rescue aircraft arrived and took the three most seriously wounded to Georgetown. Five children who where leaving Jonestown could not be found in the area of the airport. Family members continued to search for them and they eventually found each other. Soon after the rescue plane left, another two planes came to take everyone else, along with the bodies of the killed. During this time in Jonestown, Jim Jones was rallying his followers.

After the shooting, Jim Jones told the community about the assassination and gave credit to the Jonestown security team, the Red Brigade. Also at this time, Jim told the people that the plane was going to be brought down and the children and seniors must take a poison or be butchered by Guyanese troops. Although some people asked about going to a different country, especially Russia, Jim told them that they could never escape the killings of Ryan and his party. After telling the community the plan of what was to lie ahead, it commenced. Before anyone was able to drink the poison however, the gunmen from the airstrip returned to Jonestown. The gunman then told Jones about what had happened in detail and who was dead, in private. Jim Jones then announced to the people about the information he had just learned. He then invited them to step forward and take their final drink. On one side of the building where Jones was speaking, there was a wooden table with a vat of poison. The poison was created by Dr. Schacht and was truly a vile concoction. “Grape Flavor Aid, a Kool Aid-like drink, colored it purplish. Potassium cyanide was the poison.” (Reiterman, 1982, p. 559) As people stepped up to take a cup of poison, security patrolled the area with guns. Anyone who ran or refused to take the poison would be shot. The first people to take the poison were the children escorted by their elders. Although most children refused to take the poison by cup, they were forced to by having it shot down their throats with syringes. Although the poison was expected to be quick acting, it was far from it. The poison took several minutes and in those minutes, the people of Jonestown were in pain, vomiting, screaming, and even bleeding. While people were dying, people went around telling them about reincarnation and passing over. Along with the people who were consulting the dying, Jim Jones told them he loved them and they were dying in dignity. Through this time, security guards brought up people to the vat and left to find others. Despite the armed security that tried to prevent people from surviving, people did run and survive. Some of the survivors ran into the forest and headed for Port Kaituma. However, several people were caught and met their end with needles filled with the poison. Even Jim Jones’ son, John, did not want to die and tried to resist although it was in vain. During the suicides, a total of $7.3 million was to be transferred to the Soviet Union embassy by letters, although the people carrying it were captured. After most of the suicides, five handgun shots rang out. One of these killed the Jonestown monkey, Muggs. After another shot, there was silence. A few minutes after this shot, a final shot sounded and Jim Jones was dead, along with his aide. Jim had shot himself or had someone else shoot him in the temple through the brain before shooting, themselves. His wife lay nearby, poisoned. In Jones’ home, thirteen people lay dead. By 11:00. almost everyone was dead.

After the deaths, the Guyanese army descended on the community and found the carnage that had been left by Jim Jones. The day of the suicide, called the White Night by Jim, had claimed the lives of 913 Temple members in Jonestown along with one Guyanese citizen and all other life in Jonestown. A mother killed herself and her three children in Georgetown inside the headquarters. On the airfield, five more people lost their lives. Despite the enormous numbers of deaths, several people were found to have lived by mere chance and others by being extremely lucky. One survivor slept through all of the suicides and woke up to find everyone dead. “Eighty-five people survived the suicide-murders of 18 November, including Hyacinth Thrash…” (Maaga, 1998, p. 6) During the deaths only one person, Christine Miller, who met her fate by a needle, stood up to Jim and even then only did it verbally. The reason many people did not stand up to Jim Jones was because they were afraid as well as they highly respected him and what he stood for until the end. “All God’s children have a relationship with a leader or a teacher that is similar to the relationship that members of a cult have with their leader.” (Putterman, 1979, pp. 5) The basketball team that had been playing in a tournament outside of Jonestown was held under house arrest because of the fear that they may become a hit squad. In San Francisco, people surrounded the church there and although no one attacked it, the fear was felt by all the Temple members there. Jim Jones’ most notable candidate to succeed him and carry on the banner was his son, Stephan Jones, who publicly condemned his father and his actions. Stephan also told people he hated his father for what he had done. Many years of sorrow followed the people who had survived Jonestown and the families and friends of those who didn’t. The survivors would have many years ahead of them before they ever recovered from what they had seen in Jonestown, as well as get back to live in the United States. The families of the people who died would go through hard times in trying to understand what their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, relatives and friends went through in those last few hours in Jonestown.

The deaths of 918 people in Jonestown and Guyana shocked not only the United States, but the rest of the world as well. Although Jonestown had all the makings of a perfect society, the people could not put those together. Through evidence in this research paper, Jonestown could have survived and prospered to this day if it had not been for the mistakes of its leader, Jim Jones. In a century of wars, advancement in technology, and the social life, an event 28 years ago is all but forgotten in the folds of history.


Chidester. D. (2003). Salvation and Suicide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Efrein. L. (1979, January 25-31). “The Greatest Man Alive.” Weekly Sohonews. 6, pp. 1-6.

“Jim Jones Jr. Battles The Ghosts of Jonestown.” (1999, March 15). People Weekly, pp. 238.

Maaga. M. (1998). Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Putterman. Z. (1979. March 23-29). SunInterview. PacificSun. pp. 5-9.

Reiterman. T. (1982). Raven. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc.

Stephenson. D. (2005). Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Stoen. T. (1997, April 7). “The Most Horrible Night of My Life. Newsweek. 129, pp. 44-45.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on June 26th, 2021.
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