(Last February I was wandering through my school library looking for something to do a semester-long research paper on. I had already written a paper on whether O.J. Simpson was guilty and wanted to do something similar. When I walked through the library’s religion section, I discovered a book of cults. The thought of cults intrigued me, so I checked out the book and began reading. That was when I first learned about Jonestown. From the moment I started reading, I knew that I had to write a paper proving that Jonestown was mass murder, not mass suicide.
I spent hours upon hours reading articles about Jonestown. I found the Jonestown website, and it proved to be the most valuable source of information because I was able to get copies of some of the Jonestown tapes. I was horrified by what I heard on these tapes, but they helped me demonstrate why I believed that Jim Jones was a murderer.)
November 18, 2003 was the 25-year anniversary of the tragedy in Jonestown that will never be forgotten. Millions of people gathered to mourn the loss of loved ones. Over 900 died on that day 25 years ago and the world would never view cults the same. Peoples Temple, also known as Jonestown, was supposed to be its own little country free from racism and other problems in our society today. The people that entered this ‘country’ didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, and it cost most of them their lives.
The people of Jonestown did not commit mass suicide, they were murdered. Many people are trying to prove this. These people saw Jim Jones for the lying, embezzling, fraud he really was. If a closer look at the documentation was taken more people would see the truth about Jonestown.
Jonestown has been labeled a cult. A cult is defined as a group that represents a religious body that is unorthodox or spurious, wide perimeter of devotion to a great person, idea, or a thing (Larson, Larson’s New Book of Cults, 14). The origin of the word cult comes from the Latin word cultus, which connotes all that is involved in worship: ritual, emotion, liturgy, and attitude. Dr. Charles Braden is quoted as saying, “A cult is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more aspects as to belief or practice from those groups that are regarded as the normative expression of religion in our culture” (qtd. in Larson, 14).
To be defined as a cult a group has to have a certain number of characteristics associated with cults. A general characteristic of a cult is a centralized authority that structures philosophy and lifestyle. Cults also have a “we” versus “them” complex against those not belonging to the group. Most cults have a commitment for each member to be separated from the unconverted. Most people in cults are isolated from the realities of what is going on in the ‘real world.’ Cults tend to be very exclusive, people living outside the cult are viewed as spiritually inferior (Larson, Cults, 14). In most cults the financial involvement is very strong. Almost all of one’s personal assets are donated to the cult. This increases the member’s interest in not leaving the cult. Another thing that helps define a cult is the use of hypnotic states. The leader may induce a state of manipulative mind by chanting, continuous singing, or meditation. Another common characteristic associated with cults is lack of privacy. Members are seldom left unattended so that their minds do not have a normal defense mechanism. They are also often forced to share personal secrets to be used as intimidation. Megacommunication is also a characteristic. The members are often given long lectures to confuse their minds. In cults there is also an element of new relationships. Members may marry other members willingly, but are often forced by the leader to marry another member. This is to cause destruction of ‘outside’ family relationships and brings a member into the ‘cult family.’ In cults there is also very strong peer pressure. By exploiting a member’s desire for acceptance, doubts about certain cult practices can be overcome by providing a sense of belonging. Cults also often have sensory deprivation. When a person is greatly fatigued and is forced into prolonged activity, it can make them vulnerable to normally offensive beliefs and suggestions. Another characteristic associated with cults is the unquestioning acceptance of cult practices. This is achieved by discouraging curiosity or questions that may challenge the leader. Many cults also have the element of valuing rejection of previous values. As a member becomes more and more involved in a cult he is encouraged to denounce all the values and moral of his former beliefs. All of these characteristics together are used to define what a cult is.
If a person knew all of these characteristics and knew that this group was a cult why would they join? Reasons as to why a person would join a cult vary. According to numerous psychologists one main reason for a person joining a cult is wanting to feel as if he or she belongs. People that join cults tend to be outcasts, introverted, lonely, and seeking a better life than their current one. When a person first joins a cult they do not see the sinister side. When a person first visits a cult they do not see the real picture because the cult’s members are forced to perform an act showing how ‘happy’ they are there. Everything a prospective member sees on their visit is merely a mirage of what the cult leader wants the individual to believe. Once a person joins the cult, after awhile he will see what is really going on. Many people, though, so desperate to feel like they belong do not see the truth until it is too late. This was the case with the Jonestown massacre.
Jonestown was officially declared a cult after November 18, 1978 and there are very few doubts that it wasn’t a cult. Jonestown contained all the characteristics of a cult. Jim Jones was the original founder of Peoples Temple. It was started in California in the late 60’s early 70’s. In 1973 Jones felt that there was a threat to his church and moved it to an area of land in Guyana and named it Jonestown after himself. Jim Jones used many different tactics to keep people in his cult and to manipulate them. When people joined Jonestown they were forced to sign blank power of attorney forms claiming they had committed crimes, such as molesting their children. If the member tried to leave the cult or left, Jones would go to the police with the statement and have the member’s children taken away from him. Men and women were also routinely beaten by Jones. Jones had very strict rules in Jonestown. Husbands and wives were not allowed to sleep together and members were often forced to have sex with other members in front of the whole community. When members were being examined for diseases they were forced to strip and be examined by the doctor in front of the whole community. The cult members did not know it, but Jones was manipulating them. He gave lectures that were hours long and performed ‘miracles.’ Jones also tortured children. If a child misbehaved he could be given electric shocks, could be viscously beaten, or kept in a jungle well for numerous days until he had learned his lesson. To torture children Jones also often forced them to eat their own vomit or stuck hot peppers up their rectums. For the general community Jones had a set of ground rules. He kept the community deprived of food and sleep, often forced them to consume drugs, or put drugs in their food to make them more susceptible to his brainwashing tactics. After all of this people still believed and followed Jim Jones. When asked why he followed Jim Jones one surviving member said, “I believed he was God. We all believed he was God (Long, Religious Cults in America, 17).” Numerous other survivors reply with the same answer, they all believed that Jones was God.
Jim Jones was killed on November 18, 1978. He did not commit suicide like the rest of the community was believed to have done. He was quoted before his death as saying, “Everyone will die, except me of course, I’ve got to stay back and explain why we did it, for our belief in integration (Singer, Cults in Our Midst, 246).” His assailant had a very different idea though. Jim Jones was shot on November 18, 1978 after the suicides had taken place. Jones’s body was the only body found in Jonestown whose cause of death was from a gunshot. His assailant to this day is still unknown. The police never really made a very big deal out of finding the man that murdered Jim Jones because it saved them a lot of trouble of having to go through a trial.
The event that triggered the mass suicide was people traveling to Guyana to rescue on of the children. These people were Representative Leo Ryan and his associates, traveling to Guyana to retrieve Tim Stoen’s five year old son, John Victor. Tim Stoen was formally Jones’s lawyer and had left the community earlier in the year to visit his wife who was working in the Peoples Temple Sect in San Francisco. When Stoen arrived, his wife revealed to him the ‘truth’ she had learned about the group. Tim Stoen and his wife tried to return to Jonestown to get their son from the people they had once entrusted their child’s life with. Jones threatened to kill the boy if they returned. Mr. Stoen and his wife went through months of filling out reports trying to get their son back, but they never succeeded. Jim Jones gave one final lecture to his community telling them about why they had to die. On the death tape he said,
Now what’s going to happen here in a matter of a few minutes is that one of those people on that plane is gonna — gonna shoot the pilot. I know that. I didn’t plan it, but I know it’s going to happen. They’re gonna shoot that pilot, and down comes that plane into the jungle. And we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over, because they’ll parachute in here on us. I’m going to be just as plain as I know how to tell you. I’ve never lied to you. I never have lied to you. I know that’s what’s gonna happen. That’s what he intends to do, and he will do it. He’ll do it. What so being so bewildered with many, many pu — pressures on my brain, seeing all these people behave so treasonous — there was too much for me to put together, but uh, I — I now know what he was telling me. And it’ll happen. If the plane gets in the air even. So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies, which means more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive. Hmm? (McGehee, The “Death” Tape: Transcript by Fielding McGehee III; para 10)
Representative Leo Ryan did not succeed. Jones and his men gunned down the airplane, as Jones had promised, and all the men inside were killed. Following this, in a matter of hours, was when the suicides/murders started to take place on November 18, 1978. Tim Stoen later said, referring to his son John Victor, “When I tried to get him out Jones refused. Grace and I spent months filing lawsuits and traveling to Guyana to free our boy. In November 1978, we accompanied Rep. Leo Ryan on his mission to Guyana to investigate alleged human-rights abuses. When Jones heard we were with Ryan, he specifically forbade us to travel to the compound. That’s why I’m alive today. While waiting in our hotel we heard that Ryan and his four companions had been killed on the Jonestown airstrip. We realized immediately there would be a collective suicide. We knew our son, along with the other 918 people in the compound would die. We couldn’t do a damn thing. It was the most horrible night of my life.” (Qtd. in Rhodes, The Challenge of Cults and New Religions, 16) As Stoen predicted that was the beginning of the end of Jonestown. Following Jones’s lecture a large vat of purple Flavor Aid, mixed with lethal potassium cyanide as well as a variety of sedatives and tranquilizers including Valium, Penegram, and chloral hydrate was brought out and the people were organized into lines (Moore, The World Religions & Spirituality Project: Peoples Temple. Jones ordered everyone to drink from the vat. People were unsure if this was really the end of Jonestown because Jones had previously performed “white nights.” “White nights” were suicide drills in which Jones gave the community a drink and then told them it had been poisoned to test their loyalty. Those who tried to flee or refused to drink were shot. This time however it was not a “white night”, it was the real thing.
First to drink were the infants and children, and many mothers poured the poison down their child’s throat (Moore. Two hundred and seventy-six children do not calmly kill themselves just because someone who claims to be God tells them to (Long, Religious Cults, 17). Proof of this is one little girl that seemed to know what was really going on. A witness saw this little girl keep spitting out the Flavor Aid until one of Jones’ assistants held her mouth closed and forced her to swallow.
Next the adults of the community were ordered to drink the poison. Many were held under gun point as Jones forced them to drink the Flavor Aid. When the FBI investigated Jonestown they found proof that many adults had not willingly drunk the poison. There was a body of one woman found with every joint pulled apart in her body; she had been held down and kept trying to pull away, but was injected with poison. One surviving member also testified to the FBI that he had been physically restrained and poisoned. He had held the poison in his mouth and started walking through the town shaking hands, pretending to be helping, until he reached the forest, spit it out and hid.
This information proves that 913 people didn’t die willingly. The people only had two choices, to drink the poison or to be shot. The Jonestown massacre is an example of mass murder, not mass suicide. Those that did escape the massacre in Jonestown, tell their stories today of what really happened on that night in Jonestown. These people try to expose Jim Jones for the fraud he really was.
Long, Robert Emmet. Religious Cults in America. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1994
Moore, Rebecca. Peoples Temple . The World Religions & Spirituality Project.
Moore, Rebecca. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. July 2003. 14 March 2004.
Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 2001.
Gardner, Christine J. “Remembering Jonestown.” Christianity Today. 1-11-99: 43 Corporate ResourceNet. Knight Ridder. Conserve School Lib., Land O’ Lakes, WI. 9 March 2004.
This is a good journal article with a first hand recollection from a survivor of the Jonestown massacre. It explains how people get into cults and what cults are really like. It has current cult statistics and criteria for defining cults are also included. It has a good amount of useful information, but is also written from a Christian perspective so it is a bit biased.
Harray, K. “The Truth about Jonestown.” Psychology Today. March 1992: 25 EBSCO Host. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Addition. Conserve School Lib., Land O’ Lakes, WI. 10 March 2004.
This is a lengthy article with a lot of good information. It provides the psychological aspects of Jonestown and why people join cults. It has information from people who escaped the cult just in time and were running a shelter for people in cults. After the heads of the shelter revealed the truth about Jonestown they were murdered. This article supports the theory that Jonestown was not just mass suicide, it was mass murder. Tortures and brainwashing methods that were used in Jonestown and other cults were also discussed. Overall this article is a good reference for a research paper.
Larson, Bob. Larson’s New Book of Cults. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers Inc, 1989.
This book had a lot of excellent information on defining general characteristics of cults. It also has some information on the Jonestown cult, with a few usable quotes for my paper. Other than that, it has mostly biased information from the Christian perspective. The author also spent a lot of the book talking about the difference in different religious cults, such as cults that can be found within the Hindu, Buddhist, and Mormon religions. The book had a very helpful list of recommended reading on cults.
Layton, Deborah. 1999-2003. 18 March 2004. <http://www.deborahlayton.net/>
This website is about a Jonestown survivor’s first hand story that has been written into a book, Seductive Poison. A review of this book is provided on the website. The site provides excerpts about what Jonestown was like from the beginning until mass suicide in 1978. It also has a link to another site that has excellent information. You are able to contact the author for information about Jonestown.
Long, Robert Emmet. Religious Cults in America. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1994
This book is full of information on the Jonestown Cult. It has quotes from people that survived the cult, only to be murdered a short time later. It has very graphic details about what went on in Jonestown. It also has a lot of general information defining what a cult is. It also covers other cults that have existed in the world. Of particular note is the chapter on the Jonestown cult. At the end of the book there is a bibliography and a list of periodicals and abstracts that are related to this topic.
Parker, Elizabeth. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. July 2003. 21 March 2004.
This is a very informative website. It has a lot of information on Jonestown. It includes a list of those that died in Jonestown and a list of those that survived. This website also has links to other informative websites along with transcripts of Jim Jones’s sermon and speeches. There is a photo gallery of photographs from Jonestown. Some the photographs are particularly graphic and some people may find them disturbing. On this site there are also reports of the FBI’s findings in Jonestown after the mass suicide/murder took place.
Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 2001.
This book had one chapter on cults. It was written from a Christian perspective as stated by the author in the prologue. It had some good information on details that are normally associated with cults. It talked about brainwashing and had some information of the effect of cults on children. It is a good source of useful quotes about children in the Jonestown cult. The rest of this book was basically about New Religions in the United States, rather than cults.
Ross, Rick. Jonestown. 1996-1999. The Ross Institute. 18 March 2004.
This website has a lot of articles on Jonestown by different authors. There are many testimonies from the Jonestown survivors and personal stories. Of particular interest was the House of Representatives report on Jonestown. It tells about the tactics of the cult and what things really went on. On the website there is information about the life of cult leader, Jim Jones. It tells how he started the cult and the rise and fall of his life. This page also includes a list of links about Jonestown.
Schnepper, Jeff A. “Jonestown Massacre: The Unrevealed Story.” USA Today. 1-1-99: 127 Corporate ResourceNet. Knight Ridder. Conserve School Lib., Land O’ Lakes, WI. 9 March 2004.
This was a very helpful article. It is based on the testimony of Jim Jones’s mistress and second in command. She tells of the scandals that went on in Jonestown, not just of the suicide/murder. The political scandals are mentioned and the murders of all that knew the truth about Jonestown are described. It also talks of the $26 million stolen from the tax payers.
Singer, Margaret Thaler. Cults in Our Midst. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass Publishers, 1995.
This book had a lot of good information about cults, describing what cults are like. It gives characteristics that can help you identify whether a group is a cult. It had some helpful information on Jonestown and some general information on brainwashing. It told about the different types of cults and categories defining them. It was also very helpful because in the back of the book there is a list of other books and articles related to the topic and different organizations you can contact for more information.
Stoen, Tim. “The Most Horrible Night of My Life.” Newsweek. 4-07-97: 129 EBSCO Host. Academic Search Elite. Conserve School Lib., Land O’ Lakes, WI. 10 March 2004.
This was an article written by Jim Jones’s former lawyer and financial advisor. He had traveled out of Jonestown when the suicides/murders took place and had left his five year old son there. He talks about what Jonestown was really like and about his son being trapped there and his being able to do nothing about it. Rep. Leo Ryan went down to Jonestown to try to rescue the people, but the plane was gunned down on the airstrip. This article shows the fear of the last few hours in Jonestown particularly well.
(Sheila Yohnk is a sophomore at Conserve School, a college preparatory boarding school, located in Land O Lakes, Wisconsin. She wrote her paper on Jonestown last year for her year-long course, Introduction to Research.)