Leadership & Legacy: Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre

by Erica Guthrie

(Introductory note: The first time I heard the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” was at a summer camp when I was fourteen years old. I was confused as to what it meant, so I Googled it when I got home and was absolutely shocked when I learned what it meant and the entire story behind Jonestown and Jim Jones himself. I tucked it away into the back of my mind for the next six months until my school announced that we were going to be doing papers for National History Day and the topic was Leadership and Legacy. I tried thinking of as many positive leaders as I could, but it was impossible to figure out an angle on them that hadn’t already been widely covered. From the back of my mind came the whole story of Jonestown, and I dove into research on Jim Jones and his leadership and legacy. I think learning about Jonestown exposed me to one of the horrors of the world that not many people are exposed to. However, I decided not to try and view it as a tragedy, but as a way that out society grew and became more educated on cults and what goes on within them. This project made me a better researcher and a more intrigued learner.)

Nearly one thousand dead bodies littered the grass outside of a small building. There were no signs of struggling, no signs of gunfire, no signs of a bomb. Next to the corpses sat a giant vat of what appeared to be Flavor-Aid. FBI Investigators looked on to the scene of the November 18, 1978 gruesome mass suicide in a settlement known as “Jonestown” 125 miles away from Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown. Jonestown was the settlement of the U.S.-based cult known as Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, a seemingly normal American man. Jones fronted himself as a strong, passionate, non-discriminating leader for the greater good. The Jonestown Massacre led to a much more active U.S. Government in its interactions with religious cults.

James Warren Jones, known to the public as Jim Jones, was born on May 13, 1931 in Randolph County, Indiana (“Jim Jones”). As a young boy, Jones developed a strong obsession with both death and religion, which led to him becoming a social outcast. He read as much as he could get his hands on, particularly studying the works of individuals such as Gandhi, Hitler, and Stalin in depth in order to criticize their weaknesses and not their strengths (Reiterman). He also made claims that his father was connected to the Ku Klux Klan (“ Jonestown and the Ku Klux Klan: Race in Indiana and Its Influence on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple”) but Jim Jones himself felt a strong sympathy for African Americans in America because of the poor treatment that they received. He felt he could relate to them because of his experiences as an outsider as a child.

A very intelligent young man, Jim Jones graduated early from high school with honors in 1948. Seven years after he married nurse Marceline Baldwin, Jones started Peoples Temple in 1956. In 1960, the church became a part of the Disciples of Christ and Jim Jones officially got ordained four years later. The Peoples Temple mission was originally to integrate whites and blacks (“The Congregation of Peoples Temple”), and Jones was named the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission’s director and led to banning segregations of churches, restaurants, and a hospital, among several other places. Many noted Jones to be an amazing public speaker, saying he had the ability to sway a crowd any way he wanted (Matthews). As the church grew more popular, Marceline and Jim Jones adopted several children from mostly non-Caucasian backgrounds and were the first family in Indiana to adopt a black child. Eventually, the church moved to San Francisco, California, and branched out to San Fernando and Los Angeles (“General Article: The Peoples Temple in California”).

The autumn of 1973 brought big changes for the Temple when the Temple leaders decided to create the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana. Guyana was chosen because it was a safe place for both blacks and whites to live, as the country had a very large population of Indians and spoke mostly English. Close to 4,000 acres of jungle land was purchased from the Guyanese government in 1974 to create “Jonestown,” the informal name for the Agricultural Project. After learning that an article revealing confidential details about Peoples Temple, including Jones allegedly engaging in sexual activities with other men, manipulative personality and his drug abuse, written by angry Temple defectors was going to be released, several hundreds of Peoples Temple members and Jim Jones moved to Jonestown immediately. “With the glare of the media upon him, Jones and hundreds of his supporters disappeared virtually overnight. Husbands returned home from work to find their wives and children gone, their apartments bare. Entire nursing homes were vacant of patients and staff. Children stopped going to school” (General Article: Peoples Temple in California”). For many families in America with Temple ties, this would be the last time they would see their Guyana bound Temple-associated family member alive.

There are several contradicting accounts of Jonestown, some people claiming it was the best place on earth while others said they were tortured and abused. After arriving, Jones’ drug abuse became increasingly worse, which may have been the cause behind the events leading up to the Massacre and the Massacre itself. “With the active assistance of members of the Jonestown medical staff, Jim Jones put himself on a merry-go-round of stimulants like amphetamine to get himself going – and sometimes going deep into the night when everyone else was ready for bed – and barbiturates like pentobarbital to reduce stress and allow him to sleep” (“What was Jim Jones’ mental and physical condition in November 1978?”). A few members of the Temple began to worry about what was happening to their once humble and positive leader.

As time went on, Jones changed the way he lead the Temple so that he could feel more in charge. According to the last Temple member to defect before the Massacre, Teri Buford O’Shea, “He’d say he was the reincarnation of Jesus and Gandhi. Whatever you wanted him to be, he was the reincarnation of,” even though in tape Q622, a recording of a telephone call between John Maher, a restaurant owner and Jim Jones, the latter says that “”Off the record, I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. Uh, we— we think Jesus Christ was a swinger,” and “I must say, I felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became uh, an atheist, uh, I have become uh, you— you feel uh, tainted, uh, by being in the church situation. But of course, everyone knows where I’m at. My bishop knows that I’m an atheist” (“Q622 Transcript”).

In the final months before the Massacre, Jones began to hold what he referred to as the “White Nights.” The White Nights were mainly mass suicide rehearsals in which unsuspecting members of the Temple residing in Jonestown would be awoken in the middle of the night by Jones over the loudspeaker, demanding they come down to the main building immediately, as they were in an emergency situation. Most of the time the legitimate “White Nights” would lead up to a suicide drill, which Jones considered a “loyalty test” to see whom of his followers would be willing to give their life for his cause. According to defector Deborah Layton, “Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands” (“Jonestown”). Eventually, many of his followers realized that one of the White Nights would undoubtedly be their last night.

Indeed, the time was not far off. California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown on November 14, 1978 as part of a government investigation concerning allegations from families of Jonestowners that Temple members were being held in Jonestown against their will. Though most members of Peoples Temple were US citizens, the American government had nearly no regulations for citizens on foreign soil, and therefore could not provide much help. Despite difficulties with accommodations and Jones’ initial refusal to let Ryan in, once they received permission on November 17 th to enter the Peoples Temple Agricultural project everything seemed to be going to plan. A couple of Temple members secretly told Ryan that they wanted to leave and surely enough, Ryan worked to get them out of Jonestown. The next day, November 18 th , 1978, the delegation including Ryan, the news crew, the Temple members who wanted to defect and their families left to go to a nearby airstrip to board an airplane back to America. Among the defectors was a poser, Larry Layton, who was sent by Jones as part of a plan to take down Ryan and the delegation to prevent bad news from reaching America. While a six-passenger plane filled with defectors was getting ready to take off, Larry Layton whipped out a gun and opened fire on the passengers inside. Temple security guards started shooting into the other plane that was set to take more defectors to America. Survivors escaped the aircrafts and ran into nearby fields for safety.

Later that evening, Jim Jones called to his followers in Jonestown for what seemed like an average White Night. However, the Flavor-Aid that Jones handed out in paper cups was laced with cyanide and small amounts of other poisons. He insisted parents kill their children and babies first. In all, 304 babies and children died in Jones’ final White Night. Jones watched on as a little over six hundred adults drank the cyanide and after his loyal followers of all ages slowly drifted off into their final sleep, he shot himself in the head.

In the days after the news got out about the mass suicide, the FBI immediately began to send agents to investigate the cult ritual. America had never experienced something as gruesome and horrendous as the Jonestown Massacre.

It is clear that the Jonestown Massacre was a watershed moment for the United States Government’s interaction with cults. Rights for citizens living overseas began to change, and the FBI became much more active in the investigation of United States-based cults. In modern times, there have been laws formed that protect religious sects while also limiting their rights so that the government can intrude if they feel the cult may pose a threat to citizens or themselves. Jones’ powerful and infamous legacy lives on in America to this day and he will not soon be forgotten. His manipulative leadership tactics proved to the Government and American citizens that religion, no matter how positive it may seem, can be dangerous.

(Erica Guthrie is a 15-year-old high school student.)

Last modified on October 26th, 2017.
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