The Jonestown Massacre:
An Analysis of An Infamous Cult

by Hannah C. Frasure


It is extremely unnerving to listen to the sounds of dead children pleading, screaming for help, even if only a recording spanning a bridge of time from almost forty years ago. There is an instant feeling of disgust and horror at the sounds of the very first victims, innocent babies crying and toddlers begging for their life at the hands of completely able-bodied adults, force-feeding cyanide-laced grape Flavor-Aid down their throats.

The term “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is derived from the most horrendous mass suicide in modern day history, led by Reverend Jim Jones. It took place at an agricultural compound in South American Guyana, resulting in the death of over nine hundred people.

However, there are many questions left. Was Jones evil from the start? Did he truly care for others and their plights? What were his motives and what influenced him? How did all of this lead up to the infamous Jonestown Massacre?

While it will never truly be understood, it is possible to speculate upon Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. Therefore, this document is an attempt to comprehend and analyze the motivation and ideology of Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, understand the exchanges between its members, outside parties, Jim Jones himself, and consequences of those encounters and how it could have been prevented.

Beginnings: Jim Jones

James Warren Jones was born on May 13, 1931 to Loretta Putnam Jones and James Thurman Jones. Lynetta worked extremely hard to ensure that Jim would “be a success, not a slave to the rich.” but Jones found himself being denied of a loving family.

The first religious encounter of Jones’s was when he attended a Nazarene church with his neighbor, Mrs. Kennedy, as a toddler. He would also explore Quaker, Methodist, Christian, and by far the most influential, the Gospel Tabernacle churches. There, services were rowdy and boisterous and he was subjected to radical Pentecostal views.

It could be seen how religion impacted him as an older child. Having developed a close bond with many animals, Jones would use the animals to attract religious followers of his own in his family’s barn loft. He would “heal” animals by moving his hands over them or hold funeral rites if any were to pass away.

To maintain control over children during his religious ceremonies and throughout his childhood, Jones acted commanding, like the direct superior of the children and used his dramatic, expressive tongue. His charisma was one of his hallmarks throughout life, a driving point for others.

Despite Jones’s dissentient tendencies such as dressing in an Eastern-styled attire like Gandhi and preaching the Bible to the folks of his hometown in Lynn, Indiana, he was an exceptional student and was noted for his oratory skills.

Towards the end of his junior year, Jim Jones met Marceline Baldwin. Both worked at Reid Memorial Hospital, and Marceline admired his good-naturedness. The two maintained a relationship whilst Jones attended Indiana University, and eventually married on June 12, 1949, the beginning of what would be for her a stressful yet devout marriage. They would adopt several children, many from different racial backgrounds such as Korean and African-American which Jones would deem the “Rainbow Family.”

Beginnings: Peoples Temple

In 1952, Jones discovered a paper on Methodist values. It appealed to him because of its social values: supporting the rights of colored people, abolishing poverty, and helping the aged and inmates. This led him to take a post as a student pastor at the Somerset Methodist Church. Jones would draw upon upbeat Pentecostalism methods and plights of African-Americans to attract large, diversified crowds at interdenominational services.

By 1956, Jones began Peoples Temple. His congregation had grown considerably and received positive attention. It was known for its “healings”, where people would be taken into the restroom and “cancers” (bloody lumps of animal meat wrapped up) were passed by Temple aides. Jones’s seemingly omniscient recitations of Social Security and telephone numbers and other personal details (which inner circle members had gathered) also gave the impression that he was some sort of prophet.

After maintained success it was admitted into the Disciples of Christ denomination.

In 1964, Jones convinced about eighty of his followers to follow him to Redwood Valley, California. Jones would be able to convince several affluent, young whites to join his group, making headway for its poor members by using their money to run social services, such as free childcare programs.

Jones would then expand his congregation to San Francisco and Los Angeles, where more members joined.

In 1974 Peoples Temple began clearing land in the self-declared socialist nation of Guyana. By 1976 a contract was negotiated with its government and the first members began to settle in.

Understanding Peoples Temple’s Motivation

Throughout 50’s-70’s there were many ethical challenges such as the Vietnam War and Jim Crow laws. Jones would use that to his advantage and create a place for members to exchange perspectives. In fact, around 68% of people who were apart of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project were black.

While still in California, Peoples Temple did lots of social work such as running a soup kitchen, a home for emotionally disturbed boys, and an outpatient clinic among numerous other things. It also became involved in politics. Jones  would make himself available to politicians and members would go campaigning. At one point, Peoples Temple influenced around 16% of Redwood Valley’s vote. It wasn’t easy for politicians to ignore criticism and growing concern over human rights issues within Peoples Temple.

It was an upbeat atmosphere with lots of opportunities to make friends and go to social outings, but meant a different thing to every follower. Above all Peoples Temple was a “way to improve the world,”  its sole purpose being the “cause.”

The “Cause”: Jim Jones’s Psyche

It is possible to see that Jim Jones was a psychopath. They “often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust,” and are defined by self-grandiosity, pathological lying, lack of empathy/shallow emotions, promiscuity/infidelity, need of stimulation, and paranoia. Research has also pointed psychopathy being caused by infant and childhood neglect.

Jones’s mother was unorthodox. She was “loud, foul-mouthed, and manly,” smoked, and drank beer. Despite growing up with a formal education in business, economic circumstances forced her to work in factory jobs day and night, while his father was negligent and abandoned parenthood. That left young Jones alone for the majority of his time.

Jones was friendless throughout childhood; avoiding physical activity (i.e., sports, games), and his condescending, manipulative personality were all factors in making children leery of him.  He played the role of social misfit, leaving him squandering for familial contentment and social acceptance. So it can be seen as the real “cause” of Peoples Temple was the fulfillment of childhood abandonment.

However, Jones idolized his mother and ingested many of the principles which she bestowed upon him. She taught him to hold his own (“Don’t be a nothing like your dad.”), but also teaching him “bums were as good as other people.”

His acquired sense of compassion can account for his devotion to Marxism, Socialism, and Communism. Having read works from Karl Marx, Jones began to believe that unchecked capitalism would lead to a growing number of the oppressed. If Socialism and Communism prevailed, society would be classless, and bad economics would disappear. His mother wouldn’t have needed to work so much and his father would have had better job opportunities. It would have been a significant childhood.

However his lack of empathy, therefore lack of conscience, left him without a moral checkpoint to reconsider any of his actions over the course of Peoples Temple years.

Jones was narcissistic, believing himself to be “God” or “ultimate lover” or another prominent figure, depending on the circumstances. He maintained a belief that he was the most important and his needs were the utmost priority. While his members often faced poor treatment, he, his family, or respected people would receive top-notch treatment. He did not truly care about others, only his needs and of those similar to him.

Derived from his narcissism was a form of manipulation in which shall be called mutuality, the idea of one person doing something and thus in return generating a mandatory repayment for the favor. Jones used mutuality in such a way of saying that he had “lived” or “suffered” for said person and would need whatever it was he was requesting.

The beliefs of Peoples Temple were initiated by Jones’s pseudologia fantastica, a fabricated belief system created by a single person in which all beliefs center around the person, and constitutes as pathological lying.

“I am going to be who I am … God, almighty God!” Jones said during one service, often making many similar statements to the reverence of himself.

Furthermore, the only available news sources were pre-recorded audiotapes broadcasted by Jones over loudspeakers which fabricated news stories of America’s downfall and Socialist bounties. In Guyana, members were told China had bombed the U.S. and mercenaries had been hired to desecrate the Temple.

There was a gradual incorporation of members’ personal beliefs into the group’s beliefs, creating a group identity. However, since the group was entirely controlled by Jones, all of their decisions and beliefs became his. There was an enhanced sense of communality versus individuality. If a person betrayed the group, they would betray themselves, as a person’s highest level of loyalty is to themself regardless of how it is interpreted.

In enforcing his supremacy, Jones would purposely create distrustful environments. He would encourage members to tell on each other’s misdeeds, creating an atmosphere of subordination and mistrust. Ergo, “Dad” as his followers called him, was the only reliable figure.

During Peoples Temple Jones had multiple affairs, creating rifts between members over jealousy. His sexuality was also used to generate mutuality, and a way to satisfy his need of stimulation.

Marceline, although aware and hurt by his unfaithfulness, continually dismissed it and forgave him. Therefore she embodied the cycle of abusive relationships. In admitting that there had been wrongdoings against oneself, one would have to face their feelings of being manipulated and lied to.

Jones’s physically manipulated as well. Members were required to sign blank sheets of paper called “compromises” which could be used as blackmail, especially if defection was planned. People were threatened with violence and mental abuse and could be drugged for noncompliance. In Guyana, members faced sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and starvation. Another method of control was monetary: members would give up Social Security checks, monthly income, and property deeds.

By isolating his followers, Jones was able to eliminate all outside influence. This included spending time with family. To tie the group even further, Jones had the group assert their aggressions towards American “Fascists.”  This would increase their sense of loyalty by taking aggressions within the group and redirecting them somewhere else, creating a more loyal environment.

Port Kaituma

The growing amount of concern over human rights abuse led Congressman Leo J. Ryan, family members, and reporters to visit Jonestown in November 1978. It was a neutral mission and when Ryan concluded the first night of the visit, he proclaimed it was wonderful. Nevertheless defectors asked to leave with Ryan’s group and Jones gave permission.

On November 18, 1978, sixteen defectors left with Ryan, and were boarding one of two planes at the Port Kaituma airstrip, when posing-as-a-defector Larry Layton and a handful of Temple loyalists shot and killed five people – Congressman Ryan, three journalists, and a defectors – and wounded twelve others.

Over the years Jones had abused drugs such as Quaaludes, Demerol, Seconal, Valium and morphine. They cause emotional swings, hallucinations, and mental/speech impairments, and were intended to soothe his lifelong insomnia and as stimulation.

Like most other psychopaths Jones had paranoia. In 1962 he moved to Brazil for fear of nuclear holocaust and, in the end, assumed that after Ryan’s assassination, the Jonestown children would be killed by the Guyanese or American military. A certain trigger of his paranoia could be seen as followers leaving his group, ultimately repeating the abandonment which he faced in childhood. It can be seen as narcissistic rage, another form of manipulation in which self-righteous anger is triggered.

This narcissistic rage can be seen when Jones learned of the congressman’s death. Rather than surrender his cause – his family – to the U.S government (and suffer abandonment again), Jones chose “Revolutionary Suicide.” The deaths would make a statement, a stand for Socialism and Communism – a type of government in which Jones would’ve been able to have a close-knit family as stated prior.

His followers had practiced suicide drills – known as “White Nights” – over the course of the years, but this time, it wasn’t a rehearsal. Aides brought out a vat of cyanide and valium-laced Flavor-Aid. Children were killed first, then the adults, and then the elderly. As each generation died, the next one lost hope. Finally Jones committed suicide or was shot by a close aide.

He had chosen his death, and he, alone, had won.

Conclusion & Prevention

“It could have been you. It was me,” said Teri Buford O’Shea, a survivor.

Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was either a concentration camp with all work, no play, or it was a jungle utopia, depending upon the member’s point of view. Regardless, one thing is for sure. Every single person involved in Peoples Temple was a real human. They were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, all united under the idea that they were working towards a better purpose, even if on a subconscious level they were all being controlled by Jones.

When politicians first were informed of human rights allegations, there should have been an immediate investigation rather than delaying and denying immediately that abuse came from a group who did humanitarian work. Had it been sooner, Jones’s madness would not have descended into such a level and an exit for Temple Members would have been provided. The Guyanese exodus was the dying breath of Peoples Temple, and it would not have attained such a grotesque level. Also, had the Ryan operation been done more covertly and quickly, Jones would have not had time for planning and suicidal preparations.

Another example was that Guyanese customs were aware of Jones’s drug importation, but as Jones did not bother customs, it was allowed to continue on. Had the United States government been notified, the drug smuggling within Jonestown would have ceased and there would have been a shutdown of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project before Jones’s drug abuse and paranoia reached a peaking point.

To truly commemorate the night of November 18, 1978, however, we must teach one thing above all: never full-heartedly submit oneself, personal beliefs, and overall well-being into a specific person, thing, or cause.
Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Comforting Words to My 15-Year-Old Self. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. This source, written by an adult survivor of the Jonestown Massacre, gave her point of view as a child within the religious compound. She wrote about the psychological effects and harm done to the overall well-being of children within Peoples Temple which helped to provide a basis for the project. It also gives a perspective of survivor’s guilt and the later impact of the cult upon her life.

The Jonestown Death Tape (FBI No. Q 042) : The Rev. Jim Jones, Et Al. (The Peoples Temple Cult) : Internet Archive. Internet Archive. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. This was the most famous audiotape created in Jonestown, Guyana, and was the actual recording of the events that occurred on the night of November 18, 1978. It was a recollection of the awful murder of over nine hundred people and narrated the events. It was a firsthand account from almost every member involved with Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in some way, shape, or form

Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Print. This book provided a comprehensive, in-depth analysis, synopsis, and explanation of Jim Jones and his background and psyche, the Peoples Temple religious movement and its history and makeup. It explained interactions between its members within the group and outside of it, and how and why the group resulted in mass murder. It was researched through a variety of primary sources, such as the collaboration and interviews of Peoples Temple survivors, documents, audio tapes, and the many others who were involved with the goings-on and well-being of the group and its followers. It gave details on the rituals, origins, and all other aspects of Peoples Temple of Disciples of Christ.

Parks Family Carries on 35 Years after Jonestown. Web. 27 Jan. 2016. This article, from an interview with two Jonestown survivors, gives inside knowledge and perspective about the daily life at Jonestown. It revealed negative aspects about Peoples Temple, and what it was like living there in Guyana. It was also one of the most detailed and accurate accounts of the events at Port Kaituma airport and the shootings of the Congressman Leo Ryan and the others in his part.

The Demographics of Jonestown. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. This analysis of the demographics in Jonestown was a key source. Using numerous graphs, charts, tables, and facts, this article supplied data of how certain demographics influenced the group and its running, and in the end provided a synopsis. It helps the reader to further understand the organizational makeup of Jonestown and key details of behind-the-scenes action.

Remembering Jonestown. NPR, 17 Nov. 2003. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. This audio recording was done twelve years ago as a commemoration of the Jonestown Massacre’s 25th anniversary. It featured the survivor, Laura Johnston Kohl’s, version of the events which transpired and why it happened so. She explained how many of the members felt about the group and her own perspective of it, from then and from later years. It gave a foundation of an average group member’s situation and feelings, and the devastation and confusion one was left with after the mass murder.

Suffering in Silence. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. Leslie Wagner-Wilson was a woman who had escaped from Guyana with her three-year-old son and who wrote about her later experiences growing up with her son. Her son has carried the burdens the past trauma left upon him, and offers the unique perspective of parenting a child after they are defined–consciously or unconsciously–by a tragedy. It is also gives an example of the pain the aftermath left on the person and the consequences of Jonestown many years after.

“Drinking the Kool-Aid: A Survivor Remembers Jim Jones.” Atlantic Media Company. Web. 10  Feb. 2016. This interview with a Jonestown survivor included of many different descriptions of Jonestown. She gave a detailed account of many of the aspects in which there were human rights violations and how it felt to be apart of Peoples Temple. It was also useful in that it helped to explain why many people followed Jim Jones and how the man himself ultimately ended up leading everyone towards death.

Kilduff Marshall, and Phil Tracy. Inside Peoples Temple. New West Magazine. August 1, 1977: 30-38. Print. This was a New West Magazine entry by a Temple defector, Phil Tracy, which unveiled several of the deceptions and frauds of Peoples Temple. It gave specific examples and stories from several Peoples Temple members, and was important when looking at the undoings of Peoples Temple.

Secondary Sources

World Religions & Spirituality | Peoples Temple. Web. 29 Jan. 2016. This website provided a chronological list of the events of Peoples Temple, gave an informative history of the group and what their doctrines were, and their rites. It also provided explained the organization and set-up of Peoples Temple, and provided answers to common questions/misconceptions about Jonestown.

“Race and the Peoples Temple.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2016. With guidance and comments from peoples involved with the cult in some way or form, this article provided a scholarly analysis and outside view of the important role race played in Peoples Temple and how it impacted the congregation’s popularity.

Dyssell-Pillay, Shailee. Sigmund Freud’s Approach to Intergroup Relations Applied to Peoples Temple. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple. Jonestown Institute, n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2016. This article examined the group psychology of Peoples Temple. It applied the psychologist, Sigmund Freud’s, analysis of group behavior to the cult and how and why people would so willingly follow Jim Jones to better explain the event.

Why Did Peoples Temple Make so Many Audiotapes? Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. Over the course of Peoples Temple’s rise and fall, there had been many audiotapes which had been created. This leads to the question of why that would be so, and in researching this, said article was found and provided details necessary. On further analysis, it expanded on Jim Jones’s use of manipulation and how he used audio tapes to his advantage to even further control his group.

Tobias, Madeleine Landau. and Janja Lalich. Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 1994. Web. 04 Mar. 2016. This was one of the most essential resources. The article examined the most common psychological features of cult leaders, and the processes in which they used to manipulate and gain control over their followers. It was useful in supporting previous research on Jim Jones’s psyche, and as baseline of how cult leaders tend to function.

“What’s the Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath?” WebMD. WebMD. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. Written by a professional doctor, the article gave an accurate summary of the differences between a sociopath and a psychopath. It was useful in distinguishing between the mental disorders and which one was more prominent in Jones. Also, it gave common behaviors and features which tend to be prolific with psychopathy and sociopathy.

“Narcissistic Rage. Narcissistic Injury.” Web. 09 Mar. 2016. Like the previous article, this focused on narcissism but focused on a specific aspect. It supplied facts about narcissistic rage and the forms of it which occur. When looking at Jim Jones, it was helpful in understanding his actions and where they come from

“Lessons from Jonestown.” Web. 14 Mar. 2016. While the original intent of this article was to make claims proving that Jim Jones used George Orwell’s book 1984 as an instructor for mind-control techniques, it also provided a list of the types of manipulation Jim Jones used to work his followers. Although there were other lists like this, these ones were about cult leaders in general. It was useful as yet another baseline for the psychology of Jim Jones.

Communism, Marxism, and Socialism: Radical Politics and Jim Jones. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple. Web. 17 Mar. 2016. This source helped to break down the politics of Peoples Temple and explain where Jim Jones’s motives were coming from. It analyzed the formation of certain ideology, and how they were perceived by Jones. It was useful when thinking about his psychology and how it may have influenced it.

“How Jones Used Drugs – SF Exam. 12/28/78.” How Jones Used Drugs – SF Exam. 12/28/78. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. This was a newspaper article which explained the use of drugs within the Jonestown community. It talked about the certain effects of the drugs, and how they entered the community. It was helpful because it offered a useful background about a necessary aspect of Peoples Temple.

(Hannah Frasure is a student at the Champlain Valley Union High School in Vermont, class of 2020, and has had other pieces published as well, although she considers this one of her greatest so far. She wrote this piece in eighth grade as a part of the Vermont National History Day fair.)

Originally posted on September 24th, 2016.

Last modified on December 29th, 2021.
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