The Jonestown Massacre

November 18, 1978, the death toll stood at 914 people. One third of the deaths innocent children. We see 9/11 as a huge tragedy to our country, a loss of thousands of lives with little to no warning of our loved ones being gone. But in this event all of those 914 people took their own lives because of a religion, a choice to sacrifice their kids’ lives for the belief of a religion. This event was seen as the second biggest tragedy among the United States people after 9/11. Who would have thought a single belief would cause the loss of thousands of people’s lives in these two major events.

Jim Jones was a simple man who grew up in Indiana with a simple dream to have a church of his own. In the mid 1950’s he opened his first church called Peoples Temple. Little did jones know how greatly his church would be known. He was well favored among public officials and the media, gave money to many charities. Peoples Temple provided programs for the needy, such as a free dining hall, drug rehabilitation and legal aid services. Jones’ message of social equality and racial justice attracted a racially integrated group of followers, including young people that sought the same values as him. I asked my grandfather why he thought people favored Jim jones so much over other preachers during this time period. He quickly replied, “He attracted both races and at this time many African-Americans were still fighting for equality and sought out his kindness and approachable smile.” He added, “The blacks wanted to be accepted and Jones wanted the power and followers so they were easy targets to influence.”

In 1977 it is estimated Peoples Temple contained over 20,000 people. In the same year Jones started receiving a bad reputation among media. He invited his people to move with him to Guyana, where he promised them they would build a socialist utopia. Only an estimated 1,000 people followed him into his journey in the jungle. Temple people worked long days in the fields and were always afraid of harsh punishments if they questioned Jones’ power. Armed guards watched over the jungle and people. Members were forced to attend late-night meetings, their letters and phone calls were monitored and censored. He was convinced the government and media were out to destroy his people. He made all members do fake suicide drills every week or so to prepare them if the United States ever invaded their camp.

On November 17th 1978, Leo Ryan, a U.S. representative from California arrived in Jonestown after hearing some rumors of people being held against their will. They arrived to a very welcoming jones and even a dinner prepared for them. As they ate a note was passed around the table eventually falling in the hands of Ryan listing the people’s names who wanted to leave. On the 18th Ryan took the people to a small airstrip where they would depart Jonestown. Upon their arrival members of Peoples Temple opened fire on Leo Ryan and the leaving members. Ryan and three newsmen were killed as was a lady from the Temple.

The same day Jones received news of the death of the congressman. He knew the United States would be coming to investigate. He convinced all the people that the government was coming to torture their families. He made all of the members gather in the main pavilion to drink a deadly concoction of cyanide, sedatives and powdered fruit juice. Children went first; the parents used syringes to drop it into the mouth of the children. Elderly and disabled went next, then the adults. If you tried to reject taking the poison you were either shot or would be held down by guards and forced to drink. Jones decided to audio record the whole process of convincing and the beginning of the children receiving the poison and dying. Later Guyanese officials came into Jonestown and found hundreds of dead bodies and the body of Mr. Jones in a chair with a single bullet through his head. Many believe it was also self-inflicted. I asked my grandfather what his initial reaction was when he heard of this event on the news. He replied, “As the pictures flashed over the TV screen I couldn’t help but notice the tears streaming down my face, As I listened to the audio recording hearing the screaming children as they pleaded for their lives, I could never understand the type of person that could hurt hundreds of people like that.”

Many people did not realize how mentally unstable Jones was at the time of his invitation to go to Jonestown. He was also heavily involved in the use of drugs.


Bibliography Staff. “Jonestown.” A&E Television Networks, 01 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 May 2016.

“The Sorrowful Story of The Jonestown Massacre.” Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2016.

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple, San Diego State University, n.d. Web. 24 May 2016.

(Isabel Machorro wrote this paper in 10th grade for a research project at Selinsgrove Area High School in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.)