Jonestown Massacre

by Daysha Edfors

On November 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, 909 Americans (“Inside the Jonestown massacre”) committed what Jim Jones referred to as revolutionary suicide (III). It was the largest American death toll, not caused by a natural disaster, until the 9/11 bombings. The mass suicide was caused by Jim Jones’ actions. His need to have control, and the vulnerability and trust of his followers could also be variables that contributed to the demise of the settlement.

Though Jim Jones is infamously known as an American cult leader, earlier in life he was respected and not thought of as a revolutionary. Jim Jones grew up in Lynn, Indiana (Britannica). His father was a war veteran, and his mother, Lynnette, went with her son to Guyana. As a child he was interested in learning the lives of many leaders throughout history and how they came to power (Reiterman and Jacobs.) He is said to have been more interested in idealistic ways of life, such as equality for non-whites. Jones and his father are said not to have gotten along because of their different opinions on racial issues. He tended to favor his mother, though the relationship between mother and son was not very strong either.

Therefore, he is said to have turned to religion instead. Jim was always considered by people to be very religious and charismatic. His appearance could have factored into why people listened to him so well. He was said have a very sharp stare and was very self-assured. He was considered a religious boy growing up and always had a passion for desegregation of the church and society.  He explored many churches but never truly settled with one certain church or doctrine, just hopping around from one to the next, until he established Peoples Temple in the 1950s and associated with the Disciples of Christ a decade later.

Peoples Temple was not so much a church or doctrine but most accurately a cult. Though the organization itself worked on a basic belief of humanism, it was also divided into two groups of “believers” that made up the congregation. Jim Jones and a few select others actually claimed to be atheists, or at least agnostic, and worked on the belief that communism was the answer. The rest of the congregation was considered to be Christians, though because it was a cult they were influenced to believe that Jim Jones was a figure to be revered (Institute). Many referred to Jones as father, because there was a belief that their individual lives were worthless without Jones to bring them together.

While the cult itself truly blossomed in Guyana, Peoples Temple did not originate there. Jones’ first church was located at 1502 North New Jersey Street in Indianapolis, where he got his beginnings as a pastor (McClellan). While starting out, he was seen in much better light, doing things like volunteering and providing amenities and help to homeless and needy. Eventually, though, his preaching style changes and his message shifted from biblical teachings and more of Jones’ own words. This change caused some to leave the church but there were many who stayed to support and encourage Jones (Retro Indy: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Indianapolis).

During this time, in this location, Jones got a lot of hate for his racial beliefs. His wife and he adopted many children, all of which were of different race than Caucasian. They were the first white family in Indiana to adopt a black child. Jones continued to preach about his unwavering belief about the need for integration and racial peace. This upset much of the community, causing Jones’ work to become seen in a negative light in Indiana.

Jim Jones was becoming more paranoid and started shifting his message to an almost apocalyptic one. He began telling his congregation that the end of the world was coming, due to events happening surrounding the Cold War. His message was that soon the countries would turn on each other and there would be nuclear-level repercussions. (Retro Indy: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Indianapolis) This was when he seemed to change his persona from preacher and leader to messiah and savior. He told his remaining followers that they were going to move.

Next, instead of going to South America, Jones took them to California, close to San Francisco. They remained here until Jones later moved them to Guyana, a small country in South America. There were many reasons for this location, one of which being that it was isolated and away from the United States. Jones also claimed that he wanted to escape the racism present in the United States, and Guyana was a country with a majority of black populace, and English was a major language. Also, it is a socialist country which was a major factor for Jones. The settlement also benefitted the country itself because Jones’ presence would keep Venezuela from invading it.

The Agricultural Mission he established came to be known as Jonestown. Its location was away from the country’s capital city of Georgetown which allowed Jones to control what media and news the settlers saw. This was important for Jones, who was adamant that the people only saw things that were supportive of his view, such as communism and socialism. It was approved by the government for military reasons which helped them keep peace. The location was also good because there was land to grow crops and sustain the settlement, although, because of the sudden increase in population, the settlement was not completely self-sustaining.

Life at Jonestown was described differently by many people who survived the massacre. Some of the survivors remember their experience there as the best time of their lives, while some describe the settlement as a prison camp that brainwashed its residents. It is known that many were overworked due to the fact that over half of the settlers were either children or elderly who couldn’t work. This resulted in the settlement having to import goods from elsewhere. Because the lack of some foods, they mainly ate beans, greens and rice; they also ate chicken from a coop they had on the grounds. After the people worked, they attended classes that discussed and taught communist views in a good light.

There are articles that ask the question, how did Jones convince people to move to this settlement in the middle of nowhere? It was a slow gradual change. There were many who stayed with him from his first church in Indianapolis, but many did leave along the way. As Jones went on he gained more loyal supporters. He used religious tactics at first, preaching messages from the Bible, but as he went on his message changed after he had convinced these people to stay with him. He used the church to provide a false sense of peace to people who were looking for an escape from the racism and hate going on in the world. He also kept them in the church by moving them away from their family, ridding them from any outside voices that might sway their own opinions.

Once the people had come to the settlement, there were many ways that Jones “kept them in line.” While the settlement didn’t have an official prison, some defectors have told stories about Jones’ methods of punishment, including a “rehab” center for those displaying unwilling behavior. This center supposedly would distribute many drugs, such as antidepressants and others, that would settle any difficulty the aggressor was exhibiting. They also spoke of beating men and woman and public humiliation of women. Children were removed from parents and sometimes in extreme cases were put in a well at night until any problem was dissolved.

There are many different opinions on whether the people at Jonestown were brainwashed or not. The definition of brainwash is “make (someone) adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure,” a definition which could be applied at Jonestown. It destroyed any free will of thought by these people. They were constantly fed thoughts of positivity on the matters of communism and socialism, and were taught that many bad leaders were good and to be praised. They were taught to adopt these radically different beliefs by using a constant pressure of classes, services and no outside news. By them all being taught the same mindset, it kept them in the commune by their own “free will”, making it seem as if Jones was not doing any wrong by them.

The massacre in Jonestown was a slow buildup, but in Jones mind, it was inevitable. In his last message to the people, he tells them that the reason for their death is because the world would not allow them to live in peace. He slowly increased their fear of the government by telling the people that the government would come and slaughter their families and children. Jones also had many “white nights” where he would test the loyalty and trust of his followers, making them think that they were committing suicide.

Soon many family members  in the states become increasingly worried about their family living on the settlement. U.S. Rep. Leo J. Ryan decided to go any investigate the concerns of family. He went to Guyana and had a tour of the settlement, talked to many people living there, and came to find out many wanted to leave. As he was leaving with his crew and some defectors, a group of radical settlers drove onto the airstrip and shot the congressmen and many others, leaving Ryan and four others dead, and several others wounded.

When news of this reached Jones, it created a controlled panic. This was enough for him to move forward with the mass suicide that killed 909 people. He exploited the fear in people, saying that the government would not allow them to get away with this act and they would come and massacre them, slaughter them in painful ways. Jones told the people that they deserved to die with dignity and peace, that they  should be allowed to exit this life with respect and grace.

We have a recording of the events called the “death tape”. It is 44 minutes long and is Jones last message to his people. As this is happening, cyanide is being poured into vats of Flavor-Aid for the people to consume. Jones encourages the mothers to go with their children and calm them, but throughout the tape, you can hear children screaming and crying. We are told by some who left that they force-fed the babies cyanide in a syringe. And soon the rest followed, drinking Flavor- Aid laced with cyanide.

Only 33 people from the settlement survived that day, but only one actually survived the night at the settlement a woman who hid under her bed and was missed by the room check. One can only imagine her horror the next morning to find everyone else in the settlement on the ground dead. There were a few small groups who had escaped into the jungle and slipped away from the deadly end the rest of them had met.

Most died by cyanide poisoning but Jones himself died of a gunshot wound to the head, assumed to be done by a trusted aide. One third of the deceased were children, which is a big factor in people saying this was in fact not mass suicide but mass murder, because these children could not decide their fate themselves. Many people also think that the people were coerced to commit suicide, given an ultimatum, to “choose” to kill themselves or be killed. This kind of thing would be considered murder since the person acted out of coercion or fear.

Since most that lived on the settlement died that day, there is still much mystery behind the whole story. We have what we have been told by survivors and the recording that Jones left, although this is not very much for such a big event in history.

“The Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California is the final resting place of the 412 unclaimed bodies from the Jonestown Massacre, and so it seemed fitting that this would be the location of the official memorial” (Atlas Obscura). There was some controversy with this memorial because they did choose to include the name Jim Warren Jones, the cause of the tragedy. This caused some anger from the community, but they wanted to be accurate in giving all the names of lives lost.

There is also now an organization call the Cult Awareness Group, which was started after the tragedy in Jonestown. It was started to help monitor cults around the U.S. that might lead into another deadly and tragic situation. One of the key members of this organization was the daughter of Leo Ryan, the representative who was shot and killed when investigating the situation in Guyana.

There wasn’t much cleanup of the Jonestown settlement. The U.S. military removed the bodies, and then the natives of Guyana came and took what was remaining. Nothing really remains now on the site of Jonestown other than a few rusty metal things, such as tractors.

In conclusion, Jim Jones was a leader who convinced his followers that death was not the worst thing but rather that death was better than living. As a man with a god complex, this was an ultimate form of control, convincing almost a thousand people to kill themselves. He used fear of racism, unrest and torture to manipulate their minds and convinced them that their lives had no meaning without his. He led these people into a cult lifestyle and ultimately to their death.

(Daysha Edfors wrote this paper for her College Writing class at New Life Christian School in St. Louis, Missouri.)

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