(Jakob Harrison is a Seaman in the Royal Australian Naval Cadets at Magdalene Catholic High in New South Wales, Australia. This paper is adapted from a Powerpoint presentation.)
I literally went into the depths of hell for this presentation: I listened to all the recordings Jim Jones made, over 149 hours’ worth; I listened to the so-called “death tape,” the tape in which he instructs his followers to commit suicide and murder; I watched over 32 hours of news reports radio broadcasts and documentaries. But probably the most grueling part was searching through the 4,000+ documents which the FBI sent me.
Have you ever heard the term, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid?” or “You have drunk the Kool-Aid.”? The saying refers to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project – better known as Jonestown, and means that you have or are going to do something dangerous or doomed due to peer pressure.
Jonestown was a commune located in the jungle of Guyana, South America. On November 18, 1978 Reverend James Warren Jones – or Jim Jones, as he preferred to be called – led a group of 909 women, children and men in a “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch. Although many refer to this as “Kool-Aid,” the actual brand was a British version of the drink known as Flavor-Ade. It was the single largest non-natural disaster in US history before 9/11 and the greatest loss of life in a single day since WWII.
Now what would cause this? The main contributing factors to the “mass suicide” were the airstrip shooting, Jim’s constant control of power, his allegiance to the Communist Party, and the belief that he was a prophet.
The first factor of the “mass suicide” was the shooting at an airstrip several miles from Jonestown, where several young men – members of a security unit at Jonestown known as the “Red Brigade” – opened fire on two planes which were boarding members of a congressional fact finding team and several defectors. The shooting killed Congressman Leo Ryan, three newsmen covering the congressman’s trip, and Temple defector Patricia Parks, and wounded several others.
The second main contributing factor to the “suicide” is that Peoples Temple was the only thing that Jim had absolute control over. After the shooting at the airstrip, Jones knew that his community would be destroyed. He was so fixated on maintaining power over his creation that he decided to end it on his own terms rather than submit and allow others to intervene. To maintain this absolute control, he ended everything that he and the members of Peoples Temple worked for. Forcing Peoples Temple members to commit mass suicide was Jim Jones’ ultimate expression of control.
You may have noticed that I refer to the events at Jonestown as “mass suicide.” This is how it was portrayed by the press in the immediate aftermath of the deaths and for several years thereafter. To be honest, many including myself and survivors dispute this characterization and claim it to be murder, as evidenced by the coroner’s report which showed that a large number of fatalities were caused by injecting cyanide in unreachable places, meaning that a second party needed to inject it. And that makes it murder.