Jonestown: The Untold Story

by Vicki Perry

(Vicki Perry is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles may be found here. This article originally appeared as a post on the blogspot Never a Niche in 2014, and is republished with the permission of the author. She may be contacted at

Photo by Vicki Perry

November 18 marks one of the largest historical tragedies of the US. It’s the anniversary date of 918 people who left the world while striving to make it a better place to live. Nine hundred and eighteen people. The murder-suicides in Jonestown was one of the largest news stories of the decade in 1978.

In the ’70s, there were several large news stories that hit the newsstands in America. It was a decade of disgruntled citizens. It was one of invention and one of lies, but filled with historical events that shaped our future and broke our hearts.

During the ’70s, we saw the Beatles break up and computer floppy disks introduced.  The Kent State shootings left a massive wake of death and anger. VCRs hit the market and M*A*S*H became a hit on television as it premiered in 1972. Mark Spitz topped out in the men’s swimming competition in the Olympics, winning seven gold medals. We saw pocket calculators for the first time and a group of terrorists attacked the Olympic games in Munich. In 1973, Roe vs. Wade became the fall back trial of abortion legislation for years to come. The US finally began pulling out of Vietnam to end the “war of wars.” In 1974, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. On the lighter side, we saw the manufacture of the first Monster Truck (Bigfoot), and so began the Monster truck rallies. Whereabouts still unknown today, former Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. Microsoft was founded in ‘75 and the cast of Saturday Night Live came to television to teach us how to laugh again. The Tangshan earthquake killed over 240,000 people in 1976. Elvis died in 1977, and the first Star Wars movie hit the big screen. At home, viewers watched the tale of a black slave family unfold in the miniseries, Roots. The first test tube baby was born in 1978. The ’70s wound up by awarding Mother Teresa the Nobel Peace Prize, and nobody who was alive then can forget the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. But who really cared, we had the “Walkman” from Sony, a pint-sized radio we could carry with us during those times we jog or walk. We had it made.

And then there was 1978, a year that ended with the mass murder/suicide of 918 Americans in a triple canopy rainforest in Jonestown, Guyana.

Those in the US were confused by the reports coming from media sources about the group that left their homes to move to a rainforest in Guyana. The story changed almost daily. “Facts” were distorted, some due to the lack of understanding and knowledge, others because it made the evening news more dramatic. Events in Jonestown left citizens in the States angry, confused and devastated. Why would they have followed this man known as Jones?

The media instilled in their viewers’ minds that those who died in Jonestown, Guyana were nothing but cultists who followed their leader, and yet this was the most deadly single non-natural disaster in US history until September 11, 2001.

It sums it all up in one neat little historical package, right? Not for those who survived or who have family members who were lost in the massacre. For them, their loved ones are known for “drinking the Kool-Aid,” a phrase that has become American lexicon for those who follow something or someone blindly.

The dead are now only row after row of boxes, shoved into the archives of the California Historical Society. They are the cultists, the weirdos, the sheep who followed a leader to their death. The web is the modern day version of the media that insisted this horrific event unfolded their way. Internet versions of the Peoples Temple story are full of half-told truths, outright lies and stories shared by those who assume they know the “untold story.”

These who share the “untold story” become “experts” after reading a few incorrect versions of the story, maybe a book or two. They watch as many dramatic recreations of the Peoples Temple experience or draw information from the newspapers and tabloids, only to recreate another written piece that is incorrect. These books, articles and films are typically shared by those who are assuming that they too know the “untold story.” And the cycle continues.

From these viewpoints the so-called “untold story” tellers share around the web, people have blindly accepted their writings as truth. A “drinking the Kool-Aid” moment, if you will. There are many sides to every story. Simply reading a couple of articles or books does not make one an expert on any level. This holds true for any story. You cannot judge a book by its cover and you cannot believe everything you read.

Even in death, the people who perished in Jonestown were not respected as human beings. Their only “crime” was wanting to create a better world for themselves and their families. Cemeteries in the states wouldn’t accept the bodies for fear of future “cultist rituals.” More than 300 of the dead were children. What had they done to earn such a lack of respect?

The bodies were finally accepted at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. Thanks to the dedicated hard work of the staff at Evergreen and a group of survivors and their families, those who are laid to rest in the grave site finally have a place to rest with dignity. Those who survived have a place to mourn.

There are many facets to the story behind Jonestown. Survivors speak of good times and of bad. They each add their own truth to the story, shared as their perspective. Some loved it and thought it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Others hated every minute of it and looked at it as a prison. Each entered the movement and fought for the cause for different reasons, but the underlying common thread was that it was a way to help others, to speak out against the mistreatment in the states and to make the world a better place to live. Does this sound like sheep?

The people who joined Peoples Temple and later moved to Guyana were taking control of their lives, to change what they considered unjust. They were attempting to change things while the rest of us sat back and complained that the world was unacceptable. The people of Peoples Temple had the courage and fortitude to step forward and attempt to do something about our weary world. Unfortunately, the leader went from a brilliant man who wanted to change the way we exist to a man who was engulfed in the dark fog of drug addiction.

According to documents secured by the Jonestown Institute from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act, not only were the deaths of 918 people in Guyana planned ahead of time, at least by months prior to the final day, but that more than likely members were drugged.

The one piece of information that we all need to remember before judging anyone, is that we have hindsight. Those members of Peoples Temple didn’t have that luxury.

Members of the survivor community are still a close-knit group. As they communicate each year, they too learn more about this multifaceted story. People who experienced the movement are still learning, so how can others claim to be experts?

Originally posted on September 26th, 2018.

Last modified on October 22nd, 2018.
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