The Jonestown Tragedy

by Rachel Lynch

(Rachel Lynch is an Irish student. She wrote this paper as part of her Leaving Certificate history course.)

On 18th November 1978, America saw the largest self-inflicted genocide to date. 909 people died in Jonestown, Guyana that day, a third of them children. The perpetrator of the mass suicide was leader/founder of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, born in 1931 in Indiana. My essay aims to uncover and conclude what prevailed in Jones’ psyche that led to the terrible tragedy. Once a peaceful, integrated and diverse community which prided itself on being a revolutionary and progressive religious organisation for its time, Peoples Temple was exposed to have a vulgar and flagitious ending which the wider world could never fathom. My essay aims to investigate Jones’ past and to critically analyse his mind control tactics and evaluate members’ complaints and praises of Jones.

Jones, from a particularly young age, was perceived by his community to be a peculiar and perturbed boy. This perception of Jones came from the fact that he was fascinated with religion and death. Chuck Wilmore, a childhood friend of Jones, stated: “My friend of mine told me he had seen Jimmy kill a cat with a small knife.” Jones felt disheartened by being rejected by society and therefore felt as though he could relate and sympathise with the black community in the US which were facing vast discrimination at this time. Jones also suffered from abuse from his alcoholic father which he claimed held ties to the KKK. Jones in his adolescent life became captivated by the leaders of WW2 and their charismatic leadership skills. This would later take influence from these leaders when he began Peoples Temple in 1956. Many noted Jones to be an amazing public speaker with the ability to sway a crowd any way he wanted. His captivating and mesmerising led to a vast growth in the Temple in its early years.

Jones then decided to move the Temple’s headquarters to California in 1965. Jones had expressed distaste for Indiana and favoured a more progressive and liberal society. The move proved to be a huge success for Jones as popularity soared and the membership count grew at a rapid pace. However, Jones sufficed a bigger plan for the organisation. This included a move to an isolated area, away from the prying eyes of the media. When a damning article was about to be released about Jones and his questionable attributes, he panicked and virtually overnight left with hundreds of followers to Guyana, where he envisioned beginning a communist utopia with his members. Nicknamed Jonestown, what was supposed to be the beginning of an unprecedented utopia was, in reality, the beginning of a disastrous ending for the Temple.

Many contradicting accounts of life in Jonestown exist, some claiming that it was heaven on earth while others claim it was the opposite. Many members claimed that they were overworked and exploited for labour. Perhaps Jones utilised this tactic to weaken the individualist thoughts of his members and to create a more submissive and obeying following. It was a hushed whisper among members that they were secretly dissatisfied with how Jonestown was turning out to be, yet they were not confident to speak out for fear of backlash.

Jones’ stability deteriorated throughout this period, and his drug abuse became subsequently worse. His adopted son, Jim Jones Jr., said, “The mental illness was exacerbated by the drug abuse and the absolute power where no one challenged him. When you put that cocktail together, the mind can spiral out of control, and that’s what Jim Jones did.” Jones often falsified stories about how the US was crumbling and the standard of living was deteriorating at an alarming rate. This was to discourage his members’ thoughts from yearning to go back to the USA. In making such an isolated and integrated community, Jones gave his followers no other channels in which they could validate his claims. In doing this, all they could do is believe what he was telling him. Therefore, Jones was conducting a mass mind-control at a social level. Deborah Layton, a surviving member, said, “Every night at some point, his voice would come over the loudspeaker, and he’d say, ‘I’m sending somebody out tonight. Somebody you know. Somebody you trust. And they’re gonna act like they wanna leave. But this is a loyalty test, and you need to turn them in.’” Jones did this to manipulate the group and to create a tension and have a “neighbour spies on neighbour” tactic, similar to the USSR.

Over this period, Jones became increasingly paranoid about the outside world and regularly carried out suicide drills within Jonestown. In the US, relatives of members complained that their loved ones were being held against their will. To investigate, Congressman Leo Ryan of California travelled to Guyana to inspect and clarify the allegations. On his visit, he was surprised to see what appeared to be a thriving community, but beneath the surface, tensions were strong. Throughout his visit, members slipped him notes saying they wanted to leave. The following day, Congressman Ryan offered to take anyone who wished to leave back to the US. Jones appeared calm, but behind the scenes, he had ordered what he called the “avenging angels” to take action. His armed forces took action, ambushing Congressman Ryan at a jungle airstrip, and he and four others were killed. Word quickly spread throughout Jonestown, tension from fear and anxiety became thick and suffocating. Jones arranged a meeting and, in a state of panic, told his followers that the only option was to commit suicide.

Members pleaded and tried to fathom any other possible option to defer from death, but Jones was adamant that this was the only way. “Death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s treacherous” [Archive] Though many of the members were willing to die, those who were unwilling we coerced and degraded by other members into doing so. The Flavour-Aid cups laced with cyanide were quickly distributed among the members, children first. Jones’ adopted son, Jim Jones Jr, who wasn’t present that day, spoke about his father in a later interview. “What [my father] does, very manipulative, he has the children ingest the cyanide first. And, I mean, I have three boys, and I’ve got to tell you if I saw my kids dying, why would I want to live?”

The death toll reached over 909, including Jones, who was found dead with a gunshot to the head. It is widely speculated that Jones died of suicide, yet no one can be certain.

The world was shocked when the news came to light following the events of November 18, 1978. Though many speculated that Peoples Temple had malevolent connotations, however, no one outside of the group could fathom what abhorrent activities would occur on that day. Jones has gone down in history as one of the most infamous cult leaders, being analysed and evaluated by historians and psychologists. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, psychologist responsible for the Stanford prison experiment, argued that Jones had used tactics evident in George Orwell’s 1984. The main character in the novel is quoted saying,”the proper thing was to kill yourself before they get you.” Jones utilised and actively practised the teachings in this quote, practising suicide drills until, subsequently, the day occurred. Zimbardo was vastly fascinated by Jones and is quoted saying “Jim Jones is probably the most charismatic cult leader in modern times in terms of his personal appeal, oratory, his sexual appeal, his just sheer dynamism and his total participation in the control of every member of his group.”

Concluding from this essay, Jones was a charismatic, rigid and unforgiving leader, which led a once-promising and progressive group into total demise and desecration. The world can only learn from the atrocities that occurred on that fateful day in 1978, and hope that a horrific event similar to this never occurs again.

Originally posted on September 29th, 2018.

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