The Jonestown massacre was, before 9/11, the largest single incident of intentional civilian death in American history. More than 900 people died, many children. It was also a devastating cultural trauma: the end of the last strains of a certain kind of 1960s idealism and 1970s radicalism. Jonestowns legacy lives on in the ironic phrase drink the Kool-Aid. (In actuality it was Fla-Vor-Aid.)
Although he would later become a symbol of the darker side of the west coast counterculture, Jim Jones was born to a poor family in Indiana. Described as an intelligent and strange child, Jones was instinctively attracted to religion, especially charismatic Christian traditions like Pentecostalism. He cut his teeth as a street preacher, and was, unusually for the time and place, a passionate advocate for racial equality.
“Many years ago, I was asked by an interviewer, ‘How could you ever be proud of your father?’ he recalled. "And up to that point, I thought I still hated him. And I think it might have had something to do with my first daughter having just been born. She broke into my heart like nobody else could and what came tumbling out of my mouth without thought was, ‘I don’t have to be proud of him. I just have to love him and forgive him.’ I was with [my brother Jim] at the time and his mouth was agape when I said it.
Jim Jones sons recall Jonestown massacre, describe cult leaders drug addiction in new doc
Although Joness followers would later be stereotyped as sinister, brainwashed idiots, the journalist Tim Reiterman argues in his seminal book on the subject that many were decent, hardworking, socially conscious people, some highly educated, who wanted to help their fellow man and serve God, not embrace a self-proclaimed deity on earth. The Peoples Temple advocated socialism and communitarian living and was racially integrated to an exceptional standard rarely matched since.
In 1965, when Jones was in his mid-30s, he ordered the Peoples Temple moved to California. He drifted away from traditional Christian teachings, describing himself in messianic terms and claiming he was the reincarnation of figures like Christ and Buddha. He also claimed that his goal all along was communism, and, in a twist on the famous dictum that religion is the opiate of the masses, that religion was merely his way of making Marxism more palatable.
By the 1970s, the Peoples Temple, now based in San Francisco, had gained significant political influence. Joness fierce advocacy for the downtrodden earned him the admiration of leftwing icons like Angela Davis and Harvey Milk and the support of groups like the Black Panthers – a tragically misguided political affinity, given that more than two-thirds of Jonestowns eventual victims were African American.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The Rev Jim Jones and his wife, Marceline, taken from a photo album found in Jonestown, Guyana. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive The Peoples Temple was, as David Talbot notes in Salon, successful in part because it was politically useful: Jones could be counted on to deliver busloads of obedient, well-dressed disciples to demonstrations, campaign rallies, and political precincts.
There were already signs, however, of a sinister undercurrent to the Peoples Temple. Followers were expected to devote themselves completely to the churchs utopian project: they turned over their personal wealth, worked long hours of unpaid labor for the church and often broke contact with their families. They were expected to raise their children within the commune. As a show of commitment, Peoples Temple members were asked to sign false testimonials that they had molested their children, which the church kept for potential blackmail.
Read more In his 1980 study of Jonestown, the writer Shiva Naipaul, younger brother of VS Naipaul, argued that the Peoples Temple was at heart a fundamentalist religious project – obsessed with sin and images of apocalyptic destruction, authoritarian in its innermost impulses, instinctively thinking in terms of the saved and the damned.
The result, Naipaul wrote, was neither racial justice nor socialism but a messianic parody of both.
Jones, who had long believed the US was in danger of imminent nuclear holocaust, had been searching for a place where his church would be safe during an apocalyptic event. A magazine article alleging abuse in the Peoples Temple spurred Joness desire to relocate. He chose Guyana, a former British colony in South America whose socialist regime was politically sympathetic.
In 1977 the Peoples Temple moved its headquarters to a remote area of Guyanese wilderness. Here, Jones declared, they could build a utopian society without government or media meddling. Battling an oppressive tropical climate and limited resources, the people of Jonestown began to convert the dense jungle into a working agricultural commune, soon known as Jonestown.
Stephan Jones and his adopted brother, Jim Jones Jr., who were both 18 then, have come forward for a four-part docuseries on SundanceTV titled “Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle,” which recounts in great detail the deadliest day for Americans before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The Peoples Temple office in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Photograph: Ken Hawkins/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo The church delivered Joness rambling monologues to Jonestowns inhabitants by megaphone as they worked. In the evenings they attended mandatory propaganda classes. Joness writ was enforced by armed guards called the Red Brigade.
Forty years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of cult group People’s Temple were led by their leader, Jim Jones, to commit mass suicide by cyanide in the Jonestown settlement of Guyana — and his two surviving sons are still healing from the tragedy.
Jonestown had little reason to expect interference from Guyana – a cooperative republic whose government happily ignored signs of the cults authoritarian and paranoid bent. Back in the US, however, parents of Jonestown inhabitants – concerned by the strange letters, or lack of letters, they received from their children – had been lobbying the government to investigate.
After a family in the US won a custody order for a child in Jonestown, paranoia escalated. The commune became an armed camp, ringed by volunteers with guns and machetes, threatening to fight outsiders to the death.
During the (imaginary) siege, Black Panthers Huey Newton and Angela Davis spoke to Jonestown inhabitants by radio patch to voice solidarity. Davis told Jonestown inhabitants that they were at the vanguard of revolution, and right to resist what she called a profound conspiracy against them.
“I want to recognize the survivors,” he said. “I don’t want to revise the truth, I want to state the truth. These people didn’t commit revolutionary suicide. What they did was they got up for 40 years every day and lived.”
Sometime during this period Jonestown began drills called white nights, in which inhabitants would practice committing mass suicide.
The delegation arrived at Jonestown on 17 November 1978 and received a civil audience from Jones, but the visit was hastily called short on 18 November after a member of the commune tried to stab Ryan. The delegation headed back to the airstrip, accompanied by a dozen Jonestown inhabitants who had asked to leave the commune, and escorted by Joness watchful deputies.
The delegates never made it off the ground. As they boarded the planes, their escorts drew guns and opened fire. They shot Ryan dead, combing his body with bullets to make certain, and killed four others – including two photographers who captured footage of the attack before dying. Wounded survivors ran or dragged themselves, bleeding, into the forest. (One of Ryans aides, Jackie Speier, survived five gunshots and is now a congresswoman representing Californias 14th district.)
Back at Jonestown, Jones announced that it was time to undertake the final white night. To quell disagreement, he told inhabitants that Congressman Ryan had already been murdered, sealing the communes fate and making revolutionary suicide the only possible outcome.
The people of Jonestown, some acceptant and serene, others probably coerced, queued to receive cups of cyanide punch and syringes. The children – more than 300 – were poisoned first, and can be heard crying and wailing on the communes own audio tapes, later recovered by the FBI.
When Guyanese troops reached Jonestown the next morning, they discovered an eerie, silent vista, frozen in time and littered with bodies. A tiny number of survivors, mainly people who had hidden during the poisoning, emerged. One elderly woman, who slept through the entire ordeal, awoke to discover everyone dead. Jones was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The hypodermic syringes and vials filled with cyanide and animal tranquilizer used in the mass murder-suicide. Photograph: Ken Hawkins/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo Facebook Twitter Pinterest US military personnel remove American bodies from Jonestown, Guyana, for repatriation. Photograph: Ken Hawkins/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo One of the journalists attacked on the airstrip, Tim Reiterman of the San Francisco Examiner, survived two bullet wounds and went on to write Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, still considered the definitive history of the Jones cult.
Reiterman has argued that it is impossible to separate Jonestown from its political and social context. The Peoples Temple was – as many communes, cults, churches and social movements are – an alternative to the established social order, a nation unto itself, he wrote in Raven. The Temple I knew was not populated by masochists and half-wits, so it followed that the members who gave years of labor, life savings, homes, children and, in some cases, their own lives had been getting something in return.
The brothers shared they witnessed their father become increasingly addicted to pharmaceutical drugs.
He recoiled, Reiterman added, when outsiders took the attitude that they or their children would never be crazy or vulnerable enough to join such an organization. Such complacency is self-delusion.
She was 28 years old, a California native with a law degree and a prestigious job with Congressman Leo Ryan – a man whod mentored her since she volunteered for his campaign while still in high school – and she was preparing to accompany him as just one of two staffers on a trip to South America. They were traveling to check out firsthand the compound of Jim Jones and the hundreds whod followed him to Guyana, many of them Ryans constituents, and Speier was disconcerted by accounts shed heard from so many of those followers relatives – and people whod defected themselves from Jones Peoples Temple.
Speier, during early November in 1978, couldnt put her finger on exactly why, but she was nervous about Ryans plan to visit the secluded compound and the cult leader whod been portrayed by so many as volatile. She shared her anxiety with friends and family, but she blamed it on the fact shed be flying in a tiny aircraft over Guyanese jungle.
Little did she know that, just days later, shed be fighting for her life in that very same jungle, cowered in the cargo hold of the same tiny plane, wondering if and when help would ever arrive. Her fears had been realized to an unimaginable extent. Ryan and hundreds more were dead, and she was fading in and out of consciousness, her body riddled with five bullets, as gunmen wandered around finishing off victims at point-blank range.
I feigned death, staying as still as I possibly could, but the gunfire was terrible, and I found myself flinching at the sound, she writes in a newly-published memoir. I kept saying to myself, I am ready and I am willing to die. At this point I just want the gunfire to stop.
Jackie Speier, center, strategizes with Democratic Congressman Jack Ryan, right, and staffer James Schollaert, left, aboard the aircraft carrying them to Guyana in South America – where they hoped to investigate the Peoples Temple outpost set up by cult leader Jim Jones
Speier, in newly published memoir Undaunted, describes how she had misgivings about the trip – concerns which proved correct after gunmen loyal to Jones attacked the delegation and temple defectors as they attempted to leave the area; Speier, pictured, was shot five times
Within hours of the gun attack on Ryans delegation, word reached survivors on and around the airstrip that hundreds of his followers had died from mass poisoning
Speier – who now sits in Ryans congressional seat in northern California – says in her memoir that she vowed, while at the brink of death, to dedicate herself to public service if she lived