This horrific tale of mass suicide was carried out by the followers of the People’s Temple – a cult born in the 1950’s. The People’s Temple was known as a sanctuary against racial and social inequality prevalent at the time. The Jonestown Massacre was the biggest single mass suicide in modern history.
Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader of the People’s Temple, ordered his loyal followers to drink a cocktail mixed with deadly cyanide and sedatives. Jones, as heartless as he was, did not even spare the lives of the 300 children living in the community.
The Peoples Temple, the organization hardly anyone outside California had heard of, was originally founded in the state of Indiana. Jim Jones, the self-declared Messiah, created the church out of frustration by the U.S government persecuting the communists. Using his church as a tool, he was able to recruit working-class people who were tired of poverty, racial issues, and the Vietnam War. The members were urged to live a communal lifestyle. The money saved from their aloof lifestyle was donated to the Temple. This money went to further expand the cult’s influence and further promote their Marxist ideas.
By the 1970’s, the church had over a dozen temples. The temples were headquartered in San Francisco, California. The higher ranking members knowingly faked healings, knowing that such acts attract people and generate income that help the poor and finance the church. In time, the People’s Temple earned a reputation for aiding African-Americans, drug addicts, and the homeless.
In his early life, Jim Jones found making friends difficult. He was a social outcast, described by his peers as a “really weird kid” and “obsessed with religion and death.” Having and intense interest in religion and politics, he spent most of his time carefully studying historical figures such as Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler. He endorsed communism, preached that the United States was the Antichrist, and that capitalism was the Antichrist system.
His father was an alcoholic and a sympathizer of the Ku Klux Klan. Due to his own experiences as a social outcast, Jones identified more with the repressed African-American community than with his own Caucasian community.
In 1974, the Peoples Temple signed a lease to rent land in Guyana – a small sovereign state on the northern mainland of South America. The group was formally named the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. However, it was better known as Jonestown. In the summer of 1977, Jones and several hundred Temple members moved to Guyana to escape from public pressure and allegations. Jim Jones saw the place as a socialist paradise – utopia.
At its peak in 1978, the population was just under 1000.
However, it quickly became clear that life in the remote area was definitely not a paradise. The settlers were fed with Soviet propaganda, adults and children had to study about grandiose Jones ideas, and everyone had to worship their self-claimed leader. Being on poor soil meant that Jonestown was not self-sufficient. Large quantities of commodities had to be imported, buildings fell into disrepair, and weeds encroached on fields.
Congressman Leo Ryan flew to visit Jonestown with 18 others. Both Ryan and the 18 others were aroused by the allegations of abuse in Jonestown. They wanted to visit in order to do some of their own investigation. Before leaving, the congressman was shot more than twenty times and was killed. Four other members of the delegation were also killed. The deaths of Ryan and the other visitors became a large turning point in the Jonestown story, and unfortunately also led to history’s biggest mass suicide.
According to escaped Temple member Odell Rhodes, the first to take the poison was Ruletta Paul and her one-year-old infant. Others were forced to drink a grape drink mixed with cyanide, Valium, chloral hydrate, and Phenergan. Parents were instructed to inject their own children with the very same lethal cocktail. The few survivors regard the event as a mass murder, Jones saw it as a revolutionary suicide.
All of this was taped on a 44-minute cassette, known as the “death tape”. On this live recording, you can hear the agony and suffering of the Jonestown people. In the background, you can hear their charismatic leader encouraging his people to “get on with it”.
Please. For God’s sake, let’s get on with it. We’ve lived—we’ve lived as no other people lived and loved. We’ve had as much of this world as you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. Let’s be done with the agony of it. (Applause.)
JIM JONES: How very much I’ve tried my best to give you a good life. But in spite of all of my trying a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our lives impossible. There’s no way to detach ourselves from what’s happened today.
Not only are we in a compound situation, not only are there those who have left and committed the betrayal of the century, some have stolen children from others, and they are in pursuit right now to kill them because they stole their children. And we are sitting here waiting on a powder keg.