Part I. Introduction
On the evening of November 18, 1978, millions of people across the world were glued to their television screens, faces frozen in expressions of shock, horror, and disbelief as newsreels showed aerial footage of a sprawling compound in northwestern Guyana where hundreds of bodies lay slumped over. Nearly every inch of the ground was covered with corpses, each one dressed in bright and eye-catching colors that made the already macabre scene come across as even more grotesque.
Soon enough, it became known to the public that this tragic and largely disturbing event had killed a total of 909 individuals – men, women, and children alike. Even more unnerving was the fact that there were two things that linked these victims together.
One, they had all been killed with a mixture of cyanide, Valium, Phenergan, and chloral hydrate – lethal poisons masked with grape-flavored Kool-Aid.
And two, every single person who lost their life at that compound was a member of Peoples Temple, an American new religious movement started by a man called Reverend Jim Jones.
Part II. The Perpetrator
James Warren Jones, affectionately called “Jim,” was born on May 13, 1931, in the small town of Crete, Indiana. His father, James, had been injured during World War I, which meant that the family was dependent on their matriarch, Lynetta. Largely left to his own devices, the young Jim began making his way through the churches found in Lynn, even going so far as to befriend a local Pentecostal minister. He began to be inspired by the preachings and ideals of the churches that he visited, incorporating these into his own sermons, which he would share with the rest of the children in the community.
Jim was a gifted and charismatic public speaker, even as a ten-year-old boy, but his religious zeal and the subject of his sermons turned off a lot of his playmates. He also hated their usual activities, such as sports and dancing, which led him to become ostracized from others his age.
Additionally, the Jones family wasn’t really liked by their neighbors, who remembered the mock funeral services that the young Jim often held for dead animals. The frequency of this odd play routine unnerved his playmates and their families, the majority of whom believed that the animals had been killed deliberately and cruelly by none other than the boy grieving them.
In the 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, one of Jim’s childhood friends, Chuck Wilmore, says, “I thought Jimmy was a really weird kid. He was obsessed with religion; he was obsessed with death. A friend of mine told me that he saw Jimmy kill a cat with a knife.”
In The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, the author claims that Jim was also fascinated with Adolf Hitler, the leader of Germany’s Nazi Party during World War II. “When Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, thwarting enemies who sought to capture and humiliate him, Jimmy was impressed,” writes Guinn in his book.
In 1949, eighteen-year-old Jim married Marceline Baldwin, a striking girl whom he had met while working in a hospital. The couple welcomed a child together and went on to adopt several other children of various ethnicities – sort of like the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of olden times if you will.
His “Rainbow Family” was a source of pride and joy for Jim, who went out of his way to encourage others to adopt interracially.
It quickly became clear that adoption wouldn’t be the end of Jm’s altruism. From there, he worked as a pastor at a church, advocating for integration and the end of the congregation’s segregation. As could be expected, though, this idea wasn’t really welcome by the church’s existing leadership and Jim quickly found himself kicked out and without a job.
Rather than trying his luck at another parish, Jim began preaching specifically to African-American communities, spurred by the desire to help them rise above the racism and discrimination that they were subjected to. He used “healing rituals” to attract new members to his flock, claiming to heal diseases and afflictions of all kinds during these events.
Now, this may sound a bit weird and rather sketch to us modern audiences but Jim’s healing rituals proved to be a big hit and within two years, he already had a sufficient number of followers to start his own organization. After selling monkeys door-to-door, marketing them as useful house pets, Jim was able to collect enough money to establish his own church in Indianapolis.
In 1956, the Peoples Temple – originally called “Wings of Deliverance” – was born. It was a church nestled in Indianapolis, Indiana, focused on racial integration and helping those in need. At a time when most churches were segregated by race, this was a revolutionary, unconventional, and utopian idea – one that served to draw hordes of crowds to Jim’s sermons.
Jim was charismatic – an idealist who wasn’t afraid to share his views with others, regardless of how contrary they ran to the status quo. For instance, one of his core beliefs was that capitalism was inherently evil, creating an unhealthy balance in the world that made the rich richer and the poor even poorer. He also encouraged activism within his flock, establishing soup kitchens and homes for the elderly and mentally ill, as well as helping find jobs for the homeless and the unemployed.
Through the Peoples Temple, Jim strived to put his money where his mouth was, establish avenues to help people do good and contribute to their local community. More importantly, he encouraged his congregation to look past the physical characteristics and circumstances of other people, in a bid to go beyond the racism, discrimination, and xenophobia that plagued America at that time.
Jim’s work turned him into a recognized and celebrated figure in Indianapolis and he even served as the director of the city’s Human Rights Commission in the early 1960s, thanks to his tireless work with the homeless.
Pretty soon, though, Jim started acting a bit erratically. While he had always perceived the threat of nuclear war to be inevitable, his fears grew so much that by 1962, he was actively looking for ways to survive the apocalypse. This led him to an article entitled “Nine Places to Hide,” published in Esquire Magazine in January 1962, which listed several locations across the globe that would purportedly remain intact, even after a nuclear war. Among these places was Eureka, California, a landlocked area north of San Francisco that was said to be safe, due to the Sierras that surrounded it. Because of this, Jim decided to relocate the Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to Redwood Valley, situated approximately 150 miles south of Eureka.
While Jim maintained that the desire to survive the inevitable nuclear war was the sole reason behind the move to California, many also claim that he had been motivated by the increasing scrutiny of his activities. They also point out that the church’s relocation coincided with the launch of an investigation into their healing rituals, which had previously served to attract new members.
In the Redwood Valley, the Peoples Temple slowly expanded their operations. The 65 families that had followed Jim from Indiana to California worked hard to establish homes for the elderly, as well as services for drug addicts and orphaned children. Their work attracted praise from the community, was published in newspapers, and was even lauded by local politicians.
The media attention their activities garnered made Jim into an even bigger celebrity. Before long, he was seen as a selfless, charitable, and compassionate man – a shining beacon of American values and idealism.
But underneath this veneer of perfection and altruism lay a dark and sinister secret. While others saw a man fueled by his principles and a utopian vision of the world, the real Jim Jones was a mentally unhinged and unbalanced individual, whose actions would eventually spell doom for those in his congregation.
Part III. The Cult
The dynamics of the Peoples Temple changed once they settled in California.
From a church dedicated to God and the less fortunate, the Peoples Temple slowly turned into a cult, geared towards Jones and his ever-changing whims.
Their aims gradually became more political and more communist, with members forced to pledge all their material possessions and money to Jim. Some even signed over custody of their children to him, mistakenly believing that “the Prophet” – a nicknamed that Jim adopted soon after relocating – was the only one capable of rearing their kids in the right and proper way.
Every single thing that the members of the Peoples Temple did revolved around the wants, needs, and dislikes of Jim. If the Prophet didn’t like it, they didn’t do it.
Meanwhile, Jim became infatuated with power and authority, even going as far as to believe in the very myth that he had created about himself. His followers were required to address him either as “Father” or “Dad,” and later years saw him referring to himself as “Christ” and “God.”
For a boy who spent most of his childhood neglected by his parents, the attention and influence that Jim now possessed were undoubtedly intoxicating.
But it wasn’t enough.
He began taking large quantities of amphetamines and barbiturates, initially as a way to stay awake much longer. However, this soon evolved into recreational drug use, which led to him experiencing major mood swings that exacerbated his paranoia. These, combined with his deteriorating health, meant that a dangerous and unhinged man lurked beneath the image of a god-fearing and iconic philanthropist that Jim had carefully cultivated through the years.
Fueled by his drug abuse, Jim’s paranoia led him to believe that both the CIA and FBI, backed by the entire United States government, were after him and the Peoples Temple. This threat, along with an exposé article that was about to be published, spurred him into relocating his church once again – this time, to Guyana in South America.
Part IV. The Infamy
The members of the Peoples Temple followed Jim to South America, believing in his vision of a utopian commune amid the country’s dense jungles, as well as in his charisma and larger-than-life personality. In Guyana, though, Jim became even more controlling, using drugs to ensure that none of his followers escaped his clutches. Within the compound were piles of mind-altering substances, including Quaaludes, Demerol, Valium, morphine, and about 11,000 doses of Thorazine, which was a drug used to calm individuals suffering from mental issues.
Rather than a utopia, though, the Peoples Temple instead faced the harsh realities of life in the jungle. Members were forced to carry out manual labor in the sweltering tropical heat, often working long and gruelling hours, in a bid to please Jim.
The agricultural paradise that Jim promised his congregation also never materialized. Jungle soils are notoriously thin, lacking the nutrients sufficient to grow crops. Despite the efforts of the Peoples Temple, they weren’t able to plant anything and were forced to resort to go out into town and beg for food. Most of the time, they came back with discarded, spoiled, and rotten food from the market, which they all had to share with one another.
Their starvation was made even worse by the mosquitoes that constantly fed on their skin, as well as the snakes that they always kept an eye out for. During the dry season, every single member participated in bucket brigades just so their plants wouldn’t die. The work was back-breaking and harsh, often done under the heat of the scorching sun.
More importantly, Jim bred a culture of mistrust among the congregants; none of them were allowed to talk with one another, which made plotting and planning to escape Jonestown downright impossible. He also planted several trusted members whose task was to weed out those who weren’t a hundred percent sold into the cult’s vision.
Slowly, news of their awful circumstances reached family and friends back home, who began to pressure the United States government to take action against Jim and save their loved ones from the horrible conditions of life in Guyana, which by then, was referred to as “Jonestown.”
Facing growing public dissatisfaction over their lack of action, as well as their own growing unease with the disturbing news coming out of South America, the government elected to send Representative Leo Ryan of California to Jonestown to investigate what was really going on within the walls of the elusive and infamous compound.
When news of Representative Ryan’s visit reached Jim, his paranoia and fears of a government intervention increased drastically. For him, it seemed as if the threat of a conspiracy to bring him down was now a reality, leaving him with little time to act. His mind, addled by drugs, concluded that the visit would bring nothing but doom to him and his loyal followers.
On November 14, 1978, Representative Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown, accompanied by a whole slew of newsmen and relatives of the cultists. Four days later, they concluded their unofficial investigation and prepared to depart, bringing along with them 14 defectors from the Peoples Temple.
As the group stood in an airstrip near Jonestown, waiting to board the flight that would take them back to the United States, a group of armed men from the cult struck them, under orders from Jim. However, they were only successful in killing the Representative, three newsmen, and one defector.
The failed assassination attempt made matters worse. Jim believed that those who escaped with their lives would bring in authorities, ending him and the Peoples Temple for good.
And so, he made a last-ditch attempt to ensure that his congregation would continue following him, no matter what.
“He tells the people, it’s over, it’s all over, they’re coming for us, this is it, it’s time to transition to the other side,” says Julia Scheeres, the author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown.
Prior to this mass suicide, Jim had sadistically conducted rehearsals to figure out how best to carry it out. It was through these practice sessions that he found out that killing children and babies first would be the most effective, discouraging their parents from trying to escape with their lives.
That day, on November 18, nearly everyone in the compound believed it to be another mass suicide rehearsal, only realizing that it was the real thing when the youngest members of the Peoples Temple started frothing at the mouth after syringes dropped a lethal mix of cyanide, sedatives, and powdered fruit juice down their throats.
“They started with the babies,” said Odell Rhodes, the only known survivor of the Jonestown Massacre. “It just got all out of order. Babies were screaming, children were screaming, and there was mass confusion.” According to him, it only took about five minutes for the cyanide to do its job.
And then, the adults lined up and took a sip of the poison that Jim prepared for them – his final act as their leader, their Prophet, and their Father.
A popular misconception was that those who died in Jonestown did so willingly, out of misplaced trust and belief in their Father, the Prophet Jim Jones. However, this is refuted by Scheeres in her book, where she writes:
“People think they willingly died, but Jones gave them no choice. They were surrounded by a row of guards with crossbows and then behind them there was another line of guards pointing guns. Meanwhile, Jones is exhorting them to come up and drink this potion to take them to the other side. So, living was never an alternative on that last night. Most people chose to die with their families and if they didn’t drink it, there were many who were injected with the poison.”
When Guyanese authorities arrived at Jonestown the following day, a terrifying and gruesome sight awaited them. The entire compound was carpeted in hundreds of bodies, most of whom had their arms around each other, remnants of froth around their mouths. Syringes and cups filled with an innocuous-looking liquid were scattered all over the place.
And, as for Jim? He was discovered dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Some say he took his own life while others claim that his trusted nurse, Annie Moore, dealt the fatal blow before turning the gun on herself.
Regardless of how he died, it’s clear that Jim exempted himself from suffering the painful and harrowing effects of the Kool-Aid he forced his followers to drink.
Part V. Conclusion
According to Julia Scheeres, the only thing that Jim wanted out of the Peoples Temple and the Jonestown Massacre was complete and utter control.
“He tried to control people’s bodies,” she said in her book. “He couldn’t stand it when people left the church [and] he would go into a rage. But the ultimate control and the ultimate loyalty test for him was if I order you, would you lay down your life for this cause – for me?”
But for many of the 909 people who died that day – 304 of whom were aged 17 years or younger – they were never given a chance to say no.
Instead, they were forced to follow a mentally unstable control freak with an unquenchable thirst for power to their graves.