An American preacher took hundreds of people into the jungle and killed them
The territory of the community of Jonestown, hidden in the jungles of Guyana, was literally strewn with hundreds of corpses. Adults, young people, and even infants, men and women, white and black, were all members of the Peoples Temple. On November 18, 1978, nine hundred Americans voluntarily passed away to please their spiritual leader, Jim Jones. But those who were lucky enough to survive, consider the incident a mass murder. How did a man from the American heartland manage to attract thousands of followers and inspire them with his paranoid ideas?
“Hurry up, my children. Hurry up, ” Jones said, keeping a close eye on his followers who were taking poison. Firstly, they injected potassium cyanide into their children’s mouths, and now they were taking glasses of fruit drinks mixed with poison and sedatives. People died one by one before his eyes, at his call, for his idea. He called it “an act of revolutionary suicide as a protest against this inhumane world.” Now, he is remembered as the founder of a destructive sect, actually, as a murderer.
“He was a predator who was a skillful master of the art of luring completely different people”—this is how Jim Jones, many years later, will be referred to by followers who were able to leave his community in time. And although the future guru’s childhood and early years were no different from thousands of other Americans, perhaps, this is where his cruelty and crazy ideas are rooted.
Jones was born in May 1931 in the town of Crete, Indiana. Due to economic problems during the great depression, his family moved to the town of Lynn, where he eventually grew up in a shack without a sewer. His mother worked fulltime, and his father—a veteran of the World War I—descended into a racist alcoholic, which is why they did not communicate with Jones for many years.
Jones’s peers found him strange. According to them, he craved attention, was obsessed with religion and death. They said that the boy regularly arranged funerals for animals, and allegedly killed a cat himself. In addition, he was interested in socialism and even seemed to be fascinated by the actions of Adolf Hitler and his death.
Jones himself later said that he felt like an outcast: he was never accepted or loved. Because of this, he even went to the most despised and rejected church in the area, where Pentecostals gathered. There, he was unexpectedly received with all the cordiality. Jones graduated with honors in 1948, married a nurse a year later, and moved several times before settling in Indianapolis. There, he began attending meetings of the Communist party of the United States, while continuing to attend church meetings.
According to him, he always felt himself part of something else, not the American society, and also felt the problems of black people early enough. “It seemed terrible to me that one person has so much more than another. I couldn’t accept capitalism at all. (…) I thought: how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The idea was to infiltrate a church,” Jones said in one of his speeches.
Despite his Communist views, he was allowed to begin training as a pastor in the Methodist Church in 1952. He began to preach, с Methodists—they did not like his speeches about equality. As a result, in 1956, Jones was ordained by the Pentecostals of the Assembly of God, and eight years later by the Protestant Church of Christ, with which he had a close relationship.
At the same time, together with his wife Marceline, they began to build an ideal, as they called it, “rainbow family.” They gradually adopted six children, including children with both Korean and native American roots. They also became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black boy. He was named after his foster father: Jim Jones, Jr. They also had their only natural son, Stefan. The couple saw their family as a mirror of what the world really should be.
Even before ordination, Jones created his own religious movement, which, after changing several names, eventually became the infamous Peoples Temple. This was something new for Americans, because they accepted everyone: white, black, Indian, and Asian people. Jim preached a mixture of elements of Christianity with Communist and socialist ideas, but with particular emphasis on social justice. “Higher principles. Full equality. A society in which all things are common, no rich and poor, no races,” was the motto of his church.
Eyewitnesses said that in the Peoples Temple people were attracted by a sense of spiritual unity, where black or poor people did not feel rejection. To do this, Jones asked everyone to come in the simplest and not too fancy clothes. In addition to the church, he organized a rehabilitation center for drug addicts, a nursing home, and began to help the homeless: they were fed, helped with children, and provided health care.
At the same time, former parishioners noted that Jones always enjoyed the power, liked the way people listened to priests. Some believe that he understood from the very beginning that attracting a large number of people meant getting their money. According to them, people around him always heard what they wanted to hear, and he was a combination of two opposites: “good to attract people and evil to control them.”
A ferocious predator
The Peoples Temple was growing, and Jones was simultaneously engaged in racial integration in the state, for which he was actively criticized. Gradually, in his sermons, he began to talk less and less about God, paying more and more attention to the transformation of society. He started talking about moving if a dictator suddenly came to power, and also claimed that parishioners were ready to be arrested for their progressive views. “None of my children will end up in concentration camps. They will have to kill all of us first,” Jones said.
In the early 1960s, there was also an apocalyptic note in his speeches: he urged followers to be ready for Armageddon—nuclear war. His thoughts were strongly influenced by an article in Esquire magazine, which described the nine safest places in the event of a nuclear war. Among them was Brazil, where Jones planned to move with the Temple and even went with his family “to explore.” As a result, he spent more than a year and a half abroad, even visiting neighboring Guyana, but was forced to return.
In 1965, Jones persuaded a hundred and fifty of his most loyal followers to move with him from Indiana to California for safety—the northern part of the state was mentioned as number one in that Esquire article. They decided to build a new socialist paradise on Earth in the Redwood valley. Work on farmland, associated farming, and equal distribution of benefits attracted people, and the social agenda and charisma of Jones, who by then had begun to give lectures in large cities, appealed to many. In the early 70s, when he moved his main activity to San Francisco, his followers were considered to be about 5 thousand people.
Around the same time, Jones began practicing “faith healing.” These were pure performances: he persuaded people to pretend to be ill, and then “cured” them using his words only. That was a good way to strengthen his status as a spiritual leader, and, at the same time, attract even more people and money. Followers really believed that the preacher was endowed with divine power and could almost walk on water. “I thought he could heal, because I’ve seen healings. And I thought they were real,” one of them said.
At that time, members of the Peoples Temple referred to Jones as a kind and generous person, and also called him Father. “Some people see me as God. They see Christ in me,” the priest himself noted.
In San Francisco, Jones became increasingly involved in politics, meeting with both local elites and people from Washington. Gradually, the followers of the Peoples Temple became a political tool for him: he could, for example, easily call the right number of people for elections or any mass actions. “I have more power than anyone, but my power depends on your faith and your willingness to serve,” he said.
Great power soon led to total control of the congregation. Followers’ homes were illegally searched and their bank accounts were examined. People were forced to sign blank forms on which they could then print confessions of various crimes: theft, pedophilia, and abuse of their children. All this was necessary for manipulation and blackmail in case someone decided to leave the Church.
Gradually, Jones began to talk about sex, as well as his “adventures”, right during the sermons. He claimed to be the only bisexual person on Earth, and claimed that he had to sleep with both men and women “for the sake of socialism.” Gradually, he controlled not only the minds of his followers, but also their bodies: people simply could not reject “Father Jones himself”. He used it with pleasure.
The head of the Peoples Temple also introduced a system of punishments. They ranged from writing dozens of pages of apologies to physical ones: people were called out of the audience for a sermon and were flagrantly beaten in front of everyone. On the remaining audio recordings from that time, you can clearly hear Jones giggling and even openly laughing during such beatings.
Naturally, Jones did not manage to deceive all the parishioners. Several people noticed that his words about equality were at odds with reality: the priest’s inner circle was made up entirely of white people. And when they noticed other inconsistencies, and then publicly voiced them, the preacher became furious. At the same time, people began to leave the Church, dissatisfied with the atmosphere. They told the outside world about what was happening in the dungeons of the Peoples Temple, and they were branded traitors. Such facts contributed to the development of Jones’s paranoia. He promoted fear, saying that the Church was being watched by the Federal Bureau of investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, that they were plotting against the Church and waging an aggressive campaign.
In 1973, Jones started talking about suicide as a means of attracting attention: “for the sake of socialism, communism, liberation of blacks, liberation of the oppressed.” At first, his followers were shocked. Then, they got used to it and took such remarks for rhetoric. With his assistants, however, Jones performed a strange ritual: he gave everyone drinks, and then announced that the liquid was poisoned, and they had an hour to live. Then he would declare that it was a joke, that they had passed the test and were ready to die for the idea of the Church. No one would have thought that Father Jones would actually do something bad.
And while the followers were trying to figure out what they had to do better, the preacher reveled in his unlimited power over his Temple, setting people against each other, destroying families. By then, Jones had long been heavily dependent on drugs.
In 1974, the head of the Peoples Temple leased more than 15 square kilometers of land in the middle of the jungle from the government of South American Guyana. By that time, he was sure that it was in this English-speaking country where he could build a socialist community—a utopia for his Church.
Building the commune named Jonestown was begun by a small group in 1976. Despite the difficult to access location and the hot climate, members of the Church were eager to fulfill their dream. They worked with enthusiasm and felt happy. In addition to houses, a meeting house was constructed, as well as the town’s own clinic and kindergarten.
To the United States, they sent propaganda videos about how well the community was doing in Guyana. Videos of Jones talking about unity with nature, fresh food, fishing, swimming in the purest water, were played on Sundays in the Church. However, many of them were staged: “their own bananas” shown in the video, for example, were with stickers from manufacturers, i.e. they were simply bought. In reality, the community could not produce enough food for all its members.
By 1977, people who had already left the Church began to fear that something was wrong in the Peoples Temple and decided to contact journalists. The organization’s activities in the United States began to attract more attention, and stories about the brutality of its leader began to be actively covered. As a result, it was decided to transport followers to Guyana. Groups of them were sent to the community through airports in different cities. Five hundred people moved to Jonestown in July and August 1977. A year later, there were 900 of them.
Soon enough, the parishioners realized that they were not in the promised paradise at all, but, in fact, on a plantation, in a working concentration camp. Right at the entrance to Jonestown, there was a tower with armed guards, and everyone’s money and passports were taken away immediately after arrival. Everyone worked at least 16 hours a day, even in the hottest weather. For the sake of a short break, people were even willing to “accidentally” get injured: for example, they asked others to hit their finger with a hammer.
They were completely cut off from the world: no one even had a radio, and everything that happened in Jonestown was learned directly from the head of the settlement. His voice was constantly broadcast over loudspeakers. Jones told followers news that he simply made up.
Gradually, the preacher’s ideas became crazier and crazier, and the community more and more resembled a sect. Jones was always walking around with a microphone and talking. He declared that there was no life outside the commune, told about plots against the Temple and armed struggle. If people raised their voices at general meetings, they were taken away, drugged, and kept in isolation. People were forbidden to eat with their family, talk to their relatives, look others in the eye, and communicate.
Permanent exercises began, and they were conducted not only during the day, but also at night. Over the loudspeakers, it was suddenly reported that armed men were attacking the community, taking the children away and torturing them. Residents had to line up with weapons around the perimeter for protection.
Jones continued to actively promote the idea of mass “revolutionary suicide.” He argued that it was normal to die for the community during an enemy attack. So-called white nights were introduced: people were woken up, gathered in a pavilion, given glasses of “poisoned” drink and told that they had to commit suicide. And if at the first general vote this idea was supported only by two people closest to Jones, later, gradually, more and more followers began to accept the fact that that would be a way out of the situation. The inhabitants of the community gradually “broke down”: they were exhausted both physically, including from lack of food, and mentally.
As for Jones, he had an air-conditioned house with a small refrigerator that always contained cool Pepsi bottles. People were ready to do anything for a piece of candy from his hands, and he was the only one in Jonestown who gained weight.
Streak of bad luck
While Jones was manipulating his community in Guyana, the stories of former Temple members continued to spread in San Francisco. Families of people who had left for Jonestown also raised a wave of discontent: they could not get in touch with their relatives and asked for help. Information about the methods of the Church and rumors about the difficult life in the jungle reached Leo Ryan, a Democrat and member of the House of Representatives. The man was known for visiting places where other lawmakers did not dare to go. In particular, he once voluntarily spent eight days in prison to check local conditions. Ryan decided to go personally and investigate the situation in Jonestown.
He arrived in Guyana in November 1978 on a small plane. The congressman was accompanied by members of his team, several journalists, and concerned relatives. They landed on the runway of the town of Port Kaituma—it was the closest to the community (located about eight kilometers from it).
In Jonestown, the congressman was shown the territory, he was able to communicate with residents: they almost vied with each other in saying that they liked everything, had a great life, and were generally happy here. The delegation was fed and a concert was held in honor of the visitors. After it, Ryan gave a speech in which he noted that people seemed to be really happy with local life, they liked everything, so there was nothing to fear. His words drew massive applause. Perhaps even more massive than the atmosphere demanded.
Meanwhile, a note was quietly passed to one of the journalists, stating that some people wanted to leave Jonestown. “I looked at that note and thought: “My God, it’s true. Everything we were afraid of is true,” Congresswoman Jackie Speier later said. Jones, when shown the letter, was sweating, nervous, explained that people lied a lot, and asked to leave the community alone.
After that, the delegation was approached by people who wanted to return to the United States. The head of the Temple tried to dissuade them, but in the end publicly permitted them to leave. However, he considered the desire of his followers as a betrayal and defeat. So, when the delegation left Jonestown, Jim Jones sent his guards after them with instructions not to let them leave.
Everything might have happened somewhat different if the delegation had not been waiting for the second plane at Port Kaituma. It had to be requested through the US Embassy, as the first plane simply did not have enough space for six people who wanted to return. By the time the plane arrived and everyone started boarding it, a tractor and trailer had arrived on the runway. Three men got out with weapons, and several more got up from the sides. The shooting started.
Several people managed to hide in the bushes, the rest were less lucky. Leo Ryan was killed (he had two dozen bullet wounds). Three journalists and a woman (one of the “deserters”) died, too. More than 10 people were injured, some of them managed to survive by a miracle.
“The Congressman is dead. The traitors are dead. (…) Do you think they’ll let us get away with it?” Jones told his followers. Since it was impossible to return to normal life, the proposed solution was simple and had been rehearsed many times: “If we can’t live in peace, let’s die in peace.”
Only one woman objected to the decision that had been imposed on the community for a long time: she wondered why it was so important to die because a few people had left, choosing their own fate. It was not Jones who answered, but members of the Peoples Temple like her. According to them, their own life did not exist, and they all had lived up to that moment only thanks to the preacher.
The decision was made. Armed men surrounded the meeting house. Jones demanded to bring a barrel: it was mixed with a fruit drink (Flavor Aid, which would then be mistaken for more famous Kool-Aid), sedatives and cyanide. First, the poison was injected into children, adults began to take their glasses…
Jones waited until his worshippers stopped showing signs of life and followed them. Except he didn’t die from the poisoned juice, but from a bullet. There are more than 900 bodies left in Jonestown. Five more people followed their leader in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, where the community had property.
However, there were survivors—in addition to those who escaped on the runway. So, one of the residents of the community decided to hide under the bed, and fell asleep there. When she woke up, there were bodies all over the place.
A group of young people survived, including two of Jim Jones’s sons: native Stefan and black Jim Jones, Jr. As members of the basketball team, they were in the Guyanese capital that day for a game, and when they learned of their father’s revolutionary decision, they tried to go home, rather than mindlessly follow orders.
Others managed to escape. Someone was lucky enough to go on business a little earlier, but Tim Carter was sent on an urgent mission right before the last mass gathering in the meeting house. According to his story, Jones’s assistant handed him a bag of money and told him to hand it over to the Soviet Embassy in Georgetown: he believed that the Russians could give members of the Temple sanctuary after the death of Congressman Ryan.
There were conspiracy theories about Jonestown. It is believed that some sectarians did not drink poison, but injected themselves with lethal injections—dozens of corpses have traces of needles.
According to another theory, it was not a mass suicide at all. Allegedly, the US secret services decided to get rid of members of the commune, because they requested asylum through the Soviet Embassy.
Now, the place where Jonestown was once located has been swallowed up by the jungle: you can only find an old sign at the entrance. After the tragedy, they wanted to give the houses to refugees, then they were looted by local Guyanese, but they did not want to live in them because of prejudices. In the mid-1980s, the buildings were destroyed by fire.