The Jonestown Massacre

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The entrance to Jonestown.

On November 18, 1978 over 900 people died in Jonestown, Guyana. Although the press dubbed the events a mass murder, many of the participants took part willingly.

The People’s Temple, or Jonestown cult as it was more commonly known, was formed in 1955 by James Warren Jones.

Jim Jones was born in Crete, Indiana on May 13 1931. As a child, Jim was a voracious reader. He spent hours studying the lives of Stalin, Marx, Gandhi and Hitler. Jones’ interest in religion started at a relatively young age, and in 1952, at the age of 21, he became a student pastor in Sommerset Southside Methodist church. He later left the church when church leaders prevented him from integrating African Americans into his congregation.

The Formation of the People’s Temple

Turning his back on conventional mainstream religion, Jones started his own church in 1955, which, after a number of changes and re-inventions became known as the People’s Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. Jones never completed his theological studies but based his ministry of a combination of religious and social philosophies.

Ten years after forming his church, Jim Jones and his followers or congregation as he preferred for them to be called, relocated to Ukiah which is just outside San Francisco, California. Jones had a fixation on nuclear attack. He chose Ukiah thinking that this would be a safe environment to establish the church in the event of World War III and possible nuclear annihilation.

Although Jim Jones and the People’s Temple continued to attract more and more members, questions were being asked by thier relatives. There were allegations of physical abuse and other human rights violations which to date had been unproven.

The People’s Temple Agricultural Project

In 1974 the People’s Temple purchased a piece of land in the region of 3,800 acres on the island of Guyana. Originally the land was called the People’s Temple Agricultural Project. Church members were encouraged to relocate to Guyana to start cultivating the land. However, Jones moved several hundred members of the congregation to the island in 1977 in a bid to escape the escalating speculation around the Church’s activities in the San Francisco media.

Human Rights Violations within the People’s Temple

Again, relatives began to raise their concerns for family members who had joined the Temple. Rumours were filtering out that congregational members who broke the rules were imprisoned for periods in plywood boxes measuring 6 x 4 x 3 feet (1.8 x1.2 x0.9 m). Children who miss behaved were reported to be forced to spend the night at the bottom of a well. Relatives complained that the church was a cult, brain washing its members and that living conditions within the camp were reminiscent of a concentration camp rather than a religious retreat. It wasn’t long before the U.S. Government were receiving official requests from concerned relatives to mount rescue missions.

Congressman Leo Ryan Visits the people’s Temple.

On November 1 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan announced that he would visit Jonestown and that he would be accompanied by a party of 18. The Congressman flew into Georgetown Guyana on November 14.

Initially the Congressman’s party were prevented from entering Jonestown by the People’s Temple lawyers, Mark Lane and Charles Garry. However the congressman started his journey onto Jonestown on November 17. Although his initial reception was reasonably amicable, Ryan received a death threat from one of the congregation which was taken seriously enough for the Congressman to cut short the duration of his visit.

Leo Ryan Attempts to Leave Jonestown

The following day Ryan, his party and several members of the Temple who had expressed a wish to leave made their way to Port Kaituma airstrip. As the number wishing to leave had increased by several additional members they had to wait for a second plane to arrive in order that they could leave together. While they were waiting a tractor and trailer approached, its occupants opened fired killing Congressman Ryan, cameraman Bob Brown, NBC reported Don Harris, Photographer Greg Robinson and Patricia Parks, a member of the congregation who had chosen to leave.

Mass Suicide At Jonestown

Investigators later found a cassette recording of a meeting that took place that night. Jim Jones is heard to encourage Temple members to commit ‘revolutionary’ suicide’. He realised that with the murder of the Congressman and members of his party, it would be impossible for the church to continue.

The following day a large tub containing a mixture of potassium cyanide, potassium chloride, sedatives and tranquillers was produced. The poisonous mixture was squirted into the mouths of babies with a syringe, while Temple members were encouraged to drink the deadly mix. Death is believed to have occurred within 5 minutes. Jones didn’t ingest the poisonous brew himself. He was found with his head cushioned on a pillow, a self inflicted gun shot wound to the left temple.

Death Toll at Jonestown

Investigators discovered the bodies of 909 people, including children, who participated in the mass suicide / murder at Jonestown. Just 33 people survived the events that day, 11 people including 4 children walked a staggering 30 miles through the jungle to reach a neighbouring town. Only 14 people attempting to leave by air survived the ambush at the airstrip, 4 people had previously been expelled from the village by Jones and his mistress and just 4 members lived through the mass suicide.

Today, all that remains of Jonestown are a few decaying buildings as the jungle slowly reclaims its territory.

Sources:

  1. Jonestown, the unrevealed story of the Jonestown Massacre USA Today
  2. Inside the Jonestown Massacre CNN.com