“I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me”. This 1975 quote by religious cult leader and psuedo-guru Jim Jones foreshadowed the events of November 18th, 1978, in a remote part of the South American nation of Guyana, where a mass suicide of nearly 1000 people took place. The men and women that perished on this date were followers of the People's Temple, a religious organisation led by Jones. None would have imagined that an approach by a charming man promising to build them a socialist utopia; would result in them being forced into suicide.
You've probably heard at one point or another the term "drinking the Kool-Aid '', used to describe a followership at its worst. The phrase was coined after the happenings in Guyana during November 1978. Reportedly, Jim Jones (hence Jonestown) forced his followers into mass suicide using Kool-Aid, having them all drink a grape-flavoured liquid laced with Cyanide. Ever since then, the term "drinking the Kool-Aid" has been used to refer to people's reckless devotion.
Jim Jones was known as a charismatic churchman who established a Christian sect called the People's Temple in Indianapolis in the 50s. At the time he had no theological training, however he was known for his charisma, persuasiveness and ability to reach people from all different walks of life (similarly to most cult leaders). He preached against racism and integrated several African Americans into his congregation which was seen as very progressive at the time, especially since Jones himself was a white man. As his congregation grew across different states in the U.S. in the 1970s, his church started to be accused by the media of financial fraud, physical abuse of its members and mistreatment of children, all of which turned out to be very true allegations. Jones' treatment of his followers was often less than humane, and they were often beaten, blackmailed, humiliated and sometimes even brainwashed into signing over their personal belongings to the church. In light of these allegations, Jones invited his congregation to move away with him to Guyana, a place, he said, that would prove to become their "socialist utopia". With the power of his persuasive language and the social causes he stood behind, it was easy to gather several willing followers who completely altered their lives to follow Jones' prospects and move to the commune that would be later referred to as Jonestown.
He sold the destination as an agricultural commune that would be rich with food, no mosquitoes or snakes, and where temperatures scarcely varied from a perfect 23º Celsius every day. The reality, however, was that the conditions in Jonestown were grim. The residents couldn't actually grow food in the commune because the jungle soils were too thin, nothing grew and people were starving. It was reported that Jones had this small inner circle that used to go out and beg for food, or get rotting food from the nearby markets and bring it back to Jonestown. Not only that, but members of the Temple worked long hours per day in the fields and, if they dared to question Jones' authority, were harshly punished for it. Passports were confiscated, letters home were censored and members were forced to attend lengthy late-night meetings conducted by Jones. To put it lightly, Jonestown did not turn out to be the paradise their leader had promised.
EVENTS LEADING UP TO MASS SUICIDE:
Jones, by this time in rapidly declining mental health and addicted to drugs, was convinced that the U.S. government was out to destroy him and his beloved Jonestown. In 1978, a group of former Temple members that did not move to Jonestown as well as relatives who were concerned with the well-being of their loved ones, convinced Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman and Democrat of California, to investigate the settlement in Guyana. Everything seemed fine when Ryan and a group of journalists first arrived in Jonestown on the 17th of November 1978, but the next day as they were about to leave, they were approached by residents pleading to them for a passage out of there. This caused Jones to become distressed, leading him to order Temple members to launch an attack at the airstrip from which Ryan and his company were going to depart. Ryan and four more people were killed, and 11 others were wounded.
Back in Jonestown, Jones commanded everyone to gather together in the main pavilion in the site to commit what he claimed was a "revolutionary act". Here are some quotes directly transcribed from his speech to the residents just minutes before the suicides occurred:
"I've never lied to you. never have lied to yotie. I know that's what's gonna happen that's what he intends to do; and he will do it. He'll do it."
"So my opinion is that you be kind to children, and be kind to seniors, and take the potion like they used to take in Ancient Greece, and step over quietly; because we are not committing suicide — it's a revolutionary act. We can't go back; they won't leave us ‘alone: They‘re now going back to tell more lies, which means more Congressmen. And there's no way, no way we can survive."
Some of Jones' followers willingly ingested a poison-filled punch while others were forced to do so at gunpoint. The youngest members of the People's Temple were the first to die, as parents and nurses used syringes to drop a potent mix of cyanide, sedatives and powdered fruit juice into children’s throats. Adults then lined up to drink the poison-laced concoction while armed guards surrounded the pavilion.The final death toll at Jonestown that day was 909; one third of those who perished were children.
When Guyanese officials arrived at the Jonestown compound the next day, they found it carpeted with hundreds of bodies. Many people had perished with their arms around each other. A few residents managed to escape into the jungle as the suicides took place, while at least several dozen more Peoples Temple members, including several of Jones’ sons, survived because they were in another part of Guyana at the time.
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