The mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18th 1978 was the largest civilian loss of American lives, apart from those lost in natural disasters, of modern times, that is until 9/11. Known correctly as the stown massacre, in all, nine hundred and eighteen people died in this tragic event, in the settlement itself, in the capital Georgetown and also at a nearby airstrip.
Jim Jones, leader of the cult, founded the People’s Temple in Indiana in the mid 1950’s. Unlike many cults, it had a political rather than a religious aspect, and was dedicated to the establishment of extreme socialism. And unlike many cult leaders, Jim Jones was to some extent an establishment figure, associating with high ranking members of the US government and at one time being appointed Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Commission.
During the 1970’s Jones moved his headquarters from Indiana to San Francisco. Indiana had not welcomed his integrationist views, and California had a more liberal climate in which Jones could operate.
Jim Jones views and methods were under examination and attack in the US, so he sought a more congenial place to establish his People’s Temple Agricultural Project, or Jonestown as it became known. Jones settled upon the country of Guyana, which was very amenable to his socialist views and appeared to provide a safe haven.
He and his followers began to build a community in the jungle. The small country was overwhelmed by the mass immigration of five hundred followers, and it is undoubtedly the case that there was rampant bribery by Jones to allow him to import the arms and drugs which he required. Jonestown was run along pure communist lines, and required communal living and complete equality. The model was of North Korea, the Soviet Union and Cuba, with intense restriction on personal freedom, including the inability of residents to leave.
Jim Jones was clearly a charismatic personality, as he seems to have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of many people, including the government of Guyana. By the late 1970’s, with investigative journalists hot on his trail, Jones himself moved to Jonestown, along with more migrants, and the population rose to close on a thousand. The land was very poor, and sustainability wasn’t possible. When Jones arrived, the overcrowding created pressure on the community, and this was coupled with a harsh new regime, based on the Korean model of eight hours work, eight hours study. (For study, read brainwashing.) Jones broadcast his incoherent thoughts around the compound night and day, making it difficult even to sleep.
Jonestown was hot, overcrowded, and married couples were forced to live apart. Food was meager, and work was the norm. Punishments close to torture for men, women and children were meted out to those who didn’t toe the Jones’ line. Many people became sick with dysentery and similar illnesses due to the poor hygiene of the settlement.
Eventually, people began to want to leave, and their plight was brought to the attention of Congressman Leo Ryan of Northern California, who eventually visited Jonestown and tried to take some people back to the US with him. Jones, by this time sick, abusing drugs and behaving with more than usual paranoia, ordered them to be killed. This killing took place at a local airstrip.
Fearing that the wrath of the US would be called down upon his organization, Jim Jones decided that the only escape was mass suicide. He convinced his followers that they would otherwise be subjected to torture, and a better place awaited them. A cocktail of cyanide, grape juice and Valium was prepared in vats, and people came forward to take the deadly mixture. Mothers gave the poison to their babies, then drank it themselves. Nine hundred and nine people committed suicide that day, including Jones, who shot himself � a much easier death that cyanide poisoning. Other cult members living in the capital Georgetown were instructed to kill themselves, and did so. A few people escaped, and lived to tell the tale.
The People’s Temple seems to have been less a Doomsday cult than a political experiment gone wrong. The Jonestown massacre was instigated by fear of reprisals more than by hope for a better world beyond the grave. Although Jones styled himself Reverend, there is little real evidence of religious belief or practices in the cult. Cult is certainly was, with strong elements of brainwashing and leader worship. There is no doubt that Jones was deluded at best, and wicked at worst.