The 1979 Jonestown massacre claimed the lives of more than 900 people. Cult leader Jim Jones promised his followers that their suicides would be preferable over living in the capitalist world. Who is he? And how did he convince so many people to follow him?
Jones was born in rural Indiana into poor conditions in 1931. From an early age on, he had become invested in Communist theory and religion, struggling to make friends. His father was a member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, causing them to clash on racial issues.
As a young adult, Jones was eager to spread Marxist ideology. His idea: infiltrate the church. He made contacts with spiritual leaders and civil rights groups and following a religious convention that he attended, he launched his own church in 1956, called the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel.
Studying historical leaders on how to manipulate members, they regularly faked healing ceremonies in order to raise money.
The Peoples Temple’s crucial characteristic was its inclusion of people of colour. Jones, disgusted by racial segregation in the U.S., opened the doors to African Americans, radically supporting their advancements in gaining civil rights.
In the 1970s the Peoples Temple relocated to San Francisco, becoming an important part of America’s countercultural movement and gaining considerable political influence among other organisations.
The increased exposure led to increased scrutiny, with publications laying bare physical, emotional and sexual abuse against temple members, and other crimes perpetrated by Jones and higher-ups in the Temple.
Following this exposé, Jones and the Peoples Temple fled the US to the jungle of Guyana, South America in 1977.
The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or Jonestown, was Jones’ vision of a model socialist community. Claiming that the CIA was conspiring to destroy Jonestown, the Peoples Temple rehearsed mass suicides on at least two occasions, during what Jones referred to as “white nights”.
On 18th November 1979, in an attempt to flee Jonestown and return to the U.S., the Temple’s guards opened fire, killing members, journalists and a San Francisco congressman who came to investigate. Later that evening, all members were asked to gather for a meeting. Jones, paranoid that U.S. intelligence organisations would “parachute” into Jonestown to torture and kill everybody, urged the Peoples Temple to commit a “revolutionary suicide” to protest the condition of the world.
The event is captured on a haunting 44-minute long audio tape (available online) in which resistance from some members can be heard before all were made to drink cyanide-laced, grape-flavoured Kool-Aid . Some did voluntarily, some were forced. 304 children died within minutes, 605 adults less than an hour later. Jim Jones himself was found dead with his head on a pillow and a gunshot wound to his temple, likely self-inflicted. The harrowing event remains the second greatest loss of American civilian lives in a single incident, just behind 9/11.