Facts About What Happened At Jonestown

The Peoples Temple has become one of the most notorious cults in history due in part to the November 18, 1978, tragedy - dubbed the "Jonestown Massacre" - during which more than 900 people died at the remote site of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project located in Jonestown, Guyana.

In the decades that have passed since the incident, Jonestown survivors have painted a dark picture of their time in the commune and leader Jim Jones, calling into question the alleged "voluntary" nature of the November 1978 tragedy.

Photo: Nancy Wong / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

  • The Peoples Temple Grew To 900 Members After Jones Moved To The Compound Promising A 'Tropical Paradise'

    After moving to California in 1963, Jones's followers only continued to grow and he began to think of himself as more a dictator than a pastor. Hue Forston Jr., a former Temple member, remembers Jones saying

    What you need to believe in is what you can see... If you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. If you see me as your father, I'll be your father, for those of you that don't have a father... If you see me as your savior, I'll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I'll be your God.

    In 1974, The Peoples Temple signed a lease for a plot of land in Guyana that would become the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project - or Jonestown - where his followers could escape from what he believed were the engrained evils of American society.

    In 1977, Jonestown had 50 residents, and in 1978, Jones decided to move to the compound himself following a harsh critique of his congregation in the New West. He encouraged many of his followers to come with him, promising a "tropical paradise." The population ballooned to over 900. 

  • Jones Loyalists Took Out A Congressman And Several Former Members Attempting To Escape On November 18, 1978 
    Photo: Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jones Loyalists Took Out A Congressman And Several Former Members Attempting To Escape On November 18, 1978 

    On November 17, 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan made a trip out to Jonestown to follow up on rumors that residents were being mistreated. During his visit, many of the residents wanted to leave with Ryan, and the next day, several of them joined him on the local airstrip hoping to return to the United States. As they prepared to leave, Temple security guards opened fire on the group.

    Ryan's staffer, Jackie Speier, described how, "Within seconds, gunmen leaped from a nearby tractor and leveled their weapons at us... I dived to the ground behind an airplane wheel and pretended to be dead."

    While Speier made it out alive, Ryan, several former Jonestown members, and three journalists all perished. 

  • Members Of Jonestown "Rehearsed" Their Demise In Loyalty Tests
    Photo: Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Members Of Jonestown "Rehearsed" Their Demise In Loyalty Tests

    Teri Buford O'Shea, who left Jonestown three weeks before the tragic event took place, told The Atlantic that the main warning sign that her life was in danger was the collective destruction practices Jones referred to as "White Nights." O'Shea described how:

    There were loudspeakers all over the compound, and Jim Jones's voice was on them almost 24/7. He couldn't be talking all the time, but he'd tape what he said and then play it back all day long. And the rule was that we couldn't talk when Jim Jones was talking. So, on the loudspeakers, he'd suddenly call out, 'White Night! White Night! Get to the pavilion! Run! Your lives are in danger!' Everyone would rush to the pavilion in the middle of the encampment.

    She continued:

    Then he would tell us that in the United States, African Americans were being herded into concentration camps... So there you were, in the middle of the jungle. Shots were being fired, and people were surrounding you with [arms]. Then a couple of women brought out these trays of cups of what they said was cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, or Flavor-Aid - whichever they had. Everybody drank it. If we didn't drink it, we were forced to drink it. If we ran, thought we'd be [ended].

    At the end of it, we were wondering, 'Why aren't we dead?'... And then Jim would just start laughing and clapping his hands. He'd tell us it was a rehearsal and say, 'Now I know I can trust you.' And then, in the weirdest way, he said, 'Go home, my darlings! Sleep tight!' We weren't really in mood for sleeping tight at that point.

  • Many Actively Protested Jones's Endgame As It Occurred 
    Photo: Symphony999 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Many Actively Protested Jones's Endgame As It Occurred 

    Because of the "White Nights," many initially believed this was another of Jones's drills or loyalty tests. Still others believed Jones that military troops were inbound, ready to decimate Jonestown and everyone in it.

    Audio recordings from the event itseld reveal that many members did not go willingly, and tried to convince a group of followers devoted to Jones that taking their lives was not the answer. Some even confronted Jones himself.

    Jonestown resident Christine Miller can be heard questioning Jones saying, "Well, I don’t see it like that. I mean, I feel like as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith."

  • Armed Men Surrounded The Compound And Were Required To Stop Anyone Who Tried To Leave 

    Teri Buford O'Shea told The Atlantic about her experience at the Jonestown compound, providing insight into what members of the Jonestown community experienced. She said there was little opportunity to escape: 

    Unless you were one of the lucky ones who happened to sneak off into the jungle, you were dead. They went around with stethoscopes, and if you still had a heartbeat, you'd be shot... 

  • Jim Jones Didn't Drink The Punch

    Neither Jones himself, nor his nurse, Annie Moore, died as a result of poisoning. According to Jones's toxicology report, found Pentobarbital in his system, but no cyanide, so he never actually consumed the punch that doomed his followers. 

    Jones and Moore were both shot, though it is unclear if Jones is responsible for taking his own life. While his autopsy asserts that his wound could indicate he pulled the trigger, “the possibility of homicide cannot be entirely ruled out because of the lack of specific and reliable information.”