Jonestown is one of the most notorious cults in history due to the November 18, 1978, tragedy - dubbed the "Jonestown Massacre" - when more than 900 people died at the remote People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. The group's leader, Jim Jones, referred to the event as a "revolutionary suicide."
While much is now known about what actually happened in Jonestown, some aspects of the story that many believe to be facts are not true at all. On top of that, there are other parts of the story that you've likely never heard before. In the decades since the incident, Jonestown suicide survivors have painted a dark picture of their time in the commune, calling into question the "voluntary" nature of the mass suicide that many believe to have been the case. Oh, and it wasn't actually Kool-Aid.
Jim Jones Was Fascinated By Hitler And Murdered Cats As A Child
Jim Jones was the founder of Jonestown's predecessor, The Peoples Temple, where he used his position as a pastor and his charm to reign in followers. While his leadership skills were at the heart of the dark tragedy that is the Jonestown Massacre, the darkness flooding Jones's life began early on. In his childhood, Jones spent a lot of time studying the works of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and Adolf Hitler.
He was fascinated by religion and, growing up, Jones was described as being weird and "obsessed with religion... obsessed with death." It has been rumored that Jones would sometimes hold funerals for dead animals and that he even murdered a cat.
It wasn't until 1956 that a 25-year-old Jones was finally able to found his first church in Indianapolis, IN. This church would change names several times until landing on its final moniker: Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel.
The People's Temple
After moving to California in 1963, Jones's followers only continued to grow, and his gospel turned from religion to socialism. His god-complex was also growing - Hue Forston Jr., a former Temple member, remembers Jones often 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, after 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, and the population ballooned to over 900. They expected to find for themselves a tropical paradise - but it would be only a matter of months before the majority of them were dead.
What Caused The Mass Suicide
While Jones tried to sugarcoat the mass suicide as a revolutionary act, the catalyst for his call for suicide was quite clear. On November 17, 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan made a trip out to Jonestown to follow up on rumors of abusive behavior. During his visit, many of the residents wanted to leave with Ryan, so the next day, several of them joined him on the local airstrip hoping to return to the United States. However, once on the airstrip, 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 and a few others including a defector named Patricia Parks and three journalists all died in the attack.
They Rehearsed The "Revolutionary Suicide" Before The Massacre
Teri Buford O'Shea, who left Jonestown three weeks before the mass suicide took place, told The Atlantic that the main warning sign that her life was in danger was the revolutionary suicide practices that Jim 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, that there was genocide on the streets... So there you were, in the middle of the jungle. Shots were being fired, and people were surrounding you with guns. 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 shot. At the end of it, we were wondering, 'Why aren't we dead?'" She concluded, "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."