Unspeakable Times

What Life Was Like In The Peoples Temple Cult Before The Jonestown Massacre Killed Over 900 People  

Beth Elias
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Chances are, you've heard the saying "don't drink the Kool-Aid" - which, contrary to popular belief, is technically incorrect since the victims actually drank Flavor Aid. The adage refers to Jim Jones, a cult leader who gave his followers cyanide-laced punch, resulting in the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 people.

The Jonestown cult started as the Peoples Temple, in which Jim Jones preached racial equality and an end to segregation, and even won awards for his civil rights work. However, as Jones's teachings got out of hand, by including fake healings and violent outbursts, the Peoples Temple took a different turn. 

Jones and his loyalists started Jonestown as a sort of paradise, but this notion quickly fell apart. Daily life in Jonestown was not idyllic; the compound struggled to feed and house the exodus of church followers. Brutal beatings, disturbing "suicide rehearsals," and Jones's increasing paranoia compelled people to defect from the cult. After hearing complaints from defectors, US Representative Leo Ryan, accompanied by 23 others, traveled to Guyana to investigate.

When Ryan attempted to rescue church members and board a plane, Jones unleashed gunmen on them. At this point, the mass murder-suicide began. Some allege loyalists forcibly injected poison into those who refused to drink the deadly punch. Jones himself didn't drink the Flavor Aid and died from a - likely self-inflicted - gunshot to the head.

Children Drank The Flavor Aid First

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Despite Jones's sermons about love, peace, and equality, Jonestown ended in death. Jones and his loyalists served cyanide-laced Flavor Aid to Jonestown's youth first. Some adults orally administered cyanide-filled syringes to children. According to a survivor, many adults lost their will to live after this incident. 

Tracy Parks, a survivor who was 12 at the time of the mass suicide, claimed there was child labor at Jonestown. After Jones's gunmen killed Parks's mother, she and her sister hid in the jungles of Guyana while the rest of Jones's followers drank the poison. The mass suicide claimed the lives of 909 people, a third of which were children.

Jones Had Stockpiled Cyanide For Two Years Before The Mass Suicide

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In 2008, CNN learned Jones had started ordering and receiving shipments of cyanide in 1976, two years before the mass suicide. The majority of Jonestown residents had yet to move to Guyana in 1976. To legally buy cyanide, Jones secured a jeweler's license, as jewelers could use cyanide to clean gold.

Six months before the mass murder-suicide, Jonestown's doctor wrote the following to Jones: "Cyanide is one of the most rapidly acting poisons... I would like to give about two grams to a large pig to see how effective our batch is." Jones's longtime shipments of cyanide are perhaps proof that he was planning a mass suicide for years. 

They Rehearsed The Mass Suicide Beforehand
They Rehearsed The Mass Suicid... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Life Was Like In The Peoples Temple Cult Before The Jonestown Massacre Killed Over 900 People
Photo: Fielding Mcgehee and Rebecca Moore/Wikimedia Commons

The suicide rehearsals, known as White Nights, prepared Jones's followers for the actual mass murder-suicide, which ultimately took place on November 18, 1978. During White Nights, Jones would shout through the loudspeakers that surrounded the Jonestown complex: "White Night! White Night! Get to the to the pavilion! Run! Your lives are in danger!"

Jones heightened his followers' sense of danger by telling them how people were coming to murder them. Even worse, Jones had armed people waiting in the jungle. To the followers, these rehearsals seemed too real. However, it turned out the guns were firing rubber bullets, and it was all a ruse to terrify the people who lived at Jonestown. 

Next, Jones brought out supposedly poisoned Flavor Aid for his followers to drink. No one died during White Nights, as the drinks were safe to consume. After the drill, Jones returned to the loudspeakers, saying, "Now I know I can trust you. Go home, my darlings! Sleep tight!" 

Even before Jonestown, Jones had asked his followers to drink what he claimed was poison.

Jones Gave Followers What They Wanted
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Photo: Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons

Survivor of the Jonestown compound in Guyana Teri Buford O'Shea originally went to Jones's camp after one of his followers found her living on the streets. At the time, O'Shea was without food or housing, so Jones's promises of equality sounded enticing.

But reflecting on the experience, O'Shea sees Jones as manipulative, explaining:

He was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised for whatever reason. Most of them were African American, but there were also white people, Jewish people, people of Mexican descent. There were religious Christians and communists. If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he'd be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.