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Jonestown: 13 Things You Should Know About Cult Massacre

A look back at the infamous 1978 mass murder-suicide, one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history.

Until the September 11th attacks, the tragedy in Jonestown on November 18th, 1978 represented the largest number of American civilian casualties in a single non-natural event. It is unfathomable now, as it was then, that more than 900 Americans – members of a San Francisco-based religious group called the Peoples Temple – died after drinking poison at the urging of their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones, in a secluded South American jungle settlement. Photographs taken after the carnage forever document the sheer enormity of the event: the bodies of hundreds of people, including children, lying face down in the grass. Nearly 40 years later, the infamous and horrific event continues to fascinate us through numerous books, articles and documentaries.

The story of Jonestown begins with Jones, a white minister who preached unconventional socialist and progressive ideas to a predominantly African-American congregation, called the Peoples Temple. At the height of its popularity during the 1970s, the Temple had a membership estimated in the thousands and was courted by local politicians in San Francisco, including Harvey Milk. But by 1977, Jones had grown paranoid from the media scrutiny over the Temple’s suspicious activities, so he and his numerous followers moved to an agricultural settlement (a.k.a. Jonestown) in Guyana, the remote country east of Venezuela.

Concern over the welfare of those in the jungle encampment prompted U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan to visit Jonestown in November 1978. After checking out the settlement, Ryan was shot to death along with four other people by Temple gunmen at an airstrip. Following those murders, Jones commanded his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch, starting with the children first. In all, there were over 900 who died in Jonestown, including Jim Jones, who was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. There is speculation that he may have taken his own life, or that his nurse Annie Moore fatally shot him before she killed herself in the same manner.

Decades later, survivors of Jonestown still remember being part of a church/organisation that they devoted a good portion of their lives to. “The people were incredible,” says Jean Clancey, who worked on the Temple newspaper. “People who were capable of committing themselves to something outside of their own self-interests.” Adds Laura Johnston Kohl, another former Temple member, “We – all of us – were doing the right things but in the wrong place with the wrong leader.”

Today, the legacy of Jonestown has been reduced to the popular expression of “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But the history of Jones and the Peoples Temple is much bigger than that somewhat inaccurate catchphrase. As the tragedy reaches its 40th anniversary, here are 13 little-known facts about Jonestown.

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Portrait of American religious leader Jim Jones, the founder of the Peoples Temple, and his wife Marceline Jones seated in front of their adopted children and next to his sister-in-law (right) with her three children in California in 1976. Credit: Don Hogan Charles/Getty Images

Jim Jones’ Cruelty and Madness Were Rooted in His Childhood
People have wondered how Jim Jones, a man who preached racial and social equality, turned evil. But as Tim Reiterman explained in Raven, Jones’ dark qualities – his need to control people, his deceit, and his anger toward people who betray or abandon him – could be traced to his childhood in Indiana. A loner during his youth, Jim would entertain his playmates in the loft of his family’s barn and made them his captive audience (one time, he even locked up his young friends in the barn). He performed experiments on animals and conducted funerals for them.

“I thought Jimmy was a really weird kid,” Jones’ childhood friend Chuck Wilmore recalled in the 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. “He was obsessed with religion; he was obsessed with death. A friend of mine told me that he saw Jimmy kill a cat with a knife.” According to Jeff Guinn’s book, The Road to Jonestown, Jones also had an early fascination with Adolf Hitler. “When Hitler committed suicide in April 1945, thwarting enemies who sought to capture and humiliate him, Jimmy was impressed,” he wrote.

Jones to Move His Church to California Because He Feared Nuclear War
In 1955, Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis. The church stood out for of its multiracial membership, which was quite revolutionary during a time of racial segregation. Sometime the early 1960s, Jones came across an Esquire article that listed the nine safe places in the world in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. One of those cited was Eureka, California, which Esquire said that the city “escapes damages in the war games attack because it is west of the Sierras and upwind from every target in the United States.” Jones persuaded his congregation that they needed to leave for California and even warned of a nuclear attack that would happen on July 15, 1967.

“Jones wanted others to adopt his apocalyptic vision,” Reiterman wrote in Raven. “In his grand castle of paranoia, justifiable concerns about thermonuclear war exploded into a doomsday scenario. He, like some latter-day Moses, would lead the people to live interracially.” Jones, his family and about 70 of his followers moved to Redwood Valley in northern California. His church empire would later extend to San Francisco and Los Angeles by the mid 1970s.

The Peoples Temple Members Were a Racially-Mixed Family Dedicated to Improving the World
The Peoples Temple is often branded as a cult whose members blindly devoted their allegiance to a man and a cause at the expense of their own selves and livelihoods. But a closer look at Jim Jones’ followers reveals a large and diverse mix of racial backgrounds and age groups who were drawn to the church’s progressive and activist ideals. During their time in the Temple, these devoted and hard-working people performed altruistic deeds for the community, and some of them had turned their lives around by getting off of drugs and crime. “We all felt that we were a ‘family’ rather than a church,” says Kohl.

“The people were the attraction of the Temple,” Kathryn Barbour says of her initiation into the group. “So much of it was revolving around Jim Jones, and he was the one who was always given the credit for everything, but the people were the attraction. It was amazing to be walking into a place and have African-Americans really warmly welcoming you and talking to you, and sharing stories with you. It was sweet.”

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Father Divine applauding at banquet table, circa 1953. Credit: Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

An African-American Preacher Showed Jim Jones the Way
Looking to expand the reach of his organisation, Jones frequently met with Father Divine, a popular, if controversial, black evangelist and founder of the Peace Mission movement. Born sometime in the early 1880s, Father Divine started a religious movement in the 1910s that drew huge numbers of worshippers who saw him as God. As described in Raven, a judge suddenly died shortly after handing down the preacher a prison sentence for being a public nuisance. (“I hated to do it,” Divine reportedly responded).

Father Divine, who lived in an estate in Pennsylvania with his wife Mother Divine, possessed the qualities that Jones mirrored for himself and the Peoples Temple: He had a multiracial congregation, believed in racial equality and preached the abstention of sex. After the death of Father Divine in 1965, Jones made an unsuccessful power grab for the Peace Mission organisation during his visit to Divine’s estate, even going so far as to claim he was the reincarnation of the late preacher. Mother Divine responded by kicking him and his followers out, but not before Jones managed to poach a very small number of Peace Mission members to join him on the bus ride back to California, according to Reiterman’s book.

Jim Jones Claimed He Was the Only Heterosexual on Earth
Jones didn’t always practice what he preached in his personal life. In December 1973, he was arrested for lewd conduct at a Los Angeles movie theater. And during his final months in Jonestown, Jones was addicted to pharmaceutical drugs. A married man who adopted children of different racial backgrounds, Jones also engaged in sexual relations with some of his female and male followers.

“Jim said that all of us were homosexuals,” Joyce Houston, an ex-Temple follower, said in the Jonestown documentary. “Everyone except [him]. He was the only heterosexual on the planet, and that the women were all lesbians; the guys were all gay. And so anyone who showed in interest in sex was just compensating.”

Tim Carter, another ex-member, says that Jones hated romantic relationships within the Peoples Temple because they were seen as a threat to the cause and that the members should be focused on their work. “[My wife] Gloria and I were one of those couples who never really talked to each other about what our true feelings were about Jones,” he says, “or anything else, because we were afraid that the other one might get called up to the carpet.”

The Peoples Temple Had a Pet Chimpanzee Named Mr. Muggs
Mr. Muggs was a chimpanzee Jim Jones claimed he had rescued from scientific experiments, though according to Jeff Guinn’s The Road in Jonestown, Jones may have actually purchased Muggs from a pet store. (In his Indiana days, Jones once sold pet monkeys door to door). Muggs became sort of a mascot for the Temple under the care of Joyce Touchette, whose family were devoted members to the Temple.

A 1973 article from the Temple Reporter, the church’s publication, told Muggs’ story: “Only 18 months old, he has the intelligence of a four year old child… It may sound anthropomorphic, but Muggs will follow every command of Pastor Jones, and will defend him when anyone comes up casually to pet the chimpanzee.” Like so many other victims, Mr. Muggs met a tragic end on Jonestown’s last day – the chimpanzee was shot to death.

A 6-Year-Old Boy Was the Catalyst That Led to the Tragedy
Tim and Grace Stoen were a married couple and followers of Jim Jones during the Temple’s early years in California; Tim was an attorney for the Temple, and Grace was a member of Jones’ inner circle. In 1972, Grace gave birth to a boy named John Victor Stoen, and Jones claimed to be the father. Complicating matters about the paternity, Tim signed an affidavit confirming Jones as John’s father. When Grace defected from the church in 1976, she left her son with Jones, fearing that her life and John’s were in danger. Together she and Tim, who left the church a year later, sought to get John back through the U.S. courts. By that time, John was already in Guyana, and Jones adamantly refused to hand him over, despite court orders that he must do so. The dispute over John’s paternity symbolised the bitter conflict between the Temple and its opponents: If the Stoens prevailed in getting John back, it would signal the loss of Jones’ far-reaching power over his people and galvanise other relatives of Temple members seeking the return of their loved ones from Jonestown. In the end, John Victor Stoen was among approximately 304 people aged 17 years or younger found dead in Jonestown.

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Bodies lie on the Port Kaituma airstrip by the plane that was to carry California Congressman Leo Ryan and others back to Georgetown. Credit: Bettman/Getty Images

Leo Ryan Was a ‘Hard-Charging’ Maverick Congressman
One of the forgotten people of the Jonestown tragedy is California Congressman Leo Ryan. A Democrat, Ryan was an unconventional politician: He once had himself briefly incarcerated at Folsom State Prison to see what the prison conditions were like, and he went to Canada to investigate the hunting of baby seals. Ryan became involved in the Peoples Temple issue after hearing his constituents’ concerns that their relatives were possibly being held against their will in Jonestown. He wrote a letter to Jim Jones requesting an invitation to visit the settlement, a move that Jones and his followers vehemently opposed but to which they later acquiesced. Ryan traveled to Jonestown accompanied by several journalists and relatives of Temple members.

During Ryan’s visit in Jonestown, a few settlers told the congressman that they wanted to return to the States, an act that Jones saw as a betrayal. Afterwards when Ryan, the defectors, and the journalists were waiting at the Port Kaituma airstrip for planes to take them home, a truck arrived carrying Temple gunmen who then opened fire. When the shooting stopped, the congressman and four people were killed, while several others were injured. In his memory, Ryan received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1983, and a post office in his old district of San Mateo, California was named after him in 2009. “Leo Ryan was the real deal,” said his former aide Jackie Speier, who was injured in the airstrip shooting in Guyana, and is now a U.S. congresswoman. “He carried around with him a righteous indignation and passion for the powerless of society and didn’t shy away from questioning the status quo… He didn’t win all his battles, but to Leo, the fight was as important as the outcome.”

It Wasn’t Kool-Aid That Poisoned the Temple Members
After the attack on Congressman Ryan and his party at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones urged his more than 900 followers in Jonestown that they had to commit suicide or else the Guyanese military will come in and take their children away. From a vat, his people drank the cyanide-laced punch, which birthed the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” referring to those who blindly and foolishly follow something. But it wasn’t actual Kool-Aid that was used in the suicides but rather a similar brand called Flavor-Aid. The reference to “Kool-Aid” could be traced to the early reporting in the days after the tragedy, such as this article in The Washington Post. Today, the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” has mixed, even offensive, meanings to Temple survivors and relatives.

“It…still hurts every time I hear it,” Juanell Smart, whose four children, mother and uncle died in the tragedy, said in The Road to Jonestown. “I hated that people laughed when they said it, like what happened was somehow funny.”

In the 2005 book Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, survivor Mike Carter said he was deeply offended when he first heard that remark: “I thought, ‘How can these people trivialise such a horrific event as the mass suicide/murder of over 900 people.'” And Terri Buford, a Temple defector, said the phrase makes her shudder. “I know it’s part of the culture now,” she said in an interview with Slate, “and I shouldn’t be so sensitive to it. But Jonestown was an important part of American history, and it’s been marginalised.”

An Elderly Woman Slept Through the Whole Ordeal
Amid the hundreds and hundreds of deaths, there were a number of survivors in Jonestown On the morning of November 18, 1978, hours before the dramatic events unfolded, a group of 11 Temple members – including a mother and her three-year-old son – walked 35 miles to escape under the pretence of going on a picnic. Two men, Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes, were able to bypass armed security through a combination of luck and deception. Three other Temple members, Mike Prokes and brothers Tim and Mike Carter, were sent out on a mission by Jim Jones’ aide to deliver a suitcase of money to the Soviet Embassy. And there were many followers at the Temple outpost in Georgetown, Guyana, and the church’s San Francisco headquarters who didn’t heed Jim Jones’ suicide order.

One of the most remarkable stories of survival from Jonestown belongs to Hyacinth Thrash, an elderly African-American woman who slept inside her cabin throughout the whole ordeal. She woke up the following morning and walked over to a senior citizens’ building where she saw bodies covered in sheets; her sister Zipporah Edwards was among the dead. In her memoir The Onliest One Alive, published in 1995, Thrash recalled: “There were all of those dead being put in bags… people I’d known and loved… God knows I never wanted to be there in the first place. I never wanted to go to Guyana to die… I didn’t think Jim would do a thing like that. He let us down.”

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Two survivors of the Jonestown mass suicide, Hyacinth Thrash, 84, left, and Grover Davis, 79, sit in back of a van at Georgetown’s Park Hotel, Nov. 29, 1978, as they wait to be taken to the airport. The Guyanese government allowed seven members of the Peoples Temple to leave the country. Credit: Charles Harrity/AP

A Farewell Note May Have Came From Richard Tropp, One of the Dead
At least two farewell notes were left behind at Jonestown, including an unsigned letter that is often attributed to Richard Tropp, a teacher and writer for the Temple. That letter eloquently explained why it was necessary for the Temple members to commit suicide, and that Jim Jones didn’t order the attack on Congressman Ryan and his party. The letter concludes: “If nobody understands, it matters not. I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.”

However, some survivors today dispute that Tropp wrote that farewell note. Tim Carter, who is one of those doubters, says that on the day of the tragedy he witnessed Tropp arguing with Jones against the suicide plan before Jones made his speech to his followers in the Jonestown pavilion.

“The reason it doesn’t resonate,” Carter explains, “is because it was not written from somebody who was completely against what was happening. … It does not jive with the Dick that I saw around 5 o’clock in the afternoon or whatever that time was. It was well written. I could see Dick writing something like that, but the words that were in that seemed very peaceful and very accepting and very kind of pro-everybody dying. That’s not where Dick was coming from.”

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Mike Prokes, centre, and Tim Carter, right, sit in custody of Guyana troops in a helicopter, November 20, 1978. Credit: Frank Johnston/AP

Other Temple Survivors Experienced Their Own Tragedies After Jonestown
Following Jonestown, and the widespread media coverage that followed, former Temple members – including those who had lost loved ones – initially struggled to resume their lives. Others had their own personal tragedies after the cataclysmic event. In 1979, Mike Prokes, the Temple’s media relations man who escaped death in Jonestown, called a press conference in a California motel room to defend the Temple. He then later went into the bathroom and killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Husband and wife Al and Jeannie Mills, who were prominent defectors and opponents of Jones, were found murdered at their Berkeley, California home in 1980, a crime that has remained unsolved. Paula Adams, a former Temple staff member, was murdered along with her child in 1983 by her ex-lover Laurence Mann, a former Guyanese ambassador to the U.S., who then killed himself. A year later, Tyrone Mitchell, whose parents and siblings died in Jonestown, fired a rifle at a Los Angeles schoolyard, killing one person and injuring more than 10 others before fatally shooting himself. And Chad Rhodes, whose mother Juanita Bogue was pregnant with him in Jonestown, was charged in the killing a police officer in Oakland in 1999; around the time of Jonestown’s 30th anniversary, Rhodes was reportedly serving life in prison without parole.

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A pile of paper cups with cyanide-laced fruit punch, and a pile of hypodermic syringes, found at Jonestown by Guyanese officials. Credit: Bettman/Getty Images

Some Think It Was Mass Murder, Not Mass Suicide
While the general view of what happened was a mass suicide because people lined up to take the poisoned drink, there have been arguments from witnesses and former Temple members that it was really mass murder. Long before the actual event, Jones had his followers drink what they initially believed was poison as a test of loyalty to him, which in hindsight was a rehearsal for what would later happen.

When Jones implemented the actual suicide plan in Jonestown, there were armed guards with guns and crossbows to ensure that nobody was getting out alive. Some victims were found to have marks on their bodies, suggesting they were injected with the poison. Adding to the mass murder argument is that numerous young children died in Jonestown who couldn’t possibly know what they were doing.

One of the proponents for the mass murder view is Raven author Tim Reiterman, who, as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, was injured during the shooting attack on Congressman Ryan at the airstrip. “Jones put all the pieces in place for a last act of self-destruction,” he wrote, “then gave the order to kill the children first, sealing everyone’s fate.”

Tim Carter, who lost his wife and baby son in Jonestown, also concurs that it was mass murder. “Jones was going to kill everybody, no matter what,” he says. “There were so many lies that Jones told to people to create a state of siege mentality in the community, that even those that were making ‘a principled stand of revolutionary suicide’ probably were influenced a lot by the lies that he was telling them.”