Jonestown and the People's Temple
The People's Temple
When one thinks of cults and the negative effects of them, the People’s Temple and the Jonestown mass suicide usually comes to mind first. The loss of life totaled over 900 members of the cult and several innocent bystanders and was one of the largest single losses of American life in history. The followers of the PeopleTemple originated primarily in California, and after several years the core group of the cult relocated to a “utopian” community constructed in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Their community was called Jonestown and what happened there will forever go down in the annals of history.
The People’s Temple was founded originally in the mid-1950s in Indianapolis, Indiana by Jim Jones. Jones realized that California would be more hospitable towards recruits into his organization; therefore he moved the headquarters to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was during this time that the People’s Temple organization began to attract a following and established themselves as a political and social force in the community. The organization began to preach of socialistic practices, which fit in with some of the political views of the time, which allowed a solid loyal group of followers to be formed. By the mid-1970s, the total number of People’s Temple followers was numbered at roughly 3,000 strong, which was primarily concentrated in the San Francisco area (Layton 45). During this time, Jim Jones began to make political connections with a variety of local, state, and national figures which would raise his profile among his followers and in the San Francisco area. In 1975, Jones rallied the People’s Temple to support Mayor George Moscone in his bid for reelection, helping him eek out a narrow victory. As a reward, Jones was named the Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. This position facilitated access too many other famous and high level politicians of the era including City Councilman Harvey Milk, Governor Jerry Brown, future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Vice President Walter Mondale, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Jones met with all of these officials and often corresponded with them allowing him some political cover as he expanded his following (Reiterman 125).
During the height of Jim Jones’ fame, there were also some controversies that were a sign of some darker things to come. Law enforcement began to look closer at the PeoplesTemple when they began to support domestic terror groups, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army. In addition, anyone who decided to leave the group was often targeted with violence and some were actually killed. It was never proven that the defectors were killed by other members, although many believe this to be true. Due to the controversies surrounding the PeoplesTemple, Jones began looking for a new place out of the United States to relocate his organization. In 1974, Jones and a few followers scouted out various places and finally settled on Guyana as the site for the relocation. The reason that Guyana was chosen was that the tiny nation had leftist tendencies and that they would gladly lease many acres of land to Jones. The lease was signed giving the PeoplesTemple 3,800 acres of land located deep in the jungle of northwestern Guyana and that would be the site for Jones’ supposed utopian society (Reiterman 223).
The formal name of Jonestown was the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project and members slowly began to make their way down to Guyana. At first, only the most loyal members arrived and they are the ones who helped to build a small community in the jungle. By 1977, Jim Jones arrived in Guyana with several hundred followers with him.The peak population of Jonestown was just under 1,000 in 1978 and followers were promised a tropical paradise. Instead, Jonestown ended up more like a small village that was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Even though many in the United States were concerned about their friends and loved ones being relocated to another country, Jones’ connections allowed him to escape a lot of the criticism and scrutiny which allowed Jonestown to thrive into late 1978 before any investigation took place (Layton 191).
During the time that the PeoplesTemple members were living in Guyana, scattered reports of the conditions in Jonestown and the concerned inquiries of loved ones in the United States, prompted officials to take a closer look at what exactly was happening in the community. Congressman Leo Ryan had been following the allegations made by law enforcement, media outlets, and relatives of those in Jonestown for several years leading up to the establishment of the town. Ryan had been a vocal critic of cults while serving in the House of Representatives and the PeoplesTemple had caught his attention. In November 1978, Congressman Ryan announced that he would be visiting Jonestown with concerned relatives, government officials, and members of the press. Initially, Jones’ lawyers attempted to block the visit but were ultimately unsuccessful. In order to produce an image of happiness and prosperity, the residents of Jonestown were forced to rehearse how to act when the delegation arrived (Reiterman 271).
Congressman Ryan and the rest of his party arrived in Guyana on November 14, 1978. After being delayed a few days with legal maneuvering, the delegation arrived on November 17, 1978. Among those who accompanied Congressman Ryan were several concerned relatives, legislative aides, reporters for NBC News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and an official from the embassy in Guyana. The group was greeted warmly by the residents of Jonestown initially. The fact finding trip appeared to be going well, until a note was passed to a reporter asking for the group to allow them to leave. Because of the possibility of an unstable situation, the note was kept quiet so that further information could be ascertained during the trip. That night, only a handful of the delegation was permitted to stay at Jonestown so the rest went to a town several miles away. The next day, the delegation continued to tour Jonestown when several people openly approached them and asked to leave with them. Sensing no other choice, Jones granted them permission to leave with the congressman’s group. A truck took those wanting to leave to the airport several miles away, while Congressman Ryan and an embassy official stayed behind to see if anyone else wanted to leave. During this time, Ryan was attacked with a knife but was left uninjured. Due to the increased security risk, Ryan and the entire group met at the local airstrip in order to board two planes to take off to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. (Rick Ross 2003)
As the group of PeoplesTemple defectors and the delegation were ready to take off, gunfire broke out. One of the defectors pulled a gun on one of the planes and wounded two of the passengers, before he was subdued. The other plane sustained a greater attack. A tractor and trailer was driven in front of the larger of the two planes by PeoplesTemple security officials and they proceeded to open fire on the entire plane. Congressman Ryan, three journalists, and one defector were killed. Another nine were wounded in the attack. (Rick Ross 2003) What is perplexing about the attack at the airport is that despite a group of defectors wanting to leave, Ryan himself told one of Jones’ lawyers that he would issue a favorable report about Jonestown noting that he did not notice any major issues with the community aside from a few defectors. After the attack, the wounded fled into the jungles and the gunmen returned to Jonestown. During this time, Jim Jones gave a speech announcing a “revolutionary suicide” was imminent and urged his followers to embrace death. A large drum of grape flavored Kool-Aid was brought out and it was distributed to the residents of Jonestown. The drink was laced with a sedative and with cyanide that would result in death within a few minutes. All told, 912 people died after drinking the poison. Jones himself shot himself in the head and took a fatal dose of Phenobarbital. Adding the shooting victims from the airport, 918 people were killed on November 18, 1978. (Reiterman 344)
When the news reached the United States, it was met with absolute shock. Until the September 11th attacks occurred in 2001, this was the largest single loss of American life in a non natural disaster. Investigations were ordered into how such a tragedy could have occurred without anyone knowing in advance. Only a few members of the People's Temple made it through alive and were promptly questioned about the events that transpired. Audio tapes were eventually released that recorded Jim Jones’ final speech urging suicide and helped to shine some light on what led up to the suicide. This was also notable because Congressman Ryan became the first member of Congress to be killed in the line of duty, causing several congressional hearings to occur regarding Jonestown. The tragedy also brought the overall subject of cults to the forefront of American thought and helped to raise awareness of the potential danger of joining a radical organization similar to the PeoplesTemple. This was not the first nor would it be the last tragedy involving a cult based in the United States, but it still remains today as one of the worst tragedies in American history and also serves as a reminder of the dangers that people can face when joining controversial and questionable organizations.
Layton, Deborah. 1999. Seductive Poison. Anchor Books
Reiterman, Tim. 1982. Raven: The untold story of Rev. Jim Jones and his people. Dutton Books
Ross, Rick. 2003. The assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy. http://www.rickross.com/reference/jonestown/jonestown2.html (accessed April 19, 2009)
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