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On This Day: Over 900 Peoples Temple Members Commit Suicide at Jonestown

Last updated: February 15, 2023

November 18, 2011 05:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones participated in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.

Jim Jones Leads Mass Suicide at Jonestown

The Rev. Jim Jones started his Peoples Temple in the 1950s in Indianapolis. In 1965, he relocated the group to northern California, where he was able to attract more followers, establish temples as far south as Los Angeles, and earn the respect of liberal political leaders in the San Francisco area.

Jones preached the values of communism in the context of Christianity, calling for a tight-knit community of equals who were willing to sacrifice for the greater good. He attracted members through the promise of miracles, such as curing cancers and blindness, which he staged in elaborate services. He established a psychological hold over many members through isolation, intimidation, humiliation, spying and brainwashing.

In 1974, as word of Jones’ abusive practices began to leak out, he began to prepare to move his congregation to an agricultural commune in Guyana, a socialist country in South America. In August 1977, a damaging article written by former members of the Peoples Temple appeared in New West magazine, prompting Jones to make the move.

More than 1,100 temple members traveled to the commune, known as “Jonestown,” where Jones’ behavior became more erratic and cruel. He split up families, ordered members to perform manual labor for long hours, and continued to brutally interrogate and sexually abuse members. He cut off members from the outside world, and told them that there was widespread violence and chaos in America.

There were several “White Nights,” where Jones claimed that the commune was under attack. Temple members would arm themselves in preparation for an attack, and Jones would present the possibility of a mass “revolutionary suicide.” He would order his people to consume what he claimed to be a poisoned drink in order to prove their loyalty.

Families of temple members began to petition the government to investigate. In November 1977, San Francisco-area Congressman Leo J. Ryan traveled to Guyana accompanied by journalists and several relatives of temple members. Three days later, the group spoke with Jones and his followers at Jonestown.

A number of Jonestown members indicated that they wanted to leave the commune. Ryan arranged for 16 members to return to the U.S. with his group. On Nov. 18, as the group prepared to leave the country from an airstrip in Georgetown, armed Jonestown guards attacked and killed Ryan, three journalists and one defector.

Soon after, Jones delivered his final address to his congregation. He told them that Ryan’s plane was going to crash, which would attract government attention and threaten their way of life. He said that it was time to commit suicide. Temple member Christine Miller pleaded with Jones not to do it, but she was shouted down by other members.

“So my opinion is that you be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act,” Jones said. “We can’t go back; they won’t leave us alone.”

At about 5 p.m., Jones distributed a flavored drink poisoned with cyanide. More than 200 babies and young children were forced to drink poisonous cyanide first, and then the rest of the population followed. Armed guards threatened those who were reluctant to drink.

Nine hundred and nine people died, all but two from the poisoned drink. Jones was killed by a gunshot, though it is unclear whether he committed suicide or was killed by somebody else. Just four people in the camp at the time survived: two elderly residents who slept through the suicide and two who hid.

The FBI’s audio tape of Jim Jones’ final sermon is available at the Internet Archive.

Opinion: CIA Involvement?

Sources in this Story

  • Rick A. Ross Institute: House of Representatives Report on Jonestown—Findings
  • PBS: Jonestown
  • San Diego State University (New West Magazine): “Inside Peoples Temple” by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy
  • SUNY College at Oneonta: Suicide Tape Transcript
  • truTV: Jonestown Massacre: A ‘Reason’ to Die

A number of conspiracy theorists claim that the CIA was involved in the mass suicide. “According to one of these theories, ‘Jonestown’ was a continuation of a CIA mind-control program that infiltrated cults, such as The People’s Temple, to carry out their experiments,” truTV reports. As evidence, the site points to the fact that Ryan sought to bring greater accountability to the CIA when it came to undercover activities, and his bill, the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, was defeated shortly after his assassination.

Theorists also question the U.S. government’s decision to forego autopsies on those who died. The government contended that it was obvious how they died, but Guyanese coroner Leslie Mootoo argued that “as many as 700 of the victims were murders, not suicides,” according to truTV.

Related Topics: Waco and Heaven’s Gate

The Waco Siege
On Feb. 28, 1993, federal agents tried to arrest David Koresh at his Waco, Texas compound. A gunfight ensued, killing 10 and beginning a 51-day standoff that eventually ended with the deaths of 75 people, including 21 children.

The Heaven’s Gate suicides
On March 26, 1997, the 39 bodies of the Heaven’s Gate members were found in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Heaven’s Gate members believed that behind the Hale-Bopp comet, which was then visible in the night sky, was a spacecraft waiting to take them to a “higher plane of existence.” All they needed to do was shed their earthly bodies to begin their astral journey.

Reference: Accounts, Records, and Documentaries

The Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University provides “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” with extensive information on the incident, including various personal accounts and opinions, and transcripts of Jim Jones’ “death tapes.”

The nonprofit Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey tracks controversial religious movements and maintains a research archive and news Web site. It has an archive of news stories on Jonestown and the Peoples Temple.

NPR’s 1981 audio documentary “Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown” chronicles the final months of the Peoples Temple.

The Web site for MSNBC’s documentary “Witness to Jonestown” presents clips from the film and stories from survivors.

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