The Jonestown Massacre of 1978

Dead Bodies of the Jonestown Mass Suicide | Courtesy of Pinterest

As reporters and health officials walked onto the grounds of the mass suicide in Guayana, they were in shock over what they were seeing; hundreds of bodies face down on the ground, dead. One person who was at the site said that the amount of dead bodies was appalling, “it was depicted as not American, not religious, not sane, and ultimately not human.”1 Over 550 bodies of the 900 were unclaimed for almost six months until US Officials decided to cremate them. Once they brought the bodies back to the United States from Guayana, many Americans didn’t think it was right to have these bodies spread out on American soil because of the act they made. US Officials then decided to scatter the ashes of the dead bodies away from the United States border lines.

Jim Jones was often seen as a “father figure” to all of his followers | Courtesy of Wikipedia

It all started with Jim Jones. Jones was a religious/political cult leader who had established the People’s Temple as a sect in Indianapolis in the 1950s. His cult focused on themes of communism, and the fight against racism, attracting many African Americans. He moved his cult to San Francisco in 1971, but it would not remain there for long. Soon after the group moved there, Jones was accused of financial fraud, physical abuse of his cult’s members, and mistreatment of children. After Jones was accused, in 1973, he became paranoid that someone would try to destroy his cult, so he moved his entire group to Guayana, South America, to build a socialist utopia known as Jonestown.

Dead bodies found after the mass suicide. Most if not all of the bodies were turned facedown | Courtesy of Google Images

Once the cult moved to Guayana, people started to question even more the accusations being made against Jim Jones. Members who had left or escaped the cult were worried for the people still in the cult, so they convinced U.S. Congressmen Leo Ryan of California to fly to Guyana. “In November 1978, Ryan along with a group of journalists and relatives of cult members went to investigate the charges.”2 Jones did not like the idea of people coming to investigate, so he ordered his followers to have Ryan and his investigators assassinated. He ordered the attack on the group as they were returning to the airstrip to leave. A journalist named Charles Krause reported that that morning Ryan was attacked by a man with a knife, although he was not hurt by the incident. “Later that same day, Ryan and his party were attacked by assassins at the Port Kaituma Airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed and ten were injured.”3 While these killings were going on, Jones feared that he would lose his cult members and they would turn against him. He then proceeded to lead his people through a mass suicide, which was something the members had repeatedly practiced since the early 1970s.

These practices were called “White Nights” and consisted of members drinking a liquid that they believed was poisonous as a loyalty test to Jones.4 During these “White Nights,” people were woken up by a loud speaker, and they would assemble for the ritual of passing around a drink of kool-aid, which they were told was poison. Unfortunately, this time was not a test. Hundreds of adults and children lined up to drink this colorful, fruit-flavored punch, which contained cyanide and tranquilizers. Most of them thought they were just proving their loyalty as before, but as more people began to die, they realized that this time it was real. “Over 260 children, for example, had the poison given to them, while only about 40 adults escaped.”5 For those who died willingly though, collective suicide held a religious significance in the context of the worldview that had been established in Jonestown.

The remains of Jonestown after the mass suicide | Courtesy of Pinterest

Collective suicide was a ritual that signified a purity of commitment to the community. On the night that they all drank this poison, Jim Jones announced “that the members of the community were united as black, proud socialists.”6 Collective suicide also promised release from a world dominated by what Jones perceived as American racism, capitalism, and fascism. He did not want to be captured and taken back to America, so instead he urged his followers to drink the poison, and “step out of the world.”7 Jones had told his followers that they were not committing suicide, but rather they were performing an act of freeing themselves from the harsh world that they lived in. There are later reports that when officials went to Jonestown, Jim Jones was found with gunshot wounds, raising the speculation that either he had committed suicide or someone else had killed him.

The Jonestown Massacre was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the September 11 attack in 2001. The mass suicide resulted in over 900 deaths of innocent lives. Once the bodies were found, the Guyanese government asked the United States to take the bodies back. US Officials decided to start sending a few people over to identify bodies so they could decide what to do with them. Over 500 bodies were unclaimed and that is when the United States decided to have the US Air Force come in to take the bodies back to the United States.”8 To this day, families of loved ones are still trying to find a memorial place for the lost lives.

  1.  Encyclopedia of Religion, 2005, s.v. “Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” by David Chidester.
  2.  Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Jonestown Massacre,” by Carolyn Bronstein.
  3. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Jonestown Massacre,” by Carolyn Bronstein.
  4. Dictionary of American History, 2003, s.v. “Jonestown Massacre,” by Carolyn Bronstein.
  5. Encyclopdeia of Religion, 2005, s.v. “Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” by David Chidester.
  6.  Encyclopdeia of Religion, 2005, s.v. “Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” by David Chidester.
  7. Encyclopdeia of Religion, 2005, s.v. “Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” by David Chidester.
  8. Encyclopdeia of Religion, 2005, s.v. “Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” by David Chidester.
The Jonestown Massacre of 1978
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The Jonestown Massacre of 1978

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  • This article was well written and told the story very nicely. I feel for the members of the cult that may have been brainwashed and convinced that American society and government is a threat to self-worth. It is sad to realize that they committed to Jones and his movement without much internal conflict. Surely those that escaped have felt sorrow for those trapped in Jones’ mindset. For them to have to be willing to kill themselves in order to get away from the problems of the world is very shocking.

  • This article did extremely well in explaining the whole story of the Jonestown massacre. It is unbelievable that this amount of people followed Jim Jones blindly. Their proof of loyalty seemed rather extreme, their death was extremely uncalled for. No matter the cause or motivation behind the cult, Jim Jones’ intentions proved to be rather extreme. The most heartbreaking of the entire massacre is the death of so many children, for the unfortunate cause of Jim Jones.

  • This article told the story of the Jonestown Massacre, made of the “peoples temple”, a cult created by Jim Johns. This cult preformed a “white nights” which was a mass suicide. This is a horrific story that I can honestly say I have never heard anything like it before. I’m in awe that Jim Johns had this much of a hold on a community that they were willing to kill themselves for him and their cause. This was a very captivating article, over all great job.

  • This was a very good article on not only the Jonestown Massacre itself but also on the cult as a whole. I have heard and read a lot about the Jonestown Massacre however, this article gave me some new insights. I did not know that they practiced the ritual of “White Night” in which they had to prove their loyalty. This makes sense as to why they were not hesitant when they were all lined up and told to drink the Kool aid. Also I did not know that they American people had such a strong animosity towards the people who committed suicide in Guyana. So much so that they did not even want their ashes spread out over American soil.

  • Very sad, yet interesting article. Prior to reading the article, I had never heard of The Jonestown Massacre nor ever knew how many people died in it. Jim Jones took so many lives, of which include hundreds of children. It’s crazy how some of these people were actually willing to lose their lives because of a religion they believe in and put their entire faith in one person.

  • This story is devastating and really hits close to home at this time due to the Las Vegas shooting earlier this week. It is so sad that someone has the audacity to preform this kind of stunt, reading about this massacre makes it so hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that this could happen. It’s crazy to think that someone could do this to other human beings.

  • This was very disturbing, but also informing. I’ve never heard of the Jonestown massacre. ive heard of cults and how dangerous some are. also one of my favorite teacher in high school daughter was apart of a cult and she got possessed and he haven’t seen her in a year. so for me to read about this story and kind of hit me hard because people put their lives into others and were manipulated . and the end result was death. I don’t not like CULTS , they are dangerous!

  • Intriguing, well written article. It is crazy to think that a lot of people died because they believed in this one person and his promise to create this amazing society. These people really believed that they could become a utopia that they put up with the abuse and mistreatment. The loyalty tests are a little scary to me because you never know if there could be real poison in the drink. These people thought they were just tests and by the time they realized that this time it wasn’t, it was too late to go back. Tragic, but interesting story.

  • A well written and put together article. It just seems so crazy how people would be able to follow a man like that in the place. At the beginning, it probably seemed like a loving family but when charges and investigations where placed on Jim Jones red flags should have gone up. To need people to have to drink poison for proof of loyalty is crazy. Then to betray that loyalty with death is something unforgivable.

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