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.
Tags from the story
, ,
Written By
More from Lianna Ybarra

Susan B. Anthony: The Right to Vote

“In Rochester, N.Y., women covered the gravestone of Susan B. Anthony with...
Read More

138 Comments

  • It’s interesting how so many people can be so easily persuaded to follow a man and his views. It leaves me to wonder the other driving forces other than the fight against racism that the article claimed attracted most members. This is not a mass suicide this is mass murder, and although some people may have taken the drink on their own free will there is no doubt in my mind that they were not brainwashed with the lies Jim Jones used to persuade them.

  • This article was extremely well written and did a fantastic job of describing the events that unfolded in Jonestown. It is crazy to see what exactly certain people are actually capable of in terms of manipulating such a large group of people in believing whatever you want them to. I can not believe that he was able to convince so many people to take their own lives.

  • This is a horrible story. I am surprised I didn’t know anything about it. I think it is disturbing how people in cults do crazy things just to claim their faith. I am glad Jim Jones didn’t get away with it. The article is very well written and researched. I actually felt disturbed while reading it. The author did a great job narrating the story.

  • The incident is one that might give you nightmares if you read more into it. What may definitely give you nightmares is if you go on YouTube and listen to the recording of the event, it conveys how powerful one person can be and the paranoia that comes with all that power and wrongdoing. The innocent lives of children were lost all because of the parents that needed a purpose and to follow in their lives, evil individuals know that there are others there that are weaker and can be manipulated. You should never be the wolf that preys on the sheep, you should be the one protecting the sheep from the wolf or wolves.

  • This is utterly shocking. When someone is able to convince 900 people to commit suicide for their own selfish reasons. Jim Jones manipulated innocent people their social issues like racism to turn them over to his side and convince them to do horrible acts. People gave their hope and their lives for this man who could of cared less for it. He absolutely obliterated people. He caused several women, men, and children to die so that he would not be caught and have his cult taken away from them.

  • This is the most horrifying incident that I am shocked. So many innocent people died because a leader could not take responsibility. All the kids that had died young is heartbreaking. They did not know what was going on. My heart hurts, Jones is a horrible man for this. To purposefully kill people and tell them that it is for freedom is stupid. This article gave great information and facts on the mass suicide. I wouldn’t really call this a mass suicide though. The people who died willingly yes, but to the others who did not know is actually homicide.

  • Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect” is the reason I know about the Jonestown Massacre. The horrendous suicide massacre remains as an example of psychological disorder. I can’t believe people would give their everything to follow a man, who they believed had the truth and guidance in life. This article is interesting, because it is descriptive and gives good information about the tragic event that ended the lives of innocent people.

  • The Jonestown massacre is a horrifying story to read. It will never cease to amaze me that such a vast amount of people is able to blindly follow a leader like Jim Jones. To move your family from the U.S. to Guayana sounds insane to me, but I cannot even begin to imagine how he convinced all those people to commit suicide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.