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Jones Town Tragedy






Jim Jones And The Jones Town Poisoning

The Group
People’s Temple Christian Church, Jim Jones, Jonestown, Guyana: Jones, influenced by Unitarian Humanism, Father Divine, and Marxism, founded his church in 1977. He later claimed at various times to be God, Buddha, and Lenin. In 1978 at Jones’ command, 914 people (including Jones) committed suicide or were murdered. The group is now defunct.
What Happened
On Nov. 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple cult, led by Rev. Jim Jones, an American, committed suicide by drinking poisoned punch. The mass suicide immediately followed the murder of Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.), who was visiting Guyana to investigate Jonestown and was ambushed along with several others at the Port Kaituma airstrip.
Source: Associated Press, Aug. 7, 1985
What happened at Jonestown was beyond imagination. Jones, who had founded the Peoples Temple near Ukiah and later moved to San Francisco, had promised to create a utopia, where people of different races, education and skills could work together for the common good.

His social service programs for the poor and elderly won him praise. He was well-connected with some of the region's prominent political figures, even winning appointment to the San Francisco Housing Authority. But in the 1970s, with the Peoples Temple coming under growing scrutiny for abusing its members, Jones and many of his followers moved to an isolated settlement they had carved out of the jungle of Guyana.

In 1978, prompted by the concerns of relatives that Jones was holding people there against their will, [Rep. Leo] Ryan traveled to Jonestown to see for himself and to take out anyone who wished to leave. Ryan was about to board his plane with a handful of defectors when gunmen dispatched by Jones opened fire, killing the congressman, three newsmen and one of the defectors and wounding 11 others.

Back at the compound, Jones announced that the community would soon be under attack and put into effect a plan of mass suicide that his followers had rehearsed many times. The children were the first to die.

Grape-flavored punch laced with cyanide was squirted into the mouths of infants and given to children to drink. As the small bodies piled up, adults drank the punch or were shot by gunmen who enforced the order of mass suicide.

Only 85 people escaped, including a few who managed to flee into the jungle. Others, like three of Jones' sons, survived because they were not at Jonestown that day. Others [...] survived because they were not at Jonestown that day.
Source: Jonestown Lives On as a Reminder of Cults' Dangers, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 19, 1993
Close to one thousand people died at Jonestown. The members of the Peoples Temple settlement in Guyana, under the direction of the Reverend Jim Jones, fed a poison-laced drink to their children, administered the potion to their infants, and drank it themselves. Their bodies were found lying together, arm in arm; over 900 perished.

How could such a tragedy occur? The images of an entire community destroying itself, of parents killing their own children, appears incredible. The media stories about the event and full-color pictures of the scene documented some of its horror but did little to illuminate the causes or to explain the processes that led to the deaths. Even a year afterwards, a CBS Evening News broadcast asserted that it was widely assumed that time would offer some explanation for the ritualistic suicide/murder of over 900 people... One year later, it does not appear that any lessons have been uncovered (CBS News, 1979).

The story of the Peoples Temple is not enshrouded in mystery, however. Jim Jones had founded his church over twenty years before, in Indiana. His preaching stressed the need for racial brotherhood and integration, and his group helped feed the poor and find them jobs. As his congregation grew, Jim Jones gradually increased the discipline and dedication that he required from the members. In 1965, he moved to northern California; about 100 of his faithful relocated with him. The membership began to multiply, new congregations were formed, and the headquarters was established in San Francisco.

Behind his public image as a beloved leader espousing interracial harmony, "Father," as Jones was called, assumed a messiah-like presence in the Peoples Temple. Increasingly, he became the personal object of the members devotion, and he used their numbers and obedience to gain political influence and power. Within the Temple, Jones demanded absolute loyalty, enforced a taxing regimen, and delivered sermons forecasting nuclear holocaust and an apocalyptic destruction of the world, promising his followers that they alone would emerge as survivors. Many of his harangues attacked racism and capitalism, but his most vehement anger focused on the "enemies" of the Peoples Temple - its detractors and especially its defectors. In mid-1977, publication of unfavorable magazine articles, coupled with the impending custody battle over a six-year-old Jones claimed as a "son," prompted emigration of the bulk of Temple membership to a jungle outpost in Guyana.

In November, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan responded to charges that the Peoples Temple was holding people against their will at Jonestown. He organized a trip to the South American settlement; a small party of journalists and "Concerned Relatives" of Peoples Temple members accompanied him on his investigation. They were in Jonestown for one evening and part of the following day. They heard most residents praise the settlement, expressing their joy at being there and indicating their desire to stay. Two families, however, slipped messages to Ryan that they wanted to leave with him. After the visit, as Ryan's party and these defectors tried to board planes to depart, the group was ambushed and fired upon by Temple gunmen - five people, including Ryan, were murdered.

As the shootings were taking place at the jungle airstrip, Jim Jones gathered the community at Jonestown. He informed them that the Congressman's party would be killed and then initiated the final ritual; the "revolutionary suicide" that the membership rehearsed on prior occasions. The poison was brought out. It was taken.

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