Jonestown’s Mass Suicide – 11/18/1978

US History |

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People's Temple founder Jim Jones on November 18th, 1978 organizes his flock to commit mass murder-suicide in a secluded part of the South American nation of Guyana at their agricultural commune. Many of the followers were forced to ingest poison-laced punch at gunpoint or did so willingly. The recorded loss of life was 909 and one third of them were children.

The 1950s gave rise to the Peoples Temple of Indianapolis which was a Christian sect and led by a charismatic churchman named Jim Jones. He was able to attract African Americans due to his preaching’s against racism. Jones and his integrated congregation traveled to Ukiah in Northern California in 1965 and once again to San Francisco in 1971. During this time, accusations surfaced within the media that the church mistreated children, financial fraud and its members being physically abused. Jones was forced by the increasing criticism and his paranoia to invite his congregation to relocate to Guyana so they could create a socialist utopia. A small group of his followers journeyed to the small nation three years prior to a tract of jungle that would become Jonestown.

Unfortunately, their so-called paradise that was promised turned out to be untrue as members were severely disciplined for questioning their leader’s authority and worked out in the fields for most of the day. Members were persuaded to tell on one another, passports were hidden, late-night meetings had to be attended and letters being sent home were censored. Jones had reached a point where he assumed others as well as the U.S. government were out to get him as a result of his dependency on drugs and a deteriorating mental state. Temple members at night were expected to be a part of mock suicide drills.

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan was persuaded by worried relatives and former members to go to Jonestown and investigate in 1978. The Californian Democrat landed with observers and journalists on November 17th, 1978. Although the trip went well, several residents of Jonestown approached the group the next day to ask if they could leave Guyana with them. Upset over the defection from some of his members, a lieutenant of Jones used a knife to attack the congressman. While Ryan escaped unharmed, Jones ordered that Ryan and his group should be killed before they could leave. The congressman and four other were victims of a surprise attack while attempting to board their planes; all of them were murdered.

Meanwhile, Jones ordered everyone in Jonestown to meet in the main pavilion and perform what he said was a “revolutionary act.” The Peoples Temple’s children were first to perish as nurses and parents took syringes to drop a lethal mix of powdered juice, cyanide and sedatives into their throats. Armed guards protected the pavilion while adults took turns in consuming the lethal concoction.

Hundreds of bodies were found carpeted inside the structure when the next day Guyanese arrived to investigate. Although a majority was discovered with their arms around each other as they perished, some residents escaped into the jungle while the suicides were happening. Also, several dozens of Peoples Temple’s members and several sons on Jones’ survived because they were somewhere else in Guyana during the suicides.

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Meg Wong

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