I’m sure my readers are already educated in all things Jonestown, but I really do feel it’s important that we talk about it. This story should be told, in detail, if for no other reason than to recognize the red flags in case any of us or our loved ones are ever in a similar situation. Most cults surely don’t identify as such, and they usual start out very innocently; it’s probably fair to say that nobody knowingly joins a death cult.
“Drinking the kool aid” refers to Jim Jones and the Temple’s People. Jim forced his 909 followers (including 287 young children) to drink a mix of cyanide, valium, phenergan, and grape flavor aid on November 18 of 1978. It’s easy to wonder how these people could’ve put themselves in a situation like this, but it didn’t start of bad; The People’s Temple truly would’ve seemed like a beautiful idea. It was a church which had originated in Indiana, then moved to California, and finally South America. Jimmy Jones was the pastor; the people called him “Father” or “Dad”, and he was often regarded as a prophet. The People’s Temple accepted everyone – every color, sexuality, all ages, every background. People were thirsty for something all inclusive, especially back then; this happened at the tail end of the great civil rights movement when churches especially were still segregated. Jim peached love and peace, and no one doing without. The man had been involved in the equality movement, he was a socialist with political aspirations. In 1976 Jim was even elected chairman of the San Francisco housing authority.
In his personal life, Jim and his wife fostered/adopted black and Korean children, creating what he referred to as his “rainbow family”. The man really seemed to practice what he preached; people just loved his ideas, they loved him. Jim took donations, of course; the elderly who followed him often signed over their entire social security/pension checks, others handed him everything they owned, often their homes. With all of the money he’d made from his followers, a chunk of land in South America’s Guyana was purchased; it was beautiful, enchanting land surrounded by rain forest. After receiving a good deal of negative media attention, Jim concentrated on sending his people there and building Jonestown, a place which his followers believed would be a peaceful religious utopian commune where they’d sit and sing Kumbaya all day.
That’s not how it really was, though, and Jimmy Jones wasn’t what he’d lead everyone to believe. He was a drug addicted megalomaniac who wanted to create a cult following and have complete control of all of those around him. As a very young man he’d spent many hours researching his idols, Stalin and Hitler, to learn which personality traits he should adopt as his very own.
Once in Guyana, Jim Jones cult grew steadily – he was smart. He had happy brochures printed up and shipped back to the US in which it appeared that the members of The People’s Temple were living the perfect life; there were photos of black and white children both learning together in an outdoor school, a young man washing a van with a big ole smile on his face, people of all races standing arm in arm, young men playing basketball, everyone eating together, and of course worshipping together. Yes it was a beautiful dream, but in reality, the longer the people were there, the worse their lives became.
There was a large pavilion with a stage where Jim would sit upon his throne and preach. He would often get high and just sit there all night long, and if Jim was talking everyone had to be at the pavilion listening. When they weren’t at the pavilion, Jim played recordings of himself talking and that recording played all day and night on loud speakers all throughout Jonestown. It didn’t matter what they were doing, the voice of Jim could be heard; the people were not permitted to speak while Father Jim was talking, this kept everyone from verbalizing their regrets. These people worked 12+ hours every single day, in the fields or whatever their assigned task may have been, and they listened to recordings while doing so. Jim played on their fear, and he ruled through public humiliation. Members were encouraged to report peers who seemed dissatisfied, or anyone who had disobeyed Jim’s multitude of rules. Then, during their meetings under the pavilion, those people would be called upon, confronted, and shamed. Others were spanked, beaten; Jim would require the offender’s own family members to come to the floor and beat them. Family members did as they were instructed, or they themselves would be punished for disobeying. There was also an unwritten rule that Jim could sleep with anyone he wanted in Jonestown – both men and women; there was one man who was sexually assaulted in front of the entire congregation by Jim. Father took multiple mistresses, some of these women had been married. It didn’t matter, whatever this man wanted, he simply took.
The worst part must’ve been the mind game called “White knight”. This was a series of worst case scenarios which Jim would tell his followers was really happening. In one case Jim got on the loud speaker in the middle of the night and said there was an emergency. Once everyone had gathered together under the pavilion, Jim told all of the members that something terrible had happened; that at home in the states black people were being rounded up and placed into concentration camps. He said that they all needed to kill themselves before the US government could get to Jonestown and do the same to them. With shotgun blasts in the wilderness, Jim’s cronies passed out little cups of poison laced kool aid, and the people were told that once they’d ingested it they’d have an hour to live. Once they had followed orders, after every single man, woman, and child had drank this juice, Jim told them it had all been just a drill and to go back to bed.
These people must’ve realised that they were in grave danger, but what could they do? Jim often told people they were permitted to leave anytime they liked, but everyone knew that this was a lie. Their pastor, the man they had followed as a prophet into the jungle was now paranoid and strung out on speed. But even if they could somehow find a way back home, where would these people go? Most had already signed away everything they owned to Jim; they were definitely invested, just as Jim had intended them to be.
The end came for these poor people after several loved ones still in California expressed their concern for those in Guyana. Jim had refused to allow anyone to write back home, and you can imagine how worried mothers had been for their children. Congressman Leo Ryan decided to check into it, to pay Jonestown a couple visits. At first it had seemed that everything was ideal, everyone appeared to be so happy and smiling. Then on the second trip, people began to discreetly pass the congressman notes which stated that they wanted to leave, to go back home, but were not permitted; the congressman knew that things were not as they had seemed.
When confronted, Jim Jones told the deserters to leave if they wished, and several opted to board the plane home with the congressman. But in reality the cult leader had zero intentions of giving up his control over anyone – he commanded his men shoot up the plane, the congressman and several others were killed. To this day Leo Martin is the only congressman to ever die in the line of duty.
Back under the pavilion, Jim told the people that there had been an incident, that the congressman and those who had chosen to accompany him had all been killed. Jim claimed that the US military would now come to kill them, that paratroopers would be dropping in to mercilessly slaughter their elderly and children at any minute. His people brought out the grape flavor aid laced with cyanide – for real this time. There was a conversation, people were terrified, and Jim persuaded them to drink – not that these people had any choice in the matter, they did not. Those who refused to partake were lead to drink by force, or threatened with a gun. Sobbing mothers were forced to poison their babies, it’s so awful. Afterwords it’s said a person went around with a stethoscope to ensure no one was playing dead. 87 People’s Temple members managed to survive that day, most had been sent out to run an errand, others had run out into the jungle. One 76 year old woman named Odella Rhoades actually slept through the entire thing.
Jimmy wasn’t willing to “drink the kool aid” with his rainbow family though. He was found near his desk shot in the head, he had a possibly lethal dose of barbiturates in his system. We’re still not real certain whether it was suicide or murder, could’ve been either. Those who knew him best have said that though the reverend spoke of suicide often, they do not believe he was capable of harming himself. It’s thought by most that he likely ordered someone to kill him.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that what happened in November 1978 was finally acknowledged as mass murder, not 909 suicides.
*I do have a couple of links for you.
~First, the audio of what exactly went down when the people were forced to drink. It is very, very disturbing, but if you are so inclined it can all be heard here:
~Second, this is the written transcripts of exactly what happened when Jim Jones ordered everyone around him to drink poison: