Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People's Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a "revolutionary suicide." They included over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, by Temple members at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. It 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 September 11, 2001.
Jones had established the Peoples Temple, a Christian sect, in Indianapolis in the 1950s, preaching against racism, and attracting many African Americans. After moving to San Francisco in 1971, his church was increasingly accused of financial fraud, physical abuse of its members and mistreatment of children. The paranoid Jones then moved his Temple to Guyana, to build a socialist utopia at Jonestown. A group of former Temple members and concerned relatives of current members convinced Congressman Ryan to investigate the settlement in person.
On November 17, 1978, Ryan arrived in Jonestown with a group of journalists and other observers. At first the visit went well, but the next day, as Ryan's delegation was about to leave, several Jonestown residents approached the group and asked them for passage out of Guyana. Jones became distressed at the defection of his followers, and one of Jones' lieutenants attacked Ryan with a knife.
The Congressman escaped from the incident unharmed, but Jones then ordered Ryan and his companions ambushed and killed at the airstrip as they attempted to leave. The Congressman and four others were murdered as they boarded their charter planes. Back in Jonestown, Jones commanded everyone to gather in the main pavilion. The youngest members of the Peoples Temple were the first to die, as parents and nurses used syringes to drop a potent mix of cyanide, sedatives and powdered fruit juice, similar to Kool-Aid, into children's throats. Adults then drank the concoction while armed guards surrounded the pavilion.
Richard Dwyer was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Guyana when the tragedy took place. In his oral history, he recounts the prelude to the massacre, how he pretended to be dead when shot at the airstrip, and how he dealt with the subsequent harrowing events.
Read the entire Moment here.
"I decided that I would play dead"
DWYER: We arrived at the pavilion to find Congressman Ryan standing shaken, with blood all over his shirt, and another young man being held by members of the People's Temple.
What had happened apparently was that this young man had approached Ryan from behind with a knife, grabbed him from the back and put the knife to his throat and said that he was going to kill him. A couple of the People's Temple members and one of the lawyers grabbed the guy and wrestled him to the ground. In the process the young man's hand was cut and be bled all over Ryan's shirt.
Congressman Ryan was shaken obviously but still very much in command of himself. He and I walked aside and he asked, "What do we do now?"
I said, "Congressman, I am not sure what I'm doing, but I want you out of here right now as fast as we can."
He said, "Will you stay and see about the people who want to come back?"
And I said, "Yes, I would." Looking back at it I shudder to think about it. But in any event, my main concern was getting him out of there....
The airplane was facing south and the engines were running. Ryan started to walk towards the aircraft when a farm tractor pulled on to the field towing a farm cart with wooden sides going up two or three feet.... The tractor pulled on to the field and came down along the side of the tarmac. I turned around to look and as we watched, nine or ten people stood up from the truck and they had various guns....
The Congressman was obviously a target. He and I ran around the front nose of the aircraft.
About at that stage the NBC television tape ends with the murder of the cameraman. It was all filmed from the time the firing began. He was obviously a target. I got to the other side of the airplane and decided that there was just no way that I could possibly make it across another 75 yards of open territory and decided that I would play dead.
As I was about to artistically fall to the ground, and indeed I must have almost been on the ground, somebody shot me...with a .22 long. As I later learned I wasn't badly hurt. It had entered my left thigh and lodged up near the spine. It is still there; it is more dangerous to take it out than leave it alone.
Anyway, I was on the ground there. Staccato firing continued for what seemed like a long time but probably couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes. I had thought that the reason I didn't want to run across the tarmac or try to go any further was because I thought we were in a cross-fire between the big truck that was parked on the other side of the tarmac from the tractor. I had thought that we were being fired on from that truck. Later only one other person thought we had been fired on from that truck, so I don't know whether we were or not. Anyway, I was convinced we were and that I would never make it past that truck.
I lay on the ground and the firing stopped. I was trying to pretend that I was dead. I couldn't decide whether I would be more convincing playing dead with my eyes open or closed. Finally, I decided that I at least would like to see those bastards. I heard feet on the loose stones of the dirt on the tarmac and a shotgun went off. More steps and the shotgun went off again. Ryan had obviously been hit more than once....
The shotgun continued for five shots, including right next to me-Ryan. I was waiting for the next shot which never came. To this day I do not know why. I suspect that it was a five-shot shotgun and the last one was used on Ryan.
The steps went away and I lay on the ground until finally I heard the vehicles drive away. There was no conversation, no shouts that I recall.... After a few moments I looked around carefully and there wasn't anybody there.
The Washington Post reporter, who was lying not far from me and I knew had done the same thing as I had, played doggo, Charles Kraus, got up. I walked around to the Congressman. He had been shot, obviously, more than once. Probably with a rifle, but the better part of his face had been blown away with the shotgun. The cameraman was dead. The photographer from the Hearst newspapers was dead.
Everyone had fled the airplane into the bush and when I went into the airplane, Mrs. Parks, Dale Parks' mother, was sitting in a seat near the door with most of her head blown away by a shotgun blast at short range. Her face was still there but there was nothing behind it. It was incredible.
We had wounded all over the place. Jackie Spears had been badly hurt. A couple of the NBC cameramen had been badly hurt. My immediate concern was that these people could come back and finish the job. Why they didn't finish the job I don't know. I guess the fact was that they were not very good at anything. We carried the wounded over to the tall grass and hid them as much as we could. It wasn't too good as you could see the tracks going into the grass....
[The news crew] was in absolute shock. Everyone there had cameras, but not one of them pulled them out. The cameraman was killed, his audio guy had half of his arm shot away. The anchorman for the NBC production that had interviewed Jones, etc., had obviously been a target. He had been killed.
Bob Flick the producer of the show was just absolutely stunned. He had worked with this crew through Vietnam and various war zones among other places, and was just absolutely crushed that here in this rinky-dink country's backwoods he had lost a major part of his crew.
The "White Night" Rehearsal for Death
We were [later] told by...the defectors from the People's Temple that they were sure that the White Night would be for real back at Jonestown.
The White Night, I learned, had been a rehearsal for death that Jones would have people go through a number of times in the middle of the night. He would get everybody out of bed by the loudspeakers and they would come in and he would harangue them and pass them Kool-Aid or some such drink and tell them that it was poison. They would drink it....
We waited, waited, and waited. The shooting had occurred about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and...we had nothing but the first aid kit on the airplane to try and bandage these people with. We found a nurse from a dispensary. She brought down all the morphine tablets she had; there weren't many. We were giving some people rum, but I was concerned. Obviously they were going to need a lot of medical attention and I was afraid to give them too much morphine or too much rum, even though they were in severe pain. Amazing though how little complaint there was, it was just incredible....
All this time we did not know what had gone on at Jonestown, except for one or two people who had gotten away and came back with stories saying that they were all dead -- killing themselves. But this came with a story that one of the people in our group told me, that they had made a tank at Jonestown which was hidden in the woods -- all kinds of rumors....
By this time it was almost dusk again. We flew into a small airport.... The Ambassador came over and debriefed me. I learned of the murders of Sharon Amos and her children at the People's Temple headquarters in Georgetown. Apparently there had been instructions that everybody down there would kill themselves....
Nine hundred bodies on the ground, beginning to decompose
The most difficult decision that the Ambassador had to make at that time was what to do with the bodies up at Jonestown. The Guyanese government had come to him with the request that the bodies be taken back to the United States. John Burke quite correctly went back to Washington asking for instructions on how to do it....
On Sunday evening, just as I was leaving, the military went in to Jonestown and discovered, of course, that the worst had come to pass and there were 900 odd bodies lying on the ground in the tropical heat already beginning to decompose.
The options were fairly limited. One of the major things to do was try to identify the bodies. And I believe they had brought back to Jonestown a couple of the People's Temple members who went around and tried to identify the bodies, as many as they knew. They tagged them all. The Air Force came in with crews to take the bodies back.
The big question always came back to the fact: did these people in Jonestown kill themselves and commit suicide or were they forced to do so? Obviously under any criteria of any common law, children can't commit suicide voluntarily, so there is no question that the children were murdered. And they were murdered by their parents and their relatives.
But on balance I am still convinced that the great majority of these people did in fact kill themselves. There were only one or two there, including Jim Jones, with bullet wounds. Some had injections of cyanide, but there was no way of telling whether these injections had been forced or not.
Also, they had swallowed cyanide as well in many cases. So you didn't know whether these had been injections to hurry on what they had already started or what have you.
And I was struck a year or two later by an article in The New York Times Magazine that reported on a woman who very much regretted that she had not been there. She had been in the United States for some reason, but she still regretted that she had not been there to take her own life with her colleagues.
So I think my personal thing, my biggest mental anguish came from the children. These were children I had watched playing and had played with just hours before they were to be killed by their parents.
Follow ADST on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ADSTNews
I am working on an essay about the Jonestown massacre, and whether it should be considered a mass suicide or a mass murder. I have looked over the paper many times, however, because I wrote it, I unfortunately have a hard time picking out areas that need to be worked on, which I am sure there are plenty of! Two files for Open Office as well as Microsoft office users are attached
Thank you very much for your time and feedback!
(Unfortunately I seem to be having problems uploading the files for it may be to big, I shall post the essay below)
The Jonestown Massacre:
Suicide or Mass Murder?
Heidelberg Center for American Studies
Seminar Course: Introduction to the History of Christianity
Lecturer: Daniel Silliman
On November 18th, 1978 in the area of the small town of Port Kaituma in Guyana a horrid scene was taking place that would shock the world, and forever change the view of religion. Meant to be a paradise for the poor, the abused, the needy, and those wanting to change the world, Jonestown, founded by Jim Jones, leader of The Peoples Temple, was the location of a mass murder-suicide taking the lives of more than 900 people including countless children. "And, the way the children are, laying dead now, I'd rather see them lay like that than to see them have to die like the Jews did, which was pitiful anyhow. And I'd just like to thank Dad for giving us life and also death, and I appreciate the fact the way our children are going because, like Dad said, when they came in, what they're going to do to our children, they're going to massacre our children. And also the ones they take, captive, they're gonna just let them grow up and be dummies like they want them to be and not grow up to be Socialist like the one and only Jim Jones. So I'd like to thank Dad for the opportunity for letting Jonestown be, not what it could be, but what Jonestown is. Thank you, Dad."1
Did mothers willingly inject their children with cyanide, and did whole families willingly drink the poisoned Kool-Aid? Were the members of The People's Temple able to make their own decision to die? Is the case of Jonestown a mass suicide or a mass murder? Not only through fear and manipulation, much like that of Nazi-era Germany, Jim Jones was able to manipulate his followers into an unquestioning commitment so deep, that they were forced to commit suicide without any option to live, and therefore the case of Jonestown was a mass murder and not a voluntary mass suicide.
The members of The People's Temple were brainwashed, abused, and scared for their lives. Jim Jones kept his members constantly working and exhausted. His followers would work in the fields of Jamestown from eight in the morning till six at night, and afterward would hold meetings sometimes lasting till the early hours of the next morning.
"We would always try to let each other know the next day, "Well, how long did you sleep?" "Oh, I slept two hours." "You only slept two? Well, I slept an hour-and-a-half."2
Suffering form sleep deprivation, malnutrition, the members of Jim Jones' church could not rationally make their own choices or think freely. Living in such conditions had forced them to look for leadership, which they found in Jim Jones, and to give up their own wills on the hope that their leader would come through with his promises that Jonestown would be paradise on Earth. Jones also installed armed guard towers fitted loudspeakers within the encampment that constantly played live and prerecorded sermons. " Jones used this idea to gain the loyalty of his followers. He required followers to spy on one another and blasted messages from loudspeakers so that his voice was always present while they worked, slept and ate."3 Jones considered sleep a luxury and not a right. Falling asleep during prayer meetings, or work hours was met with punishment. Jones praised those who worked hard and showed them better treatment than those who could not keep up. This created jealousy among the members, and drew the congregation nearer to Jones creating a competition for his praise.
Jim Jones isolated his congregation from their families, friends, and American society. Soon after his start in Lynn, Indiana. A paranoid Jim Jones, who was afraid of a nuclear attack, moved his congregation to Redwood Valley, California. A rural area, proven to be safe from an atomic attack, where his congregation could live secluded from everyday society. This was instrumental in cutting off his followers from their friends and families, and shrinking their world to only include the church and its followers. Without any outside influence it was easy for Jim Jones, and his newly established inner-circle of leaders to manipulate his congregation with false information, leading to the belief among the congregation that the United States government would attack and massacre the members of the People's Temple for their beliefs in socialism. "Peoples Temple's basic doctrine was fairly simple: it was "not really a church, but a socialist organization"4
From the outside the People's Temple looked like a church, however on the inside it was clear that Jones and his inner-circle had a political agenda. " Jim Jones represented the Peoples Temple as a progressive movement that was threatened. That there were outside forces who didn't want us to do what we were doing. And it was the government. The government was infiltrating and wiretapping and trying to kill people or assassinate people. That's what was happening."5
Jones decided that a future for his church would not be possible in America, and had procured land in Guyana where the church could create their first settlement, cut off from all of American society, where all of his congregation was solely in his control, later known as Jonestown.
The members of The People's Temple lived not only in constant fear of their leader Jim Jones, but also in fear of other members in the community. Punishment of the pettiest sins, included severe beatings, public humiliation in front of the congregation, verbal harassment from congregation members, and sometimes even sexual assault from Jones himself. The confession of sins were forcefully extracted in which one member of the church was called forward to the front of the congregation to admit his sins, even if they had not committed any. The congregation would verbally harass that member, and pressure would build until he or she admitted to some type of wrong doing. This then resulted in immediate and severe beatings at the front of the church in which people were have known to be knocked out from, revived with a bucket of water, and beaten again, which Jones had referred to as therapy.
"The worst beating I witnessed was when somebody was accused of being a pedophile. Jim took hold of a rubber hose and proceeded, in front of others, to beat this man's private parts to the point where he was bleeding. I know pedophilia is horrible, too, but that was just cruel and totally abusive. There were a number of beatings like that -- -they were really bad."6
Such punishments were everyday occurrences within The Peoples Temple and helped to create a scary, untrustworthy atmosphere among the followers of Jim Jones. One member of the temple remembers " I had welts really bad, one of my employees noticed the welts when I sat down. they talked to me about leaving. [but] I couldn't say goodbye to my son or my husband because at that point, it was like the Gestapo - the families were turning in each other. If I had said goodbye, one of them would have reported me."7
Jones was paranoid of betrayal and encouraged members of his congregation to give away the sins other members had committed starting a witch hunt within the church in which families would turn in other family members, and children would turn in their parents. Whether founded on plausible proof or lies all accusations led to severe punishment such as with the man above. Instilling fear into the members of The People's Temple was one way Jones kept control over his members, however, he also wanted their undying trust and loyalty, so he often staged suicide rehearsals called White Nights where Kool-Aid or Flavor-Aid would be handed out to the congregation. They were then told that the drink was laced with cyanide and that they must drink it and be prepared to die for him.
"Then a couple of women brought out these trays of cups of what they said was cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, or Flavor-Aid -- whichever they had. Everybody drank it. If we didn't drink it, we were forced to drink it. If we ran, thought we'd be shot. At the end of it, we were wondering, Why aren't we dead?"8
These so-called White Nights were to ensure that all members of the congregation were ready to follow Jones' orders, even if it resulted in death. Jones did not just threaten death to his congregation, but gave them the choice between being poisoned or being shot. This shows how fear and lack of choice played a role in the choices of the members of The People's Temple on November 18th, 1978, for had they not have drank the cyanide laced Kool-Aide, they had known that they would have been killed in another manner with almost no possibility of escape.
Jim Jones' followers were made up of the weak and vulnerable. Jones' church welcomed people from all walks of life, emphasizing the importance on integration and equality. He preached that a christian form of socialism was what the world and America needed, and that equality of people was a most important value. This was very appealing to African-Americans, who were looked down upon as lower class citizens, and the poor seeking help. The weak and needy from across America came to join Jones' church for the values of equality that he praised, miracle healings he had, the pentecostal style worship he offered which filled the church with energy, and most of all to make the world a better place. Targeting the vulnerable made it much easier for Jim Jones to keep hold of his followers. A charismatic speaker, they found peace and a sense of use in him. Also riding on the hype of the counter culture movement of the sixties, many easily influenced young people opted to join Jones' church. In Redwood Valley, the members of The People's Temple worked tirelessly doing charity work, farming, and advertising for new members. They were hired out to participate in rallies and protests supporting key political leaders. Through this Jim Jones was able to secure political power within the state of California, and even met with the president's wife Mrs. Carter on several occasions. With so much political power, Jones was able to keep the media quiet about the scandals occurring within the church, and when a condmening article was published, many of his political friends spoke on Jim Jones' behalf leaving his church's members no option to expose the wrong doings of Jim Jones and his inner circle. Jim Jones and his inner-circle were not only able to cut their congregation off from society, but were also able to thwart all attempts of an exposure of the churches abuse paving the way for their final act of mass murder.
Jim Jones and his inner-circle had planned the murder of his congregation years before the events of Jonestown. Jim Jones often spoke of revolutionary suicide with his inner-circle, so much so that they had made several whole congregation revolutionary suicide plans.
Of these plans, one included hi-jacking a commercial jet with some of the churches members on board, and crashing it somewhere in San-Francisco, another plan was to fill a bus with the entire congregation, and driving the buses off the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Jones planned to kill his congregation for years before Guyana, the rank and file didn't know about it. Only the inner circle." 9
It was only after looking into out of country living options for his church, did Jones realize the potential to easily manipulate his whole congregation to commit a revolutionary mass suicide without the risk of being interrupted by outside forces. Jim Jones and his inner-circle had not only already created plans for the mass murder-suicide of his entire congregation years before the events in Jonestown, but they also waited until the circumstances best fit their needs to carry them out without interruption, which in any legal court case would be considered premeditated murder.
The horrific mass murder that took place in Jonestown on November 18th , 1978 was caused by a paranoid Jim Jones, and his inner-circle through manipulation of his congregation, threats of death and ostracization by friends and family members, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Had Jim Jones and his high ranking leaders not had the power, this mass murder would not have taken place, and therefore, because of the lack of the choice to live, by the individuals involved, the events of Jonestown can only be considered a mass murder and not a suicide.