True Crime Corner: Jonestown


Sometimes things happen which both fascinate and terrify. While I heard about the horror that took place at Jonestown, it wasn’t until I listened to the heart wrenching audio recording of the tragedy did I really look into the events of November 18, 1978. In this edition of True Crime Corner – what befell the congregants of the Peoples Temple, led by the charismatic pastor Jim Jones?

James Warren Jones was born in Indiana on May 13, 1931. Jones’s interest in religion began as a young boy. When his parents split, he moved with his mother, to a different location in the same state. He found employment in a hospital where he met his future bride. Jones and his wife would later start a family.

Jones entered the ministry, starting at the bottom and working his way up the ranks. He opened his own church which became known as Peoples Temple. Although the group began in Indiana, Jones relocated his flock to California, with several followers making the move.

Jones seemed to have little trouble attracting worshippers to his congregation, but he took a bus tour across the country to bring the church to the people and to find new followers. His sermons were boisterous, with people singing and dancing. He welcomed congregants of different races at a time when it was something not encouraged. He managed to convince people to be financially generous to the church, and some left their homes to be cared for by the community Jones created. The people believed in his promises of a better life. He was thought to be a healer. Did he really restore mobility to a woman who sprang from a wheelchair with renewed use of her legs? People believed it.

Although Jones had many faithful followers, there were those who left the church. They began talking to the press, and an article would soon be printed about their experiences. Jones heard the contents of the piece that might bring trouble to his organization before it was published. This may have precipitated the hasty departure to Jonestown, the church’s new compound located in Guyana, a small country in South America. Some people left with little explanation for their loved ones, bound for what they believed was the beginning of a better life thousands of miles away.

This is where their dream of utopia quickly spiraled into a nightmare. They built their own community in the jungle, complete with childcare and healthcare facilities. They grew their own food and lived in cabins, the residents appearing largely self-sufficient. However, the work was grueling for Jones’s followers, and many of them were sleep deprived. By this time, Jones was becoming more erratic and paranoid. It seems he tried to control and scare his people into staying at the compound. He told his followers that things were bad back at home, and that they couldn’t return. However, he believed they would be under attack by those against the church in the small country. He made it clear that no one should want to leave Jonestown, because if anyone did, he considered it an affront. He was their communication to the outside world. Guards patrolled the premises, should anyone consider leaving the community tucked into the jungle. However, several people attempted to leave with the visiting Congressman Leo Ryan, who was sent to Guyana to investigate the compound, at the urging of family members left behind in the United States. Instead they were fired upon, with Ryan and members of the media killed on the airstrip, in close proximity to the plane that would have taken them to safety.

Back at the compound, Jones led his followers to what he considered a revolutionary act. He told them they would be blamed for the deaths of Ryan and the others, and that they would never have peace. To avoid that, he thought they should die. He urged them to swallow a cyanide-laced drink. In the aftermath, over 900 people, including over 200 children who were administered the poison first, lay dead. Jones was found dead of a gunshot wound. It’s almost incomprehensible to see footage of Jonestown, the people seemingly content and happy, knowing that most would soon lose their lives. It’s heartbreaking. Were they a religious group or a cult? I’ve heard Jonestown described as both a mass suicide and a mass murder; either way, it was a tragic loss of life.

It’s thought that this may be where the saying, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” originates. I never knew that until recently. I interpret that phrase to mean to think for yourself. It may also reference the cyanide-laced punch ingested by members of the Peoples Temple. However, it’s not certain what powdered drink mix was used to combine the poison.

On my reading list is Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Another book I’m adding to my list when it arrives is The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn.

If you’re more likely to watch a movie than read a book, I would check out Powers Boothe’s portrayal of Jim Jones in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. Boothe won an Emmy for his work in this 1980 film.

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