Spotlight: The Jonestown Massacre

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Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or “Jonestown

Established by the Peoples Temple, an American cult under the leadership of reverend Jim Jones.

Jim Jones

Originally formed in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1955.

Teachings are biblically rooted and what it called “apostolic socialism”.

After facing criticism in Indiana, the church to Redwood Valley, California, and in 1970, opened branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Jones receives public support from some of the highest level politicians in the United States at the time.

Under pressure from San Francisco media investigations, Jones moves the temple to Guyana. A migration of around 1,000 people move to the newly established ‘Jonestown’.

Entrance to Jonestown

Jones promises the community to be a ‘socialist utopia’ but soon becomes overcrowded and falls under an ever-increasing oppressive dictatorship.

Jonestown residents sign over their welfare benefits to the temple, which accumulates more than $65,000/month.

Disciplinary methods included imprisonment in a plywood box, beatings, or hung upside-down at the bottom of a well, among others.

The commune is patrolled by armed guards.


Children were surrendered to communal care, and usually only allowed to see their biological parents briefly at night.

Jones’ physical and mental health decline. He abuses drugs such as Valium, Quaaludes, stimulants, LSD, and barbiturates.

He has many health ailments and complains of insomnia. He becomes increasingly paranoid that U.S. government agencies were out to destroy him.

The temple practices what Jones calls ‘white nights’ whereby residents are are forced to rehearse their own suicide.

November 14, 1978 California congressman Leo Ryan arrives in Guyana with a delegation of eighteen people to visit Jonestown. The delegation includes Ryan, Jackie Speier, then Ryan’s legal adviser; Neville Annibourne, representing Guyana’s Ministry of Information; Richard Dwyer, Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. embassy to Guyana; San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman; Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; NBC reporter Don Harris; NBC camera operator Bob Brown; NBC audio technician Steve Sung; NBC producer Bob Flick; Washington Post reporter Charles Krause; San Francisco Chronicle reporter Ron Javers; and Concerned Relatives representatives, including Tim and Grace Stoen, Steve and Anthony Katsaris, Beverly Oliver, Jim Cobb, Sherwin Harris, and Carolyn Houston Boyd

The congressman and delegation are not allowed to enter the town until Nov.17.

Initially the visit goes well, but members soon start coming forward, asking to return home.

On Nov 18, after some of the delegation head to an airstrip to get on a plane, the congressman stays behind to help process additional defectors.

Congressman Ryan is grabbed by temple member Don “Ujara” Sly, and threatened with a knife. Ryan escapes unharmed, but soon heads for the airstrip to board his plane.

Upon his arrival at the airstrip, the congressman and delegation are ambushed by temple members armed with shotguns, handguns, and rifles. Several are either dead or wounded immediately.


Back at Jonestown, Jones records a 44-minute death-tape which records in part, a pavilion meeting with temple members. Jones is quoted saying “one of those people on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot, I know that. I didn’t plan it but I know it’s gonna happen. They’re gonna shoot that pilot and down comes the plane into the jungle and we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over, because they’ll parachute in here on us.”

Aides prepared a large tub with grape Flavor Aid, poisoned with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan

On the tape, Jones urges members to commit “revolutionary suicide”.

Although many drink the poison voluntarily, some are forced at gunpoint.

As people begin dying, Jones is recorded saying “Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.” He also says “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries…death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”

Jones was found among the dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

Over 900 people lose their lives.

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