|James Warren "Jim" Jones (May 13th, 1931 –
November 18th, 1978) was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple,
which is best known for the November 18th, 1978 death of more than 900
Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana along with the deaths of nine other
people at a nearby airstrip and in Georgetown, Guyana.
Jones was born in Indiana and started the Temple in that state in the
Jones and the Temple later moved to California, and both gained
notoriety with the move of the Temple's headquarters to San Francisco in
The greatest single loss of American civilian
life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11th, 2001,
the tragedy at Guyana also ranks among the largest mass suicides in
One of those who died at the nearby airstrip was Leo Ryan, who
became the only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in the history
of the United States.
Jones had first started building Jonestown in 1974 as a means to
create both a "socialist paradise" and a "sanctuary" from the media
scrutiny which had started in 1972.
Regarding the former goal, Jones
purported to establish Jonestown as a benevolent model communist
community stating, "I believe we’re the purest communists there are."
In that regard, like the restrictive emigration policies
of the then Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea and other communist
republics, Jones did not permit members to leave Jonestown.
scholar Mary McCormick Maaga argues that Jones' authority waned after he
moved to the isolated commune, because he was not needed for
recruitment and he could not hide his drug addiction from rank and file
In spite of the allegations prior to Jones' departure to Jonestown, the
leader was still respected by some for setting up a racially mixed
church which helped the disadvantaged; 68 percent of Jonestown's
residents were black.
On November 18th, 1978, 909 inhabitants of Jonestown, 303 of them children, died of apparent cyanide poisoning, mostly in and around a pavilion.
This resulted in the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the September 11th, 2001 attacks.
No video was taken during the mass suicide, though the FBI did recover a 45 minute audio recording of the suicide in progress.
On that tape, Jones tells Temple members that the Soviet Union, with whom the Temple had been negotiating a potential exodus for months, would not take them after the Temple had murdered Ryan and four others at a nearby airstrip.
The reason given by Jones to commit suicide was consistent with his previously stated conspiracy theories of intelligence organizations allegedly conspiring against the Temple, that men would "parachute in here on us," "shoot some of our innocent babies" and "they'll torture our children, they'll torture some of our people here, they'll torture our seniors."
Parroting Jones' prior statements that hostile forces would convert captured children to fascism, one temple member states "the ones that they take captured, they're gonna just let them grow up and be dummies."
Given that reasoning, Jones and several members argued that the group should commit "revolutionary suicide" by drinking cyanide-laced grape flavored Flavor Aid (often misidentified as Kool-Aid) along with a sedative.
One member, Christine Miller, dissents toward the beginning of the tape. When members apparently cried, Jones counseled "Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity."
Jones can be heard saying, "Don't be afraid to die," that death is "just stepping over into another plane" and that "[death is] a friend."
At the end of the tape, Jones concludes: "We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
According to escaping Temple members, children were given the drink first and families were told to lie down together. Mass suicide had been previously discussed in simulated events called "White Nights" on a regular basis.
During at least one such prior White Night, members drank liquid that Jones falsely told them was poison. Jones was found dead in a deck chair with a gunshot wound to his head that Guyanese coroner Cyrill Mootoo stated was consistent with a self-inflicted gun wound.
However, Jones' son Stephan believes his father may have directed someone else to shoot him. An autopsy of Jones' body also showed levels of the barbiturate Pentobarbital which may have been lethal to humans who had not developed physiological tolerance.
Jones' drug usage (including LSD and marijuana) was confirmed by his son, Stephan, and Jones' doctor in San Francisco.
"Jim" Jones was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple,
which is best known for the November 18th, 1978 deaths of 909 Temple members, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in an event termed "revolutionary suicide".
The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. The victims included Congressman Leo Ryan, the first member of Congress assassinated in the line of duty in the history of the United States.
Four other Temple members died in Georgetown at Jones's command. To the extent the actions in Jonestown were viewed as a mass suicide, it is the largest such event in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11th, 2001.
The Final Report - Jonestown (Documentary)
Jonestown Massacre Documentary
Cults - Dangerous Devotion (Decoding the Past)
Jonestown was the informal name for the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project", an intentional community in northwestern Guyana, South America formed by the Peoples Temple, a cult from California led by Jim Jones.
It became internationally notorious in November of 1978, when 909 people were massacred, forced to drink poison at gunpoint, in the settlement as well as a news-team shot at a nearby airstrip and in Georgetown, Guyana's capital.