On November 18, 1976, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan from California (along with four others) was killed near Jonestown, Guyana by members of the People’s Temple, a church run by a madman named Jim Jones. The murders were followed by a night of mass murder and suicide – one of the most chilling nights in history.
New members gave all income and property to the church and to Jones, who had them believing that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated. In truth, he was nothing more than a charismatic criminal, who demanded that his people call him “Father” or “Dad” and worship him as a living deity. Whatever Jones decided was the rule of the day. Those members of the cult with no self-esteem, and who had a desperate need to belong, found life at Jonestown more than just bearable. For the others, there was no escape. Many believed in Jones’ claims to be able to do anything from placing fatal curses on his enemies to bringing the dead back to life. He was an expert at manipulation and there were enough members under his spell to keep any malcontents from fleeing.
But how did a bizarre cult from America end up in the jungles of South America? And how did the commune become known as one of the great mass suicides in history?
Jim Jones was born on May 13, 1931 in the small town of Crete, Indiana, near the Indiana-Ohio border. His parents, Jim and Lynetta Jones, were instrumental in starting him off on the strange path where he ended up. Lynetta believed that she was the reincarnation of Mark Twain and told family and friends that her departed mother had come to her in a dream and proclaimed that she would give birth to the world’s savior. She often re-told this story to her young son and obviously, Jim would never forget his rather dubious “destiny.”
Jones’ father worked for the railroad but spent most of his time on disability. His life was plagued by alcoholism and depression, mostly due to his poor health after World War I. He had returned from the service with his lungs nearly destroyed by mustard gas. As his son was growing up, he could usually be found in local taverns, trading war stories for drinks and offering his spare time to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Jones family did not stay in Crete long after the railroad rerouted through Lynn in 1934. They moved into a small house along the tracks on the south side of Lynn. Young Jim became known as the town’s version of St. Francis, always followed by a collection of stray dogs, cats and other animals. At first, he was happy to let them run free but soon he built cages for them in his family’s barn. As the captive animals slowly disappeared one by one, everyone bemoaned Jim’s loss ---- never imagining that the creatures could have met a chilling fate.
As a young man, Jones attended religious services with his family at a local Church of the Nazarene but soon began attending a more spirited congregation on the west side of the city, the Gospel Tabernacle. Here, the churchgoers yelled, raved, screamed, spoke in tongues and passed out on the floor under the influence of the “holy spirit”. The minister soon turned Jones’ talent for foul-mouthed rants into a child preacher with a tendency toward fire and brimstone.
Outside of church, Jones would baptize his friends on a nearby creek and preside over funerals for pets and animals in the neighborhood that died. While most kids were playing hide and seek, Jones was setting up altars in his barn and preaching to the other kids, attracting his “congregation” by offering lemonade and punch during the hot summer months. While it didn’t seem odd at the time, he once locked some of his friends in the hayloft when they threatened to leave his “church”.
Jones also had a passion for science and used the barn as a laboratory between church services. He often set up a microscope to show insect specimens to his friends and performed bizarre experiments, like the time he tried to graft a chicken leg onto a duck. He also liked to combine his interests, reviving supposedly ailing rabbits and chickens through religious fervor.
After Jones’ parents separated when he was in high school, he began attending Richmond High. In order to earn some extra cash, he took a job as an orderly at Reid Memorial Hospital and it was here that he met Marceline Baldwin, his future wife. Marceline was a nurse at the hospital and inexplicably attracted to the high school boy.
After they were married, Jones and Marceline began making a big impression on Indianapolis during the 1950s and 1960s. They arrived in the summer of 1951 and the couple brought along their pet chimpanzee, very little money and a burning desire to minister to the poor. Jones started out as a student pastor at the south side’s Somerset Methodist Church but refused to take orders or be an assistant to anyone. Jones wanted his own church --- and he wanted to run it his own way.
He soon began his own ministry, Community Unity, on Randolph Street and moved into a bungalow on nearby Villa Street. To raise funds to fix up the church, he and Marceline sold South American monkeys door-to-door at $29 each, grossing over $50,000. He was also invited to be a guest minister at the nearby Laurel Street Tabernacle, where he became known for miraculous healings that included yanking “cancerous blobs” from supposedly sick parishioners. Marceline helped with the act, providing prayers, music and plenty of “hallelujahs”.
Laurel Street never brought Jones into the church full-time, mostly because he was actively recruiting African-Americans into the Community Unity church, so in 1956, he headed to the north side to starter a new, larger church. He christened it “Wings of Deliverance”, a name he soon changed to “The People’s Temple”. His message attracted many poor and liberal followers. He opened food and clothing banks, created soup kitchens, took poor children to the zoo and delivered free heating coal to shut-ins. He also helped to integrate at least one Indianapolis hospital. Their message was so successful that, a year later, Jim and Marceline moved the congregation to a former synagogue and purchased a duplex on North Broadway.
Even with all of these seeming good works, it soon became apparent to even the most devoted that Jim Jones had a dark side. When he felt that his congregation was not being attentive enough, he would throw his Bible on the ground and spit on it, raging that “too many people are looking at this and not at me!” He also devised an elaborate scheme where People’s Temple members ran local businesses that channeled money back into the church, a plan that would eventually send him west to California.
In 1961, the governor appointed Jones director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. He used the position to draw more attention to himself but unfortunately for him, a lot of that new attention came from tax investigators and creditors. Terrified that his recent financial dealings would be discovered, he announced in 1965 that his congregation was moving to Ukiah, California. The reason, he explained, was to escape from an upcoming holocaust unleashed by nuclear war. He believed that Ukiah was naturally protected from any sort of nuclear fallout.
Jones led a procession of about 100 of the Indiana faithful to the San Francisco area. He took more than $100,000 with him but managed to leave more than $40,000 in debts behind in Indianapolis.
Once in California, Jones began looking for new sources of income for the People’s Temple. Although already accepting donations from his members, as well as their slave labor in businesses that financed the church, he now began requiring that the members of the congregation turn over their life savings, social security and pension checks when they joined the church. In the city and state known as a “capital for kooks” at the time, hundreds of believers joined the cult. Those who had nothing to start with or had already given everything they owned to the People’s Temple were usually allowed to defect without much trouble. But when a member who still had a substantial source of income became disillusioned with the sect, Jones would use a considerable amount of persuasion to retain their membership. When that failed, dire circumstances followed. Some died mysteriously while others simply vanished.
Tax deductible contributions received by the People’s Temple were meant to enhance the lifestyle of its members. But instead, the funds were used to bribe, coerce, bargain and buy positions of power and political influence for Jim Jones. However, when citizens and honest politicians became suspicious of what Jones and the People’s Temple stood for, the business end of the cult became less profitable. Jones began to encounter serious legal problems too and was advised to move away from northern California and elude possible arrest. He and his closed men began relocating the cult members to the country of Guyana, where an agricultural commune had been established to protect the Temple from constant scrutiny.
Few of the cultists were aware of the hardships to come. The first to arrive were not allowed to communicate with the members in California about the miserable conditions they were forced to endure. All mail was censored and only Jones’ closets lieutenants were allowed to travel to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.
In spite of Jones’ security measures, word did get back to California about the brutal conditions and the fact that members who wanted to leave were literally being held captive. When California congressman Leo J. Ryan heard about what was going on, he began an immediate investigation, the result of which convinced him that he needed to personally visit Guyana and Jonestown.
When news of Congressman Ryan’s impending trip to South America was released, a number of news reporters asked and were allowed to accompany him. It was one of these reporters, Sammy Houston of the Associated Press, who was instrumental in getting Ryan to Jonestown. Houston and his wife, Nadyne, told Ryan what had happened to their son, Robert, a one-time member of the People’s Temple. Robert had been forced to work two jobs, with the railroad and as a probation office, in order to keep up his $2,000 monthly contribution to the church. He was later found guilty of breaking church rules and was found dead in 1976, just hours after defecting from the Temple. When the cult moved, his widow was convinced by Jones to relocate with her two children to Guyana. Nadyne Houston would later accompany Ryan to Jonestown in hopes of bringing her two grandchildren back to California.
Arriving in Guyana with his contingent of newsmen and aides, Ryan was not happy with what he found. Many People’s Temple members wanted to defect. Families were divided with some wanting to leave and others to stay. When Ryan, his party and some of the defectors left Jonestown for the Kaituma airfield on November 18, Jones sent a heavily armed hit squad to wipe them out. Ryan and three newsmen were among those killed. Cameraman Bob Brown managed to keep his camera going until the moment that he was shot down. The developed film would show the assassins advancing on their victims in vivid, horrific color.
But not everyone was killed. When word reached Jones that the hit squad had botched the job, and that some of the victims had escaped, the cultists were all gathered together at the meeting hall, where they found Jones seated on his familiar green throne. As his ring of armed guards, which he called “Angels.” surrounded the congregation, a debate began after Jones told his followers about the killing of Congressman Ryan and members of his entourage. The subject of mass suicide was discussed --- something that had been rehearsed many times since the cult’s arrival in the Guyana jungles.
“Now, we must die with dignity,” Jones told them. “The GDF (Guyanese Defense Force) will question you. Then they will torture you. They will castrate you. They will shoot you. I can’t leave any member of my family behind.”
Those who protested were simply told again that Jones was “unable to leave them behind”. If they chose not to die with dignity, he told them that they would die anyway. Then the guards, armed with rifles, pistols and bows and arrows moved in and pushed the crowd into a tighter group.
He ordered the nurses to prepare a powerful “potion” that was added to a large tub of strawberry flavored Flavor-Aid (a generic version of Kool-Aid) and then instructed the cult that the babies were to be brought up first. Babies were carried to the podium, and while still in their mother’s arms, had their mouths forced open and poison squirted inside. Some of the children were torn from the hands of hesitant mothers and dragged to the front by nurses and guards. As their sobbing parents watched, the babies endured painful spasms and died in minutes.
Then, the previously practiced “white night” suicide ritual started going awry from the earlier rehearsals. What was never part of the plan was when the first victims began gagging, retching and twisting in horrible pain. A number of the cultists, realizing that this was no rehearsal but the real thing, began resisting and refusing to willingly drink the poisoned juice. Guards and other members had to hold them down while the liquid was forced down their throats. Some of the more violent resistors were injected with the poison, as were those who didn’t seem to be dying fast enough from ingesting the drink.
Screams of agony and tortured moans echoed through Jonestown as the dying lay on the ground, writhing with unspeakable pain. Seeing his follower’s experiencing such a torturous death, Jones decided that he, himself, would die quicker and with less pain.
When authorities, who had been alerted by the few survivors who managed to escape the massacre and run off into the jungle, arrived at Jonestown, they were appalled by the already decaying bodies. Many of the dead were contorted in agony. Only Jones seemed to be at peace. He had been felled in his green throne with a bullet to the brain.
The final body count reached 912 but this did not include those who escaped into the jungle but succumbed to the deadly snakes, scorpions, quicksand and whatever other dangers the remote area offered. The count also didn’t include those in Congressman Ryan’s party who were murdered at the airfield. The bodies at Jonestown were found lying in piles as high as 30 deep and were so badly decomposed from the brutal heat that they were falling apart by the time that Guyanese authorities arrived at the compound. Many of the soldiers and policemen, who witnessed death on an almost daily basis, retched and vomited when they saw the carnage.
Even after the corpses were taken away by body removal teams with gas masks from the U.S. Army, the stench of death remained in the air at Jonestown. Jones’ bloodstains around his green throne and podium remained, no matter how much effort was expended to remove them. As perplexing at these bloodstains turned out to be, the authorities were even more baffled by the discovery of the gun that had killed Jim Jones. The weapon was found in a building some distance away from the spot where the cult leader was killed.
Did Jones succumb to cowardice when it came his turn to die? Did he admonish his followers to “die with dignity” and then fail to do so himself? There seems to be no way that Jones could have committed suicide, placed the gun where it was found and then return to his throne, where the body was discovered --- and yet somehow, it happened.
To this day, the terrible events at Jonestown remain shrouded with mystery and also linger as a horrific example of the evil that some men do.