How Jim Jones Pushed 918 Members of His Cult, “The Peoples Temple,” to Commit Mass Suicide

Jones used psychological tactics to manipulate his victims to drink the deadly potion in a remote rainforest, Jonestown

Image: “Jonestown massacre” by johndavison883 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

OnOn November 28th, 1978, a group of 918 people belonging to a religious cult group called The Peoples Temple, committed mass suicide by drinking a fruit punch laced with cyanide in Jonestown nestled in Guyana’s tropical rainforest.

The reason? The unquestionable authority their leader Jim Jones (who had lost his mind) had on them, their utter helpless situation with no escape route, or the power of social psychology that pushed them to act without thinking; by just seeing others around them doing it. Sadly Jonestown had less than a handful of survivors.

Most of them took their lives willingly, gulping down fruit punch laced with poison. Those who tried to hold on to their lives had little choice. They were either forced to comply by the armed guards or risk a gunshot death. Nearly a third of them were children (305), including some babies who were fed syringe full of the deadly potion by none other than their parents. It included 200 senior citizens, some immobile, who reluctantly got injected with the death shots.

The origin of “The Peoples Temple”

In the 1950s, Jim Jones was the pastor of Laurel Street Tabernacle of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church in Indianapolis who (being white) fought against racial discrimination. He quit the church for its inability to accept racial integration. He founded the “Peoples Temple Church,” which aimed to create a community of fairness and equality. Marceline Jones (his wife and a nurse) administered care homes for the elderly and started a charity restaurant where anyone could eat for free.

The church majorly drew working African Americans following by thousands and even white people. Between 1965 to 1968, the Peoples Temple had a core committee comprising primarily white people. The church attracted them as it was the face of a community activist group with the goals of a social movement.

The church could quickly raise funds through new members who even sold their homes, valuables, and everything they had and donated to the church’s cause. Jones preached what he called Apostolic Socialism, which means everyone must have an equal share in everything. Even though he gradually altered the preachings to suit his needs, his ardent followers pledged their time, effort, and money to the church.

The move of the Peoples Temple to California and finally to Jonestown, Guyana

Image: Rev. Jim Jones, 1977.jpg” by Nancy Wong is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Jones had turned into a spiritual leader and a faith healer. In 1961, he claimed to have a vision about a nuclear apocalypse in the near future and became obsessed about wanting to escape it. Nuclear warfare became a repeated theme in all his speeches. Mostly older people believed whatever he said and were scared. His own fear led him to move the church and his followers to Redwood Valley in California in 1965, which Esquire magazine as a nuclear safe zone.

The blossoming financial power of the Temple in California allowed it to attract and retain new members. The church could run social welfare programs such as the provision of clothing, shelter, food, and medical care; entertainment, scholarships, and housing for college students; bus services for seniors, and more. People felt they could work for positive social changes. A comment from the personal correspondence written by Temple member Annie Moore supports this point:

“The reason that the Temple is great is not just because Jim Jones can make people cough up cancers but because there is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice for the world.” (Moore 1986)

Soon, the power and money Jones encountered turned him into an arrogant, manipulative extroverted narcissist. His speech steered towards racial communism. He wanted more authority and control over his congregation.

Jim Jones and his wife leased 3,852 acres for 25 years from the Guyana government to set up an agricultural village. In 1974, initial settlers (50 Americans of the church and 300 Guyanians) toiled day and night for more than three years, clearing trees, carving roads, building makeshift homes for upcoming residents. They worked on creating farmlands in the thin forest soil amidst the tropical rain forests of South America. He named it the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project and the members also called it Jonestown, over their leader Jim Jones.

In California, his speeches were fine-combed to portray the dangers of the emergence of the right-wing in the United States. Post Civil war, blacks migrated to anywhere where they found a messiah. It played out as an imminent move to the “Promised Land” for members of the Peoples Temple. Jonestown was that land where there would be a co-existence with anyone who believed in equality in race, gender, color, and no discrimination even in social status.

To make the prospects of the move to Jonestown more attractive, they offered free plane tickets to members willing to accompany them. By September 1977, the Peoples Temple’s base was entirely shifted to the remote rainforest. Jones had convinced nearly 1000 believers to join him in the paradise he had created.

Everything that went terribly wrong with the “promised land”

There was undoubtedly a deeper reason for the move. The defected members who moved away from the Peoples Temple stopped believing in his ideologies, which were getting bizarre. The press covered news about how disgruntled members filed lawsuits seeking a return of their assets donated, custody petitions of relatives in the church. Many federal and state government agencies, including the CIA, had started investigating the church’s activities.

So he wanted to move to Jonestown to avoid public scrutiny and to have more control over the lives of his followers. The move to Jonestown was planned to take place in phases over a year. It was rushed into a six-week window in the summer of 1977.

But as people started moving in, the infrastructure could not support the sudden influx. Moreover, people who moved in were not used to farm labor and were unprepared for what they were to go through.

“If we needed a piece of equipment, we couldn’t go down to a local supply store. We had to fashion it ourselves, or wait for weeks while the order came in from Georgetown (or even further away), or do without. You had to have a pioneering spirit to survive.” — Mike Touchette

Writes one survivor Mike Touchette who was in the Caribbean when the suicides took place.

In Jonestown, Jones’s physical and mental health went on a downward spiral, and he was addicted to drugs and tranquilizers. He had a throne installed for himself in the main pavilion, which was compounded and heavily guarded. He often compared himself to Jesus Christ. He was no longer the faith healer like he was in California. He believed that the government, the media, and others were out to destroy him.

There were harsh punishments for members who disobeyed Jones’ orders. The passports of the members were confiscated, their letters to family limited, and also screened as necessary. The inhabitants had to work day and night inside the communal compound. Children slept in bunk beds in a different section away from the adult section. Even babies were in a separate nursery away from parents.

He started enforcing all Peoples Temple members to participate in mock suicide drills in the middle of the night, and they called it “white nights.” The white night ritual had members drink up supposedly poisonous potions at a command. It was not until after everyone had finished drinking that he or someone in his inner circle would announce that it was not poison. He did this ritual to check their compliance with him and to prepare them for such an eventuality. He canvassed in loudspeakers through the day about how they would have to one day escape the hands of the government by killing themselves in a revolutionary suicide pact.

In the cramped accommodation, his ardent followers put up a shoe factory, a stuffed toy manufacturing unit for members to work. They grew tropical fruits and vegetables. Nobody knows for sure what exactly happened during the one year the group existed there.

The D Day: when Jonestown turned into Corpsetown

Image: johndavison883 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

A few who had returned from the camp after six months spoke about the pitiable conditions there. Some letters also hinted at sexual abuse and mistreatment in the base camp if the members disobeyed. A group called “concerned relatives” was formed by ex-members and relatives of the church members, who were anxious about the condition of their loved ones in the Jones camp.

A concerned US congressman, Leo Ryan of California, his executive Jackie Speier, two other officials, and few relatives of the members living there, set out to Jonestown to investigate. They reached on November 17th, but only a few people of his group, including himself, were permitted entry into the compound.

The first day passed without any incident as he and his troop walked around socializing with the Peoples Temple members. It may be worth noting that the members were warned of what they should speak beforehand. Jim Jones tried to paint a happy family picture. About half a dozen members requested to be taken back to the United States with Ryan, citing ill health not supporting their living conditions in Jonestown.

The next day more than two dozen people requested to accompany Ryan. The congressman took about six members with him and promised to bring a chartered plane to pick the remaining members. They left the compound and arrived at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip and were all about to take off. A group of armed men arrived in tractors at the airstrip, and rapid gunfire ensued and assassinated Congressman Ryan, the two other media personnel, and one defector member. Nine more, including Jackie Speier, were severely wounded.

Jones, feared the state government would come looking for the missing congressman and team. He knew the media and private agencies were ready to pounce on him and would eventually not allow his communal community and interests to survive. He felt he needed to put an end to it all and orchestrated the attack.

Back in the compound, Jim Jones announces in the loudspeaker for all the Peoples Temple members to assemble in the pavilion. As they gathered, he left them sitting there for nearly one hour while his inner circle joined him in plotting the fruition of their plans over the next several hours. There is a chilling calm yet nervous laughter in the recovered tapes leading up to the final moments.

He then commands everyone present to drink up the poisonous potion before the state and everyone against them comes to get them. He urges them to die with dignity and that they are all united in this. And that no one can change their intentions. Many would have thought it as of those white nights.

Children and babies begin to wail after consuming the poison in the fruit punch. The people started to panic. Jones took to the microphones and tried to soothe the audience, control the sudden frenzy, and make the activity as peaceful as possible. Eyewitness Stanley Clayton also saw some people dragged by guards to the Kool-Aid tub, some guards forcing a reflex swallow on children who spat out the poison so that the lethal poison could make its way into the body. By morning, all 918 members of the Peoples Temple, along with Jim Jones and his wife, lay dead for all who came to see.

The gory aftermath of the victims

Image: “SF Chronicle, Nov 24, 1978” by engnr_chik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 . Collage by Author

The Guyanese Defence force initially started the operations; the US Airforce and US army joined them by November 20th. The path to Jonestown was treacherous due to bad weather and no proper reach to it. It was a herculean task to get help to the wounded and hunt for survivors in the dirt-ridden airstrip at Port Kaituma and the nearby jungle.

The abscesses on the upper arms of many victims point that many individuals were forced to take the potion. The fact that many hypodermic needles found around the compound adds credibility to the belief that many immobile seniors or disgruntled people were injected with the deadly drug. Only six autopsies were conducted after persistent lobbying by the families of some victims.

The putrefaction of the bodies got accelerated by the jungle heat and moisture. The unhygienic conditions lasted until the last body was retrieved and loaded for the United States. Task Force members who had come in contact with the bodies burned their clothing at the end of the runway. After the mission, the stench of death was so thick that the aircraft was deemed medically unsafe.

It took nearly six days of a complement of 69 officers and 227 enlisted personnel to bring home the bodies of Americans lost in a Guyanese jungle

Jonestown’s less than a handful of survivors

Image: Digitaljones library

Catherine Hyacinth Edwards Thrash was the one survivor on that fateful day. She avoided white nights as she had started to distance herself from Jim Jones’ beliefs. Hearing gunshots, Thrash initially got scared and hid below the bed, waiting for her sister to return. As chaos continued she fell asleep. And when she stepped out the next morning, not seeing her sister or hearing anything, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Another senior who was hard of hearing and didn’t hear the announcement to assemble survived and another member managed to escape into the jungle.

Ironically Jim Jones’s biological son, Stephan Gandhi Jones (then 16), was not at the site when this ghastly incident took place. He was at Georgetown, 150 miles away, playing for the Peoples Temple’s basketball team in a tournament against the Guyanese national team. Rev. Jim Jones radioed his son with orders to return to Jonestown, but Stephen Jones refused to return and spent the day off with his team watching a movie.

About he spent his days in the temple complex, Stephan Jones says he started disliking his father as he often saw glimpses of him having sex with other women or sometimes even men. He grew tired of his father’s perverted preachings about the hostility towards them and warning the members what could happen to them from the outside, including always be prepared for a revolutionary suicide in the event of a siege from the Guyanese government or the United States. Though Stephan and his brothers often thought of killing their father, they felt like the Temple members had given up everything they had for the cause of the church, and they needed their messiah.

He wonders if he could have stopped the mass suicide if he was inside but doubts it the very next moment imagining the crying babies, armed guards, and wild emotional atmosphere.

The social proof in action

A psychology professor, Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., at Stanford University, has pointed out that leaders such as Jones appear to have derived some of their techniques from research based on social psychology.

Some psychological tactics Jones used to enforce his rule on members were:

  • Encouraging spying on each other and rewarding disclosure of the deceiver;
  • Blasting out his key messages on the loudspeaker, so his voice was heard at almost all times;
  • Getting written accounts of any fears they had and using them to self-incriminate them in public rallies inside the compound;
  • The routine of mock suicide drills to avoid getting into enemies’ hands, painting a picture in his speech of how their enemies would torture them and their children;
  • The followers had to give him a formal “thank you” for giving them their daily food and livelihood.

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini points out that mostly the people who committed suicide en masse were victims of social proof. When unsure of how to act in a situation, humans tend to follow the majority in a crowd. When most people are consuming the poison, “then it must be the right thing to do” is what first comes to mind. There will be exceptions, but here there was no choice. They all were to die.

“The first response was that of a young woman who calmly approached the now famous vat of strawberry-flavored poison, administered one dose to her baby, one to herself, and then sat down in a field, where she and her child died in convulsions within four minutes. Others followed steadily in turn. Although a handful of Jones-towners escaped and a few others are reported to have resisted, the survivors claim that the great majority of the 910 people who died did so in an orderly, willful fashion” — Robert Cialdini, Influence.

“People drank the poison as if they were hypnotized or something,” said another eyewitness who escaped. Some explanations have emphasized the unquestionable faith in the cult leader that prompted the members to act without further ado.

In the book, Cialdini mentions Dr. Louis West, then chairman of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA and director of its neuro-psychiatric unit was an authority on cults who had observed the Peoples Temple for eight years prior to the Jonestown deaths, and who was interviewed immediately after the aftermath, saying, “This wouldn’t have happened in California. But they lived in total alienation from the rest of the world in a jungle situation in a hostile country.

One thing we shouldn’t forget is: the people who died were a bunch of loving people who believed in fairness and equality and, more than anything else, trusted their leader. Unfortunately, their deaths resulted from their savior’s paranoia and selfish motive to stick to his warped ideologies. This incident is a grim mirror of how humans succumb to social proof and how a charismatic leader can easily manipulate minds to comply under any circumstances.


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