The American cult leader Jim Jones (1931–1978) instigated the Jonestown massacre of 1978, a mass suicide in which Jones died along with more than 900 of his followers. Taking place at the remote community he had established in the South American country of Guyana, the massacre stood as the largest intentional killing of Americans before it was eclipsed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Before he came to world attention in the wake of the Jonestown tragedy, Jim Jones rose to prominence as his small faith-based organization evolved into a large religious organization. Jones founded his Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana, and soon moved with his flock to California. The Peoples Temple was racially integrated, and during the mid-20th century this was nearly unheard of in Indiana and considered unusual even in forward-thinking California. During his rise, Jones cultivated the favor of powerful politicians and was praised by Democratic vice-presidential candidate Walter Mondale, among others. Motivated by a belief in communism, he became active in radical politics in the San Francisco Bay area. His ultimate allegiance, however, was to himself. An intensely charismatic figure, Jones cultivated a body of followers who would follow his orders blindly, even when it led to their deaths and those of their children. Asked by Keith Harrary of Psychology Today why he followed Jones, one Peoples Temple member answered, “Because I believed he was God. We all believed he was God.”
Perhaps the world's first glimpse of Jones's ability as a preacher came in advance of his high school's clash on the basketball court with its rival. “We had a big pep rally before one of the games, and Jimmy decided to stage an elaborate funeral for the other school,” his high-school girlfriend Phyllis Wilmore recalled to Don Lattin in the San Francisco Chronicle. “He got up and started preaching and did an incredible job. He had the control and inflection. It was like the real thing, but was all intended to be a joke. He was very self-assured on stage. He had that coal black hair and piercing eyes that would look right through you.” After his parents' divorce, Jones moved with his mother to Richmond, Indiana, working part-time as a hospital orderly until he graduated from high school.
Jones married hospital nurse Marceline Baldwin in 1949. They adopted six children of different ethnicities whom Jones called his “rainbow family,” and Marceline also gave birth to son Stephan Gandhi Jones. Meanwhile, Jones attended Indiana University and Butler University sporadically, finally receiving an education degree from the latter in 1961. His passion was already in preaching, however, and in 1952 he became a student minister at Somerset Methodist Church in Indianapolis. His tenure was brief, however; he was expelled after holding racially integrated services and conducting faith-healing sessions (not accepted by Methodists) in which he used sleight of hand to insert and then remove chicken livers from a cancer sufferer's body under the guise of ridding the patient of tumors.
In 1954, Jones founded his own church, Community Unity, in which he used a charismatic worship style when interfacing with his racially integrated congregation. In 1955, the church's name was changed to Peoples Temple and in 1957 Jones and a Peoples Temple delegation traveled to Philadelphia to attend services conducted by African-American evangelist Father Jealous Divine (c. 1876–1965).
Divine exerted a fundamental influence on Jones's ministry, not least with his fiery preaching style. More important than that was Divine's belief that he was not just God's representative, but was actually God himself, a belief that Jones also adopted. He followed Divine's practice of placing himself above his followers and demanding absolute obedience from them, even to the point of allegedly coercing women into sexual relations. Jones now began to think in terms of a utopian community where he would rule over his flock. He traveled several times to South America to investigate possible locations, but by 1963 he had selected California as a more promising location. After Jones was ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister in 1964, he moved the Peoples Temple to Ukiah, a town in California's north.
Jones's motivation for settling in that remote town was his fear of nuclear war, but over the next five years he opened Peoples Temple branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles and by 1972 the Temple's headquarters had moved to the former city. During this period, Jones was active politically, cultivating alliances among radical figures such as African-American feminist radical Angela Davis and Black Panther leader Huey Newton as well as among politicians such as San Francisco mayor George Moscone and California state assemblyman Willie Brown. Even national politicians such as Mondale praised him in general terms. With his churches doing outreach in underserved California communities, Jones won acclaim from Christian organizations as well.
During his time as a civic leader in Indianapolis, when he was director of the city's human rights commission, Jones campaigned against housing segregation. In San Francisco, Moscone appointed Jones chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1976, and USA Today contributor Jeff A. Schnepper has alleged that the reverend used this post to enrich Peoples Temple. Meanwhile, life inside the Temple became increasingly baroque. Jones called himself God Socialist, stomped on the Bible, and at various times claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha, or Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. He manipulated his followers into total obedience not only through the force of his preaching but through disciplinary practices. Children and, eventually, adults found guilty of infractions or insufficient fervor were punished by being forced to engage in boxing matches with stronger individuals. Jones forbade his followers from having sexual relations, but he took sexual partners as he wished, even marrying women and sometimes men.
Unfortunately, freedom was not part of the day-to-day reality for most residents of the new community, named Jonestown. Residents spied on each other, and dissent was punished by forced labor or tranquilization (Jones himself was a heavy drug user). The compound was heavily guarded against what Jones said were the group's enemies, but his armed guards also menaced any member who thought of escaping a lifestyle characterized by inadequate food rations and the onset of tropical diseases. Escape was difficult in any case: several miles of jungle existed between Jonestown and Port Kaituma, and only river or air connections were available from there. In addition, members had already turned their financial resources over to the Temple. Soon Jones began to warn his followers that the compound might be attacked, and that they should be ready to die by drinking poison. Drills were held in which Jonestown residents were ordered to assemble and given what they were told was cyanide- and Valium-laced Kool-Aid; when they did not die, they were congratulated for having passed a loyalty test. The English idiom “drink the Kool-Aid,” meaning adhere to a popular delusion, originated in the descriptions of Jonestown residents.
By now, relatives of Jones's followers had registered their fears about the community with authorities, and one Jones follower, Deborah Layton, managed to gain Jones's trust and escape to the Guyanan capital of Georgetown, and thence to the United States. Alarmed by reports he was hearing, California's U.S. Representative Leo Ryan decided to investigate, and when he arrived in Jonestown, several residents expressed a desire to leave the compound. Ryan agreed to take them to Port Kaituma, where they could board small planes, but when the group walked to the airstrip, gunmen sent by Jones (including Deborah Layton's brother Larry) opened fire. Ryan, three journalists, and one defector were killed.
On November 18, 1978, realizing that he was doomed, Jones initiated his “revolutionary suicide” plan in earnest. Encouraged by their parents, children were forced to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid first, followed by adults, and those who refused to drink were compelled to by armed guards. More than 900 bodies—counts range from 909 to 918—were later found by Guyanese army troops.
Jones succeeded his followers in death; a Guyanan coroner ruled that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but the murder weapon was found at some distance from his body, and other investigators have concluded that he was shot. The rambling remarks broadcast to his flock as they died were probably taped; a “suicide tape transcript” later surfaced. The few survivors of Jonestown included four residents who escaped into the jungle as well as Jones's two sons, who were in Georgetown participating in a basketball game (his other children died), and two elderly residents who were missed.
In addition to shocking the world, the Jonestown Massacre was the subject of numerous articles, documentaries, and films. Among the many artistic treatments inspired by the tragedy was a classical composition, “Jonestown,” by rock guitarist Frank Zappa.
Chidester, David, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the People's Temple, and Jonestown, Indiana University Press, 2004.
Guinn, Jeff, The Road to Jonestown, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
New American, March 19, 2012, Charles Scaliger, “(South) American Killing Fields,” p. 33.
Psychology Today, March-April 1992, Keith Harrary, “The Truth about Jonestown: 13 Years Later,” p. 62.
USA Today, January 1999, Jeff A. Schnepper, “Jonestown Massacre: The Unrevealed Story,” p. 26.
The Famous People, https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/james-warren-jones-1841 (October 20, 2017), “Jim Jones Biography.”
San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/JONESTOWN-25-Years-Later-How-spiritual-2548493.php (October 20, 2017), Don Lattin, “Jonestown: 25 Years Later.”
State University of New York at Oneonta, http://employees.oneonta.edu/downinll/mass_suicide.htm (October 20, 2017), Mary McCormick Maaga, “Suicide Tape Transcript.”□