On November 18, 1978, more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass-suicide under direction of Jim Jones in what is known today as the Jonestown Massacre.
The Jonestown settlement began as a church in Indiana, but it relocated to California and then finally moved to Guyana in South America in the 1970s. The moves were prompted by negative attention in the media. Nearly 1,000 followers moved with the hopes of forming a Utopian community. On November 18, 1978, U.S. Representative Leo Ryan traveled to Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse. He was murdered along with four other members of his delegation. Jones then ordered his followers to ingest poison-laced punch while armed guards stood by. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Jonestown was the single largest loss of U.S. civilian life in a non-natural disaster.
Who was Jim Jones?
Jim Jones (1931-1978) was a self-proclaimed minister that worked in small churches throughout Indiana. He opened the first Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ church in Indianapolis in 1955. It was a racially integrated congregation, which was uncommon for the time. Jones moved his congregation to California in the early 1970s, opening churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Jones was a powerful public leader, often involves in politics and charitable organizations. He moved to Guyana after followers shared with the media that he was an unjust leader. Followers claimed that he wanted to be called “Father,” forced them to give up their homes and custody of their children to join him, and often beat them.
The Jonestown settlement was less than promised. Members worked in agricultural labor and were subjected to mosquitoes and disease, forced to stay as Jones had confiscated their passports and medications. Upon Leo Ryan’s visit, Jones grew paranoid and told his followers that people would be sent to torture and kill them; the only option would be mass-suicide. He had the youngest killed first, ingesting a fruit juice with cyanide, then the adults were ordered to line up outside and do the same. The eerie photos of the aftermath show families huddled together, their arms around each other. Jim Jones was found in a chair with a bullet wound in his head, likely self-inflicted.
Some were able to escape the massacre, others were in other areas of Guyana that morning, many have shared their survivor stories with the media.