The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, commonly known as Jonestown, was a commune in Guyana. It was populated by followers of Jim Jones, head of the Peoples Temple, and was the location of a murder-suicide that killed over 900 people in 1978. It constituted the largest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2011.
OriginsJim Jones had been planning the project for several years in the 1970s before he and his followers emigrated there in 1977.
PurposeJonestown was meant to be a communist utopia where everyone contributed according to ability and was provided for by the community. Its remote location was an attempt to escape the reach of capitalist forces, which Jones saw as one of the great evils of the world. He was also specifically avoiding the American government, which he believed was bent on his movement's destruction.
RealityWhile Temple members expected a tropical paradise, what they found was cramped communal housing and poor soil making it difficult for the commune to provide basic sustenance. Discipline was harsh.
White NightsWhite Nights were those nights where a variety of drills were practiced in case a hostile agency (most likely connected to the United States) invaded the camp. These drills included mass suicides in which people were given Kool-Aid (or similar drink), which they were told was poisoned. People participated repeatedly.
The idea behind the suicides was to remain in control of one's destiny, dying by one's own hand rather than being captured and brainwashed by a capitalist regime. Jones called it "revolutionary suicide," a message to all about their resistance to capitalist forces and their solidarity as communists. As they lived together, so they would die together.
Defectors and Would-Be DefectorsIt's hard to determine how many people wished to leave Jonestown by November of 1978. Several of the deceased left notes that expressed their continued belief in Jones' messages. Congressman Leo Ryan visited the compound to interview several dozen people whose relatives back in the US thought were being held against their will, but none of them expressed a wish to leave. Whether that was from genuine feeling or intimidation is difficult to determine. And handful of other people, not on Ryan's initial list, did choose to leave with him.
There were a handful of people who escaped into the jungle not long before the murder-suicide, and a handful of others who hid within the compound when the event occurred.
It must be remembered that Jones had a long history of empowering the disenfranchised. While life was hard at Jonestown, many probably wholeheartedly embraced it as offering a level of equality and community missing from any other place they had lived.
Congressman Leo RyanRyan arrived at Jonestown to investigate whether anyone was being held against his or her will, as was suspected by their relatives back home. Despite only a handful of members leaving with Ryan (none of which were ones he was specifically investigating), Jones had gunmen mow down the entire group, leaving Ryan, a cameraman, a photographer, a reporter and a defector dead with nine others injured.
Murder-SuicideAfter the murder of Ryan, Jones considered the compound lost. There were suggestions that everyone escape to another country such as the Soviet Union. However, in the end, death became the outcome of choice.
Exactly what happened is disputed. Some of the survivors claim to have heard gunfire, although only a couple bodies displayed gunshot wounds, including Jones himself, and his appeared self-inflicted.
For many years the common conception of the event was of 900 people calmly drinking poison at Jones's order, thus coining the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" to refer to blind agreement, particularly with a dangerous concept. Other reports have suggested that it was a mix of the willing, the unwilling being forced by threat of violence, and those who perhaps thought it was yet another drill.
Jones promised it would be quick and painless, but a taped recording of his last speech bears screams and cries in the background.
Almost 300 children died in the event, making this a murder-suicide rather than merely suicide regardless how some of the adults might have died.
ConclusionThe Jonestown massacre is one of the more prevalent images in the American consciousness concerning destructive cults. However, until November 18, 1978, very few people considered the group a cult, with many prominent people holding up the Temple's humanitarian projects as evidence of Jones and his Temple being upstanding members of society.
The downside of that is that people are much more wary about groups that separate themselves from wider society, even though most such groups are indeed harmless. The fear of another Jonestown has ingrained a distrust of such groups.