In 1978, nearly 1,000 Americans died in a place called Jonestown in Guyana. They were victims of the cult mind and some were victims of murder. This cult was led by a charismatic leader named Jim Jones. He also led the gathering that ended with all but five of the intended victims dead. It was the largest loss of American life in a deliberate act until the events of 9/11. Who were these people and what led them to kill themselves?
Who was Jim Jones?
James Warren Jones, known as Jim Jones, was born on May 13, 1931. He had a relatively normal childhood and the only thing from his upbringing that seems to link to his later beliefs was his mother’s denial of a “sky god.” His peers where he grew up in Indiana would later say that he had a knack for preaching early on. That certainly held true. Jim was also a strong human rights advocate who despised segregation. In fact, more than half of the residents of his Jonestown commune were black.
Jones married Marceline Baldwin in 1949. The couple was involved with the Methodist Church early on, but it later became apparent that Jones was an atheist who used preaching as a method of mind control. Together, the couple had one child. They adopted one white child, one black child, one part Native American child and three Korean children. Jones also allegedly had two or more children with members of The People’s Temple.
What was The People’s Temple?
Jim Jones was strongly influenced by communism, socialism, and desegregation. He hated that there were segregated churches and enjoyed the commune-like Universal Peace Mission Movement run by George Baker or “Father Divine.” He finally steered away from the Methodist Church and started The People’s Temple in 1956. Four years later, they joined up with another “church” called Disciples of Christ. Jones was not even ordained until 1964, but it hardly mattered. Whether you hated his opinions or loved him, you listened to him.
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Segregationists and racists were not easy on Jim Jones and The People’s Temple. Perhaps Jim’s later paranoia stemmed from threats he received. Maybe he simply desired the control he had over his people. Whatever the case, he caught the ear of like-minded politicians, such as Harvey Milk, and so The People’s Temple enjoyed a pretty good run. They raised funds for their needs and were able to sustain themselves for about two years when Jim Jones first went to South America. However, he came home from Brazil when the Temple threatened to collapse without him. Upon his return, they moved to California and got even bigger and stronger.
Just like any other cult, the members of The People’s Temple were subjected to mind control techniques. Dissenters were shunned. There was alleged sexual, mental and physical abuse. Jones performed spiritual healings for money and even he believed he would be jailed for mail fraud at some point. In short, the entire structure was built on lies, even if a message of peace and racial equality was interwoven with those lies.
Being a socialist who idolized figures like Mao Zedong, it seems somewhat inevitable in retrospect that Jones would set up some kind of commune. In anticipation and frankly paranoia, Jones purchased the land for Jonestown in 1974. It took him nearly 4 years to decide to take himself and a large portion of The People’s Temple there and it was done fast.
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In 1978, accusations against Jones and The People’s Temple from former members of the cult were about to be revealed in a major article. By a stroke of luck, one of Jones’ media friends warned him the day before it ran. He decided then and there to move. His excuses could be summed up in something like the world doesn’t understand us and our enemies are going to get us. If that sounds familiar, that is because he is not the first or the last to use lines like that as a means of controlling vulnerable people.
Jonestown did not last long. On Nov. 18, Congressman Leo Ryan was leaving the commune with generally good things to say about The People’s Temple, according to some reports. However, Jones kept saying it was all over as if the man’s visit had ruined everything. Temple members killed the congressman at the airstrip, along with several defectors and members of the media. The rest of the events of that day were caught on a gruesome “death tape” that chronicles the last moments of Jonestown. Of the 918 who died of gunshot wounds (including Jones) or cyanide poisoning (the majority), 276 were children.
The following is an audio recording of the mass suicide/mass murder at Jonestown. Be warned that these are the last moments of nearly 1,000 people’s lives narrated by Jim Jones himself.
The Assassination of Congressman Leo J. Ryan.
Jim Jones Biography, PBS