Fol­lowed leader into death

40 years ago mass sui­cide at Jon­estown shocked world

Winnipeg Sun - - NEWS - BRAD HUNTER bhunter@post­

There were bod­ies ev­ery­where, lit­tered through­out the shoddy com­pound.

Young, old, white, black, men, women.

This was Jon­estown.

The place where the true be­liev­ers “drank the Kool-aid.”

Their charis­matic leader, an In­di­ana preacher named Jim Jones, had parked a bul­let in his head, join­ing his de­voted flock.

On Nov. 18, 1978, the slaugh­ter at Jon­estown made head­lines around the world.

More than 900 dead in the jun­gles of Guyana.

This year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of the hor­rific tragedy.

“I thought Jimmy was a re­ally weird kid,” his child­hood friend Chuck Wil­more said in a 2006 doc­u­men­tary. “He was ob­sessed with re­li­gion, he was ob­sessed with death. A friend of mine told me he saw Jimmy kill a cat with a knife.”

Jones grew up in In­di­ana de­voted to God and the civil rights strug­gle.

The son of an al­co­holic fa­ther and a cold mother, he be­lieved he was des­tined for greatness.

He founded the Peo­ples Tem­ple in 1955, a multi-racial con­gre­ga­tion, where he was a pop­u­lar preacher.

But at the height of the Cold War in the early ’60s, he moved the church to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia af­ter read­ing that that was the safest place to be in the event of the apoc­a­lypse.

And he got his con­gre­ga­tion to move with him.

The church had a pro­gres­sive, ac­tivist agenda that at­tracted hun­dreds of new fol­low­ers in the Golden State. Many turned troubled lives around be­cause of the re­named Peo­ples Tem­ple and its com­mit­ment to the com­mu­nity.

“We all felt that we were a fam­ily rather than a church,” Tem­ple mem­ber Laura John­ston Cole told Rolling Stone.

Cal­i­for­nia brought prayer, power and pros­per­ity for Jones and the Peo­ple’s Tem­ple, even­tu­ally ex­pand­ing from Red­wood Val­ley to San Fran­cisco and Los Angeles.

But there were things about Jones.

He preached ab­sten­tion but, ap­par­ently, it didn’t ap­ply to the pervy preacher.

In ’73, he was ar­rested for lewd con­duct af­ter be­ing caught mas­tur­bat­ing at an L.A. X-rated movie the­atre.

And he pro­claimed he was the only true het­ero­sex­ual on earth — even as he had male and fe­male sex­ual play­mates.

By the mid-1970s, Jones was heav­ily ad­dicted to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drugs and in­creas­ingly para­noid.

Jones now ad­mit­ted that he was, in fact, a com­mu­nist.

“If you’re born in cap­i­tal­ist Amer­ica, racist Amer­ica, fas­cist Amer­ica, then you’re born in sin,” Jones said. “But if you’re born in so­cial­ism, you’re not born in sin.”

In the summer of 1977, the bizarre preacher and sev­eral hun­dred of his flock moved to Guyana just ahead of a New West mag­a­zine piece de­tail­ing al­le­ga­tions of phys­i­cal, emo­tional and sex­ual abuse.

In Guyana, Jones’ drug ad­dic­tion be­came abun­dantly clear to his fol­low­ers.

It was John Vic­tor Stoen who trig­gered the tragedy in the com­pound that shook the world.

Both his par­ents were for­mer church mem­bers who had tem­po­rar­ily left the boy with Jones.

And they dearly wanted him back.

Other fam­i­lies had sim­i­lar wor­ries and they turned to Cal­i­for­nia Con­gress­man Leo Ryan.

Ryan, some aides and re­porters from the San Fran­cisco Ex­am­iner, NBC and the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle went to Guyana to bring home any­one who wanted to leave.

Fif­teen wanted to leave, but as they were board­ing their planes on the af­ter­noon of Nov. 18, 1978, Jones’ thugs be­gan shoot­ing at them.

By the time the bul­lets stopped fly­ing, Ryan was dead, along with a cam­era­man, NBC re­porter Don Har­ris and a pho­tog­ra­pher from the Ex­am­iner.

Later that day the 909 res­i­dents of Jon­estown gulped down cyanide mixed with a pur­ple Kool-aid-like mix­ture.

Jones told his flock that CIA agents were coming to kill them all.

Mem­bers sobbed as their leader spoke.

“Stop these hys­ter­ics. This is not the way for peo­ple who are so­cial­ists or com­mu­nists to die,” he said, adding that they were com­mit­ting “rev­o­lu­tion­ary sui­cide”.

Chil­dren went first, then their fam­i­lies laid down be­side them.

There were a num­ber of sur­vivors who had es­caped.

Hy­acinth Thrash slept through the whole af­fair.

When she got up the next day, bod­ies were lit­tered through­out the com­pound cov­ered in sheets.

“There were, all of those dead be­ing put in bags … peo­ple I’d known and loved ... God knows, I never wanted to be there in the first place,” she wrote in her 1995 mem­oir. “I never wanted to go to Guyana and die … I didn’t think Jim would do a thing like that.”



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