Followed leader into death
40 years ago mass suicide at Jonestown shocked world
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.”