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How did 900 people, many of them children and young adults, manage to fall victim to one man? Here's what we know about the tragic Jonestown Massacre.

The Jonestown Massacre: Inside a twisted apocalyptic cult

There’s a reason you’re not supposed to drink the Kool-Aid, and it’s all Reverend Jim Jones’ fault. The leader and namesake of the Jonestown cult, Jones was on an almighty power trip that was always going to end in tragedy. But 900 people dying was far from what anyone would’ve thought would happen. 

Over 40 years later, people still fail to fathom exactly how this cult in the Guyanese jungle spiraled downward into this. How did 900 people, many of them children and young adults, manage to fall victim to one man? But the story of Jonestown goes much deeper than face value.

A power hungry man looking for more

Long before he even moved the Peoples Temple out of the US, Jones was teaching “apostolic socialism” through his religious movement. Initially formed in Indianapolis in 1955, the Peoples Temple moved to California, setting up several locations throughout the state. 

But of course, since Jones was promoting racial equality and socialism in the ’60s, no one was happy with him. Several high profile members defected thanks to public shaming, as well as journalists mocking the Peoples Temple in their stories. Jones was desperate to make an escape to somewhere where people wouldn’t question their practices. 

Jones had already taken a trip to Guyana in the early ’60s as a stop on his trip to Brazil. After doing some more research, Jones and his members quickly realized relocating to Guyana would be most beneficial for its members. With that, the Peoples Temple launched its South American ministry location. 

True origins of his trip

There was more to why Jones picked Guyana in particular. Sure, the English-speaking country matched a lot of their socialist values, and black Temple members could feel comfortable in the country. But Guyana just finally declared independence from Britain, so it was poor, looking for leadership, and small. Jones thought he could take control when he was ready. 

Guyanese officials thought nothing of it, and actually loved the thought of Americans living in the country to help prevent any military action within their borders. Plus, they were willing to turn a blind eye to help Jones get drugs and weapons into the country with no issue from custom officers. 

“A communist utopia”

Initially, in the beginning, the Jonestown settlement was a comfortable place to live for Temple members. They could live in peace and celebrate their ideals, were a reasonable distance from Georgetown to shop and partake in local activities, and there were plenty of resources to go around.

But as prosecution in the US got worse for Peoples Temple members, the immigration into Guyana and Jonestown became worse. By 1978, just under 900 people were living in the town, including Jones. After Jones came to Guyana, life changed for its residents.

Members were forced to work five eight hour days, and then attend activities where Jones would preach communism. Jones went on record, comparing the schedule of Jonestown to North Korea. Slowly but surely, Jones also stole mind control and behavior modification techniques from North Korea as well. 

The line between religion and cult

The state department originally supported the Jonestown settlement, but they began to question what was occurring after various reports came out of the settlement. As conditions worsened, Jones began warning residents of the danger that was looming from the CIA and government conspiring with the “capitalist pigs”.

To help prepare their members, Jones would host “White Nights”, where members were given 4 options: kill themselves, flee to the Soviet Union, flee to the jungle, or stay and fight against the capitalist pigs. Those who chose suicide were given a red drink, and told it was poisoned and they would die. However, these practice suicides never had poison in the drink. 

As time went on, the cult spiraled downward further, believing they could no longer trust the Guyanese government. They reached out to North Korea, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Cuba, trying to get out of Guyana. Jones was actually in several discussions with the USSR, trying to relocate Jonestown there. 

No longer a peaceful cult

California representative Leo Ryan announced he was going to visit Jonestown to see it for himself. Along for the trip were members of Ryan’s staff, journalists, and concerned family members of Jonestown residents. When their plane landed in Guyana, Jonestown members gave Ryan trouble for the amount of people he brought.

Initially, Ryan and three other members of his party were allowed in, with the remaining members welcome after sunset. While attending a musical reception that evening, two members defected and announced they wanted to go home with Ryan. 11 members the next morning left town as well, sensing looming danger. 

Those members weren’t wrong. When riding back to the airport to leave, one member, Larry Layton, tagged along. Known as a Temple loyalist, his presence was doubted among the defectors. Once arriving at the airport and boarding the plane, Layton took out his gun and opened fire on those on the plane. 

Another group of loyalists came by and attacked the other plane with members of Ryan’s group on it. Overall, five died from the shooting, and 11 were injured. Most notably, Leo Ryan was murdered after being shot 20 times. 

Drinking the poisoned Flavor Aid

After the congressman and his group left Jonestown, Jones ordered everyone into their homes. While there, aides prepared grape Flavor Aid, mixed with Valium, cyanide, chloral hydrate, and promethazine. After the batch was ready, he called his members to the pavilion, and there, Jones started his speech recorded on the “Death Tapes”.

Arguing that the congressman was dead, and that the pilot on the planes was killed and these men would parachute into their paradise, they needed to commit “revolutionary suicide”. Some hesitated and argued to escape to the USSR, but Jones talked everyone down. 

Members then came up to receive their dose of the juice, thinking it was just another White Night exercise, until the first person died. Nearly every member at the camp did take the poison, and all were dead within 30 minutes of administering it. Overall, 907 people died through the poisoned Flavor Aid. Only 9/11 would cause more loss of American life in a deliberate act, 23 years later. 

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