On November 19, 1977, the largest mass suicide in the history of the world took place in Jonestown, Guyana. By the tine it was all said and done, 914 members of the “Peoples Temple” were dead.
Jim Jones started the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s and practiced what the members called “apostolic socialism,” which advocated a socialist system for the United States.
Jones moved the Temple to California’s Mendocino County in 1965, and in the 1970s, the Temple instituted branches throughout California, including in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and eventually the headquarters moved to San Francisco.
Right around that time, they became politically active, and eventually became the darlings of both the city fathers and the media. San Francisco’s Mayor Moscone appointed Jim Jones to the chairmanship of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission, and his political connections began to be made. He rubbed elbows with California Governor Jerry Brown, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, Assemblyman and future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and Vice President and future Presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Jones and his Peoples Temple even wound up helping with the placement of foster children in the City.
But then, in 1977, after the San Francisco Chronicle and other local news sources refused to publish an exposé on the Peoples Temple, the reporter who had written it brought it to New West Magazine. That summer, after an editor from that magazine read him the article which was about to be published, Jones and several hundred members moved to the South American nation of Guyana to escape the bad publicity.
Most communication from within the compound to the outside world was done via shortwave radio, and not much actual news was making its way out. Within months, there were rumors of forcible retention, child abuse, and welfare fraud, as more than $50,000 a month in welfare payments were being made to the approximately 1,000 Peoples Temple members and signed over to the church.
Soon, Jones seemed to be getting more and more paranoid, stating that he believed that the CIA and “capitalist pigs” were conspiring to destroy Jonestown and kill its members. He began to believe that the Guyana Defence Force was about to attack them with machetes and guns.
For months, he had received 8-ounce shipments of cyanide every month, using the excuse tat he used it to clean gold jewelry.
He began talking about ways out, including the choices of fleeing to the USSR, fighting off those who would harm them, or committing suicide.
The suicide scenario was played out in drills, where members believed that they were actually drinking poison, waited the hour or so do die, and then were told that it was just a test of loyalty.
Meanwhile, a years-long child custody battle ensued between Tim and Grace Stoen who had left the Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, who retained physical custody of their six-year old son, John. The courts had ruled that Grace Stoen had legal custody of the child, but in reality, that was not happening. Although they had won legal custody, they were unable to remove their son from the cult’s compound.
It was the Stoen’s situation which prompted Congressman Leo J. Ryan to go to Jonestown.
In January of 1978, Stoen visited nine U.S. Congressmen, one of whom was Rep. Ryan, to explain that his son was being illegally held by Jim Jones and that he had tried to get his son out of there, but he had been thrown out of Jonestown and told to drop the lawsuits or he would soon be dead.
That same month, Stoen and other relatives of those in Guyana told U.S. State Department officials that Jones was suffering from paranoid megalomania, urging them to step “speedily” and enforce the custody orders the Stoens had won.
In February of 1978, Jones gave an interview via shortwave radio to reporter Tim Reiterman from the San Francisco Examiner which ended up being centered on the case of John Stoen. The story called into question all sorts of issues, including Jim Jones’ honesty about his side of the story. Jones told the Temple members that the cult was being besieged by “a rightist vendetta.”
Litigation was begun, and accusations were hurled back and forth between hemispheres. But the custody matters of young John Stoen remained unresolved, and on October 3, 1978, Tim Stoen told the State Department that he would be going to get his son, and that if necessary, he would employ force. On October 6, he sent a telegram reminding the federal government that there was a very real danger of mass suicide at Jonestown.
They began to look into exodus options, including Korea, Albania, and the USSR. By early October of 1978, Temple members were meeting weekly with Feodor Timofeyev from the Soviet Union embassy in Georgetown, Guyana.
On November 15, 1978, Tim and Grace Stoen flew to Georgetown, Guyana with Rep. Ryan and more than a dozen others, including government officials, reporters, and members of “Concerned Relatives,” an organization of people related to cult members. Once they arrived, Tim and Grace, who would likely not have been allowed to enter Jonestown, stayed behind in the country’s capital while the delegation went to the Temple settlement.
At the settlement in Jonestown on November 17, the delegation met with Jones, who raved about conspiracies and martyrdom and railed against the media, which no longer regarded him as the savior they used to think he was. Two Peoples Temple cult members tried to defect, passing a note to one of the reporters, Don Harris of NBC, apparently believing he was Rep. Ryan. The note said “Please help us get out of Jonestown.” Harris later gave the note to Jim Jones, who rent on another rant about defectors who would “lie about us” and destroy the Peoples Temple.
Early in the morning of November 18, eleven cult members snuck out of the compound. Shortly after that, the delegation was given a tour of the settlement, and that afternoon two families stepped forward, asking the Congressman to escort them out of Jonestown, one of them calling it “nothing but a communist prison camp.” Jones gave permission for the defectors to leave.
Most of the delegation, along with 14 defectors, left on a large truck to the airstrip, but Rep. Ryan and Richard Dwyer, Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy to Guyana, stayed in order to gather other defectors. Just as the truck was leaving, one of Jones’ higher-ups, Larry Layton, joined the group. The defectors voiced their opinions that his motives were not defection, but those suspicions were disregarded.
As the truck pulled out, another Temple member, Don Sly, grabbed Ryan and held a knife to him. He was wrestled to the ground, and they got onto the truck, which had stopped when the passengers heard that Ryan had been attacked. Ryan got onto the truck and they hastened off to the airstrip, arriving that afternoon.
Layton pulled out a gun and started shooting, wounding two of the defectors before he was disarmed. At the same time, a tractor trailer driven by the Temple’s security squad appeared and opened fire. There were at least nine shooters, as seen on the mere seconds of shooting which were captured by one of the NBC cameramen. Within minutes, Congressman Ryan, the cameraman Bob Brown, Don Harris, and two others were killed. There were nine injured, including reporter Tim Reiterman.
Before the news of the shootings could reach the United States, Jones called a meeting of all of the members. He told his lawyer, "I have failed. All is lost.”
A 44-minute tape recording captured part of the meeting which followed. Before the meeting started, aides prepared a huge metal vat with a fruit drink called Flavor Aid, which was laced with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan.
Then he began to talk about the conspiracy he believed was about to ruin the Peoples Temple. He told them that the Congressman and his party had been assassinated by the Red Brigde squad. And then he urged the cult members they should commit “revolutionary suicide.”
Several people can be heard on the tape, praising Jones for his “brave decision” for the idea of suicide. One by one, the members drank the drink, and those who could not or would not drink were injected with the poison. He urged them on, telling them that “death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life.”
Then, Jim Jones shot himself in the left temple. His body was found lying next to his throne-like chair between two other bodies, his head cushioned on a pillow.
Only a few cult members escaped death. There were those who walked off the compound earlier as well as a member who, at 79 years old, was hard of hearing and missed the announcement, but played dead in a ditch when he realized what was happening. Others hid under beds or the building, and a handful ran into the jungle, including a 5 year old boy, known only by his first name, Michael. Michael was returned to the United States and adopted out to a family somewhere near Portland, Maine.