Jonestown Massacre: What It Meant To 'Drink The Kool-Aid'

Culture | November 18, 2019

Jim Jones. Photo by Michèle VIGNES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Nearly 1,000 men, women, and children died at Jonestown, in Guyana, on November 18, 1978. Ordered to drink poison by the charismatic and delusional cult leader Jim Jones, the casualties of the "Jonestown massacre" were members of the People’s Temple, a Christian organization that integrated anything that Jones wanted to use, from Marxist theories to faith healing. Jonestown was envisioned as a “rainbow family” made up of people of all races, ages, and creeds, who were separated from America and working on their own to create a utopian civilization. In the harsh jungle of Guyana, none of the utopian dreams of Jones’ followers came to fruition, and as their leader devolved further into madness he led the families and friends who trusted him enough to move across the world to their deaths. 

Jim Jones Was A Door-To-Door Monkey Salesman In The Early Days Of His Ministry

source: britannica

After growing up in Indiana with an alcoholic and racist father, Jones lit out on his own and started preaching at the Cadle Tabernacle in Indianapolis, in 1956. Jones broke away from the group and started his own racially integrated congregation, but his coffers weren’t overflowing from the onset and he had to work a series of odd jobs in order to make money. The oddest job was door-to-door monkey salesman. There aren’t a lot of reports about how many monkeys Jones sold, but he was charismatic so it’s likely that he was able to move a few units. By the 1960s, he’d given up the monkey game and moved his congregation to Northern California, first settling in Ukiah before bringing the group to San Francisco. 

Jim Jones And His Wife Were One Of The First White Couples To Adopt A Black Child

source: ABC

It’s safe to say that Jim Jones wasn’t a great guy, but he genuinely believed that people were equal and that racism had no place in society. He was so forward-thinking (you know, for an absolute psychopath) that he adopted a young African-American child and named him Jim Jones Jr. He and his wife were the first caucasian couple in Indiana to adopt a black child to create a racially integrated family.

This social and racial integration extended into the People’s Temple. Jones had a largely black and elderly following, and he made it his mission to feed his parishioners, provide them with an education, and take them on trips to spread the gospel. 

Jones Grew Increasingly Paranoid During His Time In San Francisco

source: reddit

While in San Francisco, Jones brought in a large and diverse group of followers who were as committed to the idea of a utopian community as their leader. Their idealism either helped them gloss over the fact that he was growing paranoid thanks to his heavy use of prescription medication. Survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson says that at this time his sexual appetite increased and he thought that every other man on Earth was homosexual. She said:

He would always tout his sexual prowess and talk about how men were homosexuals. He treated the women better, but he was very manipulative and would try to separate families and destroy marriages, which would give him more power.

An Expose In 'New West' Magazine Forced The Family To Move To Guyana

source: pinterest

As Jones grew more erratic and confrontational some of his followers bailed from his San Francisco church and started talking to journalists about the abuses of power. Jones caught wind of an expose to be published in New West magazine, and rather than stick around to find out what happened when the story was published, he abruptly moved to Guyana, South America in the summer of 1977.

Jones had been traveling to Guyana since 1962, and in that time he’d developed Jonestown as a sanctuary, likely because he knew he’d have to escape the United States at some point. By the time the New West article was published, detailing his extortion, drug use, and sexual assaults, he and hundreds of his followers were already in Guyana. They’d all sold their homes and given up their jobs to follow Jones into the jungle. Once they were there, he never let them leave.

The "family" members who went in the initial stage of development had to work 18 hour days, tilling the fields and constructing the compound for the followers who were joining them. As excruciating as this sounds, many of the followers say that they felt a huge sense of accomplishment from their work and that it was the happiest they’d ever been.

Jones Used Home Movies To Convince Followers To Join Him In Guyana

source: reddit

The family in Guyana sent home movies back to the States that were shown during church services every Sunday as a way to convince members of Jones’ flock who hadn’t moved to Guyana to get themselves down to South America. The videos featured Jones and his followers showing off their work and eating the fresh they'd grown. The rub was that none of that was real. The people in Jonestown couldn’t produce enough food to feed the hundreds of people who suddenly populated the camp. The information in the videos was entirely fraudulent, but by the time his followers made the trip to South America, they couldn’t fathom leaving. After all, there was nothing to go back to. Leaving the States for South America with the People's Temple was a life-rending experience; many followers burned bridges with friends and biological families who couldn't understand. The "family" provided by the People's Temple wasn't just an alternate family -- it was the only family many followers had left.

Jim Jones Actively Used Practices From The Book '1984' To Manipulate His Followers

source: reddit

When your spiritual leader is a barrel-chested, pill-popping maniac in dark sunglasses who bosses people around, holds all-night meetings, and manipulates them into carrying out sexual acts in front of large crowds, you might want to get out of Jonestown and make your way to the nearest village. By the time Jones had his followers in Guyana, they were in so deep that they couldn’t turn back.

Not only were Jones’ followers in all the way with him but once they were in Jonestown they were cut off completely from the rest of the world and systematically broken down through techniques that were similar to what Big Brother used in 1984. He encouraged his followers to snitch on one another and used copious amounts of drugs to essentially lobotomize “patients” whom he felt were dissenting. 

On top of all of that, people were forced to perform backbreaking work in hundred- degree temperatures on little more than maggoty rice and brown sugar. At night they were made to “learn” in their sleep through pre-recorded sermons that Jones piped through the compound’s public address system. 

The Beginning Of The End

source: britannica

Even without pressure from the US government things were crumbling in Jonestown. Jim Jones was growing further addicted to prescription medications like Quaaludes, Demerol, Valium, and morphine, and there was barely enough food to feed the thousand people staying there. The clearly imminent implosion of Jonestown came to pass when California Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana with a delegation of news reporters and representatives of the followers' biological families -- a group calling itself Concerned Relatives -- to investigate the numerous complaints around the church.

Ryan and his group arrived on November 17, 1978, and after getting the full dog and pony show from Jones, Ryan received a note from a follower asking him to take the residents back to the US with him. When Ryan and his delegation returned to their plane the next day they were followed by members of the Peoples Church who sprayed them with machine gunfire. Five people including Ryan perished in the attack, although several defecting members of the Temple survived the shooting at the Port Kaituma Airstrip. 

Cyanide Laced Flavor Aid Took Out Most Of The People's Temple

source: reddit

Though Jones was clearly deranged, he could see clearly how events would play out. If Ryan had been allowed to return to the United States, Jonestown would be done for -- he and his traveling companions would paint a (completely accurate) portrait of a cult leader with unwilling followers who were not allowed to leave. A protracted press campaign, rescue efforts, possibly even a siege, would likely follow. There was a quicker way to bring this failed utopia to a conclusion. 

While Congressman Ryan was being attacked at the airstrip Jones was instructing his people to gather in the Jonestown pavilion to begin their mass suicide.

The compound’s “nurses” brought out Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid as the saying goes), which was mixed with cyanide and valium and began force-feeding to any children who didn’t drink it willingly. Jones hoped that once the adults of the compound watched their children pass away that they’d have nothing to live for.

The people who didn’t drink the poisoned Flavor Aid were either injected with cyanide or shot as they tried to escape, and all the while Jones delivered a monologue about how much he loved his followers in a gruesome recording that’s available for anyone who wants to hear it. Even though Jones implored his followers to drink poisoned Flavor Aid he didn’t go out the same way. Instead, he retreated to his bunker and put a bullet in his brain.

There Were Barely Any Survivors

source: reddit

There are only about 20 survivors of the Jonestown Massacre, and every person who got away lucked out in one way or another. Leslie Wagner-Wilson and a few other adults felt a bad vibe in the air on the morning of the 18th and disappeared from Jonestown through the jungle with four children strapped to their bodies.

76-year-old Hyacinth Thrash worried that she was going to be taken to the pavilion with the rest of the elderly and hid beneath her bed. She was down there for so long that she fell asleep, and by the time she woke up, she’d slept through the massacre. The few people who made it out of Jonestown alive were severely distraught, and after their rescue by government officials, they were held in a Guyanese hotel where they gave interviews to curious journalists. 

This Was The Largest Mass-Loss Of American Life That Wasn't In War Or Naturally-Caused Until September 11, 2001

source: reddit

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the lives lost in Jonestown. It was such a senseless act spurred on by a madman that the journalists and officials who were on the scene to record what happened had to completely disassociate from their job. Tim Chapman, a photographer for the Miami Herald told a writer for Rolling Stone

I started moving to my left, and I was battered by the smell. It hit me. Went right into my chest. I started to gag, and turned my back. Seeing it, plus the smell… Then, I found if I kept my eyes moving and let my camera be my eyes, I’d never really see it. I shot verticals and horizontals, moving to my left. And then there it was. There were piles upon piles of bodies. What do you call it? There’s no definition. Nothing to compare it to.

Edith Roller's Journal Reveals The Madness Of Jonestown

source: ABC

Edith Roller was a 63-year-old former college professor who joined the People’s Temple in 1975, three years before the massacre in Guyana. During her time in the church, she kept an extensive diary that cataloged day to day life in the church. There are thousands of pages available online, and they cover everything from what Roller had for breakfast to Jones’ requirement that his followers never mention astrology. Here’s a partial entry from August 1, 1978:

At one point Jim made some remarks on reincarnation, which I did pay attention to. He was trying to discourage speculation concerning astrology and reincarnation also on the grounds that they make people think the universe works according to a plan, which will work out inevitably; it is not meant to do anything. He said he had insights that reincarnation is a fact but it meant nothing.
Useful except that it would prevent suicide if one realized he would come back for eons of time, so many generations. Poignantly Jim said that even though true, he did not understand why, as it seemed to him he just had to go through the same thing as before.

Roller’s journal covers years of her time in the church and the entries go back and forth from describing the mundane nature of the church to the crazy outbursts of their leader. This diary, along with the many recordings of Jones’ sermons that are available through San Diego University, is one of the most important keys to corroborating the stories of the Jonestown survivors and reminding people of how horrific life was in the People’s Temple.

Tags: 1970s News | Cults | Jim Jones | Jonestown | The Peoples Temple

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.