Humans are built to search for security. In times of vulnerability, our mind forces us to seek help and refuge under which we can feel saved. And god and religion mostly are the ones to fill this gap. But sometimes, this sense of security soon takes a drastic turn into what we call blind faith. Blind faith in religion destroys our ability to critically think for ourselves. Until the 9/11 attacks, the biggest tragedy in American history was the Jonestown cult massacre witnessing the highest number of casualties in a single event.
More than 900 Americans – members of a San Francisco-based religious group called the Peoples Temple died after drinking poison, committing mass suicide. The infamous and horrific event inspired several documentaries and movies depicting the reality of blind faith. But how did such a huge number of people together committed suicide? Let’s take a look at the timeline of the Jonestown cult massacre.
Jim Jones and the anatomy of Jonestown
On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones led hundreds of his followers into a mass murder-suicide in their agricultural commune. Those who weren’t ready to do so were forced to consume poison at gunpoint. Children as young as five were injected with poisonous syringes and adults were forced to drink the poisonous concoction. The final death toll of the day was 909 including young children. But who was at fault? Let’s start from the beginning.
The center of the story lies with Jim Jones, a man in his middle age serving as a founder of Peoples Temple, a Christian sect, in Indianapolis in 1955. Jones always opposed racism due to which several African Americans lying in the heart of the country’s racism, found refuge under the Jones sect. To put it clear, Jones was a cult leader, political activist, preacher, and faith healer. In 1965, he led his followers to move to California, where the group established Temple’s headquarters in San Francisco and became heavily involved in left-wing politics through the 1970s. Jones was able to gain contact with prominent politicians at the local and national levels. During this time his church was also accused of fraud, physical abuse, and mistreatments of the members. Despite the criticism, Jones was still respected by many of his members and the society who saw him as a healer.
Jones propagates his beliefs that he and his followers will live together and die together. But growing criticism encouraged him to move with his followers to a new town. Two days later, they traveled by airplane to Port Kaituma and then were transported to Jonestown in a tractor transporter. It was a remote settlement in Guyana. However, Jonestown didn’t come out as a paradise for the followers as promised by Jones. Instead, the place was just the beginning of history’s most horrific massacre.
The Jonestown worked under Jones’s authority and no one could question the rules. The followers were forced to work day long in open fields with little to no facility available. Around 500 members were working to reconstruct the town and Jones was inviting even more followers to relocate to Guyana. He also did not permit anyone to move out of the town without his permission and for the same, he confiscated the passports of the followers.
School study and nighttime lectures for adults turned to Jones’ discussions about revolution and enemies. The workers busy working in the day shifts would only get an hour break and after the shift was over they were forced to join exceptionally long meetings on socialism. Jones once compared this schedule with North Korea’s system of long working hours. The Temple members were also forced to live in a small house and their meals includes just rice, beans, greens, and occasionally meat, sauce, and eggs.
Though Jonestown had no capital punishment unlike many cults around the same time, they did have a system of imprisonment in a 6-by-4-by-3-foot plywood box for adults and forcing children to spend a night at the bottom of a well, sometimes upside-down. Armed guards patrol the border of the town day and night to ensure rules and regulations are being followed. One of the most profound rule was that the children would stay under the communal care and would only be allowed to meet their parents briefly at night.
Jim Jones made sure to somehow make people believe that the CIA and other intelligence agencies are trying to harm the community and their safety. For the same, he frequently organized secret meetings, mock drills, and night rehearsals to make sure that the inhabitants normalize revolutionary acts such as suicide. He usually provided four options for the people- attempt to flee to the Soviet Union, commit “revolutionary suicide”, stay in Jonestown and fight the purported attackers, or flee into the jungle. Jones himself followed the principles of Adolf Hitler and knew how to manipulate people. His ruling strategy was to provide a permanent enemy to the public and make sure they are subservient to him.
In 1978, Jones’s health declined and he was informed of possible lung cancer, which he used to gain sympathy from the people. However, his regular practice of substance abuse did affect his health. During the same time, the relatives of the Jonestown inhabitants were becoming regularly concerned about their whereabouts. They formed a committee and named it ‘Concerned Relatives’. They managed to convince Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat of California, to visit Jonestown and investigate the inside conditions. When he arrived first, the visit went well and he noticed no odd occurrences. However, the next day when he was leaving few residents asked him for a way out of the town. This made sure that inhabitants were indeed held captive.
The D-day of Jonestown cult massacre
When Jones came to know about the betrayal, he was furious as well as threatened. He asked his followers to kill Ryan and his company. The congressman and his four subordinates were murdered as they chartered the plane. Aware of the aftermath, on November 18, 1978, Jones asked everyone to gather at the pavilion and commit mass suicide which he termed as a revolutionary act. The youngest member was first to die, parents were forced to inject cyanide in their kid’s bodies while the adults were made to drink poisonous concoctions at gunpoint. This poison took less than 5 minutes for children and 15-20 minutes for adults to die.
Jones motivated them by reciting “Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.”
After that, the guards took the poison and Jones too took his life and shot himself.
The next day Guyanese officials found hundreds of dead bodies dead in the field. People lay dead with their loved ones by their side; some holding hands while others embracing their last moments. Few people who manage to escape were the sole eyewitness of the tragedy. Around 900 people were reported dead that day, the greatest in America’s history before 9/11.
The Jonestown Cult massacre is recorded as the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a single event.