The Jonestown Massacre: The Mass Suicide That Shook the World

Did you know that before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the largest loss of American lives was actually due to an event called the Jonestown Massacre?

Jonestown Massacre
Photo from The Guardian

In a single day, more than 900 citizens lost their lives in a murder-suicide organized by the Peoples Temple cult leader, Jim Jones. Around 300 of the count were children.

How could this possibly happen? Let’s find out.

The Background

In the early 1950s, white preacher and dedicated socialist Jim Jones first built the framework for his congregation in Indiana. The Peoples Temple, what Jones’s cult later came to be known, was a predominantly black community that welcomed people from all kinds of backgrounds in a time of racial segregation.

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Peoples Temple members in San Francisco
Photo from The Conversation

Jones believed in communist ideals and an egalitarian mindset, choosing to capitalize on racial equality to achieve a following.

In order to gain popularity and collect money from his members, Jones would often stage fake “healings”, which would involve him pulling chicken livers from members’ bodies to signify the removal of “cancerous” tissue.

Rev. Jim Jones with wife, Marceline
Photo from Today

As the cult began to grow into the thousands, they caught the attention of the public and authorities after former members began to accuse the group of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

To escape the bad press, Jones moved his followers to the African country of Guyana, where he established a settlement called Jonestown.

The Event

On November 18, 1978, a journalist party led by Congressman Leo Ryan attempted to leave Jonestown with a number of Peoples Temple defectors. Ryan had come to the settlement to investigate the cult and to explore whether or not members were being abused.

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The airstrip where the party attempted to escape
Photo from The Jonestown Institute

Before the airplane could lift off, Jonestown guards shot at the group, fatally wounding Ryan and four others. A plane full of survivors was able to escape, but injured members of the party were left to scurry off into the forest and go into hiding.

Leftover cups filled with the punch-cyanide mixture
Photo from The Guardian

In Jonestown, Jones was preparing his congregation for their “revolutionary suicide”.

He instructed over 900 members to drink a cyanide-laced Flavor Aid concoction and give up their lives for his cause. This, according to Jones, was the best way to resist capitalist America and show their extreme dedication to socialism.

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Photo from IndyStar

Those who objected weren’t left with much of a choice; guards were stationed around the settlement to make sure that the members obeyed.

As such, hundreds of members accepted their fate and lined up for the drink. Parents would administer the concoction to children first via syringe, and would lie down to die shortly afterwards.

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Photo from Today

Jones was later found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the pavilion.

The Aftermath

The harrowing event was devastating to the American population. Concerned family members who were already wary of the organization couldn’t have expected such an outcome. Some couldn’t afford the transport fees needed to reclaim family members’ bodies.

Photo from The Guardian

First responders reported feeling traumatized over the years from what they’ve seen. Workers were kept up at night after seeing “three or four babies per [body] bag”, and remembered the stench of the decomposing bodies the most.

Survivors of the event dealt with their own demons. Some committed suicide, while others were murdered or became murderers. The Peoples Temple, Jonestown, and everything associated with the group never seemed to leave them.

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Three young boys in Jonestown
Photo from The Conversation

The remnants of Jonestown lingers until today. It serves as the ultimate reminder that participation in cults can take a dangerous turn. Far beyond mind control, they can take actual lives.


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