Written By: TJ
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
On November 18, 1978, a tragic event was written in American History when the cult leader of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, ordered his followers to murder a US Congressman and a number of journalists. Later that day, he exhausted his power and influence by mandating all of his members to drink a cyanide-laced fruit beverage, making it the largest single incident of civilian death in America for the next 23 years, until the 9/11 Attacks in 2001. From this point, this incident has been referred to as the Jonestown Massacre.
Who is Jim Jones?
A man who preached racial and social equality couldn’t be mistaken for someone so evil but Jim Jones’ hunger for power, his deceit, and his anger towards people who betrayed him can be traced back to his childhood years.
Born on May 13, 1931, James Warren Jones grew up to be a loner child with a fascination for religion and death. Sources indicate that as a child, he along with his playmates where they would sometimes pretend to be captives or perform funerals as make believe. In addition,Jones allegedly admired Adolf Hitler’s reign and was even impressed when he committed suicide in 1945 to thwart his enemies.
Jones also sided with his black friends. In once instance, he refused to speak to his father because his father would not let his black friend in his home. Eventually, Jones’ parents separated and Jim moved to Richmond, Indiana with his mother. There, Jones would meet his wife, Marceline Baldwin. The couple relocated to Bloomington, Indiana in 1949 and adopted children of different colors, calling themselves the “Rainbow Family”.
Peoples Temple was Founded
Three years later, Jones became a student pastor, in hopes to demonstrate his Marxism by building his own church, at the Sommerset Southside Methodist church, but he left after its leaders forbade him to integrate blacks into his congregation. He began to sell monkeys for pets to fund his plan. As a result, in 1955, he successfully formed the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis.
The Peoples Temple attracted the attention of many due to its multiracial membership when racial segregation was at its peak. The members were all dedicated to improving the world, but they were viewed by outsiders as something of a confused group. In many ways, the members were selfless individuals who valued treating each other as family.
To avoid outside people from interfering with these group, Jones convinced his followers that they need to move to California and convincing them that a nuclear attack was going to happen. His apocalyptic paranoia was what drove him to rule his people, manipulating them to adapt his vision while promising them of a future where everyone lives interracially. During the mid-1970s, his church extended to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
After years of settling in California, Jones had a constant battle with his adamant anxiety that US was in imminent danger of a nuclear holocaust. In addition, articles had sprouted speaking alleged abuse happening within Peoples Temple, which spurred Jones’ decision to relocate.
In 1977, he chose a remote town in Guyana, free from government and prying eyes, soon known as “Jonestown”.
The Underlying Abuse
Despite the good image that Jones portrayed to the members of Peoples Temple, Jones did not always practice what he preached. He programmed his followers to practice “revolutionary suicide” in which he called White Nights. Audio speakers were placed around the camp and upon the calling of the words “White Night”, members would gather in the pavilion and conduct a mock suicide act.
Jones also engaged in sexual relations among his followers, both male and female. He reiterated to them, however, that he was the only heterosexual in their community, and that the rest were all homosexuals. Romantic relationships were also forbidden between members as the members should only be focused to work. The couples and lovers therefore remained closeted, afraid to be humiliated in front of their brethren.
However, the worst abuse Jones conducted was to forcedly claim children that clearly were not his own. Tim and Grace Stoens were one of the couples who were victimized by these acts. Grace Stoens had conceived a child named John and Jones said it was his. To avoid making matters worse, Tim signed the affidavit confirming Jones as John’s father. The couple then immediately left the church the following year, asking the help of US courts to get their son back.
Symbolizing the conflict between church and its opponents, Jones ordered the murder of John when courts orders were approved to hand the child over to the couple. Jones thought that if he did, it would signal the loss of his power over his followers and would ignite an uproar from the other couples to seek the return their loved ones as well.
In the end, six-year old John Stoens’ was found poisoned in a cabin at Jonestown. John was among the 304 other children which stained the walls and memory of Jonestown that was once a peaceful land.
Leo Ryan was a Congressman in California who had a passion for people’s welfare. He once had himself briefly imprisoned so he could experience the life of a prisoner, and his empathy extended to animals as he also investigated illegal hunting of baby seals. Unfortunately, he became the catalyst that led to the tragic death of Peoples Temple.
Upon learning the court dispute between Jones and his couple followers, Tim and Grace Stoens, Ryan wrote a letter to the Jim Jones asking for an invitation to go to Jonestown. Jones and his inner circle were uncertain but they later approved the request. Ryan, along with some journalists and relatives, then travelled to Jonestown to observe and see the real situation.
During his visit, a few members of Peoples Temple walked up to him and confessed that they wanted to go back to US, an act that Jones tagged as betrayal. The day of November 18, 1978 finally came and Ryan, the defectors, and the journalists, were at Port Kaituma airstrip waiting for planes to take them home when the Temple gunmen aboard a truck arrived and started firing. As a result, Ryan and four journalist were killed while others were injured.
The Apocalyptic End of the Jonestown Massacre
Back in Jonestown, Jones finally had made a decision to reinforce his apocalyptic vision to action. He tricked over 900 of his Temple members into believing that a Guyanese military will come and take away their children, therefore they have to drink a beverage laced with cyanide to protect themselves. The members did what they were told and forced to drink this beverage marking the fall of Peoples Temple.
The poisoning started with the children. Then came the adults, those who were unwilling would be held down and injected with the potassium cyanide. Temple authorities walked around with stethoscopes, making sure that everyone was dead. If they heard your heart beat, the authorities would shoot those people.
A death toll exceeding 900 body counts isn’t something everyone would be excited to see. Hundreds and hundreds of corpses covered the land of Jonestown, sparking shock and outrage as to how many people have been brainwashed. The news stayed on television for a long time and a TV series was even made on behalf of the historical event titled Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.
According to an article from The Washington Post, it was Kool-Aid that the followers have drunk, birthing the catchphrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid”, which means blindly following something or someone without thinking for themselves. In actuality, it wasn’t Kool-Aid but rather a similar brand called Flavor-Aid, either way, most people find the catchphrase offensive and insensitive to those who survived the Jonestown Massacre.
What Happened to Jim Jones?
Jim Jones was found dead sitting on a chair. A bullet wound was seen on his forehead. However, many journalists have interpreted this as a self-inflicted gunshot after everyone was dead. However, the possibility of homicide cannot be ruled out according to experts, and that possibility still lingers even after 42 years later.
Aftermath Still Haunts the Survivors
A handful of survivors of the Jonestown Massacre can only be counted to 33. Interviews from the former members of Peoples Temple have circulated throughout social media platforms and we can definitely see the pain, the fear, and the damage of mental and physical trauma the massacre has caused them.
In an interview conducted by The Atlantic, a survivor by the name of Teri Buford O’Shea explained the reason she escaped the cult. She said, “I wanted to live to be 30 so I could have a rich and full life. Now I have a daughter who’s 29, and I’m 60. I’ve had double what I wished for.”
Some of these survivors didn’t have the courage to talk about what they’ve experienced. For them, it would only relive the traumatic experiences that they had undergone. What they believed was that this man would create a utopian community where everyone would live in harmony, but what they got was a taste of hell somewhere in Guyana. Society’s understanding of post-traumatic stress during those times in the 1980s was also limited, making it harder for survivors to speak out freely.
History has a strange way of using these horrible events in a humorous context. The catchphrase, “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is something that society has adopted as a way to joke about taking orders. But to those who lived to tell the tale, hearing the catchphrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is downright cruel and insulting. The Jonestown Massacre is a huge part of American History, and the catchphrase has long been part of the culture, but it wouldn’t hurt anyone if they avoid using it for the sake of those who suffered.
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