What started as an effort by a charismatic preacher to build a utopic society ended in one of the biggest mass murder-suicides in recorded history. Jonestown originally began as a divine socialist conception by Jim Jones, later becoming a reality, after increasing criticism in the United States forced him and his followers abroad.
The People’s Temple was founded by Jim Jones in 1955 in Indiana, USA. The then civil rights preacher founded a new religious movement that practised ‘apostolic socialism’ - an ideology that combined elements of Christianity with socialism. As with any cult his followers were just like you and I, coming from every background imaginable and wanting a sense of belonging and connection with spirit. His following steadily grew as did Jones’ wealth and influence over the next 18 years. The group moved through several locations, being forced out by various communities who did not accept its ideologies.
In 1973 Jones and his followers were repeatedly involved in scandals leading to defections and negative publicity. As a result of this, he drew up plans for the group to relocate to Guyana - it was chosen due to its socialist ideology, small population and it low economic output, which the group could use to their advantage by influencing ('bribing') officials. Jim Jones negotiated an immigration and land deal which easily allowed his followers to move to his new 3000-acre settlement - an inadequately fertile patch of land in the Guyana jungle.
The settlement was swiftly named Jonestown, with his wife describing the utopia as a place "dedicated to live for socialism, total economic and racial and social equality. We are here living communally." As more of his followers began to flock to Jonestown, more information leaked out. Unsurprisingly, it was not paradise - it was a camp with forced labour, poor living conditions, armed patrols and a severe lack of food, lead by the almighty Jones.
Quickly garnering unwanted media attention, an NBC news team lead by Senator Leo Ryan arrived at Jonestown on the 18th November 1978. Initially being welcomed by the group, Jones ordered the death of Ryan after he exposed Jonestown for what it actually was and attempted to take back 10 defectors. Upon boarding the aircraft to depart Jonestown, the Port Katuna airstrip was set upon by gunmen, killing Senator Ryan and 4 members of his group.
Only 40 minutes after ordering the hit, fearing harsh reprisals from the US, Jones gave an impassioned speech telling his followers to commit ‘revolutionary suicide’, by first giving a concoction of Kool-Aid and cyanide to their children, then to take it themselves. It was a scene of hysteria and confusion, the crowd was surrounded by armed guards, offering members the basic dilemma of death by poison or death by a guards hand. Witnessing the events unfold, Jones eerily said:
“I tell you, I don't care how many screams you hear, I don't care how many anguished cries...death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight”
At the end of the day, 918 bodies littered the compound, Jones cowardly taking the easy way out, being found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Representing collective madness, Jonestown symbolised the power of groupthink and cult ideology.