Jim Jones and Jonestown

The Cult Education Institute/August 2013

By Rick Alan Ross

During the 1970s Jim Jones, a charismatic preacher in San Francisco, gained popularity and power. In the end the cult Jones formed would come to represent the most terrible cult tragedy in American history. Now simply referred to simply as “Jonestown”, this horrific mass murder/suicide recorded claimed the lives of more than 900 people, including more than 200 children.[i]  The murders at Jonestown took place on November 18, 1978. The public struggled to understand how so many lives were claimed so suddenly under the influence of a single charismatic leader.

How could a church and a pastor once greatly admired end in such infamy?

In the beginning there seemed to be little to fear from Jim Jones. He was ordained in 1964 by a well-established Protestant denomination called the Disciples of Christ. Jones set up two churches, the main one in San Francisco and another in Los Angeles. The organization was called Peoples Temple, and at its peak there were as many as 8,000 members.

Jim Jones, though now known as a notorious cult leader, was once a popular and trusted community celebrity. He could routinely turn out thousands of his people for an event. During the 1970s Jones appeared with many prominent politicians including State Assemblyman Willie Brown. In 1976 Mayor George Moscone gave Jim Jones a seat on the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Governor Jerry Brown was seen attending services at Peoples Temple. [ii]

Negative press reports began to surface about Jim Jones in the summer of 1977. In response to criticism Jones ultimately decided to move a core group of his followers to British Guyana in South America, effectively isolating them from the outside world. The intentional community or cult compound he created was named “Jonestown.”[iii]

Controversy concerning Jones’ behavior continued despite his departure from California. Complaints from former members and concerned families led to an official investigation.  United States Congressman Leo J. Ryan of California, with permission from Jim Jones, visited the isolated Guyana community compound on November 17, 1978. Ryan toured the settlement and met with Jim Jones. During the congressman’s visit residents of Jonestown passed notes to the visitors requesting to leave. Representative Ryan agreed to take some of them back with him.

Apparently Jim Jones was unwilling to let anyone leave, so he ordered an armed attack on Ryan and others at an airstrip. On November 18th as they prepared to leave the congressman and four others in his party were murdered.

According to an affidavit dated June 15, 1978 by one-time Temple member and Jonestown resident Deborah Layton, “Jones...claimed that he was the reincarnation of...Lenin, Jesus Christ [and]...had divine powers.” Layton further stated that Jones “appeared deluded by a paranoid vision of the world. He would not sleep for days at a time and talk[ed] compulsively about the conspiracies against him.” The compound “was swarming with armed guards [and] no one was permitted to leave unless on a special assignment,” Layton detailed Jones’ warning “that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for [his followers] to die by [their] own hands”. Layton described what was called the “White Night” or “state of emergency”, which was often declared at the compound. It was within this supposed context of crisis that the group had rehearsed mass suicide.[iv]

On November 18, 1978 anticipating the end of his ministry and certain arrest the rehearsals ended, Jones then ordered his final “state of emergency”. Cyanide was mixed with Flavor Aid punch, which was described perhaps erroneously in press reports as “Kool-Aid”.[v] Everyone was commanded to drink mixture. Most of the adults obediently complied and took the poison. Others that were not cooperative were shot, or forced to drink the cyanide to fulfill what Jones labeled an act of “revolutionary suicide.”

Twenty years later in 1998 Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown explained, “Jonestown was a tragedy of the first order, and it remains a painful and sorrowful event in our history. Not a year has gone by that I have not stopped to remember San Francisco's terrible loss.”[vi]

In 2011 nearly 200 people gathered at Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery at a mass grave, which is the final resting place for more than 400 victims of Jim Jones. They came to dedicate a memorial composed of granite slabs inscribed with the names of the 917 that died at Jonestown. The controversial memorial included the name of Jim Jones, though he was not buried at the cemetery. A storm of both protests and litigation ensued led by Rev. Jynona Norwood, a minister who lost 27 relatives at Jonestown. She said, “It is OK to honor a mass murderer.” Norwood pointed out that the inclusion of Jones name on the controversial memorial was the equivalent of including Osama bin Laden on a memorial honoring those lost on September 11th 2001.[vii]

Sadly Jonestown was only the beginning of what would become an episodic nightmare of repeated cult tragedies. The media, public and authorities would seemingly rediscover this issue again and again, whenever another cult tragedy occurred. However, interest and focus would eventually wane with each news cycle until the next sensational cult story emerged.

Authors Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman interviewed many former members of the Peoples Temple for their seminal book about cults “Snapping.” They sadly observed, “We say that each new report of cult abuses and criminal offenses will stir a major advance in public opinion and await the moment when policymakers in government become aroused to action. But, on reflection, it seems to us that even the carnage of People’s Temple may fail as a warning”.[viii]

In the wake of Jonestown “drinking the Kool-Aid” would become a pop culture expression to describe becoming so “brainwashed” that you cannot think independently. This sad metaphor is a legacy of Jonestown.



[i]Jonestown suicides shocked the world” Associated Press, March 27, 1997.

[ii] Taylor, Michael, “Jones captivated San Francisco’s liberal elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 1998.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Blakely, Deborah Layton, “Affidavit of Deborah Layton Blakely” June 15, 1978.

[v] Higgins, Chris, “Stop Saying ‘Drink the Kool-Aid,’” The Atlantic, November 8, 2012.

[vi] Taylor, Michael, “Jones captivated San Francisco’s liberal elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 1998.

[vii] “Nearly 200 gather to dedicate Jonestown memorial,” Associated Press May 29, 2011.

[viii] Conway, Flo and Jim Siegelman, /SNAPPING: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality  Change/. New York: Delta, 1979, p. 252 See also, 2nd edition, New York: Stillpoint Press, 1995/2005.

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