Jonestown: Anniversary of a massacre and why 918 people died in the jungle

On A warm Saturday afternoon in the dense jungle, cult leader Jim Jones led the massacre of 918 followers., Australia/October 16, 2018

By Candace Sutton

When the troops turned into the Americans’ village in the eerily quiet post-dawn mist, they began to stumble on obstacles at their feet — were they logs placed to impede them?

The soldiers had just marched through the vast snake and jaguar-infested rainforest of northwestern Guyana in South America, among the world’s densest jungle, to reach the Jonestown site.

Shrouding the ground at their feet was the thick, steamy fog of the early morning, which the soldiers peered through, some screaming, some running off in fright.

At their feet lay not logs, but bodies, too many to count; innumerable heaps of dead people — men, women and children.

Hours later, an aircraft overhead would see the bodies laid out as if in a patchwork around vats of poison-laced cordial, plastic cups and syringe casings.

Someone would count them, all 913 bodies, plus five more shot at the airstrip, in what would become known as the Jonestown massacre.

The only thing they would get wrong was to say that it was a mass suicide.

It was far more sinister than that.

Forty years later, that myth has been dispelled, as one of the reporters who covered it first hand says, the Jonestown massacre was a mass murder led by a religious megalomaniac.

Although it happened at an experimental community in utopian socialism set up in a remote part of the world, what actually took place at Jonestown, its very scale and tragedy, is still in some ways unfathomable.

The thick forest around Jonestown stretching from horizon to horizon is deadly, filled with swamps, insects and animals.

Even for Guyana, wedged between Suriname and Venezuela on South America’s North Atlantic coast, Jonestown — 8km from tiny, isolated Port Kaituma — is “the wild, wild west”.

In 1978, it was almost impossible to escape the Reverend Jim Jones’ iron rule, enforced by his henchmen armed with rifles and pistols against defectors.

The handful of survivors, in the confusion following the massacre, with hundreds of bodies rapidly deteriorating under hot tropical sun, found it difficult to explain.

Cults since — David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in 1994 at Waco, Heaven’s Gate in 1997 San Diego — have taken a mortal toll among followers.

What the Jonestown media try to explain is how Jim Jones’ madness could engulf so many.

It was actually grape-flavoured Flavor-Aid rather than Kool-Aid mixed with potassium cyanide, Valium and Phenergan which killed 900-plus at Jonestown.

But the act of slavish and unquestioning obedience entered the lexicon as “drink the Kool-Aid”.

A study of the last terrible moments at the clearing in the forest reveals that some were far from unquestioning

They were held down and injected with poison, crying kids were lined up and fed a squirt of cyanide into their mouths.

Loading up all the corpses at Jonestown took eight full days; processing what happened may never end.


Growing up in the 1930s, he had an older, alcoholic father and a strident, pants wearing, smoking and swearing mother.

The Road to Jonestown reveals that, as a kid, young Jimmy held funerals for dead animals. claimed he had special flying powers, and was fascinated with Adolf Hitler and Nazi pageantry.

He attended services at all the town’s churches and could talk endlessly about religion or sex.

In 1949, he married a nurse almost four years his senior, Marceline, and forged ahead, failing college and trying to establish himself as a preacher.

Drawn to socialism and African-American churches, he adopted the title the “Reverend Mr Jim Jones”.

Jones preached racial equality, promising black Americans a better life when lynchings and cross burnings were still real.

He loved the theatre of revival meetings and conducting faith healings, which he faked, always pushing a political agenda of social justice for black Americans.

Marceline adopted a “rainbow family”, a radical idea for the times, made up of two Korean orphans, a black child, Jim Jones Jnr, and one of her own, Stephan.

Jones started The People’s Temple which he moved to a commune in Redwood Valley, California, then to San Francisco, catching the disaffection with tradition of the hippy movement and the Haight-Ashbury themes of love and racial equality.

Paradise Lost credits Jones with opening a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts, a soup kitchen, free medical centre and housing the old and the homeless.

The Redwood Valley commune promoted clean air and a wholesome life.


But there was a dark side.

The documentary also says Jones was a conman and a controller who used his enormous charisma to convince staff to pose as sick or disabled and be “healed” by him.
As followers told ABC-TV, “I thought Jim Jones could actually walk on water. I seriously thought he had the power of God. I saw his healings and thought they were real.”

He was a sexual predator who turned his followers into spies to gather information to blackmail his devotees into giving him their money and sometimes their houses, bank accounts and power of attorney.

People signed blank pieces of paper on which were typed “signed confessions by parents they were molesting their children”.

Other methods of control revealed on Paradise Lost were mind control via lack of sleep, sexual and physical abuse and isolation.

In audio footage, Jones says, “Some people see Christ in me.”

In the early 1970s, disillusioned People’s Temple members, concerned relatives and the press

began to amass a dirt file on Jones.

He escaped to the jungle of Guyana, and with the money and people power of his followers established a community in the bush.

As Washington Post reporter Charles Krause, who saw Jonestown’s bloody end firsthand said, the Jonestown community looked organised and clean at first.


What he didn’t realise initially was that by November 1978, Jones was losing control, addicted to drugs and his followers were browbeaten, malnourished and exhausted into submission.

The bulk of Jones’ People’s Temple followers had arrived in Guyana from San Francisco in 1977.

Jones had convinced them that his jungle utopia was only place to live free from capitalist oppression.

He also spun the line that the intense speculation in US mainstream media about fraud and sexual abuse in his church was driven by the establishment’s hate of their racism-free society.

At Jonestown, he openly slept with other women while Marceline turned a blind eye.

He began collecting weapons.

The increasingly frightened Jonestown followers called Jones “Dad” or “Father”.

They were being woken up in the middle of the night by Jones on the loud speaker announcing a “White Knight” or emergency that threatened the security or autonomy of the community.

Those who had tried to escape were captured and threatened, some placed in a “care unit” and drugged for weeks at a time, Rolling Stone later reported.


Informers at Jonestown received time off from the backbreaking daily work of farming, food and extra privileges.

At the “White Knight” meetings, Jones talked about the need for a collective suicide to flee the terrible world and escape the apocalypse of the nuclear war to come.

By the second half of 1978, Jones had ordered in large amounts of potassium cyanide, and the tranquillising drugs Valium and Phenergan.

In mid-November 1978, Californian congressman Leo Ryan planned a visit to Jonestown with a groups of “concerned relatives” of People’s Temple members allegedly being held against their will.

Ryan flew in with a delegation of 18 and with media crews and cameras, entered the compound.


Cheerful Jones followers, who had been coached for days and were under the threat of the armed guards, told of how happy they were.

A party was underway, but Jones ranted to the visitors about government and media conspiracies.

Reporter Charles Krause later wrote of the scene, “Most people in the settlement nervously moved away whenever one of the visitors came close.

“Those attempting to leave said later everyone had been told that the outsiders were there to kill them.

“Each time a member of Ryan’s party tried to wander around alone, one of the sect leaders would attach himself to the visitor and inhibit his movements.”

But as time wore on, people made it known they wanted to leave, around 15 in all.

The first were Monica Bagby and Vernon Gosney, who had the agonising decision of having to leave behind his young son.

One of the defectors described the compound as “a communist prison camp” and Jones denounced them saying they were liars intent on destroying the utopian dream.

A temple devotee attacked Ryan with a knife as he left with members for the Port Kaituma airstrip where two small planes waited.


As they waited to board, a tractor arrived at the strip loaded with nine armed men who opened fire, shooting Ryan, and gunning down others.

Krause later wrote, “With the soldiers and other Guyanese looking on, the tractor-trailer drove slowly around the larger plane as the men shot into it and at the people on the ground.

“They appeared to take special pains to put coup degrace shots into Ryan and Brown, the TV cameraman, and Robinson, the newspaper photographer.”

When rescuers later reached the air strip they would find Ryan, “finished off” with 20 gunshot wounds.

Others were still alive, lying on the strip.

Back at the compound, Jones used the airstrip murders to precipitate his planned mass suicide.

He told followers the deaths would spark an invasion by the outside world which would come in and “kill our babies”.

A sickening 44 minute tape exists of Jones cajoling and threatening the people into killing themselves.


Known as the “death tape”, it begins with him saying, “How very much I’ve loved you … I’ve tried to give you a good life.”

He describes the defectors as having committed “the betrayal of the century”.

Jones continues, “If we can’t live in peace, let’s die in peace” and claims “it’s not suicide, it’s a revolutionary act”.

The volume of children crying in the backgrounds rises as they are forced forward, fed the poison and die convulsing on the ground.

A woman called Christine Miller tries to argue that “where there’s life is hope” but is shouted down and eventually force fed the poison, which took effect in five minutes.

Jones talks on, “Without me, life has no meaning. Just relax and you will have no problem.

“People must be drinking it … where’s the vat, the vat with the green tea in it please.

“If you don’t follow my advice you will be sorry.”

People sing, people die, and the children’s cries fade.

But Jones didn’t drink the poison, he got someone to shoot him in the head.


Photos of the horrific death scene show piles of syringes and paper cups around the bloated bodies of the dead by a vat of the poison.

Many of the bodies in Jonestown were found clutching each other as if in a final embrace.

Paradise Lost interviews Jones’ son Stephan, who was “sent away” before the massacre by his mother Marceline on a basketball trip.

A handful of Jonestown followers had also survived, having escaped into the jungle in the early morning before the madness unfolded.

Hyacinth Thrash, 76, had hidden under her bed, only to emerge into the stillness of the sinister scene of bodies piled up around the Jonestown pavilion.


An early African-American convert to the People’s Temple who had joined in the 1950s with her sister in Indiana, Hyacinth had followed the Rev Jim Jones to California.

But she saw what had begun as an enlightened, racially integrated Christian ministry turn into an armed camp of fear, brutality and paranoia deep in the South American jungle.

Hyacinth was living in a cottage at Jonestown with three older women, including her friend Birdy.

When one of her roommates told her something had happened at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Hyacinth hid and fell asleep.

“When I got outside,” Hyacinth said in an interview before she died, aged 93 in 1995 back in Indiana, “It was like a ghost town.

“I went over to another senior citizen building where my friend Birdy lived.

“I saw Birdy sitting in the chair, draped in a sheet. I say, ‘Birdy, Birdy, what’s wrong?’

“But she didn’t move … I looked down the row of beds, and all the people were either sitting up or laying in bed.

“I said, ‘Oh, God, they came and they killed them all, and I’s the onliest one alive! Why didn’t they take me, too?’

“I pinched myself. Was I alive? I couldn’t believe it. I just stood there.”

Alive because he had been sent to Georgetown to play basketball, Stephan Jones later acknowledged his father’s madness and believes Marceline saved his life as it escalated.

“I’d known for a long time my father was nuts,” he said. “At the rate he was going with his drug use, he only had a few more months. There was no denying he was losing control and for a man like my father it must have been like grabbing at quicksand.”

Sherwin Harris had flown down to Guyana with Leo Ryan to see his daughter, 21-year-old Liane, who was a Jonestown devotee with her mother, Sharon Amos.

A true zealot trusted by Jones, Amos was in charge of Temple headquarters in Georgetown.

There she received instructions from Jones to take revenge on the Temple’s enemies and commit revolutionary suicide.

Amos took Liane and her two younger children into a bathroom and with a kitchen knife, killed Christa, 11, and Martin, 10.

Then Liane assisted Sharon in killing herself with the knife, after which Liane killed herself with the knife.

Sherwin Harris said Jim Jones held “the entire blame” for the deaths.

“It was as if he was determined to make sure that nobody won,” Harris tells ABC-TV.

“If he wasn’t going to win, nobody was going to win.”

Harris said he had finally come to terms with losing his beloved daughter.

“I loved my daughter very much. I lost her, I’m truly suffering with the grief all these years,” he said. “I came to see I was really holding on to the grief as if I let it go I was letting go of her.

“I came to see I could hold my daughter as a loving memory forever, and let the grief go.

The other story is of Vern Gosney. Years later, he recalls the moment he was told that his son was dead.

He was in a military hospital recovering from gunshot wounds sustained at Port Kaituma.

“The loss of my son has been the most difficult thing in my life to deal with,” he said on Paradise Lost.

“My sense of remorse, my sense of guilt, my going back to that moment a million times and making a different decision.

“To find some level of peace, some level of forgiveness has been the most challenging thing for me.”

Tim Reiterman was the reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, whose articles about the twister leader of the People’s Temple cult alerted Leo Ryan to Jones’ abuses.

Reiterman flew to Jonestown with Ryan and was shot at the Port Kaituma airstrip, but survived. He is the author ofRaven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, published by Penguin.

He told ABC-TV the mass poisoning happened “because Jim Jones didn’t want word to get out to the outside world what was going on inside his community”.

“He didn’t want the defectors to tell their stories, and the reporters to tell their stories and the congressman to tell his story,” Reiterman said.

“One of the myths of Jonestown was that it was a mass suicide, whereas in fact it was a mass murder.”

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