Remembering Jonestown 40 Years Later

Today’s post was written by Victoria Otero, an Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

November 18, 2018 marked 40 years since the passing of 918 people in the jungles of Guyana. While debate still exists as to whether or not the event was one of mass suicide or mass murder, the event was a tragedy resulting in the greatest single loss of American civilian life until the events of September 11, 2001. It has spawned the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to the act in unquestioningly following beliefs or orders in the interest of long term benefits, it led to the development of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), it influenced the way we protect Members of Congress while abroad, and it played a significant role in the way the Department of State handles Jonestown-type crisis situations.

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Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Leonard Morrisey, an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter pilot from the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, examines a poster found at the compound as the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy are loaded aboard the helicopter (NAID 6413446)

The Jonestown tragedy was the culmination of years of James Warren “Jim” Jones’ efforts to create his idea of a utopia away from the prying eyes of the United States government. Jones was a fervent communist, and he came to religion as a means of spreading his communist message of combating the inequality created by racial discrimination and capitalism. Jones himself alternatively identified as an agnostic or atheist. He began his preaching career in the Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1952, but his preaching style would evolve through the years as he added elements of Pentecostal faith healing. In 1957, as the Cold War intensified, he relocated his congregation from Indiana to Redwood Valley, California a place where he hoped possible nuclear war could be safely waited out in a new, socialist Eden. It was this idea that eventually developed into The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project: a utopia in which members could live and work together in equality.

The rise of Jim Jones coincides with a significant number of historical, cultural, and political events that changed the way Americans saw themselves, but one of the most important issues of the time with regards to Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple was civil rights. Jones was a proponent of integration and was actively involved in the fight for the equal treatment of African Americans. The Temple provided many assistance programs to underserved and underprivileged communities, assisting with issues such as food and clothing availability as well as affordable housing options. As a result, about 70% of the Peoples Temple membership was African American. Between all the assistance programs, the encouraging and supportive environment, Jones’ charismatic sermons on justice and communist ideals, miraculous displays of faith healing, and the steadily increasing “us against them” mentality, the Peoples Temple flourished, and Jim Jones became a community leader in San Francisco by the mid-1970s.

Despite the good that Jim Jones and his congregation were contributing to their community, tensions were rising. Temple members were being physically assaulted by other members during boxing matches that were staged by Jones as a form of punishment. Stories of sexual abuse began to arise. Jones was increasingly exhibiting signs of paranoia, due in part to public scrutiny but also increased drug use, the effects of which he tried to conceal with his signature reflective aviator sunglasses. Public concern came to the forefront after former members went to the media about their experiences within the cult and an exposé was written. In 1977, Jones, in an effort to escape scrutiny and further exert influence over his congregation, finally made the move to Guyana to establish the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, otherwise known as Jonestown.

The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was supposed to be a paradise, but what members actually experienced was far from it. Members worked all day to keep the commune running, working long hours in the sun in an attempt to make the land workable and capable of producing enough food. Loudspeakers projected a constant stream of live and recorded speeches by Jones, and mandatory lectures, lessons, and sermons followed after the long work days – he was inescapable. Besides promoting communist ideals, Jones preached the constant threat the community was under. He explained that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies were out to get the members of the community, breeding a sense of fear, paranoia, anxiety, and anger within the settlement. He preyed on the idea that these entities would steal the children away or murder them. Eventually, White Night rehearsals began, steadily increasing in regularity. Jones would say that the community was surrounded by people in the jungle wanting to kill the members. In one instance, Jones had members drink a red glass of liquid he claimed had poison in it; he said they would die in 45 minutes. After the time had passed, Jones revealed the practice was a test of loyalty. The act was termed “revolutionary suicide” and would eventually become the dress rehearsal for the group’s demise.

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Reports of abuse at the Jonestown compound in 1977. Outgoing Telegram p5, 1978 (NAID 3303580)

At the urging of ex-members and concerned family members, Congressman Leo Ryan and some of his staff went to Guyana to visit the settlement. While the majority of the members of the Temple put on a show of positivity for their guests, others found a way to quietly communicate their desire to leave. Jones presented an outwardly benevolent front and said these people may leave with the Congressman if they chose to; however, the risk of negative public exposure of the cult to the world at large meant a plan needed to be enacted to protect the interests of Jim Jones. Unbeknownst to Congressman Ryan, his staff, and the defectors, loyalists joined the departing group at the Port Kaituma Airstrip. On November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan was shot and killed alongside five others; eleven people suffered non-fatal injuries.

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Larry Layton (one of the Kaituma gunmen) was known to be a loyal follower of Jim Jones, and other defectors were concerned by his desire to join their departing group. Telegram from American Embassy Georgetown to the Secretary of State, Nov 1978 (NAID 3303580)
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Details of the events of the Port Kaituma airstrip, including the death of Congressman Ryan. Telegram from American Embassy Georgetown to Secretary of State, Nov 1978 (NAID 3303580)

Back at Jonestown, Jim Jones began speaking to his congregation, letting them know the plane the congressman and some defectors were on was going to go down. He let them know that their only chance now was to commit revolutionary suicide. Vats of a concoction of grape Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid as popularly believed), cyanide, and tranquilizer drugs were mixed and administered to members. Members unwilling to drink the concoction were shot. Jim Jones himself was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, though there is debate over whether or not the shot was, in fact, self-inflicted.

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Defecting members had informed officials of Jones’ threats of violence and revolutionary suicide. Telegram from American Embassy Georgetown to Secretary of State, Nov 1978(NAID 3303580)

Forty years later, we look back upon the events of events of Jonestown with sadness and an awareness of the power of persuasion. What began as an attempt at a more equal society ultimately ended in tragedy. The National Archives and Records Administration has some records available for viewing, including the Records of Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher, 1977-1980 (NAID 1487627). More photographs from the Jonestown cleanup are available for viewing through our Catalog; please be aware that these images may be considered graphic and disturbing; discretion is advised:


The telegrams included in this blog post can be found in Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, Records of Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher, 1977-1980 (NAID 1487627), file Guyana–Jonestown (NAID 3303580).

For more information regarding the events at Jonestown and Jim Jones, please see:

Guinn, Jeff. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of the Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. London: Aurum Press, 1999.

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