This Day In History: Mass Suicide At Jonestown (1978)

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On this day in history, there was a mass suicide in the small Latin American country of Guyana. The dead were all members of the People’s Temple, a Christian cult. In total, some 909 people killed themselves that day, many of the dead were children. There is some dispute as to whether all those who died, committed suicide out of their own free will, or were they forced to kill themselves. It seems that many of those who died were in effect murdered by their fellow cult members.

Jim Jones had established the cult in Indianapolis. It was a Christian sect and it was at least initially a progressive movement that crusaded against racism and social injustice. In 1965 the group moved to Northern California and it attracted many new  members, especially from the African-American community. The Church later moved to Utah, but it was accused by the media and some politicians of financial fraud and the physical abuse of some members. Jim Jones became increasingly paranoid and he decided to move his cult to Guyana where they would establish an agricultural commune. The Church set up ‘Jonestown’ in a remote area of Guyana. Jones wanted all of the Church members to live in a community that was modeled on socialist and Christian principles.

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Victims of Jones Stones being remembered at a memorial in 2011

Jones promised his followers the Promised Land, but it did not turn out that way. When members arrived at the commune they had to work long hours in the fields and they could not question Jones decisions. Jones ruled the commune by fear and encouraged members to denounce each other. By this time Jones was a hopeless drug addict and his mental health had declined.  During late night meetings, he would persuade members to take mock suicide pills to demonstrate their loyalty. The US government heard of the activities of Jones and began to investigate him and his Church.

In 1978, some former Temple members and a US Congressman, Leo Ryan traveled to Jonestown to investigate claims that people were being detained against their will. The visit went well and relations between the visitors and Jones were friendly and cordial. Then as Ryan and his party were leaving the were approached by some members who wanted to leave. Ryan agreed that they could leave with him. This infuriated Jones and he later ordered that Ryan and his party ambushed. As Ryan and his group were boarding a chartered plane they were attacked and the Congressman and four companions were killed.

Back in Jonestown, the members of the Church were ordered to assemble in the main square and here they were urged to commit suicide. They were asked or prompted to drink a potent mix of cyanide and fruit juice. Children had the potion poured down their throats using a syringe. This all happened under the supervision of Jones and his armed guards.  Within hours over 900 were dead, including Jones. He may have been shot by one of his guards. A few temple members managed to escape including Jones own sons.

 

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