Nov 16, 2008 News
By Gary Eleazar
November 18, 1978 will always be embedded in the hearts and minds of Americans, Guyanese and possibly others the world over.
It was the day that some 909 people, including more than 300 children, committed suicide or were murdered in the dense jungle of Guyana, a country with which the world was not too familiar prior to what will always be remembered as the Jonestown Massacre.
Jim Jones, a self-professed faith healer and reverend, led the People’s Temple to Guyana to isolate itself from the world under the guise of a ‘world under threat of nuclear war and overwhelming evil that threatened the sanctity of the People’s Temple.’
He was born James Warren Jim Jones on May 13, 1931, in Indiana, a rural community near the Ohio border, to James Thurman Jones, a World War One veteran, and Lynetta Putnam.
In 2007 interviews with PBS, childhood acquaintances recalled Jones as a “really weird kid” who was “obsessed with religion … obsessed with death,” and once claimed that he frequently held funerals for small animals and had purportedly fatally stabbed a cat.
Jones is said to have been a voracious reader as a child, studying Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler.
After Jones’s parents separated, he moved with his mother to Richmond, Indiana, where he graduated from Richmond High School early and with honours in the winter of 1948.
He married Marceline Baldwin, a nurse, in 1949, and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he attended the Indiana University.
The following year, after graduating from a pastoral correspondence course, he started preaching and eventually started up a religious organisation that embraced all ethnic groups. Thus the People’s Temple was born in 1955.
The People’s Temple appealed primarily to African-Americans, who were at that time still a very marginalized group in America.
After moving its headquarters around the US a couple of times because of criticism from some circles with regard to his radical approach, Jones came to Guyana in 1974 for a plot of land where he said he wanted to set up an agricultural project. In 1974, the People’s Temple signed an agreement to lease land in Guyana.
The community created on this property was called the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, or informally, “Jonestown.” It had as few as 50 residents in early 1977.
Jones first started building Jonestown as a means to create both a ‘socialist paradise’ and a ‘sanctuary’ from the media scrutiny which had started in 1972.
Former Temple member Tim Carter, one of three persons who were allowed to walk freely out of Jonestown following the massacre, in describing the reason for the move to Jonestown, said: “What we saw in the United States was creeping fascism.…It was apparent that corporations, or the multinationals, were getting much larger, their influence was growing within the government, and the United States is a racist place.”
He told American media operatives that the ‘Temple,’ which was dictated over by Jones, concluded that Guyana was “a place in a black country where our black members could live in peace…It was a socialist government and it was the only English speaking country in South America.”
After Jones left the US for Guyana, he encouraged Temple members to follow him there; and by 1978, the population grew to over 900.
Those who moved there were promised a tropical paradise free from the supposed wickedness of the outside world, and were lured with images of a tranquil, self-sufficient farming community, which was attractive in light of the threat of nuclear war at the time, with the US as a prime target.
But all was not well in the perceived ‘bed of roses,’ as survivors recall some of the horrors of the community, with public beatings for questioning Jones, hard work details, and rationing of food, among others.
On November 17, 1978, Leo Ryan, a Congressman from the San Francisco area, investigating claims of abuse within the People’s Temple, visited Jonestown.
The beginning of the end
This visit proved to be the beginning of the end of Jonestown. On the evening of that first day, the Congressman and his delegation were treated to a cultural presentation that involved singing and dancing, skits and dramatic presentations, and the settlement was portrayed as a tropical paradise.
But some of the settlers managed to pass notes to members of the visiting delegation, pointing out the cruelties meted out to them whilst there and expressing a need to go back home, given that Jones had seized all of their passports and told them if they wanted to leave they would have to trek through the jungles and come face to face with unthinkable dangers.
The crew delegation was forced to sleep at Port Kaituma, an Amerindian settlement some six miles away from the now infamous Jonestown.
The next day, during an interview with an NBC news journalist, Jones refuted the claims of the persons, calling them liars and pointing out that he had no control over a person’s lips, and could not stop them from lying.
In response to the delegation’s request to carry with them whoever wished to leave, Jones said that they were free to do so.
Some took up the offer, whilst others, out of fear of Jones, stayed. Jones was a drug addict who had a large, well armed security contingent that was loyal to him, and which he used to instill fear in the followers.
During the day of November 18, 1978, there was a lot of emotional outbursts, clamouring and hesitancy, but in the end a number of persons opted to leave the dreaded place. One person was, however, instructed to kill the occupants of whichever aircraft he was placed on.
While at the Port Kaituma airport, persons were recorded as happy to leave, but there were still those who were loyal to Jones in the vicinity, with one man attempting to slit Congressman Ryan’s throat even before they boarded the airplane.
He was subdued, but this did not prevent the Congressman from eventually dying a horrific death. As the passengers started to board the airplane, a tractor with a tray attached to it pulled on to the airport, forcing one of the planes that were already taxiing on the runway to abort flight.
It was at this time that the Jim Jones loyalists emerged from the tray with weapons drawn, and their motives were quickly realized when they opened fire on the crowd.
Some managed to make it to the jungle and escape, but for the US Congressman and the news crew, luck was not on their side, as they were brutally murdered by Jones’s ‘hitmen.’ Ryan, to date, is the only U.S. representative to have been assassinated while in office.
Meanwhile, the mole in the crew had also opened fire on the passengers who were in the plane that almost managed to take off.
Back at Jonestown, there was an eerie quiet after the Congressman and his would-be crew left, but this was broken by a call to order, as Jones summoned a meeting with those who remained.
During this meeting, the horrendous command was delivered. Jones told the gathering that he had ordered the death of the Congressman and, as such, the military force would come in and kill and torture them.
He said that there would be paratroopers who would rain bullets on them, and as such there should be a revolutionary suicide protesting the inhumanities of the world. He ordered a batch of cyanide to be mixed into a deadly potion.
It would be placed into a vat of Kool Aid drink and be sweetened to quell the bitter taste of the deadly cyanide.
He then ordered the parents to serve their children with the deadly potions, and sought to calm their fears when the children started to cry, saying that it was a painless death and their cries were just a reaction to the bitter taste. He also urged them to “die with some amount of dignity.” Some 300-plus children were murdered that day.
Many of the parents voluntarily drank the deadly substance, while those who refused were murdered by Jim Jones loyalists.
A few managed to escape. Some trekked through the jungle, and a few were overlooked, given that they were in the compound’s infirmary nursing various ailments. Jones himself died that day, presumably by a loyalist, given that he was found dead with a gunshot to the back of his head.
Recently, it was uncovered that Jones may have plotted the mass suicide long before the day of the actual suicide.
According to a CNN report, cyanide was being bought and shipped to the Jim Jones jungle compound for at least two years before the fatal death command.
Sources in Guyana said that the Jonestown camp began obtaining shipments of cyanide — about a quarter to a half-pound of the deadly poison each month — from as early as 1976, well before most of Jones’s followers made the move there.
CNN reported that it was told that Jones had obtained a jeweller’s license to buy cyanide. The chemical can be used to clean gold. But there was no jeweller’s operation in Jonestown.
Six months before Ryan arrived on the investigative mission, the settlement’s doctor wrote in a memo to Jones: “Cyanide is one of the most rapidly acting poisons…I would like to give about two grams to a large pig to see how effective our batch is.”
The only savior of Guyana
Oct 01, 2023…focused on Grassroots and Female Football Kaieteur Sports – Guyana Football Federation (GFF) President Wayne Forde recently completed a successful two-day outreach in Region Seven...
Oct 01, 2023
Oct 01, 2023
Oct 01, 2023
Oct 01, 2023
Oct 01, 2023
By Sir Ronald Sanders (The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American... more
Freedom of speech is our core value at Kaieteur News. If the letter/e-mail you sent was not published, and you believe that its contents were not libellous, let us know, please contact us by phone or email.