Jonestown Massacre: Inside History’s Largest “Mass Suicide”

AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy

In what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre, or referenced in an offhand manner by the term “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” over 900 Americans committed mass suicide under instruction from their leader Jim Jones. He tested their loyalty through extreme measures, exerted the utmost control masking his traumas, and draw to darkness until finally, he had them isolated across the ocean with cups of poison to their mouths.

Who Was Jim Jones?

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The ideology of Jim Jones’s church, the Peoples Temple, doesn’t seem like it should be a bad idea, at a glance. Topics like racial equality and helping your community are what’s visible on the surface. However, a closer look will reveal he was a Marxist and wanted control. These truths shrouded in his impression of historical tyrannical figures like Adolf Hitler. The Peoples Temple was founded in Indianapolis, where Jones grew up, regarded as a weird child by many peers. Some recall that he was obsessed with death and religion equally, and carried out weird experiments. A childhood friend of a friend claimed they witnessed him kill a small animal with cutlery. Nobody at the church knew these things. They saw a charismatic guy urging others to “do good”.

A decade after founding his church, around 1965, he urged them to move to Eureka, California, because according to an Esquire magazine article it was the safest place in the event of a nuclear disaster. To solidify that he was right, he told the congregation that an attack would happen in the near future on July 15, 1967. About 70 members of the Peoples Temple moved to the redwood valley. This was only the beginning.


By the seventies, the Peoples Temple grew included hundreds from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area. Still “fearful” of a nuclear disruption, Jones moved the Peoples Temple to a remote South American island, previously owned by British Columbia. A published article scrutinizing the church for abuse, neglect of children, and greed on the behalf of the leader also pushed his decision. He told his congregation that Guayana was the “promised land”. They believed him. Approximately 900 of his members moved to live remotely in the Guyanese jungle under his instruction. For Jim Jones, this meant isolation from any lawmakers or anyone to interfere with him being the leader. It also meant the Peoples Temple members had to solely rely upon their cult leader, whom they were referring to as “Reverend Jim Jones”.

In Guyana, the members of Peoples Temple began building their “utopia” that was to be called Jonestown. They worked in the tropical heat with limited tools all day with loudspeakers blaring messages from “reverend” Jones as they worked, seven days a week to earn their meals. As they worked, family members back in the United States grew increasingly concerned about their Jonestown family members. Some lost all communication, others received strange letters. They started asking the government to look into it the Guyanese settlement to see that their family members were safe.

Family Matters

Among family members who were petitioning the government were Grace and Tim Stoen. Their request differed slightly from those concerned with letters. This couple wanted their six-year-old son, John Victor Stoen, who was in Jones’ possession, returned to them. The two had been followers of and heavily involved in the Peoples Temple during the early California years. Tim was the temple’s attorney and Grace was close to Jones. Grace and Tim had a son in 1972, but Jones claimed the boy was fathered by himself. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, probably in a test of loyalty of Grace and Tim, Jones had Tim sign an affidavit claiming that John Victor Stoen was the cult leader’s son. Signing incriminating and false documents in this way wasn’t exactly new to the Peoples Temple. Other members had signed false documents claiming to have molested their own children that the church kept as blackmail. It was simply another flex of power for Jim Jones. When Grace and Time defected and fled the church in 1976 afraid for their lives, they left their son John Victor with Jones. Their plan was to obtain him through the U.S. court system. They pressed the court, as others were sending letters to the government to reach their family members in Guyana.

To Grace and Tim Stoen it was a matter of reuniting their family and rescuing their son. For Jim Jones, this battle represented the grip of power he held over his followers. If he lost his “son”, how could he protect the rest of his congregation from the unknown, and if other concerned relatives were demanding their loved ones return home, how could he have any power to keep them in Guyana? Losing John Victor would represent a loss of power over his people. That was a non-negotiable “no” for Jones.

White Nights

Ultimately, the US government sided with Grace and Tim Stoen. John Victor legally belonged with and to his parents in America. Jonestown went into defense mode. The commune’s armed members with sharp weapons and guns. Around this time, Jonestown started practicing drills that were referred to as “white nights” which was simply the practice of committing mass suicide. He would tell the members that the scenario was thas the government (or mercenaries) were going to come and kidnap them and that they should instead they would all die together. For anyone who seemed they weren’t in accordance with this test, Jones frightened.  He told African American members that they would end up imprisoned in concentration camps; he told anyone who was White that if they didn’t participate they would be tortured and killed by the CIA. As you can guess, White Nights were just preparation for the murder-suicide.

Congressman Leo Ryan’s Visits Jonestown

As families continued to urge the government to find out what was happening in Guyana, California congressman Leo Ryan stepped up to do just that. He organized a group of journalists, reporters, photographers, and others to scope out the Jonestown situation. November 17, 1978, Leo Ryan and his group of 24 others arrived in Guyana to meet with Jones. Two days after their arrival, they received permission to visit the commune. During interactions, Jones was agitated. That night there was entertainment for the congressman as the reporters pulled people aside for interviews. The reporters were making their way through a laundry list of names sent by people vehemently asking the government to ensure their loved ones were safe. Mid-interviews they received a discreet note, representative Jackie Speier says of the night,

 “Don comes over, hands us the note. My heart sank,” …“Everything those defectors said is true. Then more people wanted to leave and the whole thing exploded.”

The next day, when a commune member tried to stab the congressman, the trip was called short. The journalist, photographers, and Congressman Ryan made their way to the airstrip escorted by appointed Jonestown members and a few who had requested to leave the island. As the group boarded the plane to leave, designated Jonestown members open fired, killing nearly everyone who’d just arrived and anyone trying to leave.

Hours after congressman Ryan took shelter under the wheel of a plane under Jonestown fire, Jones gathered his population to the Pavillion. The members lined up to receive cups of Fla-Vor-Aid laced with cyanide. Over 300 children, including John Victor Stoen, were poisoned first, the adults were next. This was the real White Night, and the very last. Maybe the Jonestown people knew, maybe they didn’t. The cult leader called what they were about to do a “Revolutionary Suicide”. In recordings, children can be heard crying as they die and it’s clear that although this group was trained to do this something was truly wrong. Yet, it happened. Jones himself was found amongst his 900+ members, also dead, but from a gunshot wound to the head.

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