'Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle': Survivors reveal details about Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple in Guyana, and the Kool-Aid incident
The Jonestown Massacre is known to have the greatest loss of American lives before the devastating 9/11 attacks took place on US soil
The story of the Jonestown Massacre of November 18, 1978, is one that began with people in the town feeling a sense of belonging and kinship and ended with one of the deadliest mass suicides in modern day history. With a death toll of more than 900 men, women, and children, the incident in the small township of Jonestown nestled in the tropical jungles of Guyana, was described by TV news legend Van Amburg in a 1978 broadcast of the shocking event as "shades of Auschwitz". The first pictures and videos captured by reporters outside the compound in Guyana sent shockwaves across the world. It is no wonder that the Jonestown Massacre is known to have the greatest loss of American lives before the devastating 9/11 attacks took place on US soil.
Bodies were seen lying next to each other, some of them even embracing their immediate neighbors, and the smell of rotting flesh reached the helicopters carrying the reporters long before they touched down on the ground. Now, in a new documentary series set to release on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, the untold stories of some of the survivors of the People Temple and Jim Jones' own children will throw light on the man behind this suicidal operation.
Based on the best-selling book 'The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple' by investigative journalist Jeff Guinn, the four-part documentary series by SundanceTV titled Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle, shows a side of the infamous massacre that people have never seen before.
The show was executive produced by actor Leonardo DiCaprio among others and features unreleased recordings taken by survivors and previously unreleased FBI documents on the events of November 18, 1978. The two-night special event also seeks answers to the burning questions: "how" and "why".
To answer these questions in 2018, however, we will have to travel back in time to when the founder of what would be the Peoples Temple was born. Jim Jones took his first breath on Earth in 1931 in the small rural town of Crete, Indiana. Interviews of people who knew the man before he became 'the Messiah' spoke of a quiet, but eccentric child who always wanted to be the center of attention. It was claimed that Jones was always looking for a place where he could fit in.
At the end of the day, Jones was said to always find a lot of solace in the church. As he grew older, he joined five different churches. He also read up about a lot about other religions and studied the way priests spoke and behaved in front of a large congregation. One would think he was into religion but that wasn't the case. Jones was only attending services so he could see how preachers were able to hold an audience's absolute attention. He would watch their movements, listen carefully to what they would stay and then finally made up his mind that he would be a preacher in the near future. For young Jones, this was the ultimate goal because all he wanted was attention.
On June 12, 1949, Jim Jones married Marceline Baldwin in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a few years later in 1956, he founded the Peoples Temple at the age of 25.
It was very clear that he wanted to be universally known and he was also particular about wanting power and influence even at that young age. The church immediately started getting followers and when Jones decided to move the Temple from Indiana to Ukiah, California, in July 1965, he had a 140-member congregation moving with him. As it turned out, Jones was desperate to get out of Indiana and made up some wild prophecy of a nuclear war that would be breaking out in the state if they didn't move.
The Peoples Temple facility in Redwood Valley, California, was finally completed in 1969 and Jones was ecstatic. This was the beginning of his empire. As one of the survivors in the docu-series says, "He was building an empire for himself."
Membership in the Temple tripled that year and Jones' power-hungry attitude was slowly beginning to manifest. Case in point, he started telling his large congregation that the real purpose of the Temple was to promote socialism. Whether the members believed that or not, Jones' subliminal encouragement to take up communal living seemed to have the effect of kinship among the members. They started believing that sacrifice was for the greater good.
Then, in May 1972, a small gathering of congregation members was having a quiet picnic when suddenly the loud sound of a gunshot rang in the air. Everyone panicked until a few of the members realized that Jones was on the ground and bleeding from the chest. This caused a bit of a stir within the community and led to the point where Jones was able to get everyone under his grasp for certain.
In December that same year, the Peoples Temple bought property in San Francisco for a new church and Jones also created the Planning Commission. The members of the newly-formed group within the community acquired land in Guyana for the Temple and two years later, construction began on what will eventually be Jonestown.
Jones' paranoia seemed to be slowly reaching its boiling point with a series of strange events that unfolded when the Peoples Temple and its members were still in the US. Towards the end of 1975, he put his Planning Commission through a loyalty test of sorts. He called the members into the church and handed out glasses of wine. They were all later told that the wine was poisoned and Jones looked to see their reaction to judge which members would be loyal to them. In reality, there was no poison in any of the glasses but it seemed to do the trick. In the winter of the following year, the Peoples Temple moved its headquarters to San Francisco.
In 1977, a year after Grace Stoen defected from the community after being forced to leave her son behind, the Concerned Relatives group was formed. The members of this group consisted of relatives of the Peoples Temple members. This was only a small bump for Jones' otherwise burgeoning paranoia but the thing that really drove it home for the preacher was an article that was written on August 1 that same year by Marshall Kilduff for New West Magazine. The article was highly critical of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple and this caused Jones to panic and order everyone in his congregation flee to the Jonestown compound in Guyana.
He was convinced that everybody was out to get him. The big move to Jonestown started in August 1977. The compound was constructed in such a way that it had land for the members to till their own crops for food, housing, a church, and a community center.
It was estimated that the compound would be able to comfortably feed 500 Peoples Temple members for many years to come. What Jones and the Planning Commission did not account for, was that 500 more members would also be flying in. Very soon, the conditions in the compound started deteriorating just like Jones' mental health.
Jones was also heavily addicted to prescription medication and most of the time his behavior was very erratic. He would play recordings of himself giving sermons all through the night and would make the members work in the fields all through the day to account for the multitudes of extra mouths to field. In September that same year, after the majority of the Peoples Temple members had landed in Guyana and started living what they thought would be content lives, Grace Stoen sued Jim Jones and demands that he return her son, John.
It had reached a point in the small township in Guyana where people wanted to leave but Jones would have none of it. Anyone who dared try and escape was ruthlessly gunned down and even the staunchest supporter started questioning their leader. A siege occurred for six days in the compound after Jones was sued by Stoen. Shortly after this incident, U.S. Representative Congressman Leo Ryan announced that he planned to visit Jonestown on November 1, 1977. The delegation of reporters and some concerned relatives headed to Guyana on November 15 and went into the compound.
After what seemed like a good chat with Jones about how he would take the members who wanted to return to the US back with him, Congressman Ryan was attacked by the man himself and almost stabbed in front of a multitude of witnesses on November 18.
The delegation and the few Peoples Temple defectors who left with Ryan for the Port Kaituma airstrip were aware of the fact that just before they left, ardent Jim Jones supporter Larry Layton asked to join the group.
Once they reach the airstrip and boarded the planes, a tractor filled with gunmen from the Jonestown compound open fire. Five people, including Ryan, died at the airstrip and 12 people were wounded in the incident. Layton was later arrested.
November 18 was an eventful day for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. After he realized that he just ordered a hit on a Congressman from the US and that he wouldn't be able to use any power or influence to get himself and his church out of this one, Jones ordered that everyone remaining on the compound drink Flavor Aid (a local version of Kool-Aid) that was mixed with potassium cyanide.
Members of the community were visibly panicked but Jones was convinced that this was the only way out. He said: "If we can't live in peace, then let's die in peace." Many of the members drank the poisoned drink without question. For them, Jones was their Messiah and the one who would lead them on the right path in their journey. To put everyone's mind at ease, Jones asked for all the children to be given the drink first. His logic was, "If the adults see their children dying then they won't have a reason to live." Unfortunately for the ones who refused to drink the poison, Jones has syringes kept ready to be injected into the reluctant ones.
More than 900 people died that day and the last thing they saw was the blue sky, the last thing they felt was the heat from the afternoon Guyana sun, and the last thing they heard was Jim Jones telling them that what they did was the right thing.
The surviving members of the Peoples Temple were flown back to the United States that same month and were interrogated by the FBI. They have all admitted that this experience changed them forever.
A search of the compound by authorities after everyone died revealed the body of Jim Jones in the community center area of the compound. He was bloated, decomposing, and apparently dead after being shot in the head. In December of 1978, the Peoples Temple was finally dissolved.
'Jonestown: Terror In The Jungle' is scheduled to air on November 17 and 18 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the deadly mass suicide event.