On November 18th 1978, over nine hundred people from the settlement of Jonestown, Guyana, willingly died from cyanide poisoning. The Jonestown settlement was sold as a utopia for its citizens and was established by Jim Jones, a communist who founded his own church known as “the People’s Temple” in 1950. However, Jonestown would not live up to it’s dream and it quickly became a cesspool for illness, hard labor, overcrowded housing and food shortages. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown as part of an investigation which would lead up to the mass suicides five days later.
Tuesday – November 14th
Congressman Leo Ryan jumps on a plane with journalists and worried family members of people involved in the settlement, to visit Jonestown and investigate the cult. Allegations from ex members had spread of the inhumane actions of Jim Jones and they needed answers. It was believed that he controlled his members with disciplinary beatings, forcing them to turn over their property and in some cases, custody of their children. He also allegedly threatened them with death if they attempted to leave the organisation. The Congressman and his team believed they knew the dangers they would soon face but in reality none of them could have imagined what fate awaited them in Jonestown.
Jim Jones knew when and why the Congressman and his team were visiting his settlement and fully prepared himself. He sent some of his most loyal followers to meet the party off the plane and escort them to a halfway house, owned by the Church. There Jim was contacted via a radio and he was informed of their arrival and their determination to get in to Jonestown. Jim’s response was instant. He raised the alarm “white night” which was code for an extreme emergency and assembled his followers. He used this technique to instill fear into his almost one thousand followers, threatening them and their family members who were accompanying Congressman Ryan.
Wednesday – November 15th
There were no telephones and so Congressman’s only way of communicating with Jim was via the halfway house and its radio. He made his way over but on arrival he was ordered to leave. During his visit Jim had radioed the house and asked to speak with his son who was staying there with the basketball team, the only members allowed to leave and only for tournaments. Jim ordered his son to return home with his team mates immediately but he refused, claiming they were good PR for the group. This made Jim incredibly angry, pushing him over the edge.
Friday – November 17th
After several days of negotiation, Jim Jones finally gave his permission for the Congressman to enter Jonestown and a plane was chartered to make the one hundred and fifty mile journey. While flying over the jungle it became all to apparent just how remote and inaccessible Jonestown was, completely isolated. The closest area the plane could land was still another five miles away from the settlement. It was obvious that it would have been an impossible task for anyone to escape.
They were met off the plane by a truck that would transport them the last five miles of their journey. On arrival into Jonestown they couldn’t believe the work that must have gone into creating it, especially in the middle of no where, full of hundreds of people. They were immediately escorted to Reverend Jim Jones. They interviewed him, asking questions about the threats of mass suicide which Jim denied, he then started to act paranoid, quietly ranting about his enemies, who he believed wanted to put a bullet in his head.
A member of Jonestown, Vernon Gosney, who feared for his life saw his chance to get help. He planned to pass a note to one of the visitors. A crime he knew would get him killed if he was caught. As he passed the note to a journalist he accidentally dropped it. Vernon quickly picked it up and told the visitor he had dropped something. His actions were spotted by one of the local youths. He immediately raised the alarm, shouting “He passed a note!”, while pointing at Vernon. He quickly walked away and was questioned by one of the other members. After a little while, the Congressman approached Vernon and told him that he was guaranteed a seat on a plane out of here the very next day, however Congressman Ryan had no idea what he was getting himself into. Vernon warned him that he was in danger and that waiting until tomorrow was a bad idea but the Congressman was confident in his protection.
Saturday – November 18th
It soon became apparent that Vernon wasn’t the only member that desperately wanted to leave Jonestown. As time went on and tension grew, more and more people came forward with their desires to leave. Vernon make the incredibly difficult decision to leave his four year old son in Jonestown, fearing that because he was black he wouldn’t be accepted by America at that time. He had no idea what would happen to him.
As the defectors started to pack their belongings the journalists interviewed Jim again. They could see he was growing more and more tense as he realised this visit wasn’t going to play well outside Jonestown. As the fifteen members were leaving the others who had decided to stay shouted abuse at them but they didn’t care. They were almost free.
Congressman Ryan attempted to negotiate with Jim to allow them to leave freely. Promising he would tell the other worried family’s that their children, wives or husbands chose to stay of their own will and not to worry about them, however a member attacked the Congressman with a knife. The assailant was quickly wrestled to the floor. It was a close shave for the Congressman and he realised he was in danger and decided not to stay to process anymore defectors but to leave immediately. The truck pulled away and started heading back towards the airplane.
Jim grabbed his radio and ordered the members at the halfway house to “take care of everybody. The relatives too. Take revenge”. The visitors Congress protection wouldn’t be able to help them now, in this Jungle Jim was king. The defectors would be the main priority targets. Jonestown became alive with the sound of sirens and the voice of Jim repeating the code word “white night” over and over again.
On Jim Jones’es orders, a lethal cocktail of potassium cyanide and tranquilisers were mixed with soft drinks. He announces to his followers that “no man may take my life from me, but I lay my life down freely”. Met with cheers from the crowed he continues, “in the next few minutes one of the people on the plane is going to shoot the pilot and down comes the plane into the jungle. And we better not have any of our children left when it is over because they will parachute in here on us”.
Five miles away the delegation party, along with the defectors, believed they were almost to safety. As one airplane prepares to takes off, a truck pulls alongside the Congressman’s plane and before they could board, opened fire with automatic rifles and shotguns. On the other plane a defector pulls out a hand gun and starts to shoot at the others around him, wounding a couple of people but, they managed to escape the plane and ran for the jungle. The shots died down as the shooters moved to each body, shooting them in the head to make sure they were dead and then there was silence.
Meanwhile, in Jonestown, Jim continues to persuade his followers into committing mass suicide. A follower whispers into his ear and he announces “it’s all over, the Congressman has been killed!”. The first to die next would be the children and as they begged and pleaded that they didn’t want to, the deadly mixture was forced down their throats as they attempted to resist. Any adult that tried to resist was also wrestled and forced to drink the poisonous concoction. They begged and they fought but if they couldn’t be made to drink it they were injected with a needle instead. Of course there was a lot of members so dedicated to Jim’s cause they willingly ended their lives.
In Jim’s last known recording he says “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries. Death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life. If we can’t live in peace, then let us die in peace. Take our life from us. We laid it down, we got tired. We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
Shortly after a small group of survivors who had hid themselves away came out of hiding to face the horrors that awaited them.
Sunday – November 19th
The few survivors emerge from their hiding places to find a scene of an apocalyptic proportion as hundreds of their friends and family’s bodies lay strewn across Jonestown. Their final end. Over nine hundred members were killed in just a few hours. Jonestown and it’s evil leader were no more although it would haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.
Cults are extremely dangerous, you can see another example here. They often target individuals who are looking for an alternative method to life or in desperate need of validation or purpose in life. These people are often caught in an internal struggle that opens them to radicilisation. More often than not they soon realise that they are involved in a cult and on trying to leave, they are met with threats and some times physical abuse, keeping them trapped and afraid to speak out.
If you or someone you know has been involved with a cult let us know your experiences in the comments below!