What drove 918 people to commit suicide, in the same place, at the same time? The extensive answer was laid to rest in the twisted mind of cult leader Jim Jones. However, people who do not know the back story of People’s Temple and Jones, may be surprised when they learn about it.
Jim Jones was born into the US’ The Great Depression to a sick and weak father and a strong, defiant mother. At the age of ten, he would often find himself wondering the streets of Lynn, Indiana. This was before he was taken under the wing of his devout Christian neighbour, Myrtle Kennedy. Kennedy introduced Jim to the church and he was fascinated. He began holding his own funeral services for dead cats, dogs and birds. He would also start to preach to younger children, locking the doors and insisting they listen to what he had to say. One “friend” who was forced to listen to such an exhort was Donald Foreman. In a documentary, he explained how Jim would have such an evil smirk on his face when playing pranks on the younger kids, it was an evil smirk the world would one day be familiar with.
When his mum fell in love with another man, Jones moved with them to Richmond, Indiana. Richmond was a city split through segregation of whites and blacks. Jones would be rarely seen without a bible and began to preach on the streets about racial equality. A message that drew many of community in. On the streets is where Jones would hone his preaching skills.
Jones met a nurse four years his senior, she too was a devout Christian, so much so that her family did not want her marrying the seemingly much younger Jones. At the age of 18 and using his already very powerful power of persuasion, he convinced Marceline Baldwin’s parents to allow him to marry their daughter. He had graduated college early and at university began to read many books of socialism. The theory he saw as the way forward was communism (a social theory that does not have a great track record).
University did not suit Jones and he decided to drop out and become a minister. The role was not well paid, so he decided to pursue a small business venture, importing monkeys from South America and selling them door to door.
As a minister, Jones began to practice healings, that some friends were against, saying Jones himself had admitted to them how he had set them up. People’s belief in his healing powers helped Jones to become fascinated with manipulation and power. He used the money he had earnt to put down on a church of his own, “Wings of Deliverance”, soon to be renamed: “The People’s Temple”. Here he would continue to use religion as a vehicle to put across his social views and continued to preach socialism and racial equality. True to his word, the church helped to open soup kitchens for the homeless and clothed the poor.
1959 saw the birth of the Jones’ only legitimate son, Stephen Ghandi. The couple would go on to adopt black and Korean children, labelling themselves a “Rainbow Family”. People began to buy into Jones as a legitimate leader, who was there for the greater good.
Jones was welcomed to the Human Right’s Commission and began to work on eliminating segregation. His work was soon coming to the attention of some dangerous organisations, such as the KKK, who did not quite agree with Jones’ view on racial equality.
It was in 1962 where Jim Jones appeared to begin his downhill slide. He had read an article about how the world was going to end through a nuclear attack and very much believed what he was reading. As a result of this and the threat from the organisations, he moved to Belo Horizonte, Brazil. His life would be funded by his church. That was until membership to his church fell below 100 as a result of the absence of their energetic and charismatic leader. They asked Jones to return to save the church and in 1964, he did just that. People now started to view Jones as a prophet and he himself believed he was God. To him, there was now no greater power, as he was it.
To get away from the threat of attacks, he moved his followers to Redwood Valley, California. His church offered poor people hope but many middle class white people also joined, believing in his message and cause.
It was in 1969 that the goings on of the church would take a much more sinister turn. Jones ordered that there would be free love and free sex. Basically, Jones could demand sex from any of the members at any time, whether male or female. He would tell the members of the church to stand if he had had sexual relations with them in order to demonstrate his power and hold, making sure every one of his “victims” stood. Jones also began to punish people who misbehaved in his eyes, carrying out beatings for any misdemeanours. Amongst the violence, was the threat to murder any traitors to the cause.
For many, the church provided social worth, for others it simply provided the drama they lacked in their life. Jones had now started to use drugs and had become heavily addicted.
In 1972 the church again moved, this time to San Francisco. Members had now began to give their life savings, pensions and sell their homes to be with the cult. There was no way out for many of them now but that didn’t matter, The People’s Temple promised a better life for them.
The cult began to practice fake suicides. Jones wanted to gauge reactions when he suggested the idea of suicide. In meetings labelled by Jones as the “White Nights” members were made to swear allegiance to protect the cult from outside forces, even if that meant dying in the process.
Becoming heavily paranoid from the drugs he was taking, Jones decided to move the now nearly 1000 person strong People’s Temple to Guyana. In his everlasting desperation for self worth, the new complex would be named Jonestown. The members believed they were pioneers, paving the way for a new life of equality and happiness. Jones had advertised Guyana as a paradise. Most had to go, as they had put all of their money into the church, but many also wanted to go in search of the promise land.
Upon landing in Guyana, Jones confiscated all members passports. They soon learned that the paradise that awaited them did not exist and they were to live in conditions that much more resembled a concentration camp. Working long hours only to be called to witness or receive punishments from Jones who now sat in a throne. Families were made to beat their own, or else they would all be violently punished as a result.
Jim Jones wife and son soon realised the extent of the situation and could not control the man who believed he was God, whilst addicted to a wide range of drugs.
The cult again found itself “under attack”. This time it was from defectors and their relatives, who labelled themselves as, “Concerned Relatives”. Politician Leo Ryan went with the organisation to investigate Jonestown. What they found were elated people who had seemingly found the paradise they were in search of. In reality, members were handing notes to cameramen, asking for their help to escape.
Jones found out about the 15 followers who had betrayed The People’s Temple and sent armed guards to stop the fleeing posse. The guards, who had travelled on a tractor, shot and killed Leo Ryan and a number of others as they began to board the plane home. They returned to Jonestown to inform Jim that Leo had been killed.
Jim Jones gathered his followers. Knowing that an attack from the outside was now imminent, he ordered the suicides that they had prepared for to begin. There were huge vats of punch laced with cyanide and syringes for children. He had ordered that the children die first. He told the parents to inject the syringes and for the children to drink the punch. As he heard the cries, in a calm voice, Jones urged the children to die with dignity and not in tears. Knowing that without their children, most family members would feel they had nothing to live for, he then urged the parents and others to join the children in paradise.
Jones was found with a bullet in his head. It is not known whether the wound was self inflicted or a result of an attack from a member. He was found dead alongside his 917 followers.
The Jonesetown Mass suicide is another sad story of desperation, that can be once again be blamed on a heavy user of drugs. When thinking of a cult (especially if you are not religious) you think how can these people be stupid enough to be sucked in by this maniac? The reason this story fascinated me so much, is that it is not difficult to see how so many people wanted to be a part of an organisation that preached equality, in what was still such a sad time in history for the US. Jim Jones did do a lot of good in the early days of his organisation but his need for power and desire to manipulate warped his mind and would result in one of the biggest mass suicides ever recorded in human history.