45th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre: from socialist paradise to revolutionary suicide

The socialist commune of Jonestown was dyed red on November 18, 1978, the date on which its leader – the Reverend Jim Jones – ordered collective suicide of the members of the apocalyptic sect that he himself had founded as a “revolutionary act”. “Let’s end this now” was the phrase that kicked off what is considered the largest mass murder in history. More than 900 people (among them, around 200 children) died, convinced or forced by their guru.

Those who knew Jones define him as an attentive and charismatic preacher, as well as an authoritarian and dark leader. He was born on May 13, 1931 near Lynn, in the state of Indiana (United States), and since he was a child he was obsessed with religion. He grew up in the faith of the Evangelical Pentecostal Church, he was pastor of the Methodist Church and in 1955 founded the ‘People’s Temple’ in Indianapolis. He defended integrative policies and adopted the socialism as “almighty God”.

He made the fight for racial equality and social justice his own, which was very useful for attracting new followers to his church. So much so that most of her followers were black. Together with his wife Madeleine, adopted six children of different races looking for his promoted “rainbow family”, which they would raise “in community.” But his innovative ideas did not quite fit with the conservative character of the region. Midwest North American.

Image used to promote the ‘People’s Temple’ (1972). SDSU Library.

So he moved to California with a group of followers. And later to San Francisco, where he knew how to relate well and his followers multiplied substantially. However, in the early 1970s, the admirer of Stalin He was involved in several scandals that endangered the survival of his church and decided to create your own utopia in Guyana. A “socialist paradise” located in the middle of the rainforest, near Venezuela and far from the control of US authorities.

The reverend ordered the faithful of his church to sell their properties and with the money they gave him bought the land in which the commune was established. A settlement that Jim called ‘People’s Temple Agricultural Project’, but which everyone knew as Jonestown. About a thousand people moved there from California in 1974, pursuing the socialist ideal that their leader had sold them. But what they found there was far from the promised paradise.

From the “white nights” to the revolution of blood

In 1976, a multitude of complaints came to light indicating that residents of Jonestown were subjected to all types of abuse, forced labor and torture. And that the leaders of the sect made use of different drugs to control followers. Some former members of the group even claimed that their children had not been returned to them when they decided to leave the “project.” Accusations that triggered the visit of US Congressman Leo Ryan and the massacre of innocents that followed.

But the truth is that Jim Jones, who was linked to the Communist Party of the United States and in recent years it embraced the conspiracy theories, had been preparing his macabre “revolutionary act” for a long time. Proof of this are the terrifying ‘White Nights’ that the pastor organized for the inhabitants of the Guyana settlement and that were nothing other than the simulation of a collective suicide. Hence, when he decided to execute it, the plan did not fail.

The trigger: Leo Ryan’s visit

On November 14, 1978, a delegation led by congressman American Leo Ryan headed to Jonestown in search of answers, faced with the clamor of increasing complaints of abuse that occurred in the settlement. Jones was finally forced to receive the Democrat in a visit that seemed friendly but tense.

He did it on November 17, one day before the massacre. According to the information available to the FBI, the situation became complicated after several members of the community expressed their desire to leave. There were too many of them to travel on the same plane and Ryan wanted them all to fly together, for fear of possible retaliation.

The congressman delayed the departure of the first flight until the second plane arrived. A decision with which he -unknowingly- signed his death sentence. On November 18, while the group was waiting at a local airstrip, several armed men of the commune who opened fire on them.

Among them was Larry Layton, the only member of the ‘People’s Temple’ to be tried in the United States for Guyana’s criminal acts. He was eventually extradited and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Jonestown massacre was the worst loss of American civilians until the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The revolutionary act of death


After murdering four members of the American delegation and wounding several members of the sect who wanted to abandon the “project”, Jones realized that there was no turning back.

The end of his leadership and the church he had founded had come. So he decided it was time to perpetrate his macabre plan. A couple of hours later, Jim ordered collective suicide of his faithful as a “revolutionary act”.

Some died convinced and others – many – were forced To do it. The opinion of the members of the ‘People’s Temple’ in this regard was not unanimous, as reflected in the recordings that are preserved in the summer of 1978. In any case, a total of 909 bodies – among them more than two hundred children – were lying piled up on the ground of the settlement when the Guyanese army arrived.

The adults drank a Kool-Aid drink that had been poisoned with cyanide. To the smallest minors and the babies were injected the lethal formula with syringes. Jim Jones’ lifeless body was on his “throne”, but with a gunshot wound to the head. There is no certainty about who fired the shot – whether he himself or another person – but it is believed that the objective was to avoid the agonizing death to which he sentenced the members of his sect.

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