Let’s Backtrack: The Jonestown Massacre, 40 years later

Yet another post from while I was away:

On November 18, 1978, charismatic christian cult leader Jim Jones murdered 918 people, either by forcing them to drinking koolaid laced with cyanide (thus the origin of the idiom “drinking the koolaid”), injecting them with poison or shooting the unwilling. Approximately 300 children (age 1-17) were among the dead. It was the final act of control of a paranoid, self-aggrandizing narcissist and sociopath.  It was the single largest death of americans at one time until something happened in New York 23 years later.

It didn’t happen all at once. Like all atrocities, it built gradually – the claim of “religious oppression” in the US (read: authorities trying to hold the cult accountable for physical and sexual abuses, Jones’s fanatical christian/communist ideology under investigation). The mass departure of people for Guyana in South America and a promise of a “utopia”. The foundation of “Jonestown”, a parodic portmanteau of Jones and Georgetown, Guyana’s capital.

Guyana turned out to be no paradise, instead little more than a prison camp in a jungle. Propaganda was blasted day and night through speakers. Forced participation in religious activities happened multiple times per day. Attempts to leave the camp were met with violence, only a select few allowed to come and go. The isolation of people from their former friends and families. Cutting off members from outside contact (no mail, no phone, no reporters, no embassy staff, no newspapers).

The final events began on November 14th with US congressman Leo Ryan visiting the camp. As he tried to leave three days later, Jones’s militiamen murdered Ryan and others on the runway. The camp closed for the final act, a pointless and selfish mass suicide by a control freak and narcissist.  Charles Krause worked for the Washington Post and travelled with Ryan to Jonestown. He was shot but managed to survive the assassination of the congressman and continued to report on the mass suicide as events unfolded.

They were driven into a frenzy with Jones’s final speech, forcing children to drink poison and watch them die, then the adults. Jones made sure they were dead before killing himself, and his militia shooting the bodies to ensure they were dead before committing suicide themselves. A few people (less than ten) managed to survive, those who managed to hide, to feign drinking and escape unnoticed. Two were among the trusted allowed to leave the camp, who had been on their way to the Soviet embassy in Georgetown.  Laura Johnston Kohl was one of the few survivors.

This is a recording of Jim Jones’s last speech. True believers may have willingly gone along with it, but most were unwilling and held at gunpoint, beaten, threatened, imprisoned against their will. This was no “voluntary act,” it was religious fanaticism at its most pernicious.

I was eleven years old, watching this on TV as it unfolded over several months. I was left thinking, “Is this what the world and people are really like?” In less than the span of eight months, I witnessed Jonestown, the Love Canal disaster and Three Mile Island (topics for another time) plus two high profile serial killers in the news over the next two years, one in Canada and one in the US (Clifford Robert Olson, Wayne Williams). What else would a kid think?

In 2017, German heavy metal band Accept recorded the song, “Koolaid”.  It’s much better than Manowar’s 1984 song, “Guyana: Cult Of The Damned”.

Final note: Before posting this, I looked to see if anyone had covered the fortieth anniversary.  I was surprised that they hadn’t.