On November 18, 1978 912 followers of American cult leader Jim Jones ("Peoples Temple") died in a remote South American jungle compound called "Jonestown" in British Guyana. Some members were shot, others were forced to drink poison, but most willingly participated in what Jones said was an act of "revolutionary suicide."

Jim Jones began his ministry in 1953 as an independent minister in Indianapolis, but was later ordained in 1964 by the Disciples of Christ. By the end of 1971 he had moved his congregation to California eventually establishing two churches there. His main church remained in San Francisco, but a second was also opened in Los Angeles. The Peoples Temple peaked during the 70s to include perhaps as many as 8,000 members. Though racially diverse, most of Jones followers were African Americans.

Jim Jones was once a popular community activist in San Francisco who contributed cash and coordinated volunteers to support both causes and political leaders.

Jerry Brown and
Jim Jones

 

He could turn out thousands for almost any event or effort. During the 70s he appeared with many prominent politicians including then State Assemblyman Willie Brown. In 1976 Mayor George Moscone gave Jones a seat on the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Governor Jerry Brown was even seen attending services at the Peoples Temple.

But after the tragic deaths at Jonestown Willie Brown said, "If we knew then he was mad, clearly we wouldn't have appeared with him. But it's not fair to say what you would have done if you knew the kind of madness that would take place years later.''

Negative press reports began to surface about Jim Jones in the summer of 1977. In response to such criticism he moved many of his followers to British Guyana. Eventually about 1,000 core supporters gathered at an isolated retreat there, which was later officially named "Jonestown." But complaints from former members and families continued, ultimately culminating in requests for an official investigation.


According to an affidavit dated June 15, 1978 one-time Temple member and Jonestown resident Deborah Layton stated that "conditions had become so bad that half of Jonestown was ill with severe diarrhea and high fevers." But despite this they "were required to work in the fields from 7 AM to 6 PM six days per week and on Sunday from 7 AM to 2 PM" and the "food was woefully inadequate." Ms. Layton advised that "Rev. Jones...claimed that he was the reincarnation of...Lenin, Jesus Christ [and]...had divine powers." And further stated that Jones also "appeared deluded by a paranoid vision of the world. He would not sleep for days at a time and talk[ed] compulsively about the conspiracies against him." The compound "was swarming with armed guards [and] no one was permitted to leave unless on a special assignment," Layton said. Jim Jones warned "that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for [his followers] to die by [their] own hands," she added. A so-called "White Night" or "state of emergency" was often declared at the compound and within this context mass suicide was rehearsed.

California Congressman Leo J. Ryan received many complaints from his constituents regarding family members who were followers of Jim Jones. He subsequently responded through an investigation. With permission from Jim Jones, Ryan came to visit the group's compound on November 17, 1978. The congressman toured the settlement and met with Jim Jones. On the 18th some Temple members passed notes to Congressman Ryan's party requesting to leave with them. Ryan agreed and took some members of the Peoples Temple with him. At an isolated airstrip on the 18th, apparently under orders from Jim Jones, gunmen from Jonestown ambushed Congressman Ryan's party. Leo J. Ryan and four others were killed immediately, some of the Ryan party escaped into the jungle.

 

Death at Jonestown

Anticipating the end of his ministry and certain arrest, Jim Jones then ordered the "state of emergency" he had so long anticipated. This carefully rehearsed mass suicide now finally took place. Everyone, except the very few that escaped into the surrounding jungle, either committed suicide or was murdered. More than 280 children were killed. Jim Jones body was found at Jonestown, fatally wounded by a gunshot to the head.

Willie Brown now the Mayor of San Francisco lamented in 1998, twenty years after the mass suicide and murders, that "Jonestown was a tragedy of the first order, and it remains a painful and sorrowful event in our history. Not a year has gone by that I have not stopped to remember San Francisco's terrible loss.

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