Jim Jones, the son of a Klansman who originally hailed from Indiana, was born on this date in 1931. He sold monkeys door-to-door to finance his first ministry in downtown Indianapolis, where he founded an organization that eventually became known as the People’s Temple. Dismayed by the city’s racism and convinced that Indianapolis would be annihilated in a nuclear war, Jones moved the People’s Temple ministry to Northern California during the mid-1960s, believing his followers would be safer there. Part religious cult and part social service agency, the People’s Temple is perhaps best understood as a “charismatic bureaucracy” that appealed to some of the poorest, most desperate, and most marginalized Americans living in an era of tremendous social upheaval and dislocation. African Americans joined the People’s Temple in comparatively large numbers, drawn to Jones’ anti-racist vision and his anti-poverty programs. Proposing a creed described by Jones as “apostolic socialism,” the Temple established soup kitchens, health clinics and daycare centers, residential homes for the elderly and a ranch for the developmentally disabled; they offered financial support to a San Francisco pet shelter and established a fund to assist the families of slain police officers; and they fleeced their members, urging them to surrender their property and savings to support the good works of the Temple.
Facing legal troubles in California, Jones leased several thousand acres of jungle from the Guyanese government in 1974 and relocated his ministry to South America, where his followers were promised an earthly paradise. Instead, the colony foundered. Swelling to more than 900 members by 1977, Jonestown suffered from food shortages while its residents labored from sunrise to sunset to support the “People’s Temple Agricultural Project.” By late 1978, Jones himself was heavily addicted to phenobarbitol. Discipline inside the colony became increasingly harsh, as recalcitrant children were punished by being locked in crates or lowered into a dry well where they were told monsters lived.
When California Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown with a group of former Temple members and several reporters and photographers, the visit did not go swimmingly. Ryan had come to Jonestown to investigate rumors of human rights abuses, and during his visit several Jonestown families defected and requested that Ryan take them with him when he left. Around 5:00 p.m. on 18 November 1978, members of the People’s Temple gunned Ryan and four others down as they waited in a small aircraft to leave Guyana.
That night, all but a handful of Jonestown’s 1000 residents died from massive doses of cyanide, valium, choral hydrate, and Penegram, delivered to them via grape Flavor-Aid. Although the event is usually described as a mass suicide, it should be noted that two-thirds of the Jonestown population consisted of young children and the elderly, most of whom quite probably did not drink the grape cocktail willingly.
Richard Tropp, a member of the leadership group and one of the last people at Jonestown to die, left a note that urged the world to study the history of the Jonestown colony and someday achieve the ideals of “brotherhood, justice and equality” for which Jim Jones had supposedly fought. As the bodies accumulated, Tropp described the scene:
There is quiet as we leave this world. The sky is gray. People file [in] slowly and take the somewhat bitter drink. Many more must drink. Our destiny. It is sad that we could not let our light shine in truth, unclouded by the demons of accident, circumstance, miscalculation, error that was not our intent, beyond our intent.
A 45-minute audio tape was recorded by Jones as he guided the “destiny” of Jonestown to its conclusion. Toward the end of the tape, Jim Jones attempted to reassure the Jonestown children that their deaths would be painless — that they would merely go to sleep and be at peace. The children were evidently not persuaded by Jones’ words, as their heartbreaking cries attest.
After nearly all of his followers were gone, and with the realization that his utopian project had failed utterly, Jim Jones died from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.