How the terrifying 'Big Daddy of cults' claimed 900 people's lives

·Contributor

The Peoples Temple, run by Jim Jones and eventually headquartered in the northern chunk of Guyana in South America, is broadly considered the Big Daddy of cults.

The cult to which all others are compared is the subject of the fourth episode of Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series.

The story of this group is the origin of the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” and less popularly “we don’t want another Jonestown on our hands”.

And I hate to be that person, but it was actually Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid. We’ll get to that awful detail later.

Responsible for the death of more than 900 people on a single day, The Peoples Temple is almost a template for what we understand a textbook cult to be.

Group photo of Peoples Temple members. Source: Flickr/Peoples Temple/Jonestown Gallery
Hundreds of Peoples Temple members died in a mass suicide at Jonestown. Source: Flickr/Peoples Temple/Jonestown Gallery

It had a narcissistic leader whose true agenda was hidden. A remote compound in which recordings of the leader’s doctrines were played over loudspeakers day and night.

Secret sex, violent punishments and peculiar rituals culminating in paranoia, drug use, investigations by authorities and a big, terrible event. It was an absolute bugger of a thing.

Everything started when Jim Jones, who was once a weird little kid who liked officiating funerals for dead animals he found, became obsessed with socialism.

Socialism was a pretty hard sell in 1950s Indiana, so to spread his favourite messages of equal treatment of all citizens and the dismantling of power structures – fun stuff – he dressed socialism up as religion and himself as a preacher.

He also helped fund his Indianapolis shopfront church by importing spider monkeys from India and selling them door to door.

That’s not vital to the story, it’s just a cool fact. About a door-to-door monkey salesman who became a cult leader.

Followers reach out to touch Jim Jones. Source: AP
Followers were eager to follow Jim Jones. Source: AP

Jim Jones started out as a do-gooder

For the next decade or so, the guy who turned out to be one of the worst guys ever in a crowded field acted like one of the best guys ever.

Jim Jones opened soup kitchens and employment agencies for the poor, helped people get sober and off drugs, opened homes for the elderly, and actively campaigned against racial segregation in Indiana.

He encouraged black and white people to worship (him) together, and was appointed head of the Human Rights Commission by the Indianapolis mayor. All in sunglasses. Incredible.

But there were weird things.

Weird thing one: Jones did quite a bit of faith healing – sadly not real and not that unusual for charismatic preachers - including a neat trick where he would diagnose a congregant with a cancerous tumour and then magically pull it out of their body on the spot, in front of everyone.

Except it wasn’t a tumour, it was chicken innards that he’d hidden in the sleeve of his fancy robe. The scoundrel.

Jim Jones preaching at a pulpit. Source: Getty Images
Jim Jones was known as a powerful preacher. Source: Getty Images

Jones told followers he was the only heterosexual on Earth

Weird thing two: Jones told his flock that he was the only true heterosexual on earth, and proved it by having sex with lots of women who weren’t his wife.

By many accounts he had a fair bit of sex with men who also weren’t his wife, to “prove” that those men were gay.

Weird thing three, a terrible glimpse into the future: Jones liked to pretend that he had poisoned the members of his congregation.

Jim Jones sitting in a chair. Source: Getty Images
Jim Jones described himself as the world's only heterosexual. Source: Getty Images

He’d either hand out cups of brightly-coloured liquid and ask his followers to drink it, telling them soon afterwards that it was poison, or he would tell them it was poison beforehand and challenge them to drink it.

This was a test of their loyalty, and practice for what Jim Jones called "revolutionary suicide", something his ego and brain decided was a necessary part of being his disciple.

Cult leader consumed by paranoia

Weird thing four was a terrible nail in the coffin for the group and its members. Jim Jones was paranoid.

This might have been partly because Jim Jones had got himself quite addicted to drugs, and it manifested itself in a belief that many organisations and powerful people were out to get him and destroy his special socialist group, with a little bit of being frightened of nuclear war on the side.

This paranoia sent Jones and his followers first to Redwood Valley near San Francisco and finally to Guyana in South America, where The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project set up shop for the last time.

Relatives at a memorial to Jonestown in the US. Source: AP
Families have been left to grieve the hundreds of people killed at Jonestown. Source: AP

Members of the temple toiled hard in the jungle, clearing land, building accommodation and growing food in the heat and constant storms. In return, their leader barked at them incoherently over loudspeakers and had them beaten for disloyalty.

But by this stage, he had so thoroughly convinced them that they belonged to a group that would change the world, and that he was their saviour, that they stayed and obeyed.

Visit from Congressman marked the beginning of the end

A visit in November 1978 from Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat with a reputation for grass-roots level interaction with his constituents, was the beginning of the end.

After listening to concerns voiced by family members of Jones’s followers, Ryan decided to investigate and flew to Guyana with his staff and a handful of journalists.

When a group of Temple members asked Congressman Ryan if they could hitch a ride back to the US with him, it was the disloyal, ego-crushing straw that broke the camel’s back.

Jim Jones did not take to outside interference well, and before Ryan, his entourage, and the defecting cult members could take off, Jones sent gunmen to the airstrip to kill them. Five people died, including the Congressman.

Tragic end as 900 cult members poisoned

That was it – according to Jones it was time for the real thing: revolutionary suicide.

Because he had spent years coercing, berating, and indoctrinating his followers, cutting off their contact with the outside world and becoming their only source of information, he could make them do whatever he wanted.

Horrifically, what he wanted was for them to drink grape Flavor Aid that had been heavily laced with Valium and cyanide.

Soldiers clean up the bodies after the mass suicide at Jonestown. Source: Getty Images
Jim Jones' paranoia eventually led to a mass suicide at Jonestown in which 900 people were killed. Source: Getty Images

A vat of the mixture was dragged out, Jim Jones made a final, sickening speech assuring everyone that if they didn’t take their own lives, the Guyanese government and the CIA would parachute in and kill them. 

The Guyanese government and the CIA weren’t anywhere near Jonestown, but almost everybody – children, adults, and the elderly – drank anyway.

There was absolutely no reason for their death except that a narcissistic, paranoid asshole told them to die.

One of the worst mass killings in American history, events at Jonestown set a grisly benchmark.

If there’s anything to thank Jim Jones for, it’s for helping us become aware of what a cult can become, and the power a cult leader can hold over normal people.

Don’t join a cult.

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