On November 18 1978 the news from Guyana that 914 people had been found dead in an apparent suicide pact was both a terrible shock and unsurprising. And nowhere was this dual response felt more strongly than in California: most of the dead had been members of the People’s Temple Christian Church in San Francisco, then famously a haven for ‘free-thinking crazies’ (the Temple’s services included faith healing, visions, and seeking advice from extraterrestrials).
Led by the charismatic ‘Reverend’ Jim Jones, in 1977 the group hurriedly removed to a jungle encampment (‘Jonestown’) in Guyana after Californian and Federal authorities began ferreting too deeply into Jones’s activities.
Jones had prepared his flock well – if ‘persecution’ got too bad, they would enter paradise together. Former cult members in the US had alleged human rights abuses. When US Congressman Leo Ryan and several news teams were dispatched to Guyana to question him, Jones ordered them gunned down at the airstrip as they tried to leave with disillusioned devotees. Ryan and five others died.
This created the ‘state of emergency’ for which Jones had primed his flock with countless rehearsals. He doled out the cocktail of soft drink and cyanide. Photographs show a sort of nightmare family garden party of willing victims collapsed in sociable heaps. Did the 276 children thirstily want more, or have to be coaxed? If anyone was reluctant, they died anyway, either poisoned or shot until Jones, last man standing, shot himself through the right temple. Neat, rounded, plausibly cultish – case closed. Except that Jones’s body was 12 m (40 ft) from his gun.
Conspiracy theorists love the Jonestown massacre. Jones had huge opportunities – legal and illegal – to make Swiss-bank-serious money in California. His brainwashed flock of bodyguards, thugs and slaves was always expendable. Official enquiries settled for the ‘loony cult mass madness’ option; and Pandora’s box remains closed.
When: November 18 1978
Where: ‘Jonestown’, Guyana
Death toll: There were 914 deaths. The bodies of 412 apparent suicides were not claimed by relatives; they are buried in a mass grave in Oakland, CA.
You should know: In the early 1970s, Jones became prominent in social welfare programs in the San Francisco area, and his ability to turn out large numbers of people was valued by sympathetic politicians, including the mayor and the state governor.