true crime

A charismatic cult leader and 918 dead: the story behind the phrase 'drink the Kool-Aid'.

Warning: the following contains details of murder and suicide.

In November 1978, a California congressman and a group of journalists touched down at Port Kaituma airstrip in a remote pocket of the Guyanan jungle. They were part of a fact-finding delegation, probing reports that Americans were being held against their will in a socialist sect known as The Peoples Temple.

Waiting for them at the compound was the group’s leader, Jim Jones. Smiling, charismatic, with large dyed-black sideburns, he extended his hand for them to shake, “Don’t know why you’re here, but we’re happy to have you… You’ll see what a wonderful place it is.”

As Rep. Ryan’s aide, Jackie Speier, later recalled in the book UNDAUNTED: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back, Jones’ tour of his jungle compound showed a pleasant, functioning community of close to 1,000 people.

The delegation met follower after follower; each insisted they were happy, that they had no desire to get back in touch with their families or to leave. It struck Speier, that it all sounded unsettlingly choreographed.

As the interviews continued, one of Jones’ followers slipped a folded piece of paper to a reporter. A note. It contained two names, and a hurried plea, “Please help us get out of Jonestown.”

“I felt my stomach knot,” wrote Speier. “Oh my God: It’s true.”

How a socialist preacher became the world’s most infamous cult leader. (Post continues below.)

What unfolded on that mission is now one of the most chilling chapters in American history: a massacre that resulted in more civilian casualties than any other non-natural event in U.S. history. It took the murder of more than 2,977 people on September 11 to usurp it.

This is the story of Jonestown.

The birth of The Peoples Temple, the world’s most infamous cult.

To the outside world, self-anointed Pastor Jim Jones was an idealist. A magnetic man who spoke out against racial segregation, who helped the downtrodden, who peddled a vision of a society in which everyone was truly equal.

The philosophies of Jones’ Indianapolis church, The Peoples [sic] Temple, tapped directly into the zeitgeist of the post-war era. It was one of the few places where all races gathered, where all segments of the community worked together to provide services to the poor — food, employment, legal advice and more.

But by the early 1960s, a darker tone had slipped into Jones’ preaching; he began to increasingly position himself as a messiah, and claimed to have experienced a prophetic vision of a nuclear holocaust. His fears led him to uproot the Peoples Temple in 1965 and move it to northern California, which he believed would be safer during a nuclear catastrophe. Some seventy members followed.

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In California, the congregation swelled. By the mid-1970s, Jones had amassed some 8,000 followers from the north of the state to Los Angeles and San Francisco. They were racially diverse, socially progressive, and continued the Temple’s tradition of community aid programs.

“There is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice for the world,” one member wrote in a letter to her sister. “And all the people have come from such different backgrounds, every colour, every age, every income group.”

They were a highly respected pocket of the community. And attracted powerful allies.

Lured by Jones’ messages of social and racial equality, liberal politicians recruited him and Temple members to aid their campaigns. As Salon editor David Talbot wrote, “Jones could be counted on to deliver busloads of obedient, well-dressed disciples to demonstrations, campaign rallies, and political precincts.”

But by the mid-1970s, details about the more sinister side of The Peoples Temple began to seep out.

Jim Jones in 1976. Image: Getty.

A publication called New West Magazine compiled an exposé on Jones, in which former members spoke of his tactics of abuse and control: forcing members to line up to be spanked with a large wooden panel, to sign compromising letters confessing to totally invented criminal acts, to box each other until one fell unconscious. After each public humiliation, Jones would gently reassure them that it was for the cause, that he trusted them more now that they had accepted their punishment, the magazine alleged.

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The editor of the New West phoned Jones prior to publishing the article in 1977 and read it aloud to him, according to Jackie Speier. Listening to the allegations that were soon to be permanently inked onto paper, Jones scribbled a note to his aides.

"We leave tonight."

Building Jonestown.

Three years earlier, Jones had leased more than 3,800 acres of remote jungle from the government of Guyana, an English speaking country in South America.

This, Jones told his followers, would be the place where The Peoples Temple could establish its socialist utopia; a self-sufficient agricultural community that would show the world a new social model. It would be called 'Jonestown.'

The reality was a long way from that vision.

The close to 1,000 people that eventually migrated to 'Jonestown' by 1978 were forced to turn over their personal wealth and complete unpaid labour. They found themselves in overcrowded dormitories, toiling in mud and unforgiving soil for little result. Their leader, who reportedly abused drugs and alcohol, became increasingly paranoid and agitated.

He ordered armed guards to encircle the camp, protect it from outsiders. He staged what were known as "white knights" in which members rehearsed mass suicides.

As Jo Thornely, podcaster and author of Zealot: A Book About Cults, noted on Mamamia's True Cime Conversations podcast, Jones had successfully isolated his followers, cut them off from outside influence; as the most 'effective' cult leaders typically do. Once at Jonestown, he relied less on humiliation and physical punishments for control.

"A lot of the people were controlled with drugs," she said. "Jim Jones found that keeping people subdued and exhausted worked a lot better than any other sort of punishment, but also people there knew that Jim Jones had their passports. They were miles away from anywhere and the Guyanese government was on Jim's side."

When some did try to flee, unimaginable tragedy followed.

The Jonestown massacre.

As Rep. Ryan's delegation toured Jonestown in 1978, word spread that they were taking some followers back to the United States. With more and more asking to flee, the group recruited a second plane.

As they boarded on November 18, a tractor-trailer carrying a group of armed Temple members. They opened fire.

Ryan was shot dead, along with four others. Several more were injured.

Back at the compound, Jones called his followers together in the pavilion. Audio of his speech was recovered by the FBI; it's now infamously known as the Jonestown "death tapes".

"The congressman’s dead, the congressman is dead. Many of our traitors are dead. They’re all laying out there dead," Jones can be heard telling his followers. "Do you think they’re going to … allow us to get by with this? … There’s no way, no way we can survive … it’s not worth living like this."

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Barrels of the grape cordial, Flavor Aid, were brought forward and laced with the poison, cyanide.

The order was given.

The Jonestown compound after the massacre. Image: Getty.

Nine-hundred-and-eighteen people died that day, including nearly 300 children. The majority were killed by ingesting the poisoned drink. (It's from this tragedy we have the saying "drink the Kool-Aid", a famous — albeit not entirely accurate — expression about blind obedience.)

Flying over the scene later, NBC News correspondent Fred Francis was among those to first see the horror that had unfolded. He later described the colourful clothing of the victims strewn across the compound as "quilt of the dead"; women, children, men, families, some holding hands.

Among them was Jim Jones, who died of a gunshot wound rather than ingest his own deadly cocktail.

Inside the compound was Jones' throne, upon which he'd sat and lorded over his devastatingly loyal flock. A sign was affixed behind it with a simple warning.

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

If you are experiencing a personal crisis or thinking about suicide, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. You don't have to face your problems alone.

Feature image: Getty.

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