The mass-suicide of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, also known as the “Jonestown Massacre,” stands as the largest such event in modern history. Under the sway of influential spiritual leader Jim Jones (pictured), 909 members of the Peoples Temple cult consumed a poison drink and died, including nearly 300 children. The deadly act took place on this 35 years ago day in 1978.
Born James Warren Jones, the leader established his religious cult in Indiana, using his early influences of socialism and communism as a bridge to gain followers. After threats from locals, he relocated his group and set up communes in Northern California and became a popular figure during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Jones embraced followers of all races to the Temple, but there was dissent within the ranks as people began to defect. With a growing dependence on drugs and increased paranoia, Jones eventually moved to Guyana to build a new home for him and his followers.
With his mistrust at a high, he built Jonestown and fashioned the compound like a guarded prison camp. Followers were randomly ordered to drink poisoned kool-aid, but it was all a ruse for Jones to test who was loyal to his cause.
Several defectors of the Peoples Temple began to speak out and spoke of the faked suicides. Back in America and in Guyana, officials planned for ways to end Jones’ reign of terror. After threatening mass suicide in the fall of 1977, Congressman Leo J. Ryan traveled to the nation to investigate the matter.
With a television crew, Congressman Ryan urged Jonestown followers to leave with him but things took a tragic turn: The congressman, crew, and several Peoples Temple followers were driven to an airstrip and attacked by Jones’ soldiers. Five people were killed, including Congressman Ryan, NBC correspondent Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson.
At the compound, Jones launched his “revolutionary suicide” act, ordering the remaining followers, some of whom were African American, to drink a powder mix punch mixed with Cyanide and Valium. Jones did not drink the kool-aid punch, and instead died of what authorities claim was a self-inflicted gun wound surrounded by members of his inner circle who were also deceased.
Jones three surviving sons were spared the fate of the Jonestown Massacre, because they were playing basketball against the Guyanese national team. Several documentaries have been made regarding the fateful day, including a 2007 History Channel production, “Jonestown: Paradise Lost.” Watch Part 1 of the documentary here: