On Friday, 17 November, Congressman Leo Ryan, concerned by the activities of Reverend Jones at his People’s Temple in ‘Jonestown’, entered the complex in the Guyana jungle along with a delegation of media people and 18 representatives from a delegation of ‘Concerned Relatives’. The official party consisted of Ryan, James Schollaert and Jackie Speier, who was Ryan’s personal assistant.
The arrangements for such a visit had been fraught with red tape, U-turns and a lack of cooperation from Jones’ office, which viewed any outside coverage of their existence as a ‘witch hunt’.
Upon their arrival at Jonestown, the delegation was served dinner and entertained. Reporters later interviewed Jones himself while Ryan and Speier talked to Temple members whose names had been provided by concerned relatives in the U.S. During the night, several ‘Jonestown’ members made it clear to the party that they wished to leave the Temple.
At 11:00 pm, the media and family representatives were returned to Port Kaituma. Jones refused to allow them to spend the night on the compound. Only Ryan, Speier and other official party members stayed the night at Jonestown.
By 3:00 pm the next day, and after a tense altercation with a knife wielding Temple member, some 15 People’s Temple members climbed into the trucks with the delegation to drive to Port Kaituma airport.
They arrived at Port Kaituma airport at 4:30 pm and waited for their flights which were delayed because of a request to the US Embassy for a second plane to carry the extra fifteen passengers. Later, when a six-passenger Cessna plane was loaded and began to taxi to the far end of the airstrip, one of the Jonestown defectors on board produced a gun and started shooting inside.
At the same time, as Ryan’s party were boarding the other plane, occupants of a tractor owned by the People’s Temple, opened fire. Ryan, three members of the media and one of the defectors were killed. His assistant Speier and five others were seriously wounded.
According to the official report, the mass suicide began at about 5:00pm at the same time as shooting at the airport. Word of the deaths at Jonestown reached Port Kaituma on Sunday morning when a few survivors arrived there.
On Sunday, 19 November, the first contingent of Guyanese Army rescue forces arrived in Port Kaituma. They confirmed reports of the mass suicide where around 913 of 1100 members, including 408 American citizens had killed themselves with poison.
It transpired that as Ryan’s delegation was boarding the aircraft, Jim Jones explained to the Temple members that he had a premonition that someone on the plane was going to kill Ryan. The consequences would be that the Temple’s enemies would stop at nothing to destroy Jonestown.
The members had heard about such outside threats before and Jones had prepared them for what he termed “revolutionary suicide”.
A tape-recording of the mass-suicide reveals that there was little argument over the decision to die. Despite a few protestations, that the children should be allowed to live, dissenters were soon convinced by the argument that, without suicide the children would suffer a worse fate.
Poison-laced drink was brought to the hall and first given to 200 babies and small children by being poured into their mouths through syringes. Parents watched them die before taking it themselves. Some members resisted, but were shot and killed by armed guards who surrounded the room. These guards have never been accounted for.
Jones himself was shot, whether by himself or by another member is not known.
The Visionary
It beggars belief how one man could have such a powerful hold over so many minds. But perhaps Jones’ secret was that he pretended to give so many discontented people what they really wanted out of life?
He presented himself as a demagogue who could heal the sick and foretell the future with accuracy. His performances included appearing to cure members of cancer and other diseases, while members themselves described how Jones had saved them from illness or depression. No doubt the multi-racial, egalitarian aspect of his church appealed to many who felt that they were outcasts from society themselves.
Unlike other religious institutions, the People’s Temple appeared altruistic, warm and embracing of everyone, irrespective of one’s background, race or creed. These were strong incentives to many young people who felt shunned by a cold, corporate minded world that was full of prejudices. To some, the People’s Temple was more than just meeting likeminded people, it was also offering salvation.
Followers had moved to “Jonestown” with the vision to create a completely self-sufficient community based on the ideals of socialism and communalism. Each person would work for the common good, providing food, shelter, clothing, health care and education for themselves. In this community everyone would be equal and could live in peace. It was a noble ideal and one, as Jones would constantly remind them, which was worth dying for.
It wasn’t too difficult for Jones to convince his followers that outside sources, the capitalist world, would want to destroy Jonestown for what it represented. Therefore it was easy to convey the feeling that Jonestown was the only safe place members of The People’s Temple could remain in.
Even punishments became accepted as Jones’ insidious level of indoctrination made members feel that they had a duty to punish each other, often publicly for transgressions. Parents would beat their children and spouses admonish or physically punish each other. The effect was to make members accept an increasing level of brutality and accept it as the norm.
His trick was that with fewer choices to make, the members would feel less stressed, and less frustrated in their lives, as the only choices that were there were made by Jones himself. For many, to suddenly find themselves unburdened by the usual and normal complexities of every day life must have been a relief and convinced them that this way of living was superior and right.
As everyone was encouraged to report negative feelings to Jones, a ‘Big Brother’ style environment was cultivated as members were made to feel compelled to ‘grass’ on each another. The idea of being publicly humiliated was another reason to repress any feelings of dissent or criticism of Jones and his Temple.
As the Temple was isolated in the jungle it was difficult for anyone to leave without having to encounter major obstacles, such as lack of money, passports, even clothes. But most of all the threat of armed guards stationed along the main road back to civilisation was the greatest incentive to stay put.
Leaving was not an option as it would mean risking alienation from their friends and community, even being despised. The fact that members had given up all their worldly possessions to the Temple meant they would be homeless and penniless if they left. There were very few incentives to want to leave.