The Tragic Story Of The Jonestown Massacre, Modern History’s Largest Mass “Suicide”

Published September 25, 2017
Updated November 12, 2018

Until the September 11th attacks, the Jonestown Massacre was the greatest loss of civilian life in American history.

Jonestown Massacre Aerial View

David Hume Kennerly/Getty ImagesDead bodies lie around the compound of the Peoples Temple cult after the more than 900 members of the cult, led by Reverend Jim Jones, died from drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. November 19, 1978. Jonestown, Guyana.

Until September 11, 2001, the Jonestown Massacre was the greatest-ever loss of American civilian lives as part of a deliberate act.

Today, the horrific deaths of more than 900 people in Guyana in November 1978 is best known in the popular imagination as the time that gullible expats from the Peoples Temple cult literally “drank the Kool-Aid” and died simultaneously from cyanide poisoning.

For starters, it wasn’t even Kool-Aid — it was Flavor Aid. A minor quibble, sure, but it’s telling that the more popular brand of beverage mix incorrectly became the unofficial sponsor of the massacre. It’s easier to mull over the tragedy with your friends or crack jokes when a more familiar product is at the center of it.

“Kool-Aid” more aptly conjures the dismissive tone that we so often take: A child’s drink killed the child-like members of the group, who should have known better, or shouldn’t have been so easily duped.

Jonestown Massacre dead holding each other

Frank Johnston/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Like the Heaven’s Gate cult in 1997 and their matching Nikes, the Kool-Aid detail perhaps makes it easier to process the unimaginable horror of the Jonestown Massacre, which the Guyanese troops first discovered the morning after the incident.

They were expecting resistance from the Rev. Jim Jones’ “revolutionaries,” but instead found an eerily calm scene:

“All of a sudden they start to stumble and they think that maybe these revolutionaries placed logs on the ground to trip them up, and now they’re going to start shooting from ambush — and then a couple of the soldiers look down and they can see through the fog and they start screaming, because there are bodies everywhere, almost more than they can count, and they’re so horrified.”

Jonestown Massacre Pictures

David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The dead weren’t a laughable collection of moon-eyed, brainwashed sycophants. Around 300 were children. Another 300 were elderly and unable to properly care for themselves without Jones and his community. In fact, they likely obeyed out of fear, hence the common name “Jonestown Massacre” for what is often said to be a mass suicide (as opposed to a mass killing).

As for the rest of the people killed in the Jonestown Massacre, it’s a mix of true believers and the hopeless, as John R. Hall writes in Gone from the Promised Land:

“The presence of armed guards shows at least implicit coercion, though the guards themselves reported their intentions to visitors in glorious terms and then took the poison. Nor was the situation structured as one of individual choice. Jim Jones proposed a collective action, and in the discussion that followed only one woman offered extended opposition. No one rushed up to tip over the vat of Flavor Aid. Wittingly, unknowingly, or reluctantly, they took the poison.”

Reverend Jim Jones

Bettmann Archives/Getty ImagesReverend Jim Jones raises his fist in a salute while preaching.

Jones, a charismatic “faith healer” strung out on a nearly lethal combination of amphetamines and pentobarbital, his health in rapid decline, fed his isolated largely African-American followers a diet of propaganda that poisoned their minds almost as effectively as his brutal beatings broke their spirits.

As one survivor recalled:

“[H]e would tell us that in the United States, African Americans were being herded into concentration camps, that there was genocide on the streets. They were coming to kill and torture us because we’d chosen what he called the socialist track. He said they were on their way.”

Parrots On Fence Near Jonestown

Tim Chapman/Getty Images

It wasn’t always like this, however. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jones was known as a progressive figure for his charity work and for founding one of the first mixed-race churches in the Midwest. But he soon started promising miracles, included an ability to literally pull cancer out of people.

The discovery that it was rotten chicken that actually materialized gave him away to some members of the congregation, who nonetheless continued following Jones, rationalizing that some sleight-of-hand was permissible for the greater good.

Jim Jones Family Portrait

Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty ImagesPortrait of Jim Jones (seated), the founder of the Peoples Temple, and his wife, Marceline Jones, seated in front of their adopted children and next to his sister-in-law (right) with her three children. 1976.

Four days before the massacre, Rep. Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown along with a delegation of 18 people, including several members of the press, to check on the conditions at Jonestown. Ryan was friends with a Peoples Temple member whose mutilated body was found two years prior, and reports coming out of Jonestown suggested that it was far from the racism- and poverty-free utopia that Jones had sold his members on.

After several Temple members tried to escape with Ryan’s delegation, members of Jones’ security team shot and killed four delegation members and one defector at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. Leo Ryan died after being shot more than 20 times. Several others were wounded.

Child Overlooking Jonestown Massacre

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

A short time later, Jones commenced the poisoned Flavor Aid ritual, urging Temple members to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Deaths occurred within five minutes. The children were poisoned first, so that the adults had less to live for.

Jones, before taking his own life with a gunshot wound to the head, urged the reluctant to make haste, for their own sake, in an audio tape later recovered at the scene:

“Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony … I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries … death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you — if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”

After this look at the Jonestown Massacre, read up on some of the most extreme cults that are still active today in America. Then, step inside the hippie communes of 1970s America.

Kellen Perry
Kellen Perry writes about television, history, music, art, video games, and food for ATI, Grunge, Ranker, Ranker Insights, and anyone else that will have him.
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