Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jonestown Massacre: A 'Reason' to Die

A Time to Die

As Ryan's delegation was preparing to board their aircraft, Jim Jones called the "Jonestown" community together. He explained to them, as if it were a premonition rather than foreknowledge, that someone on the plane was going to kill Ryan. The consequences of this action would be that those political forces that had been trying to destroy the People's Temple for years would attack the people at "Jonestown". The "enemy" would descend upon them and kill them mercilessly. This was not a new threat to the community at "Jonestown," they had lived in fear of an unnamed enemy and destroyer for many years, nor was Jones's solution new to them. He had been preparing them for what he termed "revolutionary suicide" for some time. They had even had a number of practice runs to prepare themfor just such an event.

The scene of the massacre at
The scene of the massacre at

A tape-recording of the mass-suicide reveals that there was little dissent about the decision to die. One or two women who felt that the children should be able to live protested, but they were soon reassured by reminders of the alternative undignified death at the hand of the enemy and the shouted support of the group. The poison-laced drink was brought to the hall and dispensed. The babies and small children, over two hundred of them, were first, with the poison poured into their mouths with syringes. As parents watched their children die, they too swallowed the fatal potion. The moments before the final decision to die brought resistance from a few, but armed guards who surrounded the room shot many of them. Of the estimated 1100 people believed to have been present at "Jonestown" at the time, 913 died, including Jim Jones; the rest somehow escaped into the jungle. It is not certain whether Jones shot himself or was shot by an unknown person.

The most puzzling question, which has arisen out of the tragedy at "Jonestown", is how one man could achieve such control over a large group of people to the point that they would willingly die at his command. It would be easy to assume that "Jonestown" was a unique situation that could only have occurred because of Jim Jones's dynamic and charismatic personality, combined with the weakness and vulnerability of his victims. Such an analysis may bring some peace that such a thing could never happen again, but it falls a long way short of providing true understanding of the situation, thereby leaving us all vulnerable to the danger of further tragedies such as "Jonestown" occurring.

To properly understand "Jonestown," it is necessary to explore the social and psychological processes that were employed which ensured that such extremes of social conformity and obedience were achieved. They are processes that are common in all social groups, but in instances such as the People's Temple, they were used to the extreme, with corresponding extreme results.

Members of the People's Temple had been trained for many years in readiness for the mass suicide that had finally occurred in November 1978. Jim Jones had shared with his followers his paranoid belief that the American government was plotting to destroy anyone who was involved in the People's Temple. Jones's followers were accustomed to looking to Jones for salvation. Over the years, Jones had introduced many outside "threats" to the safety of his followers but he had always removed the danger for them. Time and time again he had rescued them, they had learned to trust this man known to them as "Father."

Jones and his 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. One, as Jones would constantly remind them, which was worth dying for.

By November 1978, the people of "Jonestown" were ready to die. After many years of input, which had held such action as something to be aspired to, with no input negating such a belief, the members of the People's Temple would have easily seen their own deaths as an act of nobility and dignity.



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