10 Things You Didn’t Know About American Cult, Jonestown8
By Chris Littler
10 Things You Didn’t Know About American Cult, Jonestown
On November 18th, 1978, the people of Jonestown, a settlement established by a communist group called The People’s Temple Agricultural Project killed themselves in what they called a “revolutionary suicide.” In reality, the People’s Temple was a cult, and the act was a mass suicide on an unprecedented scale. 909 people lined up to drink from a barrel filled with flavored powder drink and poison. Parents fed their children with a syringe. They all died within five minutes. The cult’s leader, Jim Jones, ended his life shortly after with a gunshot to the head. It was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The people who took their lives that day were normal, everyday people, brainwashed into believing that Jones was going to deliver on his utopian promises of a true communist collective. The truth, that Jones was a pill-popping addict who probably didn’t remember most of the nonsense he spouted five minutes after he’d spouted it, was too bitter for most to believe. Only a handful of Jones’s followers woke up to the reality of the situation a little too late, finding themselves trapped in an inescapable prison of body and mind, like the cellmates of the dramatic thriller CELL. [Win a Roku streaming player. See the Contest info at the end of the story.]
Though we may never fully understand what happened to the people of Jonestown, there’s a lot about the People’s Temple that people know nothing about. Like the sign that hung over Jones’s seat in the infamous pavilion where the poison was handed out, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Here are 10 more things you may not know about America’s most infamous mass suicide: Jonestown.
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1. Children were punished by spending the night at the bottom of a well.
The People’s Temple chose a 3,800-acre patch of land in the Guyanese jungle to create their “benevolent communist utopia” despite the fact that the land had poor fertility (even by Guyanese standards), and the nearest body of water was over seven miles away. Optimism triumphed, however, and the social experiment succeeded for a good three years. Ironically, things started falling apart when Jones and most of his followers arrived at the camp. Overcrowding led to competition for resources, and without a proper jail, a system of punishment had to be installed. Adults who broke conduct were imprisoned in a 6 x 4 x 3-foot box, and children were forced to spend the night at the bottom of a well. On top of that, major moral lapses were punished with a cocktail of Thorazine, sodium pentathol, and Valium.
2. The People’s Temple practiced ritual suicide on a regular basis.
Jones became more and more paranoid as time went on, giving frequent addresses to the Temple that the CIA was conspiring to destroy Jonestown and jail (or possibly kill) its members. He strengthened his case by making it about the children, saying that no good parent would allow the American government to take their children away from them and that death was preferable. To prepare the cult for emergency scenarios, Jones held what he called “White Nights,” in which he offered the group four choices: flee to the USSR, kill themselves, stay in Jonestown and fight, or run into the jungle. Twice the second option was chosen, and a simulated mass suicide was rehearsed. Of course, no one participating was aware that the White Night wasn’t real, and when the time came to die, Jones notified them that it was just to be on the safe side, in case things came to this. In the end, it was all just a loyalty test.
3. The People’s Temple was preparing to relocate to the Soviet Union.
As conditions worsened in Jonestown, higher ups in the command made plans to relocate the People’s Temple to the Soviet Union. It was a natural fit, seeing as how the Temple saw themselves as the perfect communist community. Why shouldn’t they go where communism was born and (supposedly) thriving? In October 1978, Feodor Timofeyev, Guyana’s Soviet ambassador, visited Jonestown and gave a speech claiming that the USSR was pleased to hear of the “first socialist and communist community of the United States of America.” Though the People’s Temple met with Timofeyev on a weekly basis following the speech, no exodus plan could be cemented before the events of November 18th.
4. Harvey Milk defended Jones in a letter to President Jimmy Carter.
The American public cared very little about what a group of extremist wackos were doing out in the Guyanese jungle. That is, until children were brought into the mix. A group of stateside parents, who had been cut-off from their children when their significant other moved to Jonestown, made passionate pleas to their government. Journalist Tim Reiterman from the San Francisco Examiner caught wind of the struggle and wrote a story about one parent’s dealings with the Temple’s legal staff. The result was a public backlash against Jones and crew, who could no longer paint themselves as the target of some kind of “rightist vendetta.” Harvey Milk, then the city supervisor and former colleague of Jones’, wrote President Jimmy Carter a letter in support of the People’s Temple, claiming that Jones was “a man of the highest character.” In Milk’s defense, the man that he knew back from the Temple’s San Francisco days was not the same man who was running things in Guyana.
5. Jones hired two JFK conspiracy theorists to come up with persecution theories.
By the summer of 1978, Jones was sensing that the tide had turned on him in America, and that something had to be done to cement his claims of a grand anti-Temple right-wing conspiracy. So who better to turn to than two of the most capable conspiracy theorists of all time? Mark Lane and Donald Freed were hired by Jones based on their work with the JFK assassination. The two immediately set to work connecting the dots, even in situations where the dots were clearly miles apart. Lane was paid six thousand dollars a month to visit Jonestown and tell the people that Jones was a modern day Martin Luther King, Jr., and that there was, in fact, a “massive conspiracy” against the Temple by the FCC, CIA, FBI and, of course, the U.S. Post Office.
CELL – One
6. The group had rehearsed how to act when Senator Ryan arrived in Jonestown.
As more and more parents complained about their children being stolen and brainwashed in Jonestown, certain groups in Congress realized that intervention would be necessary. Leading the charge was Congressman Leo Ryan, from California’s 11th congressional district. Ryan arrived at Jonestown with a group of concerned parents, as well as some reporters and cameramen from various news outlets. They had no goal but to suss out the situation there as well as conduct some meetings to see if anyone was being held against their will. What Ryan found there impressed him, and he left after telling Jones that none of his fears were actualized. Of course, what Congressman Ryan had seen was just a show, something that the Temple had rehearsed several times before the outsiders arrived.
7. The murder of Congressman Ryan is the only time a Congressman has been killed in the line of duty.
Though Ryan had abated whatever fears Jones may have had about American intervention in the Jonestown project, Jones didn’t believe a word of it, and Ryan never made it back to the States. His paranoia had finally won out over his sanity, and Jones okayed the assassination of Ryan and crew, as proposed by his “Red Brigade.” The Red Brigade, comprised of Jones’s armed enforcers, set out for the airstrip to keep Ryan permanently grounded. Nine or more shooters circled the single-engine and opened fire, killing Ryan, cameraman Bob Brown, photographer Greg Robinson, reporter Don Harris, and a Temple defector named Patricia Sparks. Another nine were severely injured. What the Red Brigade hoped to achieve by killing these people, we may never know, since they seemed fully intent on destroying themselves less than an hour later.
8. They recorded the moment they drank the poison, and you can read the transcript.
Since Jones was regarded by his people as a modern-day Martin Luther, or a Karl Marx, it only makes sense that his speeches were recorded for posterity. Jones was so doped up that most of his speeches were rambling, slurred messes, so it’s unlikely that anything he said will ever be compared to the Sermon on the Mount, but the final speech he gives to his people as they line up to kill themselves is a fascinating study in what kind of drivel people are willing to believe when they want to believe.
9. Everyone called Jones “Dad.”
One amazing thing you might note in that transcript is the repeated referral to Jones as “Dad.” In fact, everyone in the commune referred to him as such. Children, especially, were told to think of him as a benevolent father, and were required to spend most of their days with him, only returning to their real parents in the evening hours. At one point in that transcript, the real meaning of “Dad” comes to light when one of Jones’s followers refers to him as the “one true God.” The deification of a leader is a major part of what makes a cult work, and it’s hard to believe that 909 people would have taken their own lives if they didn’t honestly believe they were being led by a man who was unlike any other.
10. It wasn’t Kool-Aid. It was Flavor-Aid.
After the events November 18th, the People’s Temple entered the public’s consciousness forever. And while some of the what’s and why’s have fallen by the wayside in the thirty-plus years since Jones ordered his followers to drink from a barrel full of poison, one trifling bit has remained: the phrase drink the Kool-Aid. It’s meant to mean willingly enter into a lie, but like many phrases, it’s based on a fallacy. The poison that the People’s Temple used to kill themselves was actually flavored with an off-brand called Flavor-Aid, spiced up with Valium, chloral hydrate, and cyanide. You can only imagine how quickly the people at Kool-Aid tried to right that mistake. But like the People’s Temple itself, there’s really no stopping something when people get a hold of it and believe it to be true.
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CELL – Six
Chris Littler lives in Hollywood. He has a degree in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, one of the most prestigious writing programs in America, which he totally plans to hang on the wall when he has a Study. Chris currently covers video games at UGO.com when he’s not performing improv at iO, and is currently writing a one-hour TV pilot with his friend Wes. Like everyone else you know, he has an album available to purchase on iTunes and has lots of things to say on his blog: chrislittler[dot]com.
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