Do Not Drink the Kool-Aid!

Welcome to Jonestown (NBC/Getty Images)

This week marks the anniversaries of two very tragic events in America’s history, both of which have fascinated me—and others—for decades: the Jonestown massacre and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Although I still believe JFK’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy—and that Lee Harvey Oswald was likely just a “patsy,” as he claimed shortly before being gunned down by nightclub owner Jack Ruby—the truth may never be revealed to the American public, especially given their recent distrust in elected officials and all the partisan politics in Washington.

Jonestown, on the other hand, is well established in fact. And honestly, it’s too freaky a story for me to ignore, which is why this is the anniversary I will commemorate—for lack of a better word—today.

Jonestown—which was actually called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project—was a community established in Guyana by Reverend Jim Jones, a controversial religious leader in the 1960s known for his integrationist views and his strong belief in apostolic socialism—the basic concept being that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment—socialism.”

In his early career—and despite harboring great sympathy and respect for Communism, which was a big “no-no” at the time—Jones seemed intent on fighting for civil rights, love and understanding. He and his wife Marceline adopted children of Korean descent to create a “rainbow family” and later became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child. Jones also fought to integrate churches, restaurants and a host of other Indiana businesses, which resulted in harsh criticism, threats and even a bomb scare—a stick of dynamite was once discovered in the coal pile of his church, the Peoples Temple.

In 1961, Jones heard mention of a possible nuclear holocaust—which he believed would occur in 1967—and started visiting South America in an effort to find a suitable location upon which to establish a utopian society. He read in Esquire magazine that Brazil would likely be safe from nuclear fallout and decided to visit, stopping in the British colony of Guyana along the way. When he returned from Brazil in 1965, he immediately moved the Peoples Temple to San Francisco for safety, hoping to eventually build and relocate to a “new socialist Eden on earth.”

Jonestown was starting to come into focus.

Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones.

Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones (Bettmann/Corbis)

While in San Francisco, Jones and the Peoples Temple became extremely political and were integral in the 1975 election of Mayor George Moscone, who soon appointed Jones as chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. California assemblyman Willie Brown even described Jones as “a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Chairman Mao.” He had friends in high places—including First Lady Rosalyn Carter and vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale—and his church grew exponentially, with branches popping up in San Fernando and Los Angeles.

Underneath it all, though, was a growing sense of fear and paranoia. Jones denounced Christianity, continued to drift closer and closer to Communism, worried the IRS was investigating the tax-exempt status of his church, and faced intense media scrutiny—culminating in the threat of an exposé in New West magazine claiming some Peoples Temple defectors were sexually, physically and emotionally abused.

Rather than living in a society that seemed increasingly critical and wary of he and his followers—and anticipating the publication of that damning exposé, which would undoubtedly bring even more negativity—Jones and his congregation decided to create a society of their own in Guyana, which he affectionately referred to as Jonestown. In the summer of 1976, he and several hundred of his congregation members—most of whom were black—were living in South America. And by its peak in 1978, Jonestown boasted almost 1,000 residents.

Unfortunately, life in Jonestown wasn’t as pleasant as people expected it to be, and it was a far cry from the utopian paradise promised by their beloved leader. Work days were long and tiresome, buildings quickly fell into disrepair, supplies were hard to come by and illnesses spread through the community like a brush fire. To make matters worse, members identified as having disciplinary problems were harshly punished—many were beaten or imprisoned—and anyone who attempted to escape would be detained by armed guards or even “treated” with powerful drugs like Thorazine and sodium pentothal.

Meanwhile, Jones’ fear and paranoia—as well as his descent into madness—seemed to be growing and progressing at an alarming rate. Members were subjected to behavior modification and mind control techniques—which were inspired by common practices in Communist China and North Korea—and recordings of Jones ranting and raving about the evil “capitalist and imperialist villains” in America boomed from loudspeakers throughout the compound. In Jones’ view, the CIA and other “capitalist pigs” intended to harm the Peoples Temple and to destroy Jonestown, so the disillusioned leader instituted White Nights—large group events designed to help plan for the so-called worst case scenario. He gave members four choices in terms of responding to outside—and impending—threats: defect to the Soviet Union, stand and fight, flee into the jungle or—most frightening of all—commit mass, revolutionary suicide.

And since Jones obtained a jeweler’s license in 1976 and had been receiving shipments of cyanide on a regular basis, he had everything he needed to make this final option a reality.

By late 1977 and early 1978—and amidst rumors of abuse, religious and political indoctrination, and imprisonment in Jonestown—friends and relatives of Peoples Temple members started to get very concerned about their loved ones. A group of Temple defectors calling themselves “Concerned Relatives” eventually got the attention of Congressman Leo Ryan from California, who decided to investigate for himself. He and a delegation of 18 people—including reporters, photographers and representatives from the Concerned Relatives group—arranged to visit Jonestown in November of 1978.

Congressman Leo Ryan (Wikipedia)

What Ryan and his group didn’t know was that Jones’ decline into madness and paranoid delusion had grown substantially and his health had even started to deteriorate. He suffered from weight loss, convulsions, temporary blindness, chronic insomnia and a host of other problems, most of which he treated with injectable stimulants and barbiturates. In the months prior to Ryan’s visit, Jones’ persecution complex and megalomania continued to grow and his White Nights events became much more frequent—even to the point of rehearsing mass suicide with his members.

And to say he was suspicious of Congressman Ryan’s visit would be an understatement.

Despite his reservations—and unable to prevent Ryan from visiting once he and his delegation landed in Guyana—Jones reluctantly agreed to let the party enter Jonestown on November 17, 1978. All but four of Ryan’s contingent landed at a small airstrip at Port Kaituma—six miles away from the compound—and arrived just after sunset. Initially, they were accepted with open arms and even invited to a musical celebration that night. Temple members raved about their lives in Guyana and seemed to be in good spirits, but things soon took a much darker turn.

The first Peoples Temple defector to approach Congressman Ryan at the celebration was Vernon Gosney, who mistakenly handed a note intended for Ryan to NBC reporter Don Harris that read, “Dear Congressman Ryan, Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby. Please help us get out of Jonestown.” The next morning, eleven members fled Jonestown and took a train to nearby Matthew’s Ridge. Among them was Joe Wilson, Jonestown’s head of security.

Reporters and Concerned Relatives members who were unable to take the earlier flight with Ryan arrived at Jonestown that afternoon and were greeted by Marceline Jones, who took them on a tour of the compound. At the same time, even more Peoples Temple members approached Ryan’s delegation and asked to be escorted home. Oddly enough, Jones granted them permission to leave, even after Harris showed him Gosney’s note. Jones, of course, claimed they were lies intended to destroy Jonestown, but nevertheless agreed to let anyone leave who felt they should.

Following a violent rainstorm that afternoon, Ryan’s delegation and a number of defectors—including Temple loyalist Larry Layton, whose presence seemed suspicious to other members—loaded into a dump truck and set out for the airstrip and the long flight home. Congressman Ryan was planning to stay behind, but joined the group after being attacked by a knife-wielding Temple member named Don Sly. He was reluctant to leave—feeling there was still work to be done and other members who may be interested in leaving—but promised to return later.

Ryan and the other victims killed at the Guyana airstrip (AP)

This was obviously a promise he would never keep—more on that in a moment.

The group reached the airstrip but due to their increased size, they had to wait for two planes to arrive: a 19-passenger Twin Otter from Guyana Airways and a 6-passenger Cessna, which was dispatched by the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown. The planes arrived shortly after 5 p.m. and since it was the first to depart, passengers started to board the Cessna first. Among them was Larry Layton, who waited until the plane taxied to the runway before producing a gun and shooting at the passengers. Gosney and Bagby were injured in the attack, but Layton was disarmed by passenger Dale Parks before he could do any further damage.

Around the same time, passengers were boarding the Twin Otter when they suddenly noticed a tractor with a trailer approaching. In the back were members of the Peoples Temple Security Brigade—all of them armed to the teeth—and before anyone knew what was happening, the gunmen opened fire.

NBC cameraman Bob Brown caught the first few seconds of the attack on film, but was killed along with Bob Harris, defector Patricia Parks and Congressman Ryan, who was shot more than twenty times. As many as nine others were injured before the shooting stopped and the Twin Otter was too damaged to fly. Unfortunately, the pilots of the Cessna weren’t taking any chances and immediately took off for Georgetown, leaving everyone else either injured or dead on the isolated airstrip. Some fled into the jungle, but those who survived the deadly attack were eventually rescued by Guyanese soldiers.

Larry Layton was arrested by the Guyanese state police and was later convicted of conspiracy and of aiding and abetting the murder of Ryan and the attempted murder of Richard Dwyer, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Embassy to Guyana. He remains the only person held criminally responsible for the events on that fateful November day.

Meanwhile—back in Jonestown—Reverend Jones assembled his remaining followers in the pavilion and told them that “one of the people on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot” and that they “better not have any of [their] children left when it’s over, because they’ll parachute in here on us.” His threats intensified once the airstrip shooters returned and confirmed Ryan’s death. And in Jones’ view, there was only one solution: revolutionary suicide.

“You can go down in history, saying you chose your own way to go,” the deranged religious leader told his congregation. “It is your commitment to refuse capitalism and in support of socialism.”

The victims of the Jonestown massacre (Getty Images)

Prior to the meeting, Temple members prepared a large vat of Flavor Aid—not Kool-Aid—and laced it with cyanide, Phenergan, Valium and chloral hydrate. According to reports from escaped Temple members, the first to take the deadly concoction were Ruletta Paul and her one-year-old infant. A syringe was used to squirt the poison into the infant’s mouth and within minutes, others were stepping up to take their doses. Jones circulated through the crowd and encouraged people to drink, but many were reluctant once they watched their friends and loved ones drop dead within five minutes of ingesting the poison.

“Die with a degree of dignity,” he told them. “Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony… death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”

One by one, Temple members drank their share of Flavor Aid and used syringes to dose their children. A few people managed to escape, but generally those who refused to take the poison weren’t given a choice. Of course, Jones chose a different method and instead died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His body was found beside his chair with his head resting comfortably on a pillow.

By the time it was all said and done, the mass suicide at Jonestown—which many considered to be mass murder—claimed 909 lives. The total climbs to 918 once the airstrip victims and a few additional Temple members are included—Jones commanded four of his members in Georgetown to die, which they did obediently. And until the events of September 11, 2001, the Jonestown massacre stood as the single largest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act in our nation’s history.

I certainly hope this is a record we never break again. And my heart goes out to anyone who lost a loved one on that terrible November day in 1978. This is one anniversary that no one should have to experience.

Posted on November 22, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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