When California Senator Leo J. Ryan's plane landed in Georgetown, Guyana, South America, on November 14, 1978, his assistant Jacqueline "Jackie" Speier had already placed a copy of his will in the top drawer of her desk. “I was afraid of this trip,” she would later say. Together with other government officials, media representatives and former members of the Peoples Temple sect, she took off from Washington that day and flew on to Jonestown - a settlement in the jungle of Guyana - a few days later. The charismatic leader Jim Jones had settled here with around 1,000 of his followers.
Just three months earlier, New West Magazine had published a damning exposé on him and the Peoples Temple, alleging abuse, sexual assault and exploitation. Concerned relatives and former members of the sect then contacted the government. Ryan, a man of action, wants to see for himself on site - and arranges a meeting with Jim Jones.
James Warren "Jim" Jones became interested in religion and death from an early age. He grew up in poor conditions on a farm in the town of Lynn, Indiana. And he is alone a lot. His father is a war invalid, therefore unemployed and constantly drunk. The mother has to provide for the living. To the children in the small town he is an oddball because he carries out funerals for small animals. He is said to have once killed a cat with a knife only to bury it afterwards.
The church offers him refuge, a kind of substitute home. Here he realizes that preachers are often viewed as father figures. He studied pedagogy and later began working as a nurse. At the same time, he becomes a traveling preacher at the Church of the Resurrection. In 1949 he married a nurse and moved with her to Indianapolis in 1950, where, at the age of 19 without any formal training, he accepted a pastor's position in the Methodist church. He advocates racial integration and preaches socialism. In 1956 he opened his own church - the Peoples Temple.
He and his wife are the first white couple to adopt a black boy. Further adoptions of children of different nationalities follow. Only one child is his biological one. His efforts on race relations are a thorn in the side of many around him. When he reads a report in Esquire about Ukiah, California - a place where people were said to survive a nuclear attack - he moved there in 1965. About 130 church followers follow him.
Like his great role model "Father Divine", a black religious leader, Jones appears as a prophet and healer, proclaiming that he is blessed with divine powers. The community is growing rapidly. And although he is a white fundamentalist minister, his congregation is about 80 to 90 percent black.
He buys more and more buses in which he and his followers tour across the country in order to gain more and more members. "He didn't teach us any religion," a supporter remembers in a TV documentary. "The focus was on socialism, which was drummed into us." Another explains: "He said what was on our hearts. That the government didn't care about the people and that there were too many poor people - including children."
In 1970, Jones began holding services in San Francisco; a year later he purchased the Geary Street temple. And that same year he expanded to Los Angeles and took over a synagogue on South Alvarado Street. He sets up soup kitchens, distributes clothing to those in need, supports orphans and builds homes for the elderly. When a local animal hospital runs into trouble, Peoples Temple provides the money needed to keep it open. Money that he gets from his followers. Older people give him their entire savings and even their houses. To do this, they are cared for and accommodated in the community. The younger ones also hand in their paychecks to him and get five dollars a week in pocket money.
In his church services he captivates the members. He gives rousing sermons and even hurls a Bible across the church because the book has been oppressing black people for years. He then asks the astonished followers: “So, have I been struck by lightning?” Once he heals a supposedly disabled believer who, after a few kind words, jumps out of her wheelchair and runs euphorically through the church - when in reality it is his secretary, who is completely healthy.
However, he takes medication regularly. To stay awake for church services, he takes amphetamines. In order to be able to sleep afterwards, sedatives. Little by little he develops paranoia. Before every important meeting, he has rooms checked for bugs. In the constant delusion that someone could attempt to assassinate him, he hires two people who would throw themselves in front of him in an emergency and absorb possible bullets.
In December 1975, 90 of his total of around 1,000 cult followers finally made their way to Guyana in South America. Jones wants to create a new utopian community there - in the middle of the jungle - that should be free of inequality and discrimination. The settlement is miles away from the nearest town and is virtually inaccessible from the outside. On their own, they create an infrastructure, albeit a very primitive one, on 16 square kilometers. They build huts, a hospital, a kindergarten, produce their own food and stock up on supplies. They regularly send reports on their progress via video messages to the United States. The followers are thrilled and can hardly wait to get to their new home, which many consider to be paradise. Jones names the place after himself: Jonestown.
But the critical voices of former members and relatives of the cult members are becoming louder and louder. On August 1, 1977, the New West magazine published an expose on the Peoples Temple. In it, so-called "concerned supporters" report public punishment through beatings - first with a belt, later with a wooden board. Followers were therefore forced to take part in evening services that lasted for hours - sometimes until the early hours of the morning. Members are said to have been forced to donate their property or houses and most of the money paid by the community to children's and nursing homes also went to the sect. While Jones preaches celibacy, he is said to repeatedly have sex with cult followers - men and women. Sexual intercourse should not always take place consensually. When the article appears, Jones panics and orders his remaining followers to move to Guyana immediately.
"Jonestown should be a paradise where people of all colors can live in peace - far from racism and social injustice," recalls a former supporter. But the truth is also: Members' passports are confiscated immediately upon arrival. They have to work in the fields for ten hours every day. The food portions are meager and usually consist of rice. There are penal companies and armed guards who move around the camp - to protect against invasion, as Jones says. The Guru sets his own rules and a list of punishable crimes. So you can't leave Jonestown, you can't talk badly about Jim Jones, you can't be lazy or question what's going on in the community. Any violation of the rules must be reported to him immediately. And anyone deemed apostate will be punished.
And the punishments are pure psychological terror, as former cult followers report. People are put in pits and threatened with snakes being thrown in there with them. Some are beaten in public or have to have boxing matches with others. Jones then allegedly asked the crowd what punishment he should impose. A follower later said: "He then shouted, 'How about a boxing match?' Everyone cheered loudly." Sometimes I had to compete against five people in a row. Afterwards I was completely exhausted. If someone is knocked out He was woken up with a splash of water and then beaten again."
Since there is no radio or television in the community and the relatives are not supposed to have any contact with their families, what Jones says only applies. He repeatedly gives instructions to the camp over the loudspeaker. He even records his voice and lets his sermon be carried through the loudspeakers to every corner. “Wherever you were, you heard him,” recalls one follower. "During field work, in the toilet and at night in bed." Jones tells his people that the situation in the USA is getting worse and no one can go home.
In the camp, Jones' paranoia worsens, which is apparently due to his medication abuse. “Sometimes he was hard to understand and his speech was very slurred,” said one follower. He suffers from delusions, feels persecuted by the US government and begins to see threats everywhere. Weapons are smuggled into the camp under the pretext of having to defend oneself against enemies. He regularly calls so-called “White Nights” in which followers have to prove their devotion by drinking poison. He explains the ritual by claiming that the community is under attack by enemies and that they can only be defeated through the members' "revolutionary suicide." The poison is actually just a harmless liquid. And the ritual is just an exercise to see how loyal his followers are.
The group of so-called "concerned relatives" eventually turns to California US Congressman Leo Ryan. The democrat decides to see the situation for himself. The 53-year-old also ignored an open warning from Jonestown that something would happen to him during his visit. On Friday evening, November 17, 1978, he arrived in Jonestown with his delegation. “Welcome to Jonestown – Peoples Temple Agriculture Project” reads a wooden sign. Jackie Speier describes the religious community as an “impressive” place. There was nothing to indicate that people were being held here against their will. The mood seems relaxed. The members have prepared a reception for the politician. They celebrate, sing and dance. But then two of them give the cameraman a note saying that they want to leave Jonestown. They beg for help and want Ryan to take them with him to the USA.
The next day, more followers want to leave the camp. When asked about this, Jones tells journalists: "People are playing games, my friend. And they're lying. What should I do? Go. Leave us, please." He begs the renegades to stay. “You can’t leave,” he tells them. "You are my people. Why do you want to leave?" At some point he is said to have given in and said: “Of course you can go if you want”. "But actually," says Speier, "what he meant was: You are traitors."
Then there is a scandal. A female cult member with a knife in her hand attacks the US senator. Other cult members hold them back. Ryan escapes with a scare and a cut. He wants to leave immediately. Together with him, 15 other cult members make their way to the nearby Port Kaituma airport. When Ryan and his entourage arrive at the airport and they want to board the plane, a dump truck suddenly drives onto the runway and blocks the planes' path. There are three men inside and others are hiding in the loading area. While some of the supporters were already sitting in one of the two planes, the men suddenly opened fire.
"I was lying flat on the asphalt and heard nothing but gunshots," remembers a journalist. Speier hides behind a tire but is hit in the arm. “I was shaking, but I tried to endure the pain and not move.” She plays dead, which probably saves her life. Ryan is shot. Just like an NBC reporter, a cameraman, a photographer and a Jonestown resident.
A few hours later, the cult leader calls the community to a meeting in the Jonestown village pavilion. He claims the deputy's death would result in a terrible retaliation from the US Army. They would come and shoot the innocent children. "It wasn't a practice, I suspected that," a survivor later said. "We were getting ready to commit suicide." On Jones' instructions, a mixture of cyanide, grape juice and Valium is mixed. “If we cannot live in peace, we want to die in peace,” he speaks to the congregation. "Death is just the transition to another level." And further: "This is not suicide, but a revolutionary act against an inhumane world." First, children and infants are brought to the front, where the deadly mixture is administered to them. "A lot of people were in a trance. I couldn't believe what was happening," said the devotee, who sneaked out and ran away during the ceremony. Then it's the adults' turn. One by one they poison themselves. The headquarters of Peoples Temple in Georgetown was also alerted about the incident, whereupon a follower there took her own life with her three children. A survivor later said: "I never called it suicide and I never will. The guy killed us."
Do you have suicidal thoughts? Telephone counseling offers help. It is anonymous, free and available around the clock on 0 800 / 111 0 111 and 0 800 / 111 0 222. Advice via email is also possible. A list of nationwide help centers can be found on the website of the German Society for Suicide Prevention.
Along with those killed at the airfield, 918 people died in the Jonestown massacre on November 18, 1979. Only seven are autopsied, including Jim Jones' body. He dies from a gunshot wound to the left temple. It was later impossible to determine exactly whether he also committed suicide or was shot. The forensic data is consistent with both features. Not even 100 of the more than 1,000 residents of Jonestown survived the massacre.
Watch the video: Rape, severe punishment and child abuse were commonplace. But Dawn Watson only realized afterwards where she actually grew up. Now she talks about her terrible childhood.
Sources: “Jonestown – A Cult’s Death Craze,” National Geographic, San Diego State University, ABC News