Rev. Jim Jones (who had no formal theological training or degree) had formed a religious cult in the 1970s in San Francisco called the Peoples Temple. News started surfacing that people weren’t allowed to leave the cult. There was a report that at least one member had been killed when he tried to leave. All of this caught the attention of Democratic Rep. Leo Ryan, whose northern California district included the Peoples Temple.
As more bad publicity about the cult was about to break, Jones and his followers quickly left the country to set up a commune in the jungles of Guyana. He named the new commune “Jonestown,” after himself. Jonestown was a supposed Eden-like paradise settlement. In reality, it became a prison for Jones’ nearly 1,000 followers, one-third of whom were children. There were reports of sexual abuse, forced labor, beatings by Jones and his top lieutenants, and financial corruption as Jones seized his cult members’ assets. There was also a racial element, as Jones and his top lieutenants were all white, and many of Jones’ followers were black.
More stories surfaced that American citizens weren’t able to leave Jonestown and weren’t able to contact families back in the U.S., and that U.S. relatives’ attempts to contact them were rebuffed. Worried relatives called Ryan’s office. Ryan also talked to a few people who had been able to leave Jonestown, who repeated the stories of abuse and described a mass suicide “rehearsal” in which all drank a concoction that turned out not to be poisoned—Jones was just testing their faith.
Finally, Ryan, a hands-on congressman who wasn’t afraid to handle investigations on his own, decided to fly to Guyana to check out Jonestown himself, bringing two congressional aides, including Speier; some reporters; and some concerned family members.
Ryan and his contingent arrived on a remote airstrip near Jonestown on Nov. 17, 1978. For Ryan, it would be his final trip, as he and many in his group were gunned down the next day by Jonestown guards wielding automatic weapons when Ryan and his team tried to help cult members who wanted to escape. Five people were killed in the attack, including Ryan and three reporters. Eleven were injured, including Speier, who was shot five times.
Back at the commune, Jones and his followers went through another suicide drill, but this was no rehearsal. By the time authorities went back to Jonestown, the people they found there were all dead. Jones himself died of a gunshot wound. A few of Jones’ followers were able to escape the poisoned Kool-Aid by hiding or running into the jungle.
Speier has told her story many times but recounts it again in a new book, Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back. More details about the book are available here. An excerpt from the book recently ran in Politico. Here is one section of the excerpt:
The night before, our delegation watched Jones’ followers perform a show at their compound. Jones himself sat onstage in a throne beneath a sign that read: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The members sang and danced and, by every appearance, were happy.
At the end of the evening, Rep. Ryan walked onstage and thanked the group. “From what I’ve seen,” he said, “there are a lot of people here who think this is the best thing that happened in their whole life.” He was interrupted by manically enthusiastic cheering. It was utter pandemonium.
As I scanned the hundreds of smiling faces, I never could have fathomed that within 24 hours, virtually every one of them would be dead. …
When people refer to the Jonestown massacre as a “mass suicide,” I am enraged. It was nothing of the kind. Although some of Jones’s most zealous followers may have consumed the poison voluntarily, the vast majority were murdered outright and against their will. Nearly 300 children were administered the poison with no comprehension of what it meant, including a number of infants in the arms of their parents. Infants cannot commit suicide. The hundreds of elderly were told that if they attempted escape, they would be left to die prolonged deaths alone in the depths of the jungle.
Longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed was among the journalists who traveled to Guyana to report the story after Ryan’s murder and after the bodies were found. She sent back stories as the tale unfolded that this wasn’t just suicide—parents murdered their own children with the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Sneed’s story on the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, which ran in the Sun-Times and also is available on the website of the Cult Education Institute, called that trip “A Brief Sojourn to Hell.”
Overwhelmed authorities in Guyana tried to deal with the staggering number of bodies, estimating the number of victims to be in the hundreds. I remember an interview in which Sneed, trying to pin down the number of victims, asked the practical question of a police reporter: “Did you count the beds?” That stopped the officials cold. When they did count the beds (and as they dealt with the remains of so many), the body count rose to 918. This is from Sneed’s recollection in 2003:
Sometimes, when the night is clear and filled with stars, I hear children screaming.
It is not a loud scream. It is more like an old whisper.
It is the two-decades-old sound of children dying on a starry night in Jonestown, Guyana. It is the white noise of cyanide-induced death that inhaled the breath of innocent children and sucked the life out of nearly 1,000 cultists led by a monster named Jim Jones.
I never really heard the children die, but I covered the story of Jonestown.
And I clearly remember walking away from my typewriter, stepping onto the balcony of my squalid hotel room, looking up at the sky and wondering where all the screams of the children went.
The Peoples Temple disbanded after the incident and declared bankruptcy at the end of 1978. With most of the members dead, including Jim Jones, only one person was tried in the U.S.: Larry Layton, a cult member and top lieutenant of Jones who had led the airstrip attack, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, though he was released in 2002.
As Michael Sneed wrote in 2003: “Jonestown has now been reclaimed by the jungle.”
And as Jackie Speier’s excerpt in Politico ends: “This was not a mass suicide. It was a mass murder.”
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