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Ministry of Terror

The Jonestown Cult Massacre

by Elissa Haney
AP/Worldwide Photos

The vat containing Jones' deadly concoction sits amid the bodies of his followers on Nov. 20, 1978. (Source/AP)

Cult leader Jim Jones.

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Two decades ago an unusual series of events led to the deaths of more than 900 people in the middle of a South American jungle. Though dubbed a "massacre," what transpired at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, was to some extent done willingly, making the mass suicide all the more disturbing.

The Jonestown cult (officially named the "People's Temple") was founded in 1955 by Indianapolis preacher James Warren Jones. Jones, who had no formal theological training, based his liberal ministry on a combination of religious and socialist philosophies.

A New, Isolated Community

After relocating to California in 1965, the church continued to grow in membership and began advocating their left-wing political ideals more actively. With an I.R.S. investigation and a great deal of negative press mounting against the radical church, Jones urged his congregation to join him in a new, isolated community where they could escape American capitalism—and criticism—and practice a more communal way of life.

In 1977, Jones and many of his followers relocated to Jonestown, located on a tract of land the People's Temple had purchased and begun to develop in Guyana three years earlier.

Relatives of cult members soon grew concerned and requested that the U.S. government rescue what they believed to be brainwashed victims living in concentration camp-like conditions under Jones's power.

The Visit of Congressman Ryan

In November 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to survey Jonestown and interview its inhabitants. After reportedly having his life threatened by a Temple member during the first day of his visit, Ryan decided to cut his trip short and return to the U.S. with some Jonestown residents who wished to leave. As they boarded their plane, a group of Jones's guards opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others.

Some members of Ryan's party escaped, however. Upon learning this, Jones told his followers that Ryan's murder would make it impossible for their commune to continue functioning. Rather than return to the United States, the People's Temple would preserve their church by making the ultimate sacrifice: their own lives. Jones's 912 followers were given a deadly concoction of purple Kool-Aid mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Jones apparently shot himself in the head.


Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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