In 1975, Rev. Jim Jones, the religious cult leader and civil rights activist, hinted at things to come. “I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me,” he said during a sermon at his Peoples Temple church in San Francisco. Just two years later, on Nov. 18, 1978, those words became reality when more than 900 people, one-third of them children, died during what would be known as the Jonestown Massacre, one of the worst mass killings in American history.
In 1977, Jones, the self-proclaimed “messiah” of his evangelical flock, led his followers to a remote jungle in Guyana to live in Jonestown. He sold the destination as an agricultural commune rich with food, where there were no mosquitoes or snakes and where temperatures hovered around a perfect 72 degrees every single day.
Jonestown conditions were grim.
But it was all a lie, says Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown. “They can’t actually grow food in this agricultural commune because the jungle soils are too thin,” the author, who scoured 50,000 pages of letters, journals and other documents found in Jonestown and released by the FBI. “Nothing grows and they’re starving. He has this inner circle that goes out and begs for food or gets rotting food from the market and brings it back to Jonestown. It was a big façade.”
It was also dreadfully hot, Scheeres says. “And there are mosquitoes. There are snakes. There are all kinds of critters. Every day, they are getting up at the break of dawn and going out to the fields to work. During the dry season they do bucket brigades to water the plants so they don’t die. It’s back-breaking work and there’s no free time—and that’s on purpose. Jones knows people are unhappy; there’s not enough food, they’re separated from their families, it’s hot. It’s nothing like he promised.”
But commiserating about the situation? Not tolerated. Scheeres says Jones enforced a rule that when his voice was played over the PA system rigged throughout the commune, no one was allowed to talk.
“So, there was no opportunity for people to plot and plan about how to get out of Jonestown,” she says. “He also tells them he’s going to have plants within Jonestown—people who will come to you and complain. If this happens, you must denounce them, otherwise, you will get in trouble. So, you can’t trust anybody. There’s no solidarity.”
A Congressman's visit threatened to expose Jonestown lies.
Things came to a fatal head following a visit to Jonestown by U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California, who traveled to Guyana, along with a media crew and a handful of cultist relatives, to investigate abuse allegations. Ryan was spurred to visit Jonestown after hearing word from a friend and former Peoples Temple member who couldn’t reach family members at the commune, as well as an affidavit from Deborah Layton Blakey, a Jones aide who sought refuge at the American embassy, who recounted the goings-on at Jonestown.
“Congressman Leo Ryan gets there and they do this song and dance,” Scheeres says. “Jones has been rehearsing people for weeks on what to say to Ryan and the media, even though they’ve been starving. He would have his inner circle, his lieutenants, go around and rehearse people: ‘What do you eat in Jonestown?’ ‘Well, we eat lamb and steak and chicken.’ Every day they were rehearsing what to say. And Ryan is fooled by this. He actually believes that people are happy there.”
But as the group was preparing to leave the commune, Scheeres adds, someone slipped Ryan’s aide a note asking for help. “And all hell breaks loose,” she says. “They weren’t supposed to have any contact with Ryan, his entourage or the media, so when Jones hears about this note he tells Ryan’s group to get out. He realizes the house of cards is starting to crumble.”
In danger, Ryan’s group, along with 14 defectors, returned to the airstrip to leave, but no planes were waiting for them. “Finally, two airplanes show up and as they are starting to board the airplanes, this tractor pulling a trailer comes up and all these men pop out and start shooting at the people who are about to board the airplane, killing one of the defectors, three media people and Leo Ryan.
“These thugs then go back to Jonestown and Jones is told about this incident. He tells the people, it’s over, it’s all over, they’re coming for us, this is it, it’s time to transition to the other side.”
Jim Jones used armed guards and threats to force 'suicides.'
WATCH: Timeline of the Jonestown Massacre
Recommended for you
Scheeres says she felt a deep connection to Tommy Bogue, a survivor she interviewed for her book, who was a teenager at the time and was shot when he, along with his parents and a sister, defected with Ryan. A sister who decided to stay behind died in Jonestown. Now known as Thom Bogue, he is currently mayor of Dixon, California, about an hour north of San Francisco.
“He was representative of the children who were in Jonestown,” she says. “It wasn’t his decision to join the church. He tried to run away a year before the mass murder with his best friend. They stole some food from the kitchen and had a half-baked plan to go to Venezuela. They were just kids—16 years old—and they were terrified and didn’t want to die. They got into the jungle and then night fell, and they couldn’t even see 5 inches in front of their noses, so they had to return to the main road. And it was on the main road that they were caught by Jim Jones’s guards and brought back to Jonestown where they were severely punished.”
Scheeres says there was simply no way out that last night, when Jones commanded his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch.
“People think they willingly died,” she says, “but Jones gave them no choice. They were surrounded by a row of guards with crossbows, and then behind them there was another line of guards pointing guns. Meanwhile, Jones is exhorting them to come up and drink this potion to take them to the other side. So, living was never an alternative on that last night. Most people chose to die with their families, and if they didn’t drink it, there were many who were injected with the poison.”
Prior to November 18, there had been attempts to leave, Scheeres says. “Reading through the FBI files, there were many accounts of people running into the jungle, but Jones had them so afraid,” she says. “He told them that the jungles were full of mercenaries who wanted to kill them if they left Jonestown, that it was full of tigers and snakes that would eat them alive and with any dissidence, he would shoot them full of thorazine, which made them into zombies, and he would imprison people with drugs.”
Jim Jones targeted babies and children first.
In fact, according to Scheeres, Jones held a number of mass suicide rehearsals to see how the crowd would respond, and who would cause him trouble. “And then he made those people line up first,” she says. “He figured out that if they killed the children first, then the parents wouldn’t have any reason to live. So, he starts with the babies and the people want to believe that this is just another rehearsal. For a lot of them it was just surreal. They couldn’t believe this man, who professed to have their best interests in mind, would actually kill them. It wasn’t until they saw the babies frothing at the mouth and writhing that they realized what was going on.”
"They started with the babies," Odell Rhodes, then the only known survivor, told the Washington Post in the days after the massacre. He told the newspaper some drank the poisonous potion willingly, while it was forced upon others. “It just got all out of order,” he told the Post, adding that it took about five minutes for the cyanide to prove fatal. “Babies were screaming, children were screaming and there was mass confusion."
All the while, Rhodes said, Jones was telling them they would "meet in another place" and chanted, "mother, mother, mother"—"an apparent reference to his wife who lay dead not far from the altar,” according to the Post. Jones died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Scheeres says a tape recording from the last night, “the so-called death tape,” had been edited dozens of times. “It is my belief that Jones was pausing and stopping the tape any time there was any disruption, any interruption or any time anyone was protesting what was happening,” she says. “He wanted the world to think this was some uniform decision, that they willingly killed themselves for socialism, to protest the inhumanity of capitalism—he gave various reasons for the mass death.
“It’s heartbreaking—you can hear him instructing parents, don’t tell your children they’re dying. It’s scaring them. You can hear the children at the beginning of the tape—murmuring, making kid noises in the background—and then you can hear kids screaming. You can hear them saying no. It’s a horrific scene. Which is why the whole ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ saying is so odious and so completely wrong. A third of the people who died that night were minors under 18. It’s an extremely offensive saying.”
Ultimately, control, according to Scheeres, was what was most important to Jones. “He tried to control people's bodies,” she says. “He couldn't stand it when people left the church; he would go into a rage. But the ultimate control and the ultimate loyalty test for him was: if I order you, would you lay down your life for this cause—for me?”
WATCH: Full episodes of America's Book of Secrets online now and tune in for all-new episodes Tuesdays at 10/9c.