Your 2017 Guide to Cults and Fringe Religions

Rare Photos From Jonestown, the Deadliest Cult in American History

A glimpse inside the lives of Jim Jones' 909 followers, before they "drank the Kool-Aid."

by VICE Staff
27 September 2017, 2:19am

Imágenes cortesía de Laura Johnson Kohl y Fielding McGee

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The following images are courtesy of Laura Johnston Kohl and Fielding McGee of the Jonestown Institute. Most were taken by unknown photographers at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, better known as "Jonestown." On November 18, 1978, the residents of Jonestown committed mass suicide led by their leader Jim Jones.

On the 18th of November 1978 more than 900 American citizens committed mass suicide in a small commune carved out of the South American jungle. Until 9/11, it remained the largest massacre in American history. The story of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple didn't start, or end, on that night. But after decades of sensationalist media accounts, propaganda campaigns and contradictions, separating fact from fiction remains no easy task.

In 2010, the Jonestown Institute, made up of former residents and members of the Peoples Temple, filed a request to the FBI to release the thousands of documents and photographs collected from Jonestown. Images from the early years showed hand built houses and boys sinking perfect three pointers in the tropical sunshine. But as always, Jonestown was more than it appeared. Most of the images were staged as part of a propaganda campaign by the Temple's leader, Jim Jones, to deflect the mainland US's growing concern. The reality was the residents were severely malnourished, sleep deprived and worked to the bone seven days a week in the scorching tropical sun. Jones collected the savings and welfare checks of all of the members, and spread terrifying rumours and fake news about the US descending back into a state of racial segregation, revoking the rights of African American citizens. The Peoples Temple was originally founded on the premise of racial equality, and three quarters of its victims were African American. Jonestown was carved out of the jungle as a socialist utopia where "all races, creeds, and colours find a hearty welcome."

Ultimately, as Jones descended into psychosis, kool-aid laced with cyanide was an escape from a life of terror and psychological torture. Despite the sensationalist media headlines we are all familiar with, it wasn't a blind leap of faith. The hope of many of the victims, recorded in secret suicide notes, was that their deaths would bring attention to the fact that ultimately, they had all felt more welcomed by Jonestown and its promise of racial equality than by the United States.

Over the decades, the intentions of that act has been obscured by the punch-line, but staged or not, these photos show real people, friends and families who all just wanted a chance to live in a better world.

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Jonestown from the air. Image taken by the FBI, 1978
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Poncho Johnson braids Tinetra Fain's hair in a cottage in Jonestown. Shandra James, Gerald Johnson, Al Smart, and Teri Smart also hang out. Photo credit: Juanell Smart
Jonestown members (L-R) Lew and Chaeoke Jones, Christa Amos, and Joel Cobb
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Jim Jones
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Cottages where most of the residents lived.

Shanda James teaching a class in Jonestown.
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Children playing, possibly staged as part of the propaganda campaign spread by Jones.
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(L) Claire Janaro with Mr. Muggs in Jonestown, (R) unknown.
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One of the boys playing basketball on the court in Jonestown.
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Bullet holes on a plane at the Port Kaituma airstrip after the assassination of the visiting Congressman Ryan on November 18th 1978.
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The US Air Force flying in to Jonestown in 1978.
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Early FBI investigators in Jonestown.
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Residents walking out to the cottage area where most people lived. The seniors lived in several large dorms close to the center of the community.
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Teachers Don Jackson and Jann Gurvich with a class of students.
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During a refueling stop on the way to Guyana; Maria Katsaris, Annie Moore, Laura Johnston, Phyllis Chaikin, Terry Carter Jones.
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Barbara Hoyer teaching children
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Sebastian McMurry carrying Kimo Prokes. The photograph was staged, and used in marketing campaigns to attract more members to Guyana.
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Children playing on the balance beam.
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Tinetra Fain in the rainforest surrounding Jonestown.
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Another staged photograph for the brochure.
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Jonestown brochure photo of Joyce Touchette with a child, used in marketing campaigns to attract more members to Guyana.
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Jones meeting with members of the building committee.
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Mr Muggs, a pet chimpanzee.
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One of the schoolrooms.
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Behind the main buildings.

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