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 Liberty Lawson
25 September 2017, 9:34pm

Imágenes cortesía de Laura Johnson Kohl y Fielding McGee

For a look at the Queenslander who says he's Jesus, or the Japanese cult that allegedly detonated a nuke in WA, check out Your 2017 Guide to Cults and Fringe Religions.

The following images are courtesy of Laura Johnston Kohl and Fielding McGee of the Jonestown Institute. Most were taken 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. In most cases, the photographers of these images are unknown.

The story of Jonestown did not start or end on 18 November, 1978. But that's the day people remember—when more than 900 American citizens committed a mass act of "revolutionary suicide" by drinking cyanide. It remained the largest massacre in American history for more than two decades, until 9/11.

In many ways though, 9/11 has been an easier story to tell. The felling on the Twin Towers isn't complicated by questions about whether any of the civilians killed were somehow complicit. There's little speculation about why some chose to jump from the windows as flames engulfed One World Trade Centre. They haven't become punchlines—"don't drink the Kool-Aid"—they are victims, heroes even. Deserving of our respect.

The story of Jonestown is; however, still being written and rewritten almost 40 years later.

Jonestown from the air. Image taken by the FBI, 1978

In popular culture, the Jonestown story is defined by those final hours—the Peoples Temple cast either as a radicalised death cult or a flock of tragically naive sheep. And while their leader, Jim Jones, was undoubtedly a murderer there's no escaping the fact that, technically, most of the residents committed suicide.

But reports of what really happened inside Jonestown in the years leading up to the massacre are plagued by inconsistencies, polemic, and conflict. Accounts from the few survivors vary wildly. Some are adamant that the commune in Guyana was nothing more than a toxic, abusive torture camp. Others claim to miss Jonestown and its wonderful sense of community to this day, recalling nothing but fond memories.

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

In 2009, the Jonestown Institute, made up of former residents and members of the Peoples Temple, filed a Freedom of Information request to the FBI to release the documents and photographs from Jonestown. It was hoped they could help clarify the mixed accounts spread through the mainstream media, but the images they received didn't easily slot in with either side.

They showed boys sinking perfect three pointers, children laughing and playing in the tropical sunshine, tamed exotic animals, and houses built by hand. Of course, many of the photos were staged—as part of Jones's propaganda campaign to attract more members to the commune and distract the media from the allegations of fraud.

But they are also a sober reminder that the residents of Jonestown lived full lives before they became the victims of a harrowing tragedy. They loved, had families, worked, and played. We get so wrapped up in the Kool-Aid punch line that we forget to see the members of the Peoples Temple as individual people who thought they were radially subverting society, not joining a cult.

Jonestown members (L-R) Lew and Chaeoke Jones, Christa Amos, and Joel Cobb

Founded by Jim Jones in the 1950s, the Peoples Temple was originally a Christian sect based on the premise of racial equality. Jones was on the way to becoming a prominent civil rights crusader in Indianapolis, dedicated to fighting against segregation in the church. Many have noted that if Jones had died before Jonestown, he would have been remembered as a hero of the civil rights movement.

After the Temple moved to San Francisco in 1971, rumours began to trickle out about the physical abuse of members and mistreatment of children. Jones, meanwhile, was fighting allegations of financial fraud, and his mounting paranoia and disdain for the perils of capitalism and classism in America inspired him to move the Temple to the tiny South American nation of Guyana. There Jonestown was carved out of the jungle as a socialist utopia where "all races, creeds, and colors find a hearty welcome."

Jim Jones
Maria Katsaris with a toucan at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978

By the late 70s, members began moving down to Guyana, expecting to find the progressive paradise sold to them in photos and films. All the media Jones released was carefully edited, interviews staged with smiling residents working on the land, belying the reality of the sweltering, barren forest clearing. Residents were punished if they dared to complain.

According to Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, Jones employed every mind control method in the book to maintain power over his followers. Members were isolated: any communication with the outside world was censored, allowing rampant physical abuse to go unreported. The closest town was a two-day journey through the wilderness. Jones warned residents of tigers, snakes, and armed mercenaries hiding in the jungle waiting to attack anyone who tried to leave.

Isolating Jonestown from any external news, Jones would distort events and make up stories about the mainland US, claiming that they were removing the rights of people of colour to attend college, or putting African American people into concentration camps. Jones played films of Nazi experiments as proof of the corruption and evil in the rest of the world, forcing even the children to watch.

Visitors to the compound were rare but their presence always meant shorter working days, better food, even music and dancing to keep up appearances. Jones would spend hours briefing everyone on the facade of happiness they were to maintain, warning them that the visitors were CIA agents from the corrupt mainland. With the outside world crumbling into terror, there was nowhere to escape to.

Leslie Wagner-Wilson, the author of Slavery of Faith, was a member of the Peoples Temple since she was 12. She escaped Jonestown on the morning of the massacre, trekking 48 kilometres through the jungle, her two-year-old son tied to her back with a bedsheet.

"Those who tout Jonestown as idyllic spent the majority of their time in Georgetown with running water, a refrigerator… a toilet that flushed and were able to roam the city," Wagner-Wilson told VICE. "Their experience was different… the ones that continue to push the myth that Jonestown was beautiful... were complicit."

Her experience was one of backbreaking work—10 hours a day, seven days a week, in 30 degree heat. She experienced constant sleep deprivation and near starvation, eating plain rice or rice water for every meal. Along with many other survivors, Wagner-Wilson has become concerned the mainstream media account has "sugarcoated" the realities of life in Jonestown. "The tether ball and basketball hoop were there to cover the distress and abuse that we all endured... similar to prisoners attempting to find some normalcy."

Under these conditions, Scheeres says, the sense of powerlessness is overwhelming. "You become numb, you stop being shocked at seeing kids abused or humiliated. After being exposed to this ritual degradation, your fight or flight instinct subsides and you're left with a sense of hopelessness."

"We were starving," Wagner-Wilson told VICE. "But [Jones] was cashing the social security cheques of African Americans… he had millions of dollars hidden away, and our children were malnourished. People were manipulated and fooled into turning over houses, businesses… After all, if you have given everything, what would you return to the [US] with?"

Jones began staying up all night, shouting through the community's loudspeakers with increasingly delusional paranoia, rallying his followers against the horrors of the outside world. Sirens blaring, this would frequently escalate into a "state of emergency," with Jones ordering residents to arm themselves against raids from the Guyana defence force, the CIA, or other hostile attackers.

Suicide was painted as a way to escape the evils of the outside world, and Jones would force the residents into rehearsals for a revolutionary mass suicide, intended to prove their courage and faith to the crumbling and evil outside world. Deborah Layton, a Jonestown resident who managed to escape several months before to the massacre, said the concept of the mass suicide was never challenged, their lives were so wretched anyway.

"Everyone, including the children, was told to line up… we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink… poison… When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands."

The final, fatal chaos was sparked by an unexpected visit from US congressman Leo Ryan, accompanied by concerned family of Peoples Temple members and a contingent of journalists. Unbeknownst to the Jonestown residents, the mainland US knew that something was very wrong in Jonestown. Under strict supervision, Ryan toured the commune and met the residents—a few of whom pleaded to be taken back to the US.

The next day, on November 18, Ryan, the journalists, and the defectors attempted to leave Jonestown. But at the Port Kaituma airstrip, their Peoples Temple escorts turned on them. On board one of the delegation's planes, Deborah Layton's brother Larry pulled out a handgun and started shooting the passengers. Unconfirmed shooters opened fire on the other plane, killing five people in total, include Congressman Ryan.

Back at the compound, Jones had convinced himself all hope was lost and that US forces would begin parachuting into Jonestown. He called a meeting of all the residents, urging them to commit "revolutionary suicide" by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, Phenergan, Valium, and chloral hydrate. And they did.

More than 40 years on though, the same question still swirls: Was it suicide or murder?

Jonestown members at the compound in Guyana

This is a complicated question for many reasons. From a legal standpoint, nearly a third of the victims were children who cannot voluntarily commit suicide. Then there's the reality of the psychological duress the residents of Jonestown endured: they were trapped—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. At these levels of manipulation, there's no such thing as being complicit. But that doesn't necessarily mean they were naive.

In the few suicide notes left behind, Jonestown residents write of deciding to kill themselves to send a message to the rest of the world. They say their deaths were less blind leaps of faith, and more political actions. But this is not how they have been remembered. In the decades since their individual resistance, their individual tragedy, has been largely washed away.

Even in the iconic images that have come to define Jonestown they are faceless—hundreds of bodies face down in the mud, poisoned by their own hand. After the massacre, the Guyanese government demanded the US Air Force remove the corpses from the country. Attempts to identify individuals proved largely futile. Scores of cemeteries refused to take them.

Eventually, 412 unidentified bodies from Jonestown were buried in Oakland, California in a mass grave. You won't find their names inscribed onto any memorial. They aren't remembered or mourned as victims. They are cult members, sheep, the ones naive enough to "drink the Kool-Aid." And, sure, maybe they were all of those things. But they were also human beings, who truly believed—at some point—they were building better lives, only to lose them in the most tragic of circumstances.