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.