TikToker Tate Ova recently posted a video titled ‘Photos with a Disturbing Backstory.’ The first photo showed what appeared to be trash, but after zooming, Tate explained that it was an aerial photo of some of the 918 people forced to commit suicide by cult leader Jim Jones. Jim orchestrated the shocking deaths, telling his followers that they would meet ‘on the other side.’
Jonestown, or the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, was a remote settlement created by Jones in Guyana for his loyal followers after he fled San Francisco. Read on to find out how Jim Jones acquired such a massive following and how he convinced them to poison themselves for his cause.
Jones portrayed himself as a socialist fighter for the oppressed
Jim Jones was always something of a loner. He held funerals for dead animals, claimed that he could fly, and had an unhealthy fascination with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. In 1949, he married Marceline, a nurse four years his senior, and launched his career as a preacher.
Jones named himself ‘Reverend Mr. Jim Jones’ and portrayed himself as a fighter for the oppressed. He promised a better life for African-Americans, and publicly pushed the agenda of social justice for black Americans. To sell the ruse, Jones and Marceline adopted a ‘rainbow family’ comprising of a black child, Jim Jones Jnr., two Korean orphans, and her child, Stephan.
The People’s Temple, under Jones’ leadership, moved to Redwood Valley, California, before relocating to San Francisco. Jones opened a rehabilitation center for drug addicts, a free medical center, and built housing for the old and the homeless. To the naked eye, James was a revolutionary – a man who preached and practiced equality, regardless of people’s race or economic status.
However, Jim Jones had a dark side, one he worked tirelessly to conceal. He convinced the staff to pose as sick or disabled people who he could later pretend to heal. Jones turned his followers into spies and asked them to source information he could use to blackmail people. “Some people see Christ in me,” Jones famously said.
In the early 1970s, authorities began investigating Jones, prompting him to fashion an escape plan. In 1977, he convinced his followers to move to a remote jungle in Guyana, which according to Jones, was rich with food, had moderate temperatures, and had no mosquitos or snakes.
Jones subjected his followers to starvation and threatened anyone who dared escape the commune with death
“Nothing grows and they’re starving,” Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown, told History. “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.”
The jungle was unbearably hot and littered with snakes and all kinds of insects. Hard manual labor was the order of the day. Jones knew the people were unhappy, and to prevent rebellion, he separated people from their families. “It’s nothing like he promised,” Julia added. Jones also prevented anyone from talking as his voice played over the PA system installed throughout the commune.
He told his followers that he’d placed people in the commune that would report anyone complaining. In doing so, he created an environment in which people couldn’t trust each other. “There’s no solidarity,” Julia continued. Individual attempts to escape were met with characteristic ruthlessness.
Jones told his followers that even if they made it past the armed guards, survived the jungle, and made it to Guyana’s capital 240km away, he still retained their passports. Despite his best attempts, reports of the deplorable conditions in Jonestown reached Congressman Leo Ryan’s desk. He resolved to travel to Jonestown to investigate personally. Jones planned meticulously to deceive Leo:
“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.’ And Ryan is fooled by this. He actually believes that people are happy there.”
However, before Leo left the commune, someone slipped one of his aides a note asking for help. “He [Jones] realizes the house of cards is starting to crumble,” Julia adds. Along with 14 defectors, Leo rushed to the airstrip where two planes arrived to ferry them to safety. Before they got on, however, Jones men shot at them, killing Leo Ryan, three media people, and one defector.
“He [Jim] tells his 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,” Julia says.
Jim Jones oversaw the suicides of over 900 people in one night
Jim Jones knew that the day would come when people would find out what he’d been up to in Jonestown. He’d held several mass suicide ‘rehearsals’ to see how people would respond. He’d learned that by starting with the children, the parents wouldn’t have no reason to live and would promptly follow suit.
“It’s not suicide, it’s a revolutionary act,” Jones says on the massacre’s ‘death tape.’ Jonestown natives didn’t believe that the man they followed could kill them, but reality struck upon seeing their children frothing at the mouth and writhing due to the poison. “Babies were screaming, children were screaming and there was mass confusion,” Odell Rhodes, a survivor told The Washington Post.
However, the ‘death tape’ portrayed it as a seamless exercise, as something the people did willingly. Julia Scheeres believes that Jones edited the video to make it seem that way: “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.”
In total, 918 people died at Jonestown – 913 at the commune and five at the airstrip. The word ‘mass suicide’ is heavily contested, as many opine that Jones murdered his followers. ‘Mass murder’ seems to fit better, as, as Julia puts it, the 918 people killed didn’t have a choice:
“People think they willingly died, 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.”
Many who died in Jonestown that night clutched each other in sort of a final embrace. The death scene showed piles of bodies laid next to paper cups and syringes (those who refused to take the poison were injected with it). Jones didn’t take the poison; instead, he instructed someone to shoot him in the head.