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What Was Jonestown?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Jonestown was a settlement established in Guyana in the 1970s by the Peoples Temple, a cult led by Reverend Jim Jones. Although Jonestown was originally founded as a paradise, it has since become famous for the mass murder-suicide of its residents, which occurred in 1978. Today, Jonestown is an abandoned ruin which is slowly being reclaimed by the jungle; most native residents in the area avoid it, and given the speed with which the jungle can reclaim human settlements, all traces of Jonestown will probably disappear entirely within 100 years of the tragic events which made it famous.

The Peoples Temple was a cult which was founded on ideals of equality, with a heavy focus on integration. It was established in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1955, and later the cult moved to Northern California. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Peoples Temple established numerous organizations which were designed to help the sick, elderly, and disabled, including residential homes for the elderly and camps for disabled kids. Despite working with many mainstream organizations including state welfare systems, the Peoples Temple displayed many of the hallmarks of a cult, and ultimately it became a subject of intense scrutiny.

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In the 1970s, Jim Jones decided to move the Peoples Temple out of the United States, ostensibly to liberate its members from the oppressive environment of America. It is far more probable that the organization was moved in response to growing paranoia on the part of Jim Jones, who also wanted to avoid paying taxes on his sizable net worth. Ultimately Jones settled on Guyana as a location for his idealized agrarian community, which he called Jonestown.

Numerous accounts of Jonestown exist, including photographs which show the simple huts that people lived in and the fields which they farmed to feed themselves. As the population of Jonestown increased, strange accounts began reaching the United States; there were allegations of serious human rights violations, including torture. In November 1978, a delegation of people including a Congressman traveled to Guyana to investigate these claims, triggering a very unfortunate series of events.

Initially, members of the delegation were denied access to Jonestown altogether. Finally, the men declared that they would visit Jonestown with or without permission, and they traveled to the site of the settlement, where they were met with a ceremonial dinner. On a tour of the site, the team was denied access to many locations, raising concerns that the allegations were true, and several members of the settlement approached the delegation to ask for help.

On the morning of 18 November, 1978, the delegation prepared to leave, taking several refugees from Jonestown along. Instead of being allowed to leave, the delegation was shot in cold blood by Jonestown guards. Footage of the shooting was captured on camera by a reporter from NBC, who was killed. That night, Jim Jones held a conference at Jonestown. The events at the conference are not fully understood, but it appears probable that Jones was planning a mass murder-suicide before the conference began.

At the conference, Jones announced that the citizens would be committing mass suicide, suggesting that the repercussions for the shooting at the airstrip should be dire. Vats of poison mixed with juice and various drugs were brought out, and Jones indicated that events would start with the children; over 270 children were force-fed poison before the adults were ordered to consume it as well. Judging from forensic evidence, while some of the adults certainly were intimidated into committing suicide, others were murdered. Jonestown victims were shot, strangled, forced to consume poison, and injected with toxic substances. Over 900 people died; it took several days for an investigation to be launched, and ultimately only 7 were autopsied, while many remain unidentified thanks to advanced rates of decomposition.

The events at Jonestown are an interesting and terrible illustration of the power that a single charismatic leader can have over a group of people. To this day, the exact sequence of events is unclear, thanks to the fact that many documents about Jonestown remain classified in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) archives. Some conspiracy theorists have implied that there may be more to Jonestown than meets the eye, suggesting that the CIA may have been involved, although no evidence supports this.

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