The story of the Jonestown Massacre is true. From it grew a saying everyone uses. “Drink the Kool-Aid” or “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” I wonder how many people who say it so casually, referring to products, buying into a corporate culture, or political philosophy, realize to what they are referring?

I’ve written this before, but this is a major revision and it bears repeating. It’s true. It happened. We need to make sure it never happens again.

Drink (or don’t drink) the Kool-aid

The popular expression “drink the Kool-Aid” has become a common verbal shorthand in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow or accept a set of beliefs.” At work, it means you endorse what your bosses tell you. In politics, it means you fully buy into the platform.

It carries a negative connotation, but not as negative as it ought.

Kool-Aid was the drink for children on summer afternoons in the 1950s. The saying is now just bland rhetoric, stripped of its context and thus the horror it ought to evoke.

The Peoples Temple

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist, occasional Methodist minister, he founded his own pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name supposedly refers to “the people of the world.” Jones called it a church, but it was a twisted version of a Marxist commune. At first, it combined with miscellaneous Christian references Jones used in his diatribes, er, sermons.


It was not a church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult requiring total personal commitment, financial support, and absolute obedience. The characteristics which define a cult.

Jones was the leader. A homicidal maniac, but he had positive qualities. Jones and his wife, Marceline, favored racial integration. They adopted kids from varying racial backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. They also adopted 3 Korean children, a Native American child, and a handful of white kids. They had one child of their own.

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed, note that this climaxed in murdering these children.

The Peoples Temple expanded through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned Marxism. His preaching increasingly focused on impending nuclear apocalypse. He specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested after the apocalypse, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California. Before the expected Big Bang, he moved the Temple and its peoples there.

When the end-of-the-world deadline came and went, Jones abandoned his pretense of Christianity and he revealed himself as a madman using religion to lend legitimacy to his views. He announced “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words in view of the fact that Jones was a drug addict .

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — with good reason.

Jonestown aerial view

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people again. This was a major relocation. He took them out of the United States and resettled everyone in Guyana, a poor South American nation. He modestly named it “Jonestown.”

It was a bleak, inhospitable place. On 4000 acres of poor soil with limited access to fresh water, it was too small for the number of people it had to support. Jones optimistically figured “his” people could farm the new utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown, but didn’t share it with his followers. He barely used any of the money at all, and lived in a small, bare-bones shack.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses in Jonestown.

Jonestown headline Milwaukee

Ryan didn’t go alone. He took a contingent of media representatives including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. During his visit, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low (there were more than 900 people in Jonestown), but the congressional party was unable to talk to most of the “fellowship.” It’s impossible to know how many might have wanted to leave.

Ryan began processing paperwork to repatriate Temple members to go back to the States. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked by Don Sly, a knife-wielding Temple member. This would-be assassin was stopped before injuring Ryan. Eventually the entire Ryan party plus the group of Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip and boarded planes, intending to leave.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade,” after the Congressional party  These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire, killing Ryan, a Temple defector, 3 members of the media, and wounding 11 others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He “invited” all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown. He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled by the play-acting.

Faced with this hypothetical invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders, or they could take off for the USSR. Another tempting alternative would be to run off into the Guyana jungles. Finally, they could commit mass suicide as an act of political protest.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment and gave them cups of liquid they were told contained poison. They were asked to drink it. Which they did. After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jonestown Koolaid

Indeed Jim Jones had been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

(Don’t) Drink the Kool-Aid

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid — a grape-flavored powdered drink mix similar to Kool-Aid.


Jones urged his followers to commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is a matter of considerable conjecture.  After some discussion, Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying Temple members to the USSR.

Jones was never interested in escape. There was only one answer he would accept. Death. Lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?) which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is as creepy as you’d expect.


Then it was time for the detailed instructions which the followers followed. I will never understand why. Probably it means I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were dosed too, though they were allowed to drink from cups. Temple members wandered outside where eventually more than 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survived — primarily residents who happened to be away on errands when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills stating that their assets should go to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a bullet to the head. It’s not clear if it was self-inflicted. Jones likely died last or nearly so. He may have preferred a gun to cyanide, having seen the horrendous effects of death by cyanide.

Why Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind (or not-so-blind) obedience. Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without argument or objection. Various accounts say the beverage used at Jonestown was mostly Flavor Aid, sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”). It doesn’t matter, does it?

Kool-Aid was better-known than Flavor Aid. It was introduced in 1927 in powdered form, so when Americans thought of a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” sprang to mind.


Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were at Jonestown, but the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” is popular lingo. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Does it help sell Kool-Aid?

I never touch the stuff.

 Deep Throat: The Blacklight Candelabra

I’ve written about Jonestown before, but given the state of politics today, not only in the US but around the world, it bears repeating. It’s a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us where fanaticism leads. Over the course of history, fanatics and those who blindly follow without questioning those who lead, have caused millions of deaths. Untold misery. Incalculable harm. It isn’t harmless. It isn’t “just blowing off steam.”


  1. Pingback: IN THE SPIRIT OF DOING WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING … Marilyn Armstrong | Serendipity Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth

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  3. I remember it happening. Our TV in Switzerland was full of it, and since there have been a couple of documentaries about it. I did not know the saying “drink the Cool Aid” There are unfortunately a few of these maniac groups. We have a few in Switzerland, one of which developped into mass suicide.


    • We are not the kind of people that follow blindly … but apparently there are plenty of folks out there who are just looking for a leader because they can’t think for themselves. Horrible how deluded people can be. Just awful.


  4. Excellent post! I was living in San Francisco when this happened. it was so shocking and so sad!
    And you are so right…this must NEVER happen again. And you are right about what is going on in our country and the world today. 😦


    • Everyone is so busy stirring up negative emotions and hatred … it can’t end well. I keep hoping that the country will have a collective epiphany, realize that civility is not the impossible dream and fanaticism is not the road to a better world.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I was personally offended from the get-go because Kool-aid was perhaps my number one, favorite beverage as a kid. To have it now linked and remembered with Jim Jones and the other crazies of our world is heresy. Is nothing sacred? I’ll have a strawberry kool-aid on the rocks, please.


  5. Fine article. There’s a movie called Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford I believe that deals with this strange tragedy. Never to underestimate the power of stupidity. I’d never heard the Kool-Aid expression. So I’m stupid AND ignorant. Didn’t like it as a kid, which was pretty smart, tho.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mosquito Coast may be the ONLY Harrison Ford movie I’ve never seen. But I think I’ll keep not seeing it. It was so ugly. I still have trouble grasping how mothers could pour poison into their children, much less themselves.


    • Bumba — you didn’t like Kool Aid as a kid? Say it ain’t so. I’m not making light of the Jones tragedy. I covered it and similar stories over the years. You are so very right about the power of stupidity. It continues to this very day. That’s the scary thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember this tragedy. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing on the news. Thank you for bringing this back. It is part of our history and we need to remember it so that we can learn from it.


        • I rewrote it — again. Managed to cut it down by about 500 words. It was too long and rambling. I was liking this rewrite. Then along came the prompt — a perfect hook for it.

          I’ve heard a lot of kids use the term “drink (or don’t drink) the Kool-aid” and they have NO idea to what it refers.

          How can we extract any kind of meaning from the events of our lives without an historical context? Kids think history is boring because that’s the way it’s taught, What they hear IS irrelevant. Also untrue or so general, it’s meaningless.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, that’s unfortunate that more people don’t take the time to try to understand where these phrases come from or how they originated. I once said to a twenty-something, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” She looked at me and had no clue what it meant or who said it.


  7. I don’t like the phrase only because of the tragedy behind it and that a lot of people don’t really know what it’s all about. Enigmatic cult leaders and their followers are intriguing to me. I hope to be smarter than that, but it’s all in what they say, how they say it, and what you are looking for at the time.


  8. Good to bring out these horror stories, Marilyn, lest we forget. I’m wondering how many people go to Isis and find they are trapped in an evil cult.


  9. This was indeed a horrible tragedy. Along with my folks who were missionaries in British Guiana (Now Guyana) in the early 1960’s, I lived and experienced most of the country even on that side of the Essequibo River where Jonestown was built. My younger brother and I were planning a revisit to Guyana the week before all this went down. The country was closed to foreign travel and we have never made it back. Other than this memory, Guyana is unique and beautiful country. We must pay attention to who leads us and who we follow. That is for sure. Thanks for sharing this again.


    • So many young people have no memory of any of this. They think “drink the Kool-aid” is a cute saying. Some of them are hazy on the details of 9/11 too. When my husband was subbing ON 9/11 a few years ago, more than half his class was unaware of the day and what happened … and it wasn’t so far in the past. Kids forget quickly. I figure we’re obligated to tell them. If we don’t, no one will. I worry about our disconnection from our history, leaving us without context. That’s dangerous. Thanks so much for writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are so right. I have worried whether the history my grandchildren will hear is going to be accurate or embellished so someone won’t get their feelings hurt. How do we learn from embellished history???


        • Worse, many of them hear NO history at all. “Social studies” includes all kinds of weird stuff and very little history, most of it more myth than information. And certainly nothing controversial or upsetting. Mustn’t upset the kiddies with anything real.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Blindly following orders, that’s something people do, because they are afraid to ask questions. Committing suicide, because someone tells you too is just plain insane. I want to believe this couldn’t happen anymore, but deep down I know it can; especially in the name of a God.


    • Brainwashing is real. It’s not an excuse, it’s the real deal. Everyone assumes that someone who has been brainwashed has made a choice. They have, but once made, they cannot, without significant help, unmake it. It IS insane. Madness.


      • I was 18 when I visited the first concentration camp, I walked out and wondered how something like that could have ever happened. How could Millions of people follow blindly an obvious insane dictator? For a long time I believed it could never happen again. We have TV’s, news, the internet. Sadly now I believe it could happen again…just like that. Gosh


  11. One day, I was talking about Jonestown in class, and the students had never heard of it. I made a point of spending the next class talking about it.


    • A lot of people never heard of it. But a lot of the youngsters are not sure what happened on 9/11 either. How quickly generations go by … and forget. I figure we are under an obligation to tell them because if we don’t, who will?


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