“He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” — Old English proverb, dating to the 14th century.

There has been an upsurge of interest in Jonestown over the past few years. This post went by with little notice when I wrote it — about a year ago, I think — but since then, it has developed a life of its own. Not surprising given the current state of disunion in this country — and elsewhere. Jim Jones and Donald Trump share many traits. More importantly, so do their followers.

This is a cautionary tale, an urgent warning for everyone. Talk is not harmless. Lies matter. Corruption kills. To you who blindly follow, I hope you’ve got that very long spoon handy. I have a gut feeling — you are going to need it.

From Nothing, Something Terrible Comes – Remembering November 18, 1978

If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV or read a newspaper, you could hardly forget it. With fundamentalism enjoying a rebirth among our politicians and so-called religious leaders it’s a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing has led in the past and where it could easily lead in the future.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened; time has not made it less so.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his 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 was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac. But he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own.

The “Rainbow Family”

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this story ultimately climaxes in the murder of all the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California and before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be a Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give his own opinions legitimacy. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

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 — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary
Jim Jones – Leader and death’s-head of Jonestown

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much too small and seriously overcrowded. Temple members had to work long hours just to keep from starving.

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

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 rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, 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 considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

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 on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven 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. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — 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 It!

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 beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never really interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that 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 just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped — primarily those who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred the gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and preferred something quicker.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind. Therefore, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

49 thoughts on “THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE – NOVEMBER 18, 1978”

  1. Just to be clear, I “liked” this post because I thought it was a good post. I also will never understand how anyone could blindly follow someone like this into death. I guess some people would just rather have someone else tell them what to do (and I know there are many complicated reasons for this, not just ignorance and stupidity). It’s can be hard sometimes being in charge of your own life and destiny. But I’ll still never understand it.


    1. I’m working my way up to writing about evil … the real thing … the demon devil Satan in our midst. And how some people really are bad to the bone. They aren’t the product of a difficult homelife. They aren’t uneducated or just wrongheaded. They have made a deal with the Devil and their goal is to kill and destroy as much as they can, as long as they can. Because they are EVIL.


  2. I was born a few years too late to remember this, but I’m haunted every time I read this story or see the pictures.

    And you make an excellent point- evil can breed anywhere, under many circumstances.


    1. We over-think the causes of evil. I think there is such a thing as Evil. Real evil. And some people buy into it. They become serial killers and terrorists and dictators who slaughter whole tribes of people. They can’t be cured and they aren’t sorry.


          1. You know I think it has always been around us, but back then (when we were spring chickens or older hens) we watched the news in the evening or in the morning or read the newspaper.

            Today we have an overload on information as well as an overload of news all day long 24/7 day in day out.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘ Human evil is a natural phenomenon, there is some level of predatory violence innate in us.’
    Sam Harris well known atheist.
    We could not have survived without it .


  4. Marilyn, thanks for the wake up post.

    Because atheists abandon belief in the God who provides standards of objective truth, they are capable of accepting any nonsense as if it were truth. Consider the wise warning of G.K. Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

    Believe and follow, millions blindly do it everyday on Facebook.


      1. Hitler and The Ku Klux Klan did their ugly, evil, deeds in the name of God and Christ. I often wonder if Hitler, or The Grand Wizard, realized that Jesus WAS a jew..? While I’m not very religious, the leader of The World Wide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong (I know :-)), wrote a statement that remains stuck in my mind. Essentially he says that “Man has a choice to be good or evil, and that that choice will determine entrance into the Kingdom of God.”

        Personally, the analogy I draw is the “Smile/Frown” Bio-fact. It takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown. Therefore, I believe it is far easier to follow good than to pursue evil.., not to mention the practical personal side effects, like lack of stress and tension. The greatest rewards are gained when others are helped by your “good.” There’s no dollar value on this. Be aware that an evil entity can also smile, but with deception, and there is always something a bit distorted about such smiles.


            1. In this case, it isn’t ignorance. It’s going against what you know because right and wrong don’t matter to you, nor do you care who gets hurt. I think that’s what sociopathic is all about … the not caring because you can’t feel someone else’s pain. It’s pretty scary that anyone can be that way, scarier that others will follow someone like that.


  5. A few years ago, I was teaching Latin American history and mentioned Jonestown. None of the students had heard of it. That’s when I decided to spend a class period talking about it. Whenever I teach Latin American, I spend a day on the subject. This semester, I should have waited until the actual anniversary, but I talked about it a few weeks ago. The only thing that recognized was when I said “drink the Kool Aid.” The tragedy has been relegated to a cliche.


    1. I wish it were some aberrant piece of history, but this is not the first or last time this kind of scenario has been played out. I don’t understand how people could follow him. That he was demented, okay … but to follow someone so obviously crazy and vile?

      The reason I run this every year is so a few people will remember and others will realize that something happened. It seemed particularly appropriate this year.


  6. I never really knew this whole story. Granted, I was only 7 when it happened, so the news was not a big concern for me then naturally. What an awful story (but so well written). Sad to think of all the horrors humans put on other humans. I will never understand it. Never.


    1. It’s a pretty horrible story and no matter how many times I read it, I still don’t understand how people could have really followed this guy. That Jim Jones was a twisted, demented demon I can believe … but people FOLLOWED him. Believed him. That’s what I can’t figure out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So true. It does make you wonder what was going their heads. Why would they believe him? I guess we may never know, but there seems to be plenty of people willing to follow other crazies these days too. Strange world at times, very strange.


          1. I can’t imagine they want to talk about it for several reasons. It is just hard to imagine what makes some people tick and others want to follow it.


              1. I can totally understand that. And, in reality, the world doesn’t really need to know everyone’s mistakes. It is really between them and God. I just hope they found some type of healing. I can’t imagine having survived that.


  7. I remember seeing this on the news. I was 16 at the time and just couldn’t understand what had gone one. Growing up in conservative New Zealand we were stunned that over 900 people just simply followed his orders to drink that poison. How could one person be able to control so many people like that- so evil. Thanks for reminding us Marilyn.


  8. It’s hard to believe that this happened 37 years ago. It is good to bring this up Marilyn, because so many people don’t know about it. It is part of our history and hopefully we can still learn from it.


    1. It seems more painfully relevant today than it did last year. Evil running amok. People following evil leaders. There IS a choice. You really don’t have to take the dark road. That’s the human choice. We all know the difference between right and wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe that is it Marilyn, maybe they don’t know right from wrong. They are just so mad that they are lashing out at anything and everything.


  9. I remember hearing and reading about that in 1978. I was 27… my daughter was 21 months… It was the most baffling thing my ears had ever beheld. I simply could not understand how people could give them selves over to this man.. What a profound wake up call. We really need to think for ourselves, and attempt to be conscious. But, even today we are manipulated on how and what to think.. Some merely follow in the footsteps of their parents. there is a joke about a woman who always cut her Christmas ham in two and cooked it in two pots. when asked why she did so she replied,” well i don’t know that is the way my mother did it” when the mother was asked her reply was the same… finally the great grandmother was asked . Low and behold her answer was ” I didn’t have a pot large enough”


    1. I can’t understand it either, not on any personal level. I know it happened. Happens today. But what makes people follow what to me are obviously evil leaders? It is beyond my understanding and maybe that is just as well. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why … but I’m not sure any of them really explain it.


  10. I’d never known the full story behind this. My generation had the Heaven’s Gate incident, which was child’s play compared to this. I will think twice from now on when Kool Aid Man bursts through a wall and offers me a nice, refreshing cup of his bodily fluids…


    1. Never liked Kool-Aid and after that, couldn’t even think about drinking it. It was a horrible thing.

      I got interrupted before I finished this … people (live people!) showed up. The actual tape of the event exists. It is as horrific as you would expect. I don’t know if anyone knows the whole story because so much of the story seems to have existed entirely in the twisted brain of Jim Jones. Mostly, it’s a cautionary tale … for everyone. Don’t follow the leader. Especially one who wants you to give him all your money and move to a jungle compound far away.


  11. Reblogged this on SERENDIPITY and commented:

    Another anniversary. And a timely reminder where crazy leaders can take us. Do NOT drink the Kool-Aid. Really. Just say no. It’s now 38 years … and we seem to be heading back down the lonesome road.


    1. Thank you. This is my “best selling” piece, ever. It gets thousands of hits every year, probably because there is so little written about Jim Jones and Jonestown. it’s a cautionary tale. A reminder.

      I remember when it happened. The horror of it. How could people blindly follow like that? Yet they did … and do. So, every year, I republish this, but people find it anyway. i guess they google Jonestown massacre and it pops up. Yesterday was the anniversary, so I’m a day late.


      1. Unfortunately it was not an isolated incident — Heaven’s Gate also comes to mind. In 1997, in an upscale suburb of San Diego, a cult seeking alien life followed their leader and committed mass suicide over 3 days. Only one person chose not to follow. It’s shocking when it happens — and it seems that the current climate is ready for another episode.


        1. Let us hope NOT. I remember Heaven’s Gate. Not as much as Jonestown, but I was at a very impressionable age when Jonestown occurred. Much older by the time the next round happened. There are not proud moments in our history. Not proud moment for the human race.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for reminding us. Such a devastating story. A warning to us all. I was only young when this happened. I can remember my parents being utterly shocked by it and hugging us close.


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