We are again approaching the anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. 43 years later, it appears we have not learned the lesson yet. Slavish following of lying leaders is deadly. We should not need to learn this again. Once should have been more than sufficient!


On this 43nd year following the Jonestown Massacre came the saying: “Drink the Kool-Aid” or “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” It’s true. It happened. We should make sure it never happens again but it is. I’m looking at my world and I swear, it’s Jonestown all over again. But it’s not a small weird group — it’s half the nation. What is wrong with us?


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 the 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 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 although watching people refuse a life-saving vaccine — which I also don’t understand — makes me wonder what’s wrong with us?

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 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.


I’ve written about Jonestown before, but it bears repeating. I write it every year. Fewer and fewer people even know it happened — but everyone should know. It’s a cautionary tale reminding us where fanaticism and hatred lead. Over the course of history, fanatics and those who blindly follow have caused millions of deaths. Untold misery. Incalculable harm. When you follow your “leader” into the darkness, there is no “good” side. Nothing positive can come of it.

This is where blind obedience leads. This is the result. This was a horror story I thought no one could forget, but it seems that most people have forgotten. For one and all, when you follow blindly, evils lurk in the shadows.

Categories: #American-history, #News, Media, Religion, Sayings and Platitudes

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16 replies

  1. Bottom line–the USA government knew this was going to happen & did not rescue the people–even though some of the members were scared and lied and said they were happy.


    • Except that they tried. The whole contingent from Congress were attacked and several were killed. They tried and they died trying. And remember, they were NOT on American soil, either. The insane followers were responsible for their own fate. The chose to follow Jones and while some wanted to get away, most did NOT want to get away.

      That is what happens when you follow an insane leader. When they say you should die for them, they aren’t kidding. THAT is what I mean by a cautionary tale. Remember, they were not on American soil. They had already fled the U.S.. Short of bringing the Marines, they could only leave on their own (had Jones allowed it — which he didn’t) — or die. He killed more than 900 of his followers including more than 300 children. You want to blame the government? How? Why?

      There comes a time when WE the people are responsible for our own actions. Don’t follow crazy cult leaders. Isn’t that what is going on now? It is very bad juju.


  2. I’m old enough to remember that moment in history and it is somewhat disturbing that the phrase, ‘drink the kool-aid’ being tossed around without knowing where it originated and the ways in which so many were killed. My son was using that phrase until I sat him down and told him the story and then found the newspaper pictures of it. He was a bit shocked at its origins.


    • I remember when it happened too. Being horrified that people could be so brainwashed they would kill their own children. It was the most horrible event I remember from that entire period of time. And now, seeing people letting themselves and others be killed for the same reason — more slowly, but still killed — is sickening. We don’t seem to learn much. I think we CHOOSE to not learn — and maybe that is the worst part of this.


  3. Evil is getting so bold as not to even lurk in the shadows.


    • I know. It’s gotten so blatant you can’t miss it and if you try, it creeps into your thoughts anyway. I feel like a victim in a Bond movie where the guy who is out to destroy the world has all the power and money taking over. Where IS 007 when we REALLY need him?


  4. I remember this so well. So horrifying and so preventable. And, yes, I see the echoes in our daily lives now…..


    • It’s why I published this a bit earlier than usual (the right day would be the 18th of this month). I may post it again on that day too. This little tidbit isn’t even in our history books. No wonder young people have never heard of it. We’ve done our best to make sure that history is bland and meaningless.

      That the story is still relevant is probably the most frightening part. Surely we should have learned from it. If Jonestown wasn’t a cautionary tale, I don’t know what is.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. this was such a horrific event! Those poor people! What a mad man jones was! Xx


    • Are our current “leaders” any less mad? How do we judge degrees of craziness? Where is the line between sane and insane? I used to think I knew, but these days, I’m not sure I know anything.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Are the DJs and “opinion makers” on the news any LESS mad? What’s really funny in a horrible sort of way is that the number of conservative DJs and commentators who have died of COVID are numerous. Now, the killer in Congress who are urging people to NOT get vaccinated? They have all BEEN vaccinated. It’s the rest of the cattle — we the people — who are going to die of what is a preventable illness.


  6. Much thanks for reminding us!


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