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News > Culture

Jonestown Massacre: 40 Years on

  • Jim Jones, Leader of the US cult, the Peoples Temple. November 18, 2018. Getty Images.

    Jim Jones, Leader of the US cult, the Peoples Temple. November 18, 2018. Getty Images. | Photo: Getty Images

Published 18 November 2018

On the 40th anniversary of one of the worst mass atrocities of all time, new evidence comes to light suggesting the deaths of the 918 victims may not have been self-inflicted, as first thought.

Nov. 18, 1978, hundreds of bodies are strewn across a fortified compound in Jonestown, Guyana. 304 of the deceased are children.


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Most of the deceased had ingested a poisonous cocktail of cyanide and tranquilizers at their own hand, or so was reported initially. Such was the power of cult leader Jim Jones' brainwashing techniques, that he'd coerced the followers of his 'Peoples Temple' sect into believing poisoning themselves and their family, was beneficial to the survival of their 'utopia.'

Speaking to the Sun newspaper, one member who survived the ordeal explained the ritual of drinking Jim Jones' 'Kool-Aid.' 

Deborah Layton recalled, "Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test."

This event was called "white night," and the ritual of drinking the poison, "revolutionary suicide."

"He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands," Layton said.

That time arrived one fateful evening after a group called 'Concerned Relatives' had contacted the US Government citing their relatives had become involved in the cult and were being held against their will, among tales of starvation, sexual abuse, torture, and slave labor. 

The U.S. government sent politician Leo Ryan to investigate, and he was greeted warmly by Jones and his entourage. That was until desperate followers pleaded with Ryan to help them escape the country.  

Duly obliging, Ryan led 14 followers to an airstream to board a flight back to the U.S., until one of Jones' henchman, posing as a follower, opened fire, killing Ryan and one follower, and injuring 11 others.

Back at the camp, knowing the FBI was closing in on him, Jones demanded that all children be administered the lethal dose of 'Kool-Aid,' insisting the children die first so the adults would carry-out the leader's twisted orders.

Authorities identified needle marks on many of the adults, and make the claim that they were forcefully administered the 'Kool-Aid' after refusing to drink the concoction.

In her article, Inside Jonestown: How Jim Jones Trapped Followers and Forced 'Suicides,' author Lesley Kennedy cites Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown, as proof that Jones gave his followers no choice but to die what Jones called, "a dignified death." 

“People think they willingly died,” Scheeres says, “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." 

She continues, "So, living was never an alternative on that last night. Most people chose to die with their families, and if they didn’t drink it, there were many who were injected with the poison.”

Furthermore, The Sun reported that Jones yelled at the stricken followers through a loudspeaker, "Die with a degree of dignity. Don’t lay down with tears and agony! It’s nothing to death, it’s just stepping over into another plane.”

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