Lead Story

18-11-1978

Mass suicide at Jonestown

People's Temple leader Jim Jones leads hundreds of his followers in a mass murder-suicide at their agricultural commune in remote northwestern Guyana. The few cult members who refused to take the cyanide-laced fruit-flavoured concoction were either forced to do so at gunpoint or shot as they fled. The final death toll was 913, including 276 children.   Jim Jones was a charismatic churchman who founded the People's Temple, a Christian sect, in Indianapolis in the 1950s. He preached against racism, and his integrated congregation attracted mostly African Americans.

In 1965, he moved the group to northern California, settling in Ukiah and after 1971 in San Francisco. In the 1970s, his church was accused by the press of financial fraud, physical abuse of its members, and mistreatment of children. In response to the mounting criticism, Jones led several hundred of his followers to South America in 1977 and set up a utopian agricultural settlement called Jonestown in the jungle of Guyana. A year later, a group of ex-members convinced U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat of California, to travel to Jonestown and investigate the commune.

On 17 November 1978, Ryan arrived in Jonestown with a group of journalists and other observers. At first the visit went well, but the next day, as Ryan's group was about to leave, several People's Church members approached members of the group and asked them for passage out of Guyana. Jones became distressed at the defection of his members, and one of Jones' lieutenants attacked Ryan with a knife. Ryan escaped from the incident unharmed, but Jones then ordered Ryan and his companions ambushed and killed at the airstrip as they attempted to leave.

The congressman and four others were murdered as they attempted to board their charter planes. Back in Jonestown, Jones directed his followers in a mass suicide in a clearing in the town. With Jones exhorting the "beauty of dying" over a loudspeaker, hundreds drank a lethal cyanide mixture. Those who tried to escape were chased down and shot by Jones' lieutenants. Jones died of a gunshot wound to the head, probably self-inflicted. Guyanese troops, alerted by a cult member who escaped, reached Jonestown the next day. Only a dozen or so followers survived, hidden in the jungle. Most of the 913 dead were lying side by side in the clearing where Jones had preached to them for the last time.

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