We had already told you about the scariest cults in history but we hadn’t gone into more detail than that on the People’s Temple, a cult in the United States whose dramatic history has marked memories. We suggest you see this whole affair in a little detail to understand how it happened and how far it went, because it still ended in mass collective suicide.
1. Jim Jones, a young man who long sought God
Basically the People’s Temple was created as a branch of the Protestant movement by James Warren Jones, known as Jim Jones, a Protestant pastor. Raised in the Protestant Catholic religion by a single mother, Jones was very religious and religious until he reached his twenties when he began to question the very existence of God and stopped praying.
At the same time, he works in a hospital where he does not charge for care for the most precarious patients, having himself been affected by poverty at a young age. He begins to take an interest in communism and in social causes that he considers set aside by the Protestant Church. Married since he was 19 to Marceline Baldwin, a nurse, he finally decides to take a big turn and become a pastor.
2. Jim Jones, the Pastor
In 1952, at only 21 years old, he began pastoral training in a poor neighborhood of Indianapolis. Barely a year later he managed to raise several thousand dollars to build a recreation center for children without any color categorization, which was rare at that time in this area of the United States. He begins to take an interest in parallel with other religious movements imbued with miracle cures and spectacular sensationalism, which will become important later.
He adopted five underprivileged children of different ethnic groups whom he raised with his wife in the following years and he obtained the title of pastor in 1964. He created his own Church which accepted both whites and blacks, always showing himself to be very concerned with the issue of racial equality.
3. The creation of the People’s Temple
He renamed his Church the Temple of the People fairly quickly and gained increasing notoriety throughout the country. Politicians, celebrities or religious figures respect it and give it a certain visibility. Even the First Lady of the United States, wife of President Jimmy Carter, glorifies her church, which brings blacks and whites together in equality and harmony while helping the needy and destitute.
4. A growing notoriety
It was when he became aware of his own notoriety and his unifying power that Jim Jones began to use it. He considers himself and presents himself as a reincarnation of Buddha, Jesus and even Lenin and tries to swell the ranks of his church by claiming to perform miracles. The community is more and more important and its key words are fraternity, equality and idealism. The Church passed through several major cities in California and rallied many faithful: former heroin addicts detoxified by the Church as well as many black people who were disadvantaged and neglected by society.
5. “Religious Communism”
To enter the Church, the faithful must cede possession of all his possessions in exchange for which the Church undertakes to meet all his needs. We are talking at the time of religious communism and Jim Jones makes it his trademark. He organizes soup kitchens for underprivileged children and many single mothers decide to stay after seeing all the occupations and infrastructures that the People’s Temple provides.
The faithful work in the various branches of the Church: retirement homes, community centers and other services, but they receive no salary, they are however fed and housed, which is a strong argument for many homeless people. Jones hires private detectives to recruit followers by learning things about their private lives and exposes them claiming to have guessed it from his gifts.
6. The Beginning of the Horrors
Jim Jones begins to take different drugs daily like amphetamines, which can sometimes make him angry and damage his health. He declares to his followers that all men are homosexual and that if he is not, he will still sleep with the men of the Church out of compassion. He abuses many young men as punishment, stating that their misdemeanors are due to their repressed homosexuality and that the only way to fight it is to give in to it fully with him.
Several children of the Temple show traces of beatings from hammers and teachers outside the Church report consistent testimonies: they are punished and whipped in public if they do not have good grades. Congregants are encouraged to sleep less and work more, while donating to the Church.
One evening a week there are meetings to atone for sins, basically just talking circles but over time the evenings turn into sessions of public abuse where worshipers are beaten and tortured in public. Boxing matches are even organized between the “fishermen” and the real blows are carried out by way of expiation.
7. Jonestown City Utopia
In 1977 the Church moved permanently to Guyana in South America in the former English Guyana after being subject to a tax audit and a significant loss of public opinion for the stories of moral and physical abuse on the faithful worshipers. The idea is to create the city of Jonestown, named after its creator, and to make it a utopian and fraternal place to live.
To justify this move to his followers, Jim Jones accuses the CIA of having dragged his name through the mud to make them flee and of being supported by influential racist Christians who do not accept their vision of religion. He also makes them understand that the CIA will arrest them if they flee the city in order to keep them under its control.
The arrival in Jonestown begins however as a utopia, people live harmoniously and begin to build common houses to live together. But quickly the number of faithful becomes too important, people sleep little, build without expertise, do not have time to eat because there is only one kitchen, water is running out because the only point of he water is about ten kilometers away… Loudspeakers constantly spit out Jones’ recorded sermons announcing a nuclear war that will annihilate the world and all the inhabitants are learning Russian with a view to moving to the USSR in a hurry.
8. Fears confirmed and the start of the investigation
Before the move to Guyana, some journalists had begun to report on the many excesses of the movement but had quickly been threatened and forced to keep quiet by a militia set up by Jones, the Planning Commission.
At the time when the sect is still in San Francisco we learn that the members of the sect are forced to sign handwritten letters in which they confess to crimes they have not committed: “I raped a child” , “I plan to kill the president” or “I beat my children and I pray to try to stop myself”. They also sign blank letters so that the Church can fill in its contents itself, in this way they are completely prisoners of the Temple and they are threatened with giving the letters to the police if they try to flee.
9. Preparation for sacrifice
In 1977 Jim Jones began to wake the faithful more and more often in the middle of the night to preach, punishing those who fell asleep. During these evenings fruit juice is served to each inhabitant and Jones tells his followers that he is poisoned. After a few hours, he tells them that it was wrong and that he was testing their loyalty, but that the revolutionary suicide mass will take place one day to send a message to the United States.
At the same time, the tortures and punishments escalate horribly: children are locked in lightless pits for hours, are forced to insert hot pepper into their rectums, are electrocuted or locked in a small room without light for several days. Some people are forced into the medical wing and permanently drugged. The geographical location of the city prevents those who would like to flee since an inhospitable jungle surrounds it and offers little chance of survival.
10. November 18, 1978: Leo Ryan’s visit
The Temple doctor tells Jim Jones that his drug and medication use has ruined his health over the years and he only has a few months left to live. At the same time, a San Francisco police investigation was launched against the organization after former escaped members alerted the authorities to life in the sect.
Leo Ryan, representative of California decides to go to Jonestown accompanied by journalists and lawyers to investigate. Leo Ryan’s goal is on the one hand to see if life in the Temple is as difficult as it is described to him and to repatriate people who would like to leave. But once there, only fifteen people want to leave out of nearly 1,000 inhabitants, which surprises Ryan who naturally thinks that life there is not as hard as he has been told.
Before leaving, one of the townspeople tries to stab Ryan, but is stopped at the last moment. The tension mounts and Leo Ryan leaves for the airport accompanied by lawyers, journalists and the fifteen inhabitants who have deserted. A devotee by the name of Larry Layton declares at the last moment that he wants to leave town and leaves with the group.
His plan is actually to take control of the plane and crash it to kill everyone. Arrived on the spot, he realizes that there are two planes and that his plan will be unrealizable, he pulls out a gun and opens fire on the people who get into the vehicle while a dozen other armed faithful arrive to help him. Leo Ryan is assassinated on the spot as well as three journalists, many other people are injured.
11. November 18, 1978: the end
A few hours later Jim Jones realizes that with the murder of Leo Ryan he will no longer escape justice which has already threatened him on several occasions, he decides to carry out his collective suicide plan during the day. We have the mixture of fruit juice and cyanide prepared and we gather the whole town for the pastor to give yet another speech on suicide. Jim Jones forces parents to make their children drink first and then makes mothers drink.
It is unclear whether worshipers once again thought this was a test, but some audio recordings suggest cries of panic as the first children begin to fall. Some autopsies also showed that many adults had been pricked in the back by syringes, probably while trying to flee while others were forced to drink the poison by the militia. According to the police, most of the victims were forced to drink or shot.
When they arrived on the spot, the authorities discovered exactly 914 inanimate bodies on the ground, including 303 bodies of children and adolescents. The body of Jim Jones is found, killed by a bullet in the head by a weapon located a few meters from him, we still do not know who fired. The Jonestown massacre remained until September 11, 2001 the event that caused the greatest loss of American civilians.