“THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES IT CAUSED TO FIRST RESPONDERS” #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: We’ll look not only at the horrible events of the Jonestown massacre itself, but what life was like for those in The Peoples Temple cult before the mass suicide took place. Plus, we’ll look through the eyes of first responders who came upon the grizzly scene immediately after, and how they dealt with the horrors they stepped into. *** (Originally aired September 14, 2020)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
“Jonestown: Modern History’s Largest Mass Suicide” by Kellen Perry for AllThat’sInteresting.com:https://tinyurl.com/y3ccb3q5 (Includes links to videos with audio files used in this episode.)
“Life in the People’s Temple” by Beth Elias for Ranker.com: https://tinyurl.com/yygj5gey
“The Shock Felt By Jonestown First Responders” by Andy Kopsa for Time.com: https://tinyurl.com/y55coj9u
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Today, the Jonestown Massacre that resulted in the death of more than 900 people in Guyana in November of 1978 is remembered in the popular imagination as the time that gullible expats from the Peoples Temple cult literally “drank the Kool-Aid” and died simultaneously from cyanide poisoning.
It’s a tale so bizarre that for many the strangeness of it almost eclipses the tragedy. It baffles the imagination: nearly 1,000 people were so enthralled by a cult leader’s conspiracy theories that they moved to Guyana, isolated themselves on a compound, then synchronized their watches and in unison threw their heads back and downed a poisoned kid’s drink.
How could so many people have lost their grip on reality? And why were they so easily duped?
The true story answers those questions — but in stripping away the mystery, it also brings the sadness of the Jonestown Massacre to center stage.
While preparing for tonight’s episode of #WeirdDarkness, I searched for audio recordings of Jim Jones or The Peoples Temple cult that I could use to bring the story to life a bit more. What I found was audio of the final hour of the actual massacre itself. Be thankful you didn’t have to listen through all of it like I chose to do; it’s some of the most heart wrenching stuff I’ve ever heard. Just the audio clips I do plan on using in this episode are hard enough to listen to.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – (I’m Darren Marlar and) this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
Until the September 11th attacks on the U.S, the Jonestown Massacre was the greatest loss of civilian life as the result of a deliberate act in American history. We’ll look not only at the horrible events of the massacre itself, but what life was like for those in The People’s Temple cult before the mass suicide took place. Plus, we’ll look through the eyes of first responders who came upon the grizzly scene immediately after, and how they dealt with the horrors they stepped into.
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, to visit sponsors you hear about during the show, sign up for my newsletter, enter contests, connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: JONESTOWN: MODERN HISTORY’S LARGEST MASS SUICIDE=====
The people in Jim Jones’s compound isolated themselves in Guyana because they wanted in the 1970s what many people of the 21st century take for granted a country should have: an integrated society that rejects racism, promotes tolerance, and effectively distributes resources.
They believed Jim Jones because he had power, influence, and connections to mainstream leaders who publicly supported him for years.
And they drank a cyanide-laced grape soft drink on November 19, 1978, because they thought they had just lost their entire way of life. It helped, of course, that it wasn’t the first time they thought they were taking poison for their cause. But it was the last.
Thirty years before he stood in front of a vat of poisoned punch and urged his followers to end it all, Jim Jones was a well-liked, respected figure in the progressive community.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was known for his charity work and for founding one of the first mixed-race churches in the Midwest. His work helped desegregate Indiana and earned him a devoted following among civil rights activists.
From Indianapolis, he moved to California, where he and his church continued to promote a message of compassion. They emphasized helping the poor and raising the downtrodden, those who were marginalized and excluded from society’s prosperity.
Behind closed doors, they embraced socialism and hoped that in time the country would be ready to accept the much-stigmatized theory.
And then Jim Jones began to explore faith healing. To draw larger crowds and bring in more money for his cause, he started promising miracles, saying he could literally pull cancer out of people.
But it wasn’t cancer that he magically whisked from people’s bodies: it was bits of rotten chicken that he produced with a magician’s flare.
It was a deception for a good cause, he and his team rationalized — but it was the first step down a long, dark road that ended with death and 900 people who would never see the sunrise on November 20, 1978.
It wasn’t long before things began to get stranger. Jones was becoming increasingly paranoid about the world around him. His speeches began to reference a coming doomsday, the result of a nuclear apocalypse brought about by government mismanagement.
Though he continued to enjoy popular support and strong relationships with the day’s leading politicians, including First Lady Rosalynn Carter and California governor Jerry Brown, the media was beginning to turn on him.
Several high-profile members of the Peoples Temple defected, and the conflict was both vicious and public as the “traitors” lambasted the church and the church smeared them in return.
The church’s organizational structure ossified. A group of primarily well-off white women oversaw the running of the temple, while the majority of the congregants were black.
The meetings of the upper-echelons grew more secretive as they planned increasingly complicated fundraising schemes: a combination of staged healings, trinket marketing, and solicitous mailings.
At the same time, it was becoming clear to everyone that Jones wasn’t particularly invested in the religious aspects of his church; Christianity was the bait, not the goal. He was interested in the social progress he could achieve with a fanatically devoted following at his back.
His social goals became more openly radical, and he began to attract the interest of Marxist leaders as well as violent leftist groups. The shift and a slew of defections — defections in which Jones sent search parties and a private plane to reclaim the deserters — brought the media down on what was now being widely regarded as a cult.
As stories of scandal and abuse proliferated in the papers, Jones made a run for it, taking his church with him.
They settled in Guyana, a country that appealed to Jones because of its non-extradition status and its socialist government.
Guyana’s authorities warily allowed the cult to begin construction on their utopic compound, and in 1977, the Peoples Temple arrived to take up residence.
It didn’t go as planned. Now isolated, Jones was free to implement his vision of a pure Marxist society — and it was a lot grimmer than many had anticipated.
The daylight hours were consumed by 10-hour workdays, and the evenings were filled with lectures as Jones spoke at length on his fears for society and excoriated defectors.
On movie nights, entertaining films were replaced with Soviet-style documentaries about the dangers, excesses, and vices of the outside world.
Rations were limited, as the compound had been built on poor soil; everything had to be imported via negotiations on shortwave radios — the only way the Peoples Temple could communicate with the outside world.
And then there were the punishments. Rumors escaped into Guyana that cult members were harshly disciplined, beaten and locked in coffin-sized prisons or left to spend the night in dry wells.
Jones himself was said to be losing his grip on reality. His health was deteriorating, and by way of treatment, he began taking a nearly lethal combination of amphetamines and pentobarbital.
His speeches, piped over the compound speakers at nearly all hours of the day, were becoming dark and incoherent as he reported that America had fallen into chaos.
As one survivor recalled: “He would tell us that in the United States, African Americans were being herded into concentration camps, that there was genocide on the streets. They were coming to kill and torture us because we’d chosen what he called the socialist track. He said they were on their way.”
Jones had begun to raise the idea of “revolutionary suicide,” a last resort that he and his congregation would pursue if the enemy showed up at their gates.
He even had his followers rehearse their own deaths, calling them together in the central courtyard and asking them to drink from a large vat he had prepared for just such an occasion.
It’s not clear whether his congregation knew those moments were drills; survivors would later report having believed they would die. When they didn’t, they were told that it had been a test. That they had drunk anyway proved them worthy.
It was in that context that U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan came to investigate.
What happened next wasn’t Representative Leo Ryan’s fault. Jonestown was a settlement on the brink of disaster, and in his paranoid state, Jones was likely to have found a catalyst before long.
But when Leo Ryan showed up at Jonestown, it threw everything into chaos.
Ryan had been friends with a Peoples Temple member whose mutilated body had been found two years prior, and since then he — and several other U.S. representatives — had taken a keen interest in the cult.
When reports coming out of Jonestown suggested that it was far from the racism- and poverty-free utopia that Jones had sold his members on, Ryan decided to check on the conditions for himself.
Five days before the Jonestown Massacre, Ryan flew to Guyana along with a delegation of 18 people, including several members of the press, and met with Jones and his followers.
The settlement wasn’t the disaster Ryan expected. While conditions were lean, Ryan felt the vast majority of cultists seemed to genuinely want to be there. Even when several members asked to leave with his delegation, Ryan reasoned that a dozen defectors out of 600 or so adults wasn’t cause for concern.
Jim Jones, however, was devastated. Despite Ryan’s assurances that his report would be favorable, Jones was convinced that the Peoples Temple had failed the inspection and Ryan was going to call in the authorities.
Paranoid and in failing health, Jones sent his security team after Ryan and his crew, who had just arrived at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. The Peoples Temple force shot and killed four delegation members and one defector, wounding several others.
Leo Ryan died after being shot more than 20 times.
With the congressman dead, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were finished.
But it wasn’t arrest that Jones anticipated; he told his congregation that the authorities would be “parachuting in” at any moment, then sketched a vague picture of a terrible fate at the hands of a deranged, corrupt government. He encouraged his congregation to die now rather than face their torture. The audio of Jones’s speech and the ensuing suicide survives. On the tape, an exhausted Jones says he sees no way forward; he’s tired of living and wants to choose his own death: “I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries … death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you — if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight. Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity; don’t lay down with tears and agony.”
[JONESTOWN AUDIO CLIP 00]
One woman courageously disagrees. She says she’s not afraid to die, but she thinks the children at least deserve to live; the Peoples Temple shouldn’t give up and let their enemies win.
Jones tells her the children deserve peace, and the crowd shouts the woman down, telling her she’s just afraid to die.
[JONESTOWN AUDIO CLIP 05]
Then the group who killed the congressman return, announcing their victory, and the debate ends as Jones begs someone to hurry the “medication.”
[JONESTOWN AUDIO CLIP 02]
Those administering the drugs — perhaps, the detritus on the compound suggests, with syringes squirted into the mouth — can be heard on tape assuring the children that the people who have ingested the drug aren’t crying from pain; it’s only that the drugs are “a little bitter tasting.”
Others express their sense of obligation to Jones; they wouldn’t have made it this far without him, and they’re now taking their lives out of duty.
Some — clearly those who have not yet ingested the poison — wonder why the dying look like they’re in pain when they should be happy. One man is grateful that his child won’t be killed by the enemy or raised by the enemy to be a “dummy.”
Jones just keeps begging them to hurry up. He tells the adults to stop being hysterical and “exciting” the screaming children.
[JONESTOWN AUDIO CLIP 01]
Jones asks for the vat with the Green C – the vat with poisoned Flavor Aid drink mix, so that the adults, now that they’ve dosed the children and the elderly and infirm, can dose themselves.
[JONESTOWN AUDIO CLIP 04]
Jones continues to encourage his followers to partake while a prerecorded organ soundtrack plays in the background. But soon the noise dies down, the crying of the children stops, the murmurs fade away, and all goes silent except for the organ, now a funeral song as everyone breathes their last. And then the audio ends.
When the Guyana authorities showed up the following day, they expected resistance — guards and guns and an irate Jim Jones waiting at the gates. But they arrived on an eerily quiet scene:
“All of a sudden they start to stumble and they think that maybe these revolutionaries placed logs on the ground to trip them up, and now they’re going to start shooting from ambush — and then a couple of the soldiers look down and they can see through the fog and they start screaming, because there are bodies everywhere, almost more than they can count, and they’re so horrified.”
But when they found Jim Jones’s body, it was clear that he hadn’t taken the poison. After watching his followers’ agony, he chose instead to shoot himself in the head.
The dead were a grim collection. Around 300 were children who had been fed the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid by their parents and loved ones. Another 300 were elderly, men and women who depended on younger cultists for support.
As for the rest of the people killed in the Jonestown Massacre, they were a mix of true believers and the hopeless, as John R. Hall writes in Gone from the Promised Land: “The presence of armed guards shows at least implicit coercion, though the guards themselves reported their intentions to visitors in glorious terms and then took the poison. Nor was the situation structured as one of individual choice. Jim Jones proposed a collective action, and in the discussion that followed only one woman offered extended opposition. No one rushed up to tip over the vat of Flavor Aid. Wittingly, unknowingly, or reluctantly, they took the poison.”
This lingering question of coercion is why the tragedy is today referred to as the Jonestown Massacre — not the Jonestown Suicide.
Some have speculated that many of those who took poison might even have thought the event was another drill, a simulation that they would all walk away from just as they had in the past. But on November 19, 1978, nobody got up again.
When Weird Darkness returns, we’ll look further into the events leading up to the massacre at Jonestown, and what life was like for those living in the People’s Temple cult before the terrifying events in November of 1978.
STORY: LIFE IN THE PEOPLE’S TEMPLE=====
Chances are, you’ve heard the saying “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” – which, contrary to popular belief, is technically incorrect since the victims actually drank Flavor Aid. The adage refers to Jim Jones, a cult leader who gave his followers cyanide-laced punch, resulting in the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 people.
The Jonestown cult started as the Peoples Temple, in which Jim Jones preached racial equality and an end to segregation, and even won awards for his civil rights work. However, as Jones’s teachings got out of hand, by including fake healings and violent outbursts, the Peoples Temple took a different turn.
Jones and his loyalists started Jonestown as a sort of paradise, but this notion quickly fell apart. Daily life in Jonestown was not idyllic; the compound struggled to feed and house the exodus of church followers. Brutal beatings, disturbing “suicide rehearsals,” and Jones’s increasing paranoia compelled people to defect from the cult. After hearing complaints from defectors, US Representative Leo Ryan, accompanied by 23 others, traveled to Guyana to investigate.
When Ryan attempted to rescue church members and board a plane, Jones unleashed gunmen on them. At this point, the mass murder-suicide began. Some allege loyalists forcibly injected poison into those who refused to drink the deadly punch. Jones himself didn’t drink the Flavor Aid and died from a – likely self-inflicted – gunshot to the head.
Despite Jones’s sermons about love, peace, and equality, Jonestown ended in death. Jones and his loyalists served cyanide-laced Flavor Aid to Jonestown’s youth first. Some adults orally administered cyanide-filled syringes to children. According to a survivor, many adults lost their will to live after this incident.
Tracy Parks, a survivor who was 12 at the time of the mass suicide, claimed there was child labor at Jonestown. After Jones’s gunmen killed Parks’s mother, she and her sister hid in the jungles of Guyana while the rest of Jones’s followers drank the poison. The mass suicide claimed the lives of 909 people, a third of which were children.
In 2008, CNN learned Jones had started ordering and receiving shipments of cyanide in 1976, two years before the mass suicide. The majority of Jonestown residents had yet to move to Guyana in 1976. To legally buy cyanide, Jones secured a jeweler’s license, as jewelers could use cyanide to clean gold.
Six months before the mass murder-suicide, Jonestown’s doctor wrote the following to Jones: “Cyanide is one of the most rapidly acting poisons… I would like to give about two grams to a large pig to see how effective our batch is.” Jones’s longtime shipments of cyanide are perhaps proof that he was planning a mass suicide for years.
The suicide rehearsals, known as White Nights, prepared Jones’s followers for the actual mass murder-suicide, which ultimately took place on November 18, 1978. During White Nights, Jones would shout through the loudspeakers that surrounded the Jonestown complex: “White Night! White Night! Get to the to the pavilion! Run! Your lives are in danger!”
Jones heightened his followers’ sense of danger by telling them how people were coming to murder them. Even worse, Jones had armed people waiting in the jungle. To the followers, these rehearsals seemed too real. However, it turned out the guns were firing rubber bullets, and it was all a ruse to terrify the people who lived at Jonestown.
Next, Jones brought out supposedly poisoned Flavor Aid for his followers to drink. No one died during White Nights, as the drinks were safe to consume. After the drill, Jones returned to the loudspeakers, saying, “Now I know I can trust you. Go home, my darlings! Sleep tight!”
Even before Jonestown, Jones had asked his followers to drink what he claimed was poison.
Survivor of the Jonestown compound in Guyana Teri Buford O’Shea originally went to Jones’s camp after one of his followers found her living on the streets. At the time, O’Shea was without food or housing, so Jones’s promises of equality sounded enticing.
But reflecting on the experience, O’Shea sees Jones as manipulative, explaining: “He was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised for whatever reason. Most of them were African American, but there were also white people, Jewish people, people of Mexican descent. There were religious Christians and communists. If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he’d be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.”
Though the Peoples Temple preached abstinence from drugs, leader Jim Jones reportedly disregarded this tenet and abused substances. O’Shea believes drug use may have contributed to Jones’s mental demise.
O’Shea later discovered that Jones would use drugs to manipulate his followers, explaining: “We didn’t know he was a drug addict. Drugs were anathema at the Temple; we weren’t supposed to do that kind of stuff. I learned after the massacre that he drugged people on the outpost there to keep them from trying to leave, to keep them from trying to dissent, to control them in different ways, all unbeknownst to the masses.”
The arrival of US Representative Leo Ryan in Guyana reportedly instigated the mass murder-suicide of Jonestown residents. Ryan, then the state representative of California, had received complaints about Jones’s new settlement in Guyana. Family members of Jonestown residents and some of the cult’s defectors had notified authorities of the happenings at Jonestown.
One of those defectors was Deborah Layton, the sister of one of Jones’s most trusted cronies. Layton snuck away from the compound in Guyana and went to the embassy to tell officials about what went on at Jonestown.
After listening to many concerns and stories, Ryan and 23 others boarded a plane to the small South American country. Among the 23 people was Jackie Speier, who was then Ryan’s legislative counsel, and later became a state representative of California. Speier said that after waiting two days for Jones to let them into the compound, they interviewed Jonestown residents and witnessed seemingly normal behavior.
However, a resident passed a note to Don Harris, a reporter for NBC News who had accompanied the congressman, saying that residents wanted to leave. Speier describes this incident:
“Don comes over, hands us the note. My heart sank. Everything those defectors said is true. Then more people wanted to leave, and the whole thing exploded. It was such a tinderbox of emotions and tension. It became clear that one plane wasn’t going to be enough. The congressman decided he was going to stay behind, [and take] the next airlift out. It was so emotionally raw.”
After US Representative Leo Ryan and his group attempted to remove people from the Jonestown compound, Jim Jones sent gunmen on an alleged tractor-trailer to stop them. Ryan and a few journalists and cult members were victims of the gunmen, with 10 others shot and assumed dead. Reports of Jones stockpiling weapons were accurate.
Earlier that day, 11 people left Jonestown in the morning; they had no idea of the horror to come. Leslie Wilson was one of the 11, saying, “It was a slave camp run by a madman.” Though they had come to Jonestown expecting an egalitarian paradise, the reality was dramatically different. Wilson called their 30-mile trek to another town a “walk to freedom.”
Laura Johnston Kohl, who survived Jonestown, said that Jones pointed a gun at her when she fell asleep in a meeting. Jones’s former follower, Teri Buford O’Shea, remembers Jones holding a gun at her and, at one point, putting his hands around her neck, saying he wanted to die while choking her.
O’Shea recalled that Jones would supposedly beat people for a range of infractions, which varied in severity: “The worst beating I witnessed was when somebody was accused of being a pedophile. Jim took hold of a rubber hose and proceeded, in front of others, to beat this man’s private parts to the point where he was bleeding. I know pedophilia is horrible, too, but that was just cruel and totally abusive. There were a number of beatings like that – they were really bad.”
To paint himself as a Jesus-like character, Jones frequently “healed” people at his services and claimed to cure cancer. He also alleged he was a psychic who knew things that had yet to happen. Laura Johnston Kohl, who survived the Jonestown massacre, said that while she believed in Jones and his healings at the time, she later learned the truth.
It turned out Jones had staged his antics and cult members had helped set up Jones’s psychic moments.
Though these allegations remain unproven, some believe the Peoples Temple were responsible for as many as eight deaths prior to their relocation to Guyana. In one such instance, a follower named Truth Hart had purportedly died of congestive heart failure, but her death may not have been this clear-cut.
Some Temple members said Jones facilitated her death after she started to disagree with him and expressed her desire to leave the cult. Supposedly, Jones ordered a Peoples Temple nurse to give Hart a drug that could induce a heart attack. Jones then “predicted” Hart’s death as a show of his clairvoyant powers.
In 2003, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University and the former president of the American Psychological Association, revealed findings of his Jonestown research, which suggested that Jones could have learned some of his control techniques from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During his 25 years of research and extensive interviews with Jonestown survivors, Zimbardo found several remarkable similarities between Jones’s methods and those portrayed in 1984.
Orwell’s idea of a “Big Brother” may have existed in Jonestown, as Jim Jones made cult members spy on each other. He used loudspeakers throughout the compound to continually broadcast his voice.
Jones also forced his followers to give him information that he could later use against them, which is similar to what happens to the main character in 1984. The “White Night” suicide drills could also have a link to 1984; a line in the book says, “The proper thing was to kill yourself before they get you.”
Many who have read 1984 may remember Newspeak, the propaganda language used in Oceania, the novel’s fictional dystopia. Jones adopted an analogous measure by making his followers thank him for food and work; of course, the followers’ actual living conditions were far from luxurious. According to Zimbardo’s research, Jones “commissioned a song that his followers were required to sing at Jonestown about the advent of the year 1984.”
Jeff Guinn, an investigative journalist and author of the book The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, said in an interview, “If Jim Jones had been hit by a car and killed somewhere toward the end of the 1950s, he’d be remembered today as one of the great leaders in the early civil rights movement.”
Jones’s charisma, along with his convincing blend of Christian and Marxist beliefs, attracted many people to the Peoples Temple. The vast majority of his followers were African American, as Jones aimed to achieve racial equality and establish effective welfare programs. In addition, the church had connections with the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, and Jones worked to end segregation in places such as restaurants and movie theaters. Jones also adopted and raised children from diverse backgrounds.
Jones initially imagined Jonestown as a paradise free from the inequality and racial segregation present in the United States. However, this was not the reality at Jonestown.
Though many may connect a controversial news story about the Peoples Temple with Jones’s departure from California, the reality is that Jones was planning to leave the state for a while. But relocating the cult to Guyana was not quick and simple; followers needed vaccinations, passports, visas, and more.
The article, based on interviews with Jones’s ex-followers, may have spurred more followers to go to Guyana than anyone had expected. It’s possible this mass influx of people – almost 1,000 within two months of the article’s publication – contributed to Jonestown’s problems. The Peoples Temple lacked housing and food for the newcomers since the original plan called for small groups to go to Guyana.
After 15 months of inadequate food and shelter, which were the same conditions many followers were trying to flee from in the United States, an increasing number of people had become disillusioned with Jones’s promised land.
The choice to settle the Peoples Temple in Guyana was intentional. Jones needed an English-speaking country with a large Black population and a socialist government. Aside from Guyana, Jones’s other option was Grenada. However, another party outbid the Peoples Temple for the plot of land in Grenada.
But Guyana benefited from the deal with Jim Jones. The land the Peoples Temple used was previously an area that prompted a conflict with Venezuela. The Jonestown settlement gave Guyana an advantage when it came to potential future conflicts with Venezuela; if Venezuela decided to come after the land again, they had to deal with nearly 1,000 American citizens.
After the massacre, the bodies were transported back to the United States, but some were unable to be claimed by relatives. Many people at Jonestown had changed their names, and though some had records of their real identities, not all did. Some took on the last name Jones to show their loyalty to Jim Jones, while others assumed traditional African names. This was a popular practice among African Americans at the time – independent of Jonestown – and the primary reason why many of the Jonestown victims remained unidentified.
Others changed their names to support the ideologies of Che Guevara and Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Allegedly, Jim Jones outlawed the name Linda after a woman with the name defected and left the cult. However, it’s unclear who – if anyone – changed her name because of this decree.
After the events in Jonestown, the U.S. Military was sent in to clean up. And what those soldiers and first responders came upon was worse than most any would see even in wartime. The Jonestown massacre from the perspective of first responders, when Weird Darkness returns.
STORY: THE SHOCK FELT BY JONESTOWN FIRST RESPONDERS=====
A watch ticked on a dead man’s wrist. Another man looking at the body joked, “I guess it sure does take a licking but keep on ticking!” Humor was critical in the situation. The men and women said at the time that a joke, no matter how bad, helped break the tension of their overwhelming task: the recovery of hundreds of dead U.S. citizens from a sweltering Guyanese jungle.
It may seem heartless or ghoulish to joke as hundreds lay dead before you but facing the largest such loss of civilian American lives pre-9/11, humor was just one form of self-preservation.
On Nov. 18, 1978 — willingly or unwillingly — the followers of the charismatic Pentecostal leader Jim Jones drank cyanide-laced fruit punch. Over 300 children were made to drink it, and syringes full of the mixture were emptied into infants’ mouths. Those who didn’t join Jones’ so-called “revolutionary suicide” were injected with poison; others tried to run for the surrounding jungle only to be shot by one of Jones’ armed guards. All told, over 900 died that day.
The U.S. tried to have the bodies interred on site, offering to foot the bill for the Guyanese government. But the Guyanese government wanted no part in the burial, and families of the dead wanted their loved ones returned. The military was the only organization able to handle mass casualty recovery and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware was assigned receipt of the dead. What happened there in the aftermath would become one of the first records of how deeply first responders can be affected by the trauma to which their jobs expose them.
Loaded with waterproof canvas body bags and coffin-like metal transport containers, U.S. military helicopters shuttled the dead and recovery personnel alike between Guyana’s capital and Jonestown, isolated deep in the jungle.
Recovery workers would later report that the staggering number of children they saw there was the most disturbing thing they encountered. “Can’t sleep,” reported one worker. “Cannot get the small children out of my mind.”
Society’s understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder was limited in 1978 and associated almost exclusively with wartime experiences, falling under the umbrella of what was often thought of as “shell shock.” Even less was known about the impact a mass casualty recovery mission would have on first responders. A smattering of studies had been done by the military on nurses, for example, but the literature was sparse.
Jonestown was different. It involved the deaths of civilians and demanded the involvement of a cross-section of workers, from doctors and pathologists to typists and the yeomen who cleaned the transport containers.
When the first C-141 aircraft touched down at Dover on Nov. 23, 1978, it carried the remains of 40 U.S. civilians. The magnitude of the situation was still unknown — and grossly underestimated. So was the emotional impact it would have on those left to deal with it.
Jim Jones had become a popular Pentecostal preacher in the 1960s, using a gospel of social justice and inclusion to attract followers to his San Francisco-based congregation, the People’s Temple. The hundred or so followers he’d brought West from his home in Indiana soon ballooned to a thousand, even as his paranoia likewise grew, fed by his growing dependency on pills. Jones staged fake faith healings to draw more people to his church and consolidate his power with only a small circle of trusted faithful. He began referring to himself as God.
But in 1977, with a damning article about abuses within the Temple about to break, Jones and nearly a thousand of his followers fled to land the Temple had previously purchased in Guyana.
Less than a year later, most of them would be dead. The bodies that would need to be brought back totaled more than 900.
Those bodies were taken to the base mortuary for identification and in some cases autopsy; the remains would eventually be stored on base in Hangar 1301.
At the time, Patricia Edwards had worked for seven years as a civilian employee at Dover AFB, where she still is now at the time of this recording. Now working in the Airman and Family Readiness Center, back then Edwards’ job was to manage logistics.
“I had to recruit individuals that would work in the mortuary environment and to make sure that there was enough staff and administrators to handle the Jonestown situation,” she told me.
“I found out about Jonestown like everyone else did back then, through the media,” she said. It was from those reports that Edwards and her colleagues found out just how much of a job they would have to do, and quickly. “What would normally take about two to three weeks had to be done in one,” Edwards said.
The base needed more people. Not just trained mortuary staff but ancillary support staff. Tents were needed for food-service workers, administrative staff and a legion of typists. Edwards notes that this was before computers, so every request had to be typed up and every person coming onto the base had to be processed and credentialed individually. Basically, she said, a base within the base had to be assembled.
Eventually the Air Force did a study on the impact the recovery had on personnel military and civilians alike. The study was simple as there were no analogs to build from and a dearth of information on the emotional impact on recovery workers or “secondary disaster victims.” Its results, however, offer a glimpse at just how complex the issue is. The findings based on the recover effort at Jonestown and Dover — which are now posted on the Defense Technical Information Center website, a searchable database dedicated to aggregating military scientific and technological data — live on in articles, disaster recovery textbooks and military training guides.
“It is difficult to convey to someone,” the authors wrote in the preface of the study, “What a week in a tropical environment can do to a [dead] human body.”
The conditions at Jonestown were compounded by rain and staggering humidity. Bodies bloat and change color and are infested by insects. Above all, the authors write, “the overpowering and unforgettable odor of just one body [are] beyond imagination.”
The study asked first basic questions about age, race, marital status and whether military or civilian. Respondents were asked if they had any exposure to human remains: none, saw bodies in containers with no odor, odor only, handled containers, handled body bags or handled human remains directly.
The immediate emotional impact was what you would imagine; seeing “three or four babies per [body] bag” kept workers up nights. Some were angry the military was involved in recovering “fanatics’” bodies at all. Some reported personal growth from the experience, one person realizing as human beings “you’ve got to give a damn.”
By April of 1979, more than 300 bodies of those followers had been claimed by family members. But at Dover AFB, over 500 remained unclaimed and over 200 were decomposed past the point of identification. Many relatives couldn’t afford the military’s transport fees — nearly $500 — for a family to bring home a loved one for private burial.
Even if they could have, no cemetery wanted the remains. Communities didn’t want to become pilgrimage sites for Jones’ remaining U.S. followers, and draw unwanted attention — and people — to their town. Eventually, a cemetery in Oakland, across the bay from the Temple’s former home in San Francisco, agreed to inter the remains of hundreds of the Jonestown dead.
Now, decades later, there is a memorial to the victims of Jonestown in Oakland. Commemorative events are scheduled where survivors and family can gather and mourn. More is understood about the people of Jonestown, that they were overwhelmingly victims.
And almost everything has changed at Dover. The only remaining building from the Jonestown time period is Hangar 1301. It is now the Air Mobility and Command Museum, dedicated to the history of “airlifts and air refueling” the place where old airplanes go if they are lucky.
Patricia Edwards is still there, assisting military families through Dover’s readiness and resilience program. But Jonestown is never far away, she said. The experience of dealing with the bodies shared by people working at the base, in the mortuary and the tent city created an extended family, and that feeling endures too.
One other inescapable thing stays with her. “The stench.” She says, “I will never forget the stench.”
Thanks for listening (and be sure to stick around for the bloopers at the end)! If you like the show, please share it with someone you know who loves the paranormal or strange stories, true crime, monsters, or unsolved mysteries like you do! You can email me anytime with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. WeirdDarkness.com is also where you can find information on any of the sponsors you heard about during the show, find all of my social media, listen to audiobooks I’ve narrated, sign up for the email newsletter, find other podcasts that I host including “Church of the Undead”, visit the store for Weird Darkness merchandise, and more. WeirdDarkness.com is also where you can find the Hope in the Darkness page if you or someone you know is struggling with depression or dark thoughts. Also on the website, if you have a true paranormal or creepy tale to tell, you can click on TELL YOUR STORY. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
All stories on Weird Darkness are purported to be true unless stated otherwise, and you can find links to the stories or the authors in the show notes.
“Jonestown: Modern History’s Largest Mass Suicide” by Kellen Perry for AllThat’sInteresting.com
“Life in the People’s Temple” by Beth Elias for Ranker.com
“The Shock Felt By Jonestown First Responders” by Andy Kopsa for Time.com
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” – Romans 8:31
And a final thought… “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Learn from it; tomorrow is a new day.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.