Jonestown Massacre: A look back at the Tragic Mass Murder-Suicide

The tragic event in Jonestown on November 18th, 1978, was considered the biggest non-natural event of catastrophes in American history until the 9/11 attacks. More than 900 American members of a San Francisco-based religious group succumbed to death after consuming a flavored beverage laced with potassium cyanide at the order of the cult leader, Jim Jones. Nearly 42 years later, this infamous and tragic event continues to haunt us through documentaries, movies, books, and articles.

The Rise of Jim Jones

The story of Jonestown begins with Jim Jones, a charismatic but paranoid leader. He preached unconventional socialist and reformist ideas to the predominantly African-American community through his organization known as the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones emerged as a famous preacher in the 1960s.


He used social justice and equality to attract more followers to his San Francisco-based congregation, the Peoples Temple. He even fooled his followers through his fake faith healings to draw more followers to his church. He eventually started claiming himself as a god. In the 1970’s, the organization was at its peak of popularity and managed to gain thousands of followers and was also backed by the politicians in San Francisco, including Harvey Milk.


However, by 1977, Jones freaked out with the increased media scrutiny over the suspicious activities in his organization. So he, along with several hundred of his followers, moved to the agricultural settlement informally known as Jonestown in Guyana, a South American country. In the months that followed, hundreds more members of Peoples Temple were sent for and flown to Guyana, to make the long trip to the remote Jonestown compound.


The Investigation That Gave Rise to the Jonestown Massacre

Amidst growing concern over the welfare of the members in Jonestown, US congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit Jonestown in November 1978. However, while leaving Jonestown, Ryan and three members of his delegation were shot dead by Jim Jones’ gunmen at an airstrip. Following the assassination, Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch, which eventually took the lives of over 900 people, including Jim Jones, who was later discovered with a gunshot wound to the head. There are several theories and speculation about his death. Most think that his nurse shot him before similarly killing herself.



The Consequences of the Jonestown Massacre

By April of 1979, more than 300 bodies of the members were claimed by their family members. However, over 500 bodies remained unclaimed, and over 300 bodies were decomposed due to delays in the identification process. Many family members couldn’t afford the expenses of the military’s transport to provide a private burial to their loved ones. In many cases, there were no relatives, as all the family members had died in Jonestown.


Even if they could have, cemeteries in the United States were hesitant to accept the dead bodies. Communities were not willing to become the pilgrimage site of Peoples Temple’s surviving followers. Eventually, Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland came forward to bury the remains of the 345 unclaimed victims of Jonestown.


Forty-two years on, the historic Oakland cemetery’s mass grave is the official memorial site for all  the victims of Jonestown. On each anniversary, relatives of the victims gather to remember and mourn for their loved ones. Students, historians and the public can visit the Oakland cemetery and understand what happened at Jonestown.


Was It a Mass Murder or Mass Suicide?

While most people think that what happened in Jonestown was a mass suicide because people lined up to consume poison. Many witnesses and former members claim it was mass murder.  In the months leading up to the Jonestown massacre, Jones had his followers rehearse “revolutionary suicide” many times.


Decades on, the tragedy of Jonestown still haunts its surviving members. Many books and documentaries have been made to describe the Jonestown massacre, but none of them help us know who the victims were and what happened to them at Jonestown.


The Who Died Book

Kathryn Barbour‘s book, Who Died, is a memorial tribute to victims that can help you know more about the people who perished on November 18th, 1978. You can check their portraits and names in this book. Each year, this memorial album is displayed at the mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland to remember those who died in Jonestown and those surviving members who still miss their loved ones. So, pay your tribute to the victims of the Jonestown massacre by buying Who died online from San Francisco today!