Cult of Death: The Jonestown Nightmare

A religious colony in Guyana turns into a cult of death

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The Victims
Odell Rhodes, a Temple member who survived by hiding underneath a building, said that among the very first to line up for the poison were several mothers and their babies. He said that there was no panic or emotional outburst; that people looked as if they were "in a trance."

"The large central building was ringed by bright colors. It looked like a parking lot filled with cars. When the plane dipped lower, the cars turned out to be bodies. Scores and scores of bodies —hundreds of bodies—wearing red dresses, blue T shirts, green blouses, pink slacks, children's polka-dotted jumpers.

Couples with their arms around each other, children holding parents. Nothing moved. Washing hung on the clotheslines.

The fields were freshly plowed. Banana trees and grape vines were flourishing. But nothing moved."

So reported TIME Correspondent Donald Neff, one of the first newsmen to fly in last week to the hitherto obscure hamlet of Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana, on the northern coast of South America. The scene below him was one of almost unimaginable carnage. In an appalling demonstration of the way in which a charismatic leader can bend the minds of his followers with a devilish blend of professed altruism and psychological tyranny, some 900 members of the California-based Peoples Temple died in a self-imposed ritual of mass suicide and murder.

Not since hundreds of Japanese civilians leaped to their deaths off the cliffs of Saipan as American forces approached the Pacific island in World War II had there been a comparable act of collective self-destruction. The followers of the Rev. Jim Jones, 47, a once respected Indianaborn humanitarian who degenerated into egomania and paranoia, had first ambushed a party of visiting Americans, killing California Congressman Leo Ryan, 53, three newsmen and one defector from their heavily guarded colony at Jonestown. Then, exhorted by their leader, intimidated by armed guards and lulled with sedatives and painkillers, parents and nurses used syringes to squirt a concoction of potassium cyanide and potassium chloride onto the tongues of babies. The adults and older children picked up paper cups and sipped the same deadly poison sweetened by purple Kool-Aid.

All week long, a horrified world marveled at new details of the slaughter and new mysteries about Jones' cult. While the bodies swelled and rotted in the tropical sun, two U.S. military cargo planes flew in to bring back the remains to grieving relatives. At the same time, helicopters whirred over the jungles to search for survivors who were thought to be hiding from the cult. There were reports that the colony had been terrorized by Jones, who was rumored to be dying of cancer. Police found huge caches of illegal arms, ranging from automatic rifles to crossbows, but hundreds of thousands of dollars had disappeared from the colony's safe. And only at week's end did officials declare that there were virtually no survivors in the forest, and that the death toll was not 409, as first announced, but about 900.

Psychiatrists and other experts on group psychology and mind-control techniques offered rational explanations of how humans can be conditioned to commit such irrational acts (see box). Yet the stories told by those who survived were both fearsomely fascinating and ultimately inexplicable. How could such idealistic, if naive, people set out to build an idyllic haven from modern society's many pressures and turn it into a hellish colony of death? This is how the Jonestown dream turned into a nightmare:

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