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."

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In the spring of 1977, Ryan, a liberal but maverick Democrat, spoke with a longtime friend, Associated Press Photographer Robert Houston. Houston, who was ill, told Ryan that Houston's son Bob, 33, had been found dead in the San Francisco railroad yards, where he worked, just one day after he had quit the Peoples Temple. Though authorities said his son died as the result of an accidental fall, Houston claimed the cult had long threatened defectors with death.

A loner who liked doing his own investigating of constituents' concerns, Ryan began inquiring about Jim Jones and his followers, who had just started clearing some 900 acres in the rain forests of Guyana. Other unhappy relatives of temple members, as well as a few people who had fearfully left the cult, told the Congressman that beatings and blackmail, rather than brotherly love, impelled the cultists to work on the new colony. Articles in New West magazine and the San Francisco Examiner in August 1977 further documented the temple's increasing use of violence to enforce conformity to its rigid rules of conduct. Members were routinely scolded by Jones before the assembled community and then whipped or beaten with paddles for such infractions as smoking or failing to pay attention during a Jones "sermon." A woman accused of having a romance with a male cult member was forced to have intercourse with a man she disliked, while the entire colony watched. One means of indoctrinating children: electrodes were attached to their arms and legs, and they were told to smile at the mention of their leader's name. Everyone was ordered to call Jones "Father."

Ryan repeatedly asked the State Department to check into reports about the mistreatment of Americans in Jonestown. The U.S. embassy in Georgetown sent staff members to the colony, some 140 miles northwest of the capital. They reported they had separately interviewed at least 75 of the cultists. Not one, the embassy reported, said he wanted to leave.

That did not satisfy Ryan, who decided to find out what was happening in Jonestown by going there. Ryan wrote Jones that some of his constituents had "expressed anxiety" about their relatives in the colony. Back came a testy letter, not from Jones but from controversial Attorney Mark Lane, who has built a career on his theories of conspiracies behind the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Lane charged that members of the Peoples Temple had to flee the U.S. because of "religious persecution" by the Government and implied that Ryan was engaged in a "witch hunt." If this continued, he said, the temple might move to either of two countries that do not have "friendly relations" with the U.S. (presumably Russia and Cuba), and this would prove "most embarrassing" for the U.S. Lane asked that the trip be postponed until he was free to accompany Ryan. Ryan refused.

Lane then found the time to go along.

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