Cult of Death: The Jonestown Nightmare

A religious colony in Guyana turns into a cult of death

  • Share
  • Read Later

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."

(3 of 8)

Ryan took along eight newsmen as well as several relatives of temple members, who hoped to persuade their kin to leave the colony. The visitors arrived in a chartered aircraft, an 18-seat De Havilland Otter, at an airstrip in Port Kaituma, six miles from Jonestown. They rode to the colony along a muddy and barely passable road through the jungle in a tractor-drawn flat-bed trailer. At Jonestown all were greeted warmly by a smiling Jones.

The members of the Peoples Temple put on a marvelous performance for their visitors. Reporters were led past the central, open-air pavilion, used as both a school and an assembly hall. The visitors saw the newly completed sawmill, the 10,000-volume library, the neat nursery, where mosquito netting protected babies sleeping peacefully on pallets. The colony hospital had delivered 33 babies without a single death, the tour guides said.

The highlight of the visit was an evening of entertainment in the pavilion. As a lively band beat out a variety of tunes, from rock to disco to jazz, the colonists burst into song, including a rousing chorus of America the Beautiful. Even the skeptical Ryan was impressed. He rose to tell his assembled hosts: "From what I've seen, there are a lot of people here who think this is the best thing that has happened in their whole lives." The audience applauded loudly. Jones stood up and led the clapping.

Privately, Ryan expressed a few reservations. He found some of the people he interviewed unnaturally animated. Yet no one had expressed any dissatisfaction with life at Jonestown. At the head table,

Jones told newsmen, "People here are happy for the first time in their lives."

Next day, however, NBC Correspondent Don Harris asked Jones about reports that his colony was heavily armed. Jones, who had been swallowing lots of pills, blew up. "A bold-faced lie!" he cried. "It seems like we are defeated by lies. I'm defeated. I might as well die!"

The colony's facade was crumbling.

One Jonestown resident had nervously pushed a note into Harris' hand. "Four of us want to leave," it said. Ryan was getting other furtive pleas from cultists asking to go back to the U.S. with him. Jones was asked about the defectors. "Anyone is free to come and go," he said magnanimously. "I want to hug them before they leave." But then Jones turned bitter.

"They will try to destroy us," he predicted. "They always lie when they leave."

As divided families argued over whether to stay or go, Jones saw part of his congregation slipping away. Al Simon, father of three, wanted to take his children back to America. "No! No! No!" screamed his wife. Someone whispered to her: "Don't worry, we're going to take care of everything." Indeed, as reporters learned later from survivors, Jones had a plan to plant one or more fake defectors among the departing group, in order to attack them. He told some of his people that the Congressman's plane "will fall out of the sky."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8