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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The outer world would not get an accurate report of what had happened for nearly two days. But one survivor, Stanley Clayton, 25, reported that there may have been more coercion and fear than loyal devotion when the final test came. Clayton was cooking black-eyed peas in the colony's kitchen when the call to assemble was sounded. He recalled: "A security guard came into the kitchen, pointed a pistol at everybody and told us all to go to the pavilion." Jones had already ordered that preparations for mass suicide be started. But one woman, Christine Miller, was protesting. Continued Clayton: "She was telling Jones she had a right to do what she wanted with her own life. Guards with guns and bows and arrows pressed in on her, and Jones tried to make her understand that she had to do it."

Then a truck drove up to the pavilion. Said Clayton: "The people in the truck rushed up to Jones. He announced that Congressman Ryan was dead and we had to do what we had to do. He told the nurses to hurry with the potion. He told them to take care of the babies. He said any survivors would be castrated and tortured by the Guyanese army.

"The nurses started taking the babies from the mothers. Jones kept saying, 'Hurry, hurry!' But the people were not responding. The guards then moved in and started pulling people, trying to get them to take the potion." Clayton had seen enough. "It was dark by now. I went around to each of the guards, embraced them and told them, 'I'll see you later.' I skipped out into the bushes. All the time I kept saying to myself, 'I can't believe this. Jim Jones is mad.' "

Another survivor, Odell Rhodes, agreed that the armed guards helped persuade the cultists to kill themselves. But many, Rhodes reported, had taken their lives willingly. When Christine Miller challenged Jones' claim that "we've all got to kill ourselves," Rhodes said, "the crowd shouted her down." Many mothers, he added, voluntarily gave the cyanide to their children, then swallowed the poison themselves. Seated on the high wicker chair that served as his throne, Jones kept urging the crowd on, holding out the vision that all would "meet in another place." The scene quickly turned chaotic. Said Rhodes: "Babies were screaming, children were screaming, and there was mass confusion."

Nevertheless, the lethal drinking continued. Cultists filled their cups from a metal vat on a table at the center of the pavilion, then wandered off to die, often in family groups, their arms wrapped around one another. The tranquilizers in the liquid concocted by the temple's doctor, Larry Schacht, 30, may have dulled their senses; it took about five minutes for them to die.

No known survivor had witnessed the entire ritual of death, so just how Jones died remained uncertain. He was found at the foot of his pavilion chair with a bullet wound in his head, an apparent suicide. A pistol lay near by. An autopsy disclosed that Jones had not consumed the poison and had not been dying of cancer, as he had often told his followers.

TIME Correspondent Neff arrived on the scene in the same Cessna that had flown away from the gunfire at Port Kaituma. He reported:

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