Jonestown: The Untold Story

Declassified FBI documents help explain why Jim Jones’ followers “drank the Kool-Aid.”

Jim Jones Jonestown
Jim Jones.

Jim Jones wanted the world to remember him long after he was gone. In that regard he succeeded—spectacularly. It’s been almost a quarter-century since 913 of his followers (including 304 minors and 131 children under the age of ten) died in a mass murder-suicide at the Peoples Temple colony he established in Guyana. Today, virtually everyone born before 1975 is familiar with the story—and how it ends. What is less well-understood is who the residents of Jonestown were, and why so many drank the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid that put an end to their existence.

In “A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown” (Free Press), author Julia Scheeres recounts the experiences of five Peoples Temple members—Stanley Clayton, Edith Roller, Tommy Bogue, Hyacinth Thrash, and her sister Zipporah—all of whom went to Jonestown expecting to help create a truly egalitarian society. They got more than they bargained for, as Jones and his lieutenants soon began depriving the residents of food, sleep, and hope, and goaded them toward committing “revolutionary suicide.”

Scheeres is well-suited to portraying the victims of Jonestown in a sympathetic light. “I grew up in a conservative Christian family with an adopted black brother; race and religion were the dominant themes of my childhood,” she writes in the book’s introduction, noting that in Jones’ Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, blacks and whites worshipped side by side, something that would have appealed to her and her brother David. “When David and I were teenagers our parents sent us to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic that had some uncanny parallels with Jonestown. I could empathize with the residents’ sense of isolation and desperation,” she concludes.

In hindsight, one wonders why Jones’ followers chose to go to Jonestown to begin with. Part of their willingness can be explained by an idyllic film [used in the book trailer for “A Thousand Lives”] designed to entice his followers. (One now-revealing scene shows Jones opening a trunk containing packets of Kool-Aid, as well as the low-priced knockoff, Flavor Aid.)

But once they arrived at Jonestown they discovered that the living conditions left a lot to be desired, and residents fretted about the heat, the bugs, and the lack of privacy. And over time, Jones’ behavior became increasingly erratic and his message more ominous. “The documents released by the FBI—including hundreds of letters to and from followers that were withheld by Jones—reveal the day to day decline of Jonestown,” says Scheeres.

“For years he talked to his lieutenants about wanting to kill people—to make a statement,” she continues. Prior to Jonestown he sent one of his concubines [Maria Katsaris] to flight school with the idea of putting his disciples on a jet plane and crashing it. “She had obtained her private pilot’s license and was working on her commercial license when she went with Jones to Jonestown,” says Scheeres, “but Jonestown was a place where he could exact an ever greater death toll by secluding his followers in the jungle and killing them there.”

In fact, Jones charged the community’s (unlicensed) doctor, Larry Schacht, with finding an efficient way to kill people en masse, giving him Wednesday’s off, “when he stopped healing Jonestown residents and instead researched ways to kill them,” writes Scheeres. Initially Schacht felt that botulism was the way to go, but he ultimately settled on cyanide; specifically, a mixture of “grape Flavor Aid, potassium cyanide, Valium, chloral hydrate, and potassium chloride.”

On November 18, 1978, when Jones ordered everyone on site to convene in the wake of the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan (who was murdered by Jones’ followers, along with four others) at the local airstrip, few could have been surprised when he asked for “some medication.” On at least two previous occasions, Jones had conducted small-scale suicide drills to see which of his followers would object to drinking an ostensibly lethal—but in fact harmless—“potion.” At the same time, much of the community was aware that a mysterious drum of chemicals had recently arrived at Jonestown, and undoubtedly recognized this was no drill.

While a line of guards looked on—their crossbows and guns trained on the residents—hundreds ingested (or were forced to ingest) the poison, and the chilling screams of children suffering a painful death soon made it clear that Jones was making good on his mass suicide threat. No doubt it was a surreal scene. One reporter who arrived by helicopter after-the-fact, commented that “from the air, the colorfully dressed bodies looked like a patchwork quilt,” notes Scheeres in the book’s penultimate chapter.

Media coverage of the events at Jonestown mostly portrayed the residents as brainwashed zombies, and subsequent Time and Newsweek covers featured photographs of the bodies with identical headlines: Cult of Death. To this day, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” carries a decidedly negative connotation—typically used to refer to a person or group’s unquestioning belief in an ideology, argument, or philosophy without critical examination.

Scheeres hopes that her book will reduce the stigma that has attached to members of the Peoples Temple and the residents of Jonestown. “I hope that it humanizes Jones’ victims, and that people will realize that they weren’t given the alternative to live,” she begins. “They were basically told to either drink the poison or be shot. I hope that people will be kinder and more considerate and stop using the phrase ‘drinking the Kool-Aid,’ which is very offensive to the people who were murdered.” 

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