Looking back: Jonestown, the Cult of the Damned


Laura Kohl was among the few survivors of the Jonestown Massacre. (Photo courtesy of Laura Kohl)

Nov. 18 marked the 36th anniversary of the ritualistic mass suicide that took the lives of 913 Americans in a remote settlement in South America which sent shockwaves around the world. They were the ill-fated followers of the Rev. Jim Jones who ordered his followers to take their lives as a “revolutionary suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aide.” The death toll included more than 300 children.

In the shattered aftermath, the eyes of the world were focused on the religious compound constructed by Jones’ followers, where the tragedy occurred, prompting many to question how something like this could have happened. How could one man exert so much control over the lives of his followers that they would follow him to the jungle of a foreign land and be prepared to die for him at his command?

Jones was described as a charismatic church minister that had started The Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana during the mid-1950s. The church practiced what it called “apostolic socialism.” In doing so, the Temple preached that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment—socialism.”

On the streets of Indianapolis and later in Redwood Valley, California, Jones was known to reach out to the socially disenfranchised, such as the drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless. Many considered him a progressive thinker.

“I was an activist in the late 1960s,” said Laura Kohl. “I had got involved with the Black Panthers at one time and one night one of them was shot in my apartment. I decided to get away from there then. The 1960s were a violent decade. I met Jim Jones through my sister who worked for his attorney. I was impressed by him because he and his wife were the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child. He named him Jim Jones, Jr.”

Jones was subjected to considerable criticism in Indiana for his integrationist views during an era of segregation. In the mid-1970s, Jones moved the church headquarters to San Francisco.

Unlike other figures considered as cult leaders, Jones enjoyed public support and contact with some of the highest level politicians in the United States. Jones met with Vice President Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalynn Carter several times. As the church grew so did Jones’ control over the lives of his church members. All were required to sign their Social Security checks over to the church. Others willingly signed over real estate and other personal property. Jones was receiving more than $65,000 in monthly welfare payments from U.S. government agencies to Jonestown residents who signed their checks over to the Temple. The Temple’s wealth, derived from the members’ personal assets and contributions, was estimated to be approximately $26 million.

In 1973, Jones found himself under increasing scrutiny from reporters and investigators who were responding to complaints by former members who alleged physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the church leaders.

Jones began plans to build a commune in Guyana in the northern tip of South America in the mid-1970s. The colony consisted of numerous barracks and cottages for the residents, community dining hall, school for the children and pavilion where social gatherings would take place with Jones delivering lengthy sermons.

In the summer of 1976, Jones and several hundred Temple members moved to Jonestown. Life in Jonestown was anything but idyllic for church members. The tropical heat was stifling and the infertile land could not produce enough food to sustain the colony. The utopian society promised to the members failed to materialize. Instead they found themselves working in the fields for 12 hours a day, six days a week. The primary means of communication for the colony with the outside world was a shortwave radio. The diet of the members consisted of rice, beans, greens and occasionally meat, sauce and eggs. Jones lived in a tiny communal house. His house reportedly held a small refrigerator containing meat, fruit, salads and soft drinks. At night, members gathered in the pavilion where Jones lectured for hours.

Jonestown had no dedicated prison but Jones utilized draconian forms of punishment against members, including imprisonment in a plywood box that was buried in the ground. Children were forced to spend a night at the bottom of a well, sometimes upside-down. Armed guards patrolled the area day and night to prevent defections.

Children were surrendered to communal care and taught to address Jones as “Dad,” and at times were only allowed to see their real parents briefly at night. Jones was called “Father” or “Dad” by the adults as well.

In the beginning, Jones’ inner circle, which was comprised of several of his mistresses, tried to conceal his drug addiction and his gradual decline into a dark world of paranoia and mental illness.

“In the beginning we never saw him when he was spaced out,” said Kohl. “They kept him in seclusion and away from us. I lived in Jonestown for a year when he sent me to Georgetown to work there. My job was to arrange the purchase of food and have it shipped over. There were about 50 of us living in the house in Georgetown. I wasn’t in Jonestown the night of the tragedy.”

The paranoid Jones often told temple members the CIA and other intelligence agencies were conspiring with “capitalist pigs” to destroy Jonestown and harm its inhabitants. After work, when purported emergencies arose, the Temple sometimes conducted what Jones referred to as “White Nights.” These were essentially practice drills for a ritualistic mass suicide.

In Nov. 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, who represented California’s 11th congressional district, announced that he would visit Jonestown to investigate alleged abuse against temple members stemming from the death of Bob Houston, a Temple member whose mutilated body was found near train tracks on October 5, 1976. He was murdered three days after he discussed leaving the Temple. Ryan sought to investigate on behalf of family of church members that had formed the support group Concerned Relatives.

On November 14, 1978, Ryan flew to Georgetown, more than 100 miles away from Jonestown, along with a delegation of eighteen people consisting of reporters, members of the Concerned Relatives, Neville Annibourne, representing Guyana’s Ministry of Information and Richard Dwyer of the U.S. Embassy to Guyana.

From Georgetown they were flown on a Cessna plane to a small airstrip in Port Kaituma, six miles from Jonestown. On the night of Nov. 17, Ryan and three others arrived at Jonestown to meet Jones and tour the complex. The other reporters and Concerned Relatives were refused entry and remained at the airfield.

That night, the delegation attended a musical reception in the pavilion. While at the party two Peoples Temple members, Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby, passed notes to reporter Don Harris asking for help to escape Jonestown.

Ryan, Ryan’s aide, Jackie Speier, Dwyer and Annibourne stayed the night while other members of the Ryan delegation went to Port Kaituma and stayed at a small café. The following morning several temple members sensed catastrophe was imminent and took action.

“In the early morning of November 18, Temple member Leslie Wilson sensed something was about to go down,” said Kohl. “She took 10 Temple members with her into the jungle. She told them it was a picnic. She was taking them there to hide out. She took her children and a few friends. She left her mother and husband behind because they were devoted to Jim and she knew they wouldn’t leave. They went about 30 miles into the jungle. That was what saved their lives.”

The other reporters and Concerned Relatives arrived later that day and were given a tour of the complex. Later that afternoon, the Parks and the Bogue families, along with in-laws Christopher O’Neal and Harold Cordell, asked to be escorted out of Jonestown by the Ryan delegation.

While most of the delegation began to depart on a large dump truck to the Port Kaituma airstrip, Ryan and Dwyer remained behind in Jonestown to process any additional defectors. Temple loyalist Larry Layton asked to join the group.

Moments later, Temple member Don Sly attacked Ryan while wielding a knife. Ryan was unhurt and several others wrestled Sly to the ground. Dwyer suggested that the congressman leave Jonestown. Ryan boarded the dump truck.

To accommodate the extra passengers an additional aircraft was required. The U.S. Embassy arranged for a second plane, a six-passenger Cessna. When the entourage reached the Port Kaituma airstrip the boarding process began. Layton boarded the Cessna which taxied to the far end of the airstrip and suddenly, he pulled a gun and started shooting passengers wounding Monica Bagby and Vernon Gosney. He was disarmed by Dale Parks.

Meanwhile, several passengers were boarding the Twin Otter when a tractor with a trailer slowly pulled up to the airfield driven by members of the Temple’s Red Brigade security squad. When the tractor neared within approximately 30 feet of the aircraft, the Red Brigade, comprised of nine members, opened fire while at least two gunmen circled the plane on foot.

Several passengers made a mad dash for the jungle hoping to take refuge in the lush foliage. During the melee, Brown was killed along with Robinson, Harris and Temple defector Patricia Parks. Ryan bore the brunt of the assassins’ wrath and was shot more than 20 times. Five others suffered non-life threatening wounds. Speier was shot five times and had to wait for more than 20 hours for medical attention to arrive.

Back at Jonestown, Jones ordered the Temple members to gather at the pavilion where a vat of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid was mixed. He radioed the Temples in California and the house in Georgetown and ordered them to take their lives.

“I never got the message,” said Kohl. “When it came in, Stephen Jones, Jim’s son, got the message and he and only three others knew of the message. He refused to carry out the order. He told the others ‘This is too much. It’s crazy. We won’t do it. He got on the phone and began calling the temples in California telling them not to carry out the order. Jim Jones, Jr. was in Georgetown playing in a basketball game. The church had a basketball team traveled around Guyana playing local teams. He (Stephen) took us all to Georgetown for a political event to get us out of the house.”

Stephen and the other members of the house attended the political event. Kohl was unaware of the pandemonium breaking out in Jonestown. Stephen tried to keep his mind off the tragedy that was unfolding and the fact his parents and many friends were soon going to die. None were aware of the tragedy taking place at the home in Georgetown.

“When we returned, there were Guyanese police at the house with body bags,” said Kohl. “Sharon Amos, who was loyal to Jim, had stayed behind with her three kids. She had slashed their throats as well as her own.”

Back at Jonestown everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As they passed through the line, they were given a lethal dose of the poison. In the beginning, most walked to the vat and obediently took the deadly concoction. But within five minutes, the poison began to take effect and several victims began convulsing and dying painful agonizing deaths. Those that had not taken the poison became anxious and many were forced at gunpoint to drink the cyanide. Others were held down and the poison was poured down their throats. Some attempted to escape only to be shot. Within moments, the night air was filled with the anguished cries of the dying. The gunmen that had executed Ryan and his colleagues committed suicide by poison or gunshot. Jim Jones ended his life with a single gunshot to the head. Within hours the cries of the dying fell silent as death overtook them. The nocturnal sounds of the jungle began to fill the air once again.

At dawn, news helicopters whirled overhead photographing the sights of hundreds of dead bodies strewn out around the pavilion. Many victims were found lying next to one another with their arms around each other. Within hours Guyanese soldiers arrived to begin the grisly process of carrying out the dead. The death toll was 913. Only 87 had survived.

“When I first heard what had happened I couldn’t believe it,” Kohl said. Everyone in the house were traumatized. I kept trying to create scenarios in which some might have survived. Maybe some of them got into the jungle. I knew many people that died there. If I had been there I would have died too. Stephen saved my life.”

Jim Jones, Jr. and Stephen Jones shuns the media these days. Kohl eventually returned to college, earned a degree and now teaches in California. She frequently attends memorial services in Oakland where most of the dead were buried.

Jackie Speier was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2013 where she serves the same district Ryan served in 1978.

The Jonestown community was torn down by the Guyanese and the land where it once stood was eventually overrun by the encroaching jungle. Kohl has written a book, “Jonestown Survivor: An insider’s Look” and keeps the memory of the dead alive through her website jonestownsurvivor.com.

“Jim was a control freak,” recalled Kohl. “He felt like he was losing control. He was a master of control. The power he felt when people worshipped him destroyed him.”

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