I’ve frequently used the reference “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” to illustrate the dangers of group think and the benefits of critical thinking, but I didn’t fully understand the Jim Jones mass suicide until I watched an interview with Jim Jones Jr. on Oprah February 17, 2010 and researched the 1978 Jonestown massacre myself.
Jim Jones formed the Peoples Temple in 1956 in Indiana and said it stood for, “Divine principles. Total equality. A society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, where there are no races.” Jones was an engaging speaker with a charismatic personality and a desire to change the world. As the Peoples Temple grew, he moved to California. It’s important to remember that the movement started out as a good idea in response to the civil unrest at the time. His followers included people of different races, ages and both genders. Most were educated, functioning members of society who wanted to make a difference. But as Jones grew more powerful, a darker side of him began to rear its ugly head. He demanded followers turn over their pay checks to him and asked them to pledge their lives to him.
After facing criminal investigation in California, Jones formed a town in Guyana called Jonestown. Nearly 1,000 followers joined him there. In theory it sounded great. After all, It was touted as Uptopia—heaven on earth. This was a well organized and planned community. It had an agricultural team, schools and hospital. Jonestown flourished and Jones began to manipulate and brainwash his followers constantly broadcasting messages through speakers. Some believe his sickness and even insanity were a result of drug experimentation.
Congressman Leo Ryan of California went to Jonestown to investigate after several of his constituents claimed their family members were being held against their will. Reporters with cameras filmed first a very joyous celebration and then later several defectors asking to be taken home. Upon hearing of this, Jones ambushed Ryan and his team at the airstrip. Ryan and four other members of his team were shot and killed.
Jones called an emergency meeting. He then told followers “They are after us. Die with respect. Die with dignity.” Mothers were instructed to give the Kool-Aid-like substance with poison to their babies, children and then drink it themselves. As a result, 900 people died a painful death at Jonestown including 300 children.
Death by cyanide is not painless. Victims actually die a violent death. Officials say it took victims five minutes to die. Tim Carter, a survivor calls it, “a senseless death.” And it was both senseless and tragic. This was the biggest mass-murder suicide ever. The word murder is an important addition here. There is evidence that some did not drink the poison willingly as many syringes were found later. Many claim armed guards also surrounded the pavilion to ensure cooperation.
On November 18, 1978 Jim Jones, Jr. and his two brothers were 150 miles away at the time playing in a basketball tournament when he received the call from his father saying, “We are visiting Ms. Frazier.” This was code to commit suicide. While Jim Jones Jr. says this shocked him, he said there had been loyalty tests and suicide practices before. During these drills, people would pledge their lives to the cause.
Jim Jones Jr. was 18 at the time and refused to his father’s order to commit suicide. To understand why others didn’t do the same, it’s important to remember Jim Jones and the initial intent of the movement. The idea was to create a new world without bias—no racism, sexism or ageism. His followers wanted to make a difference. For much of his life, Jones lived as he preached. Jim Jones Jr. is an African American adopted at 10 weeks old. Many say he was the first African American child adopted by a Caucasian family. Jim Jones adopted Korean American children, and had a natural son as well. They called it a rainbow family.
The Peoples Temple followers really believed they were creating a new world. Why would 900 people agree to drink the Kool-Aid and knowingly commit suicide? Jones had told people they were about to be invaded and their children would be taken away from them. He said they needed to lay down their lives in protest. His strategy was to have parents give their babies and children the poison first. This was part of the manipulation because after seeing your child die, who would want to live? Absolute power, combined with mental illness and drug abuse resulted in self destruction and the mass murder suicide of 900 people.
Critical thinkers must question everything they are told, believe and even that which they consider to be common sense. When we study the 1978 Jonestown massacre, we learn how very important it is not to subscribe to group think and the dangers of unchecked power.