The Truth About Cult Leader Jim Jones' Death

On November 19, 1978, a woman named Hyacinth Thrash awoke in her cabin in the Guyanese jungle, and she entered a far darker world than the one she'd known. As Rolling Stone describes, while Thrash slumbered, over 900 fellow members of the People's Temple died, including her own sister, after being forced to drink cyanide-infused Flavor-Aid. Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this tragic event, dubbed the Jonestown massacre, was the largest loss of American civilian lives in a non-natural event. The founder of Jonestown, and the architect of those deaths, was Reverend Jim Jones. And while the event is often characterized as a mass suicide, mass murder might be a more apt description, seeing as armed guards had rendered escape futile, the members' passports were confiscated, and some unwillingly received lethal injections.

According to History, Jones himself was discovered dead in his chair, with a bullet hole in his head. 

304 victims were youths under 17, including six-year-old John Stoen, whom Jones claimed as his own son. These children couldn't have comprehended their impending deaths. Thrash couldn't comprehend how Jones could do something so monstrous. Yet, in retrospect, Jones had been troubled since childhood.

Jim Jones' gospel of death

According to Rolling StoneJones' childhood friend Chuck Wilmore remembered him being "A really weird kid. He was obsessed with religion; he was obsessed with death. A friend of mine told me that he saw Jimmy kill a cat with a knife." Jones experimented on animals, and once locked his friends in a barn so they couldn't leave. Young Jones also admired Hitler, praising the Nazi leader's decision to take his life rather than be captured.

After founding the People's Temple in 1955, Jones reprised his childhood role as the religiously-zealous, death-obsessed center of attention. Congregants flocked to the reverend, because he preached racial equality in an era of segregation, but he soon pushed his followers to focus on how to survive a nuclear armageddon. "Jones wanted others to adopt his apocalyptic vision," according to author Tim Reitman.

The reverend's hellish descent

Jones proclaimed himself the only heterosexual person on Earth, slept with the wives of church members, and adopted their children. This may have been the case with Grace Stoen and her spouse, Tim, and when Grace gave birth to a son, John, Jones asserted the boy was his. When the couple attempted to sue for custody, Jones took John, and his remaining congregation, to found Jonestown in Guyana.

Toward the end of his life, Jones became increasingly paranoid and drug-dependent. Per History, he proclaimed himself the second coming of Christ and Lenin. He forced his followers to perform mock suicide drills. The tipping point came when Congressman Leo Ryan arrived to investigate allegations that congregants were being held in Guyana against their will. Some members asked to leave with Ryan, but Jones' armed henchmen mowed them down. 

Unwilling to accept capture, the demagogue opted for death, and dragged over 900 lives with him.