On 18 November 1978, more than 900 people died in the largest mass murder/suicide in American history. Most of the deaths occurred in a jungle encampment in Guyana, South America, where members of a group called Peoples Temple lived in a utopian community and agricultural project known as Jonestown. Most died after drinking a fruit punch laced with cyanide and tranquilizers, although some may have been injected; two residents died of gunshot wounds. Earlier that day a few other residents of the group had assassinated a U.S. congressman along with three members of the media and a departing Jonestown resident. And in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown, yet another member of the group killed her three children and then herself after receiving word of the deaths in Jonestown. In all, 918 Americans lost their lives that day.
Since that time, Jonestown and its leader Jim Jones have entered American discourse as code for the dangers of cults and cult leaders. The expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”—which means both blindly jumping on the bandwagon, and being a team player—is one manifestation of this. The story of Jonestown, and of its parent organization Peoples Temple, however, is more complicated than sound-bites comparing strict parents to Jim Jones, or pundits relating religious violence (such as the suicide air strikes of 11 September 2001) to Jonestown. Instead, Jonestown serves as a lesson in how a combination of media, government, and citizens can create a climate of persecution and fear. It also provides an example of how uncritical acceptance of the status quo and social and geographic isolation can lead to violence and even death.
Three high ranking Temple member survivors claim they were given an assignment and thereby escaped death. Brothers Tim and Mike Carter, 30 years old and 20 years old respectively, and Mike Prokes, 31, were given luggage containing $550,000 US currency, $130,000 in Guyanese currency and an envelope, which they were told to deliver to Guyana’s Soviet Embassy, in Georgetown. The envelope contained two passports and three instructional letters, the first of which was to Feodor Timofeyev of the Embassy of the Soviet Union in Guyana, stating:
Dear Comrade Timofeyev,
The following is a letter of instructions regarding all of our assets that we want to leave to the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Enclosed in this letter are letters which instruct the banks to send the cashiers checks to you. I am doing this on behalf of Peoples Temple because we, as communists, want our money to be of benefit for help to oppressed peoples all over the world, or in any way that your decision-making body sees fit.
The letters included listed accounts with balances totaling in excess of $7.3 million to be transferred to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Carters and Prokes soon ditched most of the money and were apprehended heading for the Temple boat (Cudjo) at Kaituma. It is unknown how they were supposed to reach Georgetown, 150 miles (240 km) away, since the boat had been sent away by Temple leadership earlier that day.
Just before the start of the final meeting in the pavilion, lawyers Charles Garry and Mark Lane were told that the people were angry at them. The lawyers were escorted to a house used to accommodate visitors. According to the lawyers, they talked their way past armed guards and made it to the jungle, before eventually arriving in Port Kaituma. While in the jungle near the settlement, they heard gunshots. This observation concurs with the testimony of Clayton, who heard the same sounds as he was sneaking back into Jonestown to retrieve his passport.
Five more people who were intended to be poisoned managed to survive. Grover Davis, 79, who was hearing impaired, missed the announcement to assemble on the loudspeaker, laid down in a ditch and pretended to be dead. Hyacinth Thrash, 76, Realized what was happening and crawled under her bed, only to walk out after the suicides were completed. Odell Rhodes, 36, a Jonestown teacher and craftsman, volunteered to fetch a stethoscope and hid under a building Stanley Clayton, 25, a kitchenworker and cousin of Huey P. Newton, tricked security guards and ran into the jungle.The fifth survivor, a 5 year old boy known only as "Michael", escaped by hiding in the surrounding forestation. Upon his rescue (by Guyanese government officials) he was returned to the United States, adopted, and believed to have been raised in or around Portland, Maine.