On this day…The Jonestown Massacre of November 18th, 1978

On this day in 1978 The Jonestown Massacre took place in Guyana, South Africa. The Peoples Temple founded in 1956 by a man named Jim Jones firstly in Indianapolis, Indiana, but then it moved to Redwood Valley, California ten years later. Jim Jones believed in a community where everyone lives together in harmony regardless of race or gender. After attempting to create this community in California, Jones looked to further his dreams by establishing a self-sufficient commune called Jonestown in the area of Guyana, South Africa in 1973. The membership of this commune grew slowly in the years that followed however it was not until 1977 that Jones himself moved to the compound following a threat of an exposing article being written about him in America. This threat to the reputation of Jones served as a catalyst for hundreds of his dedicated followers to leave their American lives behind in favour of Guyana. However once they had settled in the members soon found themselves living a segregated and crowded lifestyle working long hours in unbearable heat and humidity. This certainly did not look or feel like the paradise community Jim Jones had promised them Guyana would be. Members were forced to listen to the words of Jim Jones twenty-four hours a day by means of a constant broadcast that could be heard in all corners of the compound. Based upon family concerns back in America. U.S. Representative Leo Ryan travelled to Guyana to see the Peoples Temple for himself. During his time there he received an anonymous note begging for help to leave Jonestown which lead him to announce on the day he was leaving that he would bring anyone who was willing to return to America back on the plane with him. These events greatly unnerved Jim Jones and some of the members who were happy to remain within the compound. When the trucks containing Leo Ryan and those willing to leave Jonestown arrived at the runway they realised they had been followed by loyal Jonestown members who jumped from a trailer and opened fire killing five people including Leo Ryan. Following these events Jim Jones gathered his members together in a state of panic in the hopes of convincing them that it was time for their time at Guyana to come to end not by means of relocation but rather through suicide. Using a grape flavoured drink containing Valium and Cyanide babies and young children were killed first, followed by their mothers and then the remaining members. On November 18, 1978, 912 people died from drinking the poison, 276 of whom were children. Jones died from a single gunshot wound to the head but it is not known who inflicted this gunshot. Including the attack which took place at the airport, the 18th November 1978 represents the killing of 918 people in Jonestown, Guyana, South Africa.


The Peoples Temple is an example of a destructive cult which could be discussed with senior students under the topic of New Religious Movements. The below video is an excellent documentary that can be used to teach the students about The Peoples Temple, the events that took place in Jonestown and to evoke discussion about New Religious Movements amongst students. However please note that some parts of this documentary make for uncomfortable viewing so it would be best to build a lesson using extracts of the documentary followed by class discussion of the overall events and possible group work based on the topic of New Religious Movements.



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