Reverend James Warren "Jim" Jones was an American preacher, leader of the Peoples Temple, founder of the Jonestown commune in Guyana, the man responsible for the deaths of almost 1,000 people on November 18, 1978, and the Trope Codifier for Drinking the Kool-Aid.
Jim Jones was born in Crete, Indiana, on May 13, 1931, and was a product of the Florence Nightingale Effect: his father, James Thruman Jones, was a World War One vet who suffered ill health from a gas attack. His mother, Lynette Putnam, served as James' nurse and later married him. They were later forced to move to Lynn, Indiana, due to the Great Depression, where Jones grew up in a shack with no plumbing. As a child, he was often left to his own devices while his mother worked multiple jobs and his father showed little interest in him. One of their neighbors offered to take him to her church, which later became a regular occurrence and sparked Jones' interest in religion.
Jones began visiting different churches and preaching to other kids when he was aged 10, actively objected to drinking and dancing as "sinful," and held funerals for small animals on his parents' property, including one for a cat he personally stabbed to death. Due to all this creepy behavior, Jones was an outcast for much of his early life; his peers and neighbors described him as a weird kid, obsessed with religion and death. Still, he was very well-read and studied world leaders like Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Gandhi. He graduated from both high school and college early and with honors. Jones' status as an outcast also helped him sympathize with the African-American community. This drove a wedge between him and his father, especially after he refused to let one of Jones' black friends into their house.
After his parents split up, Jones moved to Richmond, Indiana, where he finished high school and met his future wife Marceline Baldwin. The two married in 1949. While attending the University of Indiana Bloomington, Jones was impressed by a speech made by Eleanor Roosevelt about the plight of African-Americans. He was also continuously harassed after he attended a meeting of the Communist Party USA. Jones became increasingly frustrated with the open hostility toward communists, especially from the Rosenberg trial and after his mother was harassed by the FBI in front of her co-workers for coming with him to such an event.
After many years of struggling, Jones decided that the best way to demonstrate his own brand of Marxism was to infiltrate the church. In 1952, he became a student minister at a Methodist church in a very poor and predominately white neighborhood in Indianapolis. While the Methodist superintendent helped him get a start, he didn't comply with Jones' request to hold racially integrated congregations. It was also around this time that Jones witnessed a faith healing session, which he saw as another means to gain financial resources to accomplish his social goals. So, in 1954, Jones decided to begin his own church in a rented space in Indianapolis, known as the Community Unity Church. In 1956, Jones bought his first church building in a racially mixed neighborhood. Initially known as the Wings of Deliverance, it was later changed to the Peoplesnote Temple Full Gospel Church.
It was also around this time that Jones donned his famous sunglasses.
Jones and the Peoples Temple garnered a lot of publicity. They set up large conventions that drew thousands, held faith healing sessions, impressed people by revealing private information supposedly through clairvoyance, preached egalitarian ideals, happily accepted members of all races, opened a soup kitchen, and even bought time on a local AM station to air Jones's sermons over the radio. Jones had been ordained as a minister in the mainline Protestant Disciples of Christ denomination, which helped the Temple's credibility in the religious community. Jones was later appointed to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission for his deeds. Of course, Peoples Temple really only existed to fund his own social goals and spread his Marxist doctrine. Accounts from former members have revealed that they were taught about socialism rather than religion. Jones discouraged romantic and sexual relationships between Temple members, but engaged in many adulterous relationships of his own with both male and female followers, even fathering a child from one of them. Jones would later state to his Temple that he was "the one true heterosexual."
Jones also knew full well that the "healings" were all fake and likely hired private detectives to acquire personal info about the people who attended the faith healing sessions, while also pocketing everything they gave to the Temple. Still, he did practice what he preached about racial equality. He sought to encourage interracial friendships among the Temple, publicly did everything he could to help local businesses integrate as a member of the Human Rights Commission and, in 1961, he and Marceline became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child.
Through these charitable acts and his own natural charisma, Jones garnered an extreme devotion among his congregation that would gradually evolve into a Cult of Personality. Jones took this to heart and used it to tighten his grip over the Temple. Members were required to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with other members rather than relatives, slowly making them more dependent on the Temple while veering them away from society. Jones actively preached an "us versus them" message in his sermons concerning the government, even later stating that the United States was The Antichrist and that capitalism was "the Antichrist system." After claiming to have received a vision about a nuclear war on July 15th, 1967, Jones convinced many of his followers to leave Indianapolis with him, while also researching places that would be safe during World War III.
After Jones made an unsuccessful attempt to set up a new community in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, he and 140 members of Peoples Temple instead resettled in Redwood Valley, California (near Ukiah) in 1965. It was here that Jones ultimately abandoned the Bible as "white man's justification" and instead penned his own booklet known as "The Letter Killeth." In this, Jones pointed out what he saw as atrocities, contradictions, absurdities, lies, and truths in the Scripture. It was in this letter that he began to disguise socialist ideals as a gospel of his own, which he called "apostolic socialism." It was also in Redwood Valley that Jones began to weave tales of America persecuting its racial minorities elsewhere, further indoctrinating his followers as the Temple truly began its metamorphosis from a church to a full-blown cult. Jones even began claiming to be a reincarnation of both Jesus and Lenin, while members started calling him "Father." The Temple put on a good front, keeping Jones' more extreme ideas hidden from becoming public knowledge. Jones still maintained the Temple's ties to the Disciples of Christ (a denomination that has no formal creed and gives its churches wide latitude in beliefs and practices) which helped it keep up the impression that it was a simple politically progressive Christian church.
In The '70s, Peoples Temple began its expansion throughout California, setting up its headquarters in San Francisco. As Jones gained more followers, he also gained detractors. By this point, the Temple had become powerful enough to influence elections, especially in San Francisco, and even gained support and contact with prominent politicians on a national level. Jones met privately with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane days before the 1976 election, leading Mondale to publicly praise the Temple, and later also met with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In these sorts of meetings, he expressed disappointment in not being able to visit countries like the USSR and the People's Republic of China. Jones also cited Mao Zedong as a major influence for him. Of course, he also drew the ire of many, such as the Nation of Islam. Reporter Marshall Kilduff also planned to publish an exposé on the Temple, which detailed the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that had been endured defectors from the group.
On December 13, 1973, Jones was arrested and charged for soliciting a man for sex in a movie theater restroom in Los Angeles. Said man happened to be an undercover cop. The legal fallout from this drove Jones further and further into paranoia, even as he made grandiose plans to expand Peoples Temple, centering on a large agricultural commune. Jones secured a piece of land in northwest Guyana (which, as an English-speaking socialist country with a large population of African descent, was deemed a comfortable place for his group to operate) and informally called it Jonestown. The Guyanese government had their own ulterior motives for welcoming Jones's followers—it was located in a part of the country that had been (and remains) part of a long territorial dispute with Venezuela, and a large group of Americans living on this land would discourage a Venezuelan invasion. The Temple also purchased a large house in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown as a satellite property.
Jonestown started as a simple settlement housing a handful of families, but as pressure mounted on Jones in the summer of 1977, he and the bulk of the group's membership abruptly left California for Guyana. The mass exodus swelled Jonestown's population to nearly 1,000, which put a strain on the settlement's resources. Immediately after arriving, Jones ordered everyone to hand over their passports and laid out a list of punishable crimes in Jonestown: wanting to leave, speaking out against their "father", anything capitalistic in nature, keeping secrets, people not pulling their weight, disappearing without permission, and questioning anything. Punishments for this were often physical and psychological, including being dropped in a pit and told you would have snakes dumped on you. The people were surrounded by dense rain forest and under constant surveillance. They couldn't even trust their own families.
The Guyanese government knew about Jones's abuses, but with the aforementioned dispute with Venezuela and reluctance to draw the ire of the American government, they were willing to let him operate unimpeded. Jones grew more and more paranoid over the months, in part due to a serious addiction to painkillers and amphetaminesnote , and he started using the Temple to smuggle illegal goods such as guns and cyanide into Jonestown. Back in the U.S., support for him and the Temple was waning. Disgruntled ex-followers and those who had relatives in Jonestown revealed the dealings, abuses, and ideology within the organization, stating that Jones was now holding hundreds of people hostage. Politicians who supported Jones's liberal causes rushed to defend him as a man of high moral character being smeared by "bald-faced lies." In the midst of all this, a long-standing Love Triangle between Jones, his onetime right-hand man Timothy Stoen, and Stoen's wife Grace exploded into a complex custody dispute in which Jones claimed to be the father of the Stoens' son, John Victor. Jones even had Stoen sign an affidavit saying he'd, "Entreated my beloved pastor, James W. Jones, to sire a child by my wife," because "I wanted my child to be fathered, if not by me, by the most compassionate, honest, and courageous human being the world contains." Jones waved the affidavit as proof that he was John Victor's father, but the Stoens, who'd become disaffected from the Temple, said he was forced under duress to sign it and fought to regain custody. This episode fed Jones' paranoia.
Jones began telling his followers that the outside world had become dangerous. He told them that the U.S. had gone "full fascist" and was now sending racial minorities to concentration camps to deter them from leaving. Increasingly obsessed with the loyalty of his followers, Jones began calling meetings called "White Nights" where he ordered followers to show their loyalty by drinking what they thought was poison. Jones claimed that the U.S. government would be coming to destroy their socialist utopia and that the only way out would be through "revolutionary suicide." Faced with no other choice, many followers obeyed, though none of the drinks were actually poisoned; Jones was simply normalizing the idea for them. Unfortunately for Jones's followers, his doomsday predictions seemed to come to fruition in November of 1978. Compelled by the testimonies of Temple defectors, California congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit Jonestown as part of a fact-finding mission. He arrived in Guyana on November 15, and after two additional days of travel, arrived on a small airstrip near Port Kaituma. Accompanying him were government aides, concerned relatives, and journalists—all three groups that Jones hated and feared most. Jones became insanely fearful of losing control, and thus hatched a plan. During the visit, Jones ordered that a welcoming celebration be held to put up a good image for the community, but this gave some of the followers the opportunity to ask for help.
On November 18, as Ryan confronted Jones, he was attacked by a follower wielding a knife. While he managed to escape unharmed, Ryan decided it was time to leave. A number of Jonestown residents asked Ryan if they could leave with him, and ultimately fifteen did. After making the drive back to the Port Kaituma airstrip, they discovered that an armed group of Jones loyalists, dubbed the "Red Brigade", had followed them on a tractor-trailer. The gunmen opened fire on the crowd at a chartered airplane as it was boarding, while a Fake Defector pulled out a gun and began firing on people inside another plane that was taxiing for takeoff. Five people were killed: Ryan (still the only member of Congress to be killed in the line of duty); NBC news reporter Don Harris, and his cameraman Bob Brown; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; and Temple member Patricia Parks. Among the injured who survived were Ryan's aide Jackie Speier (who several decades later was elected to Ryan's old Congressional seat) and Examiner journalist Tim Reiterman (whose book Raven was the first comprehensive examination of the Jonestown story).note
Back at Jonestown, Jones called an emergency meeting at the commune's main pavilion, warning his followers that his predictions were going to come true and that they had to conduct an act of revolutionary suicide, stating that if they couldn't live in peace then they would die in peace.note As such, Jones ordered the creation of a drink made of grape Flavor-Aid, cyanide, and lethal levels of prescription drugs. The first ones ordered to drink it were the babies and children. Without their children, and with the belief that a fascist army from America was bearing down on them, hundreds of people in Jonestown drank it all. A 44-minute long "death tape" was later found by authorities, with Jones, in a slurred voice, trying to justify the poisoning as an act of protest against the world. The most dramatic part of the tape is when one Temple member, Christine Miller, questions the need to commit suicide, stating, "Where there's life, there's hope" (a line that Jones had used in his sermons).
Jones also ordered that the Temple followers at the house in Georgetown be told to take revenge against their enemies before committing revolutionary suicide of their own (which was transmitted via ham radio using Spy Speak).note After police arrived on the scene, follower Sharon Amos took her three children into a bathroom, stabbed them to death, then committed suicide.
In total, 918 people died because of Jones' actions, including himself (909 in Jonestown, five in Port Kaituma, and four in Georgetown). He was found sitting in a deck chair, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound; an autopsy also showed lethal levels of barbiturates in his system. A handful of Peoples Temple members managed to escape Jonestown with their lives. A few successfully snuck out of the final meeting and hid in the jungle. One group of families, who'd been plotting an escape for a while, sensed that things wouldn't end well and left Jonestown very early on the morning of the 18th. Members of the Jonestown basketball team, including two of Jones's sons (one biological, one adopted) were in Georgetown competing in a tournament and survived. One elderly woman scoffed at Jones' call for a meeting and instead took a nap, later waking up to eerie silence.
The Jonestown massacre remained the largest loss of American civilian lives until September 11, 2001.
Appearances in fiction
- Jonestown: Broadcast on PBS. Provides a deep insight into his life and the Jonestown commune.
- The A-Team: The episode Children of Jamestown is clearly based on the events, with Martin James serving as an expy of Jones.
- The 1979 film Guyana: Crime of the Century (also known as Guyana: Cult of the Damned) is a dramatization that has the names of the central characters slightly tweaked from the historical ones: the film is set in "Johnsontown" rather than Jonestown, the cult is led by "Reverend James Johnson" rather than Reverend Jim Jones, and the murdered Congressman is "Lee O'Brien" rather than Leo Ryan. It was It was reviewed on The Cinema Snob.
- Jones was portrayed by Powers Boothe in the 1980 Made-for-TV Movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, for which he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie.
- In the truly dystopian Alternate History tale For All Time, instead of moving to Indiana, Jones moves to Philadelphia and is elected to the city council, becomes governor of Pennsylvania, and then enters the 1976 presidential elections against Charles Manson. Jones wins and turns the country into the Oppressive States of America, locking up his opponents in labor camps, ruthlessly crushing militants of all stripes, creating a paramilitary force called the "National Volunteer Army" to help enforce his rule, and nearly starting a nuclear war to fulfill a religious prophecy. He's later deposed in a silent coup after he goes bonkers.
- In another Alternate History timeline, New Deal Coalition Retained, Jones manages to maintain his and the Peoples Temple's public image enough that he never needs to set up Jonestown as a retreat, instead ending up becoming mayor of San Francisco as a member of the new Progressive Party. However, when "Squeaky" Fromme — who became his follower instead of Manson's — tries and fails to assassinate Ronald Reagan, Jones' image is tainted by association. He doesn't run for reelection and steps aside, but is then tapped to be chairman of the Progressive National Committee. And then, after he spearheads humanitarian efforts in California during and after World War III, his public image is restored enough that he ends up elected governor.
- In another Alternate History timeline, Kentucky Fried Politics, Jones sets up a compound in Brazil (his original plan in Real Life) instead of Guyana. He also, by chance, meets and befriends Manson; as a result of this, when the Manson Family has to flee America after trying to assassinate The Beatles, they seek refuge with Jones. But this just leads to MI6 and Interpol raiding the compound to get to them, and in the resulting chaos Jones and Manson come to blows over which of them is the true messiah. This creates an opening for the authorities to storm in, and while they're distracted with gunning down a resisting Manson, Jones takes a Cyanide Pill.