American journalist Jeff Guin, released his latest book “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” in which he described how the man of God successfully convinced almost a thousand of his followers to move from California to a settlement and killed them all with cyanide.
Nearly 40 years later, we are still learning about the horrors of the Jonestown massacre
A preacher and civil rights activist — known as Rev. Jim Jones — lead more than 900 people to their deaths by convincing them to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid in the middle of a South American jungle in November, 1978.
The poison caused death within five minutes, and was the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001.
Now, almost 40 years on, questions about the massacre linger — including how one man managed to convince the followers of his church, known as the People’s Temple, to take part in the largest murder-suicide in American history.
In 1978, Jim Jones urged more than 900 followers to drink cyanide. Picture: AP.
Investigative journalist Jeff Guin has spent the past three years scratching away at the why and how of the Jonestown mass murder.
From Jones’ affairs and drug use, to successfully convincing almost a thousand of his followers to move from California to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana, South America — Guin’s goal was to find out what happened, and why.
“There were two stories to tell,” Mr Guin, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, told news.com.au.
“Firstly, how he became who he was, and secondly why he was able to make so many people follow him for so long.”
Guin, whose latest book The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple was released in Australia earlier this month, says that during his research, it became clear the preacher’s tactics were in line with the tactics of other demagogues before his time.
“The members of the People’s Temple were some of the most intelligent individuals anyone would meet,” Guin said.
Jim Jones lead more than 900 people to their death in the largest murder-suicide in American history.
“Jim Jones was able to attract and maintain loyalty. First thing he would do is convince his followers that he was the only one who could solve problems and create a better life.
“Secondly, he’d indoctrinate his followers, so anyone not part of the group is the enemy. It was us (People’s Temple members) against them.
“Third thing he would do is drown out the voice of outsiders. His purpose was to alienate the followers from outsiders, family and the media.
“Every demagogue, from Hitler to Jim Jones has similar tactics.”
Guin, who travelled to the Jonestown settlement in the depths of Guyana as part of his research, said Jones would often exaggerate events to create fear within his followers.
One of the ‘fears’ was convincing his community that their homeland was facing threats of “martial law, concentration camps and nuclear war”.
“Jones had started to build a tremendous reputation for himself,” Guin said.
“He became a political powerbroker. His church could not only turn out thousands of voters, but they would go out door to door for politicians.
“But after a while, a journalist started writing about darker sides of Jones. The drugs, sex, and intimidation. When these stories started to come out … and with all these voices raised against him, he took the bulk of his followers as far away from these voices as he could.”
Jones established a farm in the deepest jungle, with the intention of raising food and giving to the poor in the continent. It was set up for 100 people, but Jones arrived with more than 900.
Guin said that even if a member of the People’s Temple had their doubts about the move, or changed their mind upon arrival — there was nowhere they could flee.
“They hear no voice but his,” Guin said.
“They think the government, CIA and FBI are after them. He built up paranoia — and that they were surrounded by constant danger.”
Following claims of abuse, congressman Leo Ryan and a group of journalists travelled through the jungle to Jonestown.
They arrived on November 17 — the day before the massacre — but never made it back to their waiting aircraft.
“Ryan was officially investigating complaints that people in Jonestown were being held prisoner,” Guin said.
“Jones didn’t want Ryan or outside media to come, but was talked in to it by his lawyer and wife.
“Ryan and the media met with lots of residents and were treated to dinner and a show. By the next day — out of 900 people, only 15 could ask if they could leave with him.
“They were all taken to the Port Kaituma airstrip, but Jim was paranoid. He thought more congressmen would come and show followers how easy it is to leave, and he’d be left in the jungle looking like a fool.”
Jones sent an armed truck to kill Ryan, the media and defected members. While their execution was carried out, he made his move on the loyal followers of the People’s Temple.
“Jim gathered the people and announced that Ryan had died,” Guin said.
“He convinced his followers that the Government would slaughter everyone (in Jonestown) and lead the kids in to slavery.
“The only thing to do was commit a revolutionary act. He brought out the poison drink … many of the people thought it was Jim putting on an act.
“Jones promised this would be a peaceful crossing over … the children and toddlers had no choice. The cyanide was injected in to their mouths.”
Jones convinced the adult followers to follow through, but with hundreds no longer wishing to take part in the “revolutionary act” — he was forced to use armed guards.
“Most people didn’t drink it willingly, and several hundred who refused were held down and forcibly fed the cyanide,” Guin said.
“They honestly believed if they didn’t kill themselves the Government would do so in a terrible way.
Guin said his interview with Guyanese military officer Desmond Roberts — who led troops in to Jonestown following the massacre — was the most harrowing chapter in his book.
“When the troops went in the next day — they thought it was an armed rebellion,” Guin said.
“Clouds of steam came up from the ground like a fog bank as they walked. Going through the fog, some of the first soldiers started to trip.
“The officers thought the rebels might’ve left logs on the ground to trip them, but then they started to wave the fog away. That’s when the soldier’s started screaming.
“They thought maybe 300 people had died … because that’s how many they counted on the first day. But then the next day they found another layer of bodies below that, and then another layer of children below that.
“As the fog lifted … the magnitude of bodies was impossible to forget.”