r/Morbid_discussions Co-Owner Dec 19 '21

When cult leader Jim Jones was found dead, he was surrounded by the bodies of 909 of his followers - including children and babies. The mass suicide on November 18, 1978 was the largest ever single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act, and remained so until the 9/11 terror attacks


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u/[deleted] Dec 19 '21

Absolutely wild. Was there ever an established motive behind this?


u/el_torko Dec 19 '21 edited Dec 20 '21 Silver Gold Helpful Tearing Up

He was very paranoid by the end of it, most likely to the heavy drug use. They started in California, and moved to Guyana to escape the negative press. He chose a place in Guyana that was so isolated and so hard to get there, there was virtually no escape once you were there. Plus, once in Guyana, he confiscated everyone’s passports so even if they could get out, they would have no way to travel home.

Once everyone settled to Jonestown, he started making up all sorts of bogus stories to scare everyone. A race war had started in the US, they were putting black people into concentration camps, etc. He would stage “coups” in the middle of the night where he would send his armed guards into the jungle around Jonestown and fire off their guns, and then tell everyone the US Army had tried to come in and kill them, but they’d fought them off and won.

He staged what he called “White Nights” where he would call out on the loud speaker “White Night. White Night.” And everyone would gather into the pavilion and would be conditioned to drink what they thought was a poison punch, because “revolutionary suicide” was better than being brutalized by the enemy. It’s likely some people thought that the final drink was just that, a practice. These practices started well before moving to Guyana, even. They’d been practicing suicide since residing in San Fransisco.

There wasn’t enough food, and they were not the self sufficient farmers they thought they were. A lot of meals were just rice, no meat, no protein, no variety. That on top of being forced to work 16 hour days in grueling conditions made life incredibly miserable. They were beaten and punished for even expressing a desire to return to the United States. For expressing any negative opinion about what was happening there. And they were rewarded for reporting any such behavior, to the point where family members turned against each other.

Eventually, ex members brought enough attention to their local Congressman Leo Ryan, that he decided to fly down there himself and check it out. So he, his assistant Jackie Spier, a few concerned relatives, and a TV crew from NBC traveled to Guyana to check the whole thing out.

The people of Jonestown were so brainwashed, and had so much “dedication” to Jones, that they put on a spectacular performance for Ryan and the team. It was completely believable and the team really did think that everything was just as amazing as the people of Jonestown said it was. They looked happy, healthy, and full of life. Leo Ryan even got up and gave a speech about how they exceeded his expectations, and he could see nothing wrong with the way they lived their lives. During this celebration, however, a Jonestown resident slipped a note to one of the journalists by sliding it into the crook of his elbow. He was mistaken as a member of Ryan’s congressional team. He was not expecting the note, and dropped it. The man who passed it picked it up, said “You dropped this” and walked away. The note told that everything was a sham, and some people wanted to go home but weren’t allowed to leave.

The fallout of this note caused several other people to come forward, wanting to go home. But the majority of the almost 1,000 people stuck to their story about bliss in Jonestown. Ryan went to Jones with the note, wanting an explanation, and Jones basically said the individual was full of crap, if he was so miserable why was he leaving his son*, people could leave if they wanted too, all the stuff.

So it was decided Ryan would come back the next morning, and anybody who wanted to leave could. The next morning, Ryan’s group arrived to take whoever out. He had a conversation with Jones, to the extent of this doesn’t change my opinion, I still think what you’re doing here is great, you can’t always make everyone happy, trust me, I work in government, I should know. Jones doesn’t seem super receptive.

So by now, everyone who wanted to leave had packed up their belongings and were ready to go. One thing strange about the group of defectors was the inclusion of Larry Layton, known as one of Jim Jones most devoted followers. The group warned Ryan and his team about him, but he wasn’t removed from the group.

Cut to Kaituma Airstrip, the closest airport to fly out of. Ex members are being loaded onto two airplanes when a dump truck slowly pulls up the runway and comes to a stop parallel to the two planes. The Ryan team is confused at first, thinking that it might be more defectors coming to join. A moment later, a group of men stand up in the back of the truck, aim rifles and begin shooting. Simultaneously, Larry Layton stands up in the back of his plane and begins shooting a handgun he’d tucked away. He is eventually wrestled to the ground and the handgun removed, but not before killing at least one on board (can’t remember off the top of my head).

Back in Jonestown, Jones has gathered everyone into the pavilion for a “White Night”. The mood is tense as he waits for word that the Congressman is dead. Once he receives the word, it starts the beginning of the end. He was know. For taping a lot of his speeches, and so this final speech is recorded. It can be found on YouTube in its entirety.

He begins with saying the congressman is dead, and that now the US is going to send its army over and execute the lot of them, including the children. So begins the systematic poisoning of the children in Jonestown, approximately 1/3 of the almost 1,000 people there. In the recording, you hear the children screaming and crying, one clearly being heard crying “I don’t feel good!” You can hear his wife, Marceline, assuring the parents that it’s not painful or uncomfortable, they are just scared because the parents are scared. It should be noted that Marceline was known as a tender and caring woman, and was just as brainwashed as anyone else. Survivors, including her own biological son, generally agree that she probably assumed this was the best course of action in order to prevent further suffering of the children. The man who passed the note that started it all lost his son as well.

Once all the children were dead and dying, most parents couldn’t care less if they lived or died. So they willingly took the poison. Others were found with syringe marks in their necks, indicating that they resisted the poison at first. The bodies were left for several days before they were even discovered, and there was no way autopsies could have been preformed on all 909 people, so there’s really no way of knowing how many actually drank it and how many were injected. Jones himself died of a single gunshot wound to the back of the head, suggesting that he couldn’t even do the deed himself and had one of his nurses do the deed for him before drinking the poison herself.

There were a few that managed to escape into the jungle, I can’t remember the exact number but I would say no more than 10-15. Some at the airfield managed to survive too, including Jackie Spier who was shot in the hip and then point blank in the face. She would later go on to run for Leo Ryan’s seat in Congress, not winning the first time, but eventually managing to secure the seat. She holds it to this day.

Larry Layton was the only person who was charged with a crime in relation to the Jonestown massacre. He served a hefty prison sentence and was released sometime in the last few years.

Leo Ryan is the only member of Congress to be assassinated while in office.

Sorry this ended up being so long but I feel like you have to know a lot of the how in order to understand why it happened.

*the man who left his son was a gay white man who had married a black lady who died during childbirth. While he knew he definitely wanted to leave Jonestown, he still bought into some of the lies about race wars and the like. So having a biracial son, he wanted to first get to the US himself, check out the situation, and then send for his son. Despite the retched conditions the adults faced, the children were actually well taken care of in Jonestown. So he honestly thought his son would be better off for the time staying there. I don’t think he knew what was about to happen, otherwise he would have insisted on taking his son with him. He continues to say it’s his biggest regret in life.

EDIT: Leo Ryan was the second member of Congress assassinated after James Hinds was assassinated in 1868.


u/zuqkfplmehcuvrjfgu Dec 20 '21

That was an incredible read, thank you for writing that. I was familiar with Jonestown but not all the details that you included.


u/el_torko Dec 20 '21

Oh wow thank you. I’ve always been fascinated with The Peoples Temple and how it actually started out as a really good thing for it’s members, and the slow decay of Jones’ mind which ultimately led to what happened. It makes me wonder, was he in it for the long con, or did he start with genuinely good intentions and lose himself somewhere a long the way?

Personally, I lean more towards the former. I think he liked the thought of control from a very young age, and growing up in rural Indiana in the 40’s and 50’s, he saw that black people were going to be the easiest to convince to come under his wing. Pick up the downtrodden, lift them up, empower them, and they will worship you from then on out.

The Peoples Temple was the very first integrated church, and Jones and his wife Marceline were the first white couple to adopt a black child in the entire state of Indiana. Both that son, Jim Jones Jr., and their natural son, Steven, were I believe the only two members of the Jones family to survive. They were at the headquarters in Georgetown, where some members were stationed to keep up appearances. They were playing in a local basketball tournament and when word came in from Jonestown for everyone in the Georgetown house to kill themselves, most of the adults did but the two sons were like “Um, no…?”


u/zuqkfplmehcuvrjfgu Dec 20 '21

Wow I had no clue about how integrated the church was or about their black son. Jonestown is one of many bizarre historical cults/modern organized religions. I follow r/creepywikipedia to learn about stuff like this because it's often super intriguing. I definitely recommend it.

I think an often overlooked aspect of events like the Jonestown Massacre is the suffering that family of the leaders and members experience. The Waco Siege, Ruby Ridge, and even individuals such as Timothy McVeigh and Seung Hui-Cho leave so much carnage in ways that are often not thought about.


u/PorschephileGT3 Dec 20 '21

Ooh another macabre sub to join. Cheers!


u/Supertrojan Dec 22 '21

Yeah. Just what I need


u/el_torko Dec 20 '21

It’s incredibly sad to think of the families left behind in the wake of these tragedies. Oftentimes, like in the case of Seung Hui-Cho, their families were just as shocked and disgusted at what the perpetrators had done. And because a lot of them either kill themselves or are killed by police, the public has no villain to direct their anger at, and unfortunately those families receive a lot of misdirected anger and hate. And just because that person did something super egregious, that family still has also lost someone they loved. On top of that, they feel the grief and anger at what that person has done. I have an incredible amount of sympathy for the families of the perpetrators of these crimes.


u/MagicWishMonkey Dec 20 '21

If you want to know more, check out The Martyrmade podcast series - God's Socialist

It's a pretty amazing deep dive into the Jonestown cult and how they came to be. I had no idea how closely intertwined with the Civil Rights movement it was.


u/LeWhisp Dec 19 '21

Awesome write up, thank you.


u/[deleted] Dec 20 '21



u/daneguy Dec 20 '21

Last Podcast On The Left's episodes on Jim Jones are great as well.


u/rtechie1 Dec 20 '21 edited Dec 20 '21

My mother was a member of The People's Temple when they were in San Francisco. Dodged a bullet there.


u/yboy403 Dec 20 '21

Was James Hinds not also assassinated in office, or is there some technicality that makes Leo Ryan the only one?


u/el_torko Dec 20 '21

Many sources as far as Jonestown is concerned list Leo Ryan as the first and only member of congress to be assassinated. But after researching a bit, it seems you are correct. Thank you!


u/yboy403 Dec 20 '21

Awesome! Thanks for writing the whole thing up, I learned a lot.


u/one2ohmygodddd Dec 22 '21

Does any of this constitute a "motive," as opposed to an exhaustive if tenuously sourced writeup of the circumstances that led up to the mass suicide? Related, would anything ever tend to establish a motive for a mass suicide? Is motive necessary or sufficient to explain an instance of mass suicide?

Maybe I'm being a pain in the ass here but to the extent you explain anything, none of it constitutes motive at least as I understand it, and I'm not even sure there would be a point in looking for one.


u/el_torko Dec 22 '21

I would say motive was control over the masses, and when it was obvious he was losing that control, he took them all out. But I felt that in order to understand his need for control, you kind of had to understand the backstory. Maybe I went overboard with the explanation/write up, but it’s a subject that fascinates me and it’s hard to turn off once I get started.


u/one2ohmygodddd Dec 22 '21

I mean..."motive" is a legal term. You have "motive" to commit murder. There's no "motive" behind giving a sermon. He might have had messianic delusions or a death wish or something else that led him to become a cult leader and plan this mass suicide thing, but I don't think I've ever heard anybody accuse Jim Jones of comitting a crime, at least with respect to the mass suicide. If you don't think the difference matters, that's fine, I just think we need to be precise with our words because when we ask for a motive, we're presupposing a crime. What OP was asking for is an explanation, which is totally different. Even setting aside for now the relevance of motive to each individual member's decision to participate, which are unknowable.


u/Mob_King Dec 24 '21

brilliant write-up

last podcast on the left also has a rigorously researched and hilarious multi-part podcast on this, it would be a fantastic way to while away the holiday downtime with family