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November 20, 2018

A Rare Glimpse Inside the Lives of Jim Jones’ 909 Followers in Jonestown, Just Before the Deadliest Cult in American History

40 years ago today, more than 900 people died in the jungles of Guyana. Most were poisoned. Some drank the cyanide-laced liquid willingly. Others, including children, were forced to take it. They were following the orders of the charismatic leader of a group called the Peoples Temple, a man from the San Francisco area named Jim Jones. The year before, Jones had fled with his flock to South America when questions were raised about abuses at the congregation.

In 2010, the Jonestown Institute, made up of former residents and members of the Peoples Temple, filed a request to the FBI to release the thousands of documents and photographs collected from Jonestown. Images from the early years showed hand built houses and boys sinking perfect three pointers in the tropical sunshine. But as always, Jonestown was more than it appeared. Most of the images were staged as part of a propaganda campaign by the Temple’s leader, Jim Jones, to deflect the mainland US’s growing concern. The reality was the residents were severely malnourished, sleep deprived and worked to the bone seven days a week in the scorching tropical sun. Jones collected the savings and welfare checks of all of the members, and spread terrifying rumors and fake news about the US descending back into a state of racial segregation, revoking the rights of African American citizens. The Peoples Temple was originally founded on the premise of racial equality, and three quarters of its victims were African American. Jonestown was carved out of the jungle as a socialist utopia where “all races, creeds, and colors find a hearty welcome.”

Ultimately, as Jones descended into psychosis, kool-aid laced with cyanide was an escape from a life of terror and psychological torture. Despite the sensationalist media headlines we are all familiar with, it wasn’t a blind leap of faith. The hope of many of the victims, recorded in secret suicide notes, was that their deaths would bring attention to the fact that ultimately, they had all felt more welcomed by Jonestown and its promise of racial equality than by the United States.

Over the decades, the intentions of that act has been obscured by the punch-line, but staged or not, these photos show real people, friends and families who all just wanted a chance to live in a better world.

(Photos courtesy of Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery, via VICE)



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