Hundreds Of Americans Committed Mass Suicide, On Today's History, November 18, 1978
US troops evacuating victims (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

JAKARTA - On November 18, 1978, hundreds of followers of the People Temple sect committed mass suicide on their farms in a remote part of the South American nation of Guyana. The suicide act was led by the pastor and founder of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones.

This incident was not just a suicide, it was more of a massacre. Prior to 9/11, this incident was the largest intentional civilian death in American history. More than 900 people died, most of them children. It was also a devastating cultural trauma. The followers willingly swallowed the poison, while others were forced to swallow it at gunpoint.

Quoting Britannica, Jim Jones was a charismatic pastor who founded Peoples Temple, a Christian sect, in Indianapolis in the 1950s. He preached against racism and most of his congregation were African-American. In 1965, the Peoples Temple base moved to Northern California. In 1971, Peoples Temple then moved again to San Francisco.

Peoples Temple soon gained significant political influence. According to a report by The Guardian, Jones' fierce advocacy has earned him the admiration of left-wing icons such as Angela Davis and Harvey Milk. Jones has also received support from groups such as Black Panther.

That success began to falter after the media reported that Peoples Temple committed fraud, physical abuse of its members, and mistreatment of children. In response to the criticism, an increasingly paranoid Jones invited his congregation to move with him to Guyana.

Jones promised that he would establish utopian socialism in Guyana. Three years earlier, a small group of his followers had traveled to Guyana to establish what they called Jonestown, a large farm and living quarters around it.

Jonestown entrance (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Jonestown turned out to be not paradise as Jim Jones had promised. Peoples Temple members worked long days in the fields and were severely punished for questioning Jones' authority. Their passports and securities were confiscated and members were forced to attend meetings at night.

Jones, at the time, was in declining mental health and addicted to drugs. He was convinced that the US government wanted to destroy it. He asked Peoples Temple members to participate in a fake suicide drill at midnight.

In November 1978, US Congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana to inspect the activities of the Peoples Temples and Jonestown complex. He wanted to investigate rumors that some Peoples Temple members were detained and some were subjected to physical and psychological violence.

Leo Ryan, together with a delegation of several individuals and journalists, arrived in Jonestown on November 17, 1978, and received a civilian audience from Jones. But the visit was canceled on November 18, 1978, after a Peoples Temple member tried to stab Ryan. The delegation returned to the airport to return to the US with Peoples Temple members who asked to leave Jonestown. They were also escorted by Jonestown guards.

As they boarded the plane, Jonestown's bodyguards pulled out guns and opened fire. They shot Ryan dead and killed four other people including two photographers who captured footage of the attack before dying. The injured survivors ran or dragged themselves into the forest.

Jonestown Victims Memorial (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Forced suicide

After the shooting, Jones enacted a "revolutionary suicide" plan on the Jonestown compound. They prepared a fruit drink mixed with cyanide and a sedative. The concoction was first put into the throats of infants and children, then by adult members.

When Guiana authorities arrived at the Jonestown compound the next day, they found hundreds of bodies lying on the ground. Many people died hugging each other. Jones himself died of gunshot wounds.

Fewer than 100 members of the Peoples Temple in Guyana survived the forced suicide. The survivors defected that day. Authorities later found caches of firearms, hundreds of piled up passports, and $500.000 in cash.

Another million dollars have reportedly been deposited in bank accounts overseas. Peoples Temple was effectively disbanded after the incident and declared bankruptcy in late 1978.

*Read other information about TODAY's HISTORY or read other interesting articles from Putri Ainur Islam.

 

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