We all know the story. Faced with an invasion by either Guyanan or American troops after killing Congressman Leo Ryan, Jim Jones convinced 900 people, including his wife, to commit suicide with him. The People’s Temple had become a by-word for suicide cults. There have been several since then, most famously the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate, but none more notorious. Because of the mass suicide, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has entered the English language for those who go along with an ideology blindly.
But there’s more to the story. A lot more. Had things gone differently, Jim Jones might have taken his place alongside many in the civil rights movement. His original focus had been to end segregation in Indianapolis, a task at which he succeeded with few protests. And his People’s Temple was a congregation affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, probably one of the most boring Christian denominations out there. But Jones had an agenda. He wanted to use religion to further socialism, and he started during the Red Scare. Equal parts subversive, civil rights crusader, and faith-healing huckster, it was hard to tell which Jim Jones was the real one.
He moved to California because he believed nuclear war was inevitable. His research showed that Ukiah would be the safest place to wait out the apocalypse. The residents of Ukiah did not appreciate the newcomers taking over their town, especially the black newcomers.
Jones built the temple using his personal charm and powers of persuasion, even letting members in on the tricks he used for “healings.” But the “necessary deceptions” began to give way to the inevitable consequences of autocratic leadership over a group of people. He began sleeping with women (and sometimes men) in his flock, telling them he was trying to “uplift them.” He began taking drugs because being “Father” was stressful. And he began holding suicide drills to “test loyalty.”
But not everyone, not even Jones’s own family, followed him to the grave. His daughter Susan became estranged. His sons refused the order to return from Guyana’s capital to join the others in drinking the Flavorade (what was actually used to poison the residents.) Bookkeeper Terry Buford, one of those “uplifted” by Jones, slipped out of camp with local Indians who led her to the Guyanan authorities and to escape.
Jim Jones didn’t happen all at once. The monster he became was built over time.