Studying apocalyptic doomsday cults is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Despite our best efforts it can be tough to turn away.
David Koresh, Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara, and Adolf Hitler are the archetypes. Their bizarre capacity to work a crowd ultimately resulted in the deaths of countless devoted followers. To the rational mind, however, such stuff can seem almost comically bizarre.
Heaven’s Gate was a mob of American UFO acolytes that arose near San Diego, California, in 1974. They believed there was a spacecraft following the comet Hale-Bop. Through ritualized mass suicide cult members thought they might physically transport themselves to the passing starship.
When they were unable to visualize the expected spacecraft their telescope was clearly defective, so they returned the device for a refund. The group purchased alien abduction insurance guaranteeing a $1 million benefit in the event of an abduction, impregnation, or death by aliens.
All 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members wore identical gender-neutral black shirts and sweatpants as well as matching Nike Decades athletic shoes. At the time of their deaths each had a $5 bill and three quarters in their pockets and wore matching “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” arm patches (one of several odd Star Trek references).
One cult member was Thomas Nichols, the brother of Nichelle Nichols who played LT Uhura on the original Star Trek. These 39 otherwise educated, professional people washed down a lethal dose of phenobarbital with vodka before affixing plastic bags over their heads. One can’t help but find such extraordinary behavior darkly fascinating.
Crazy on a Whole New Scale
James Warren Jones was born in May of 1931 in rural Indiana. Like most stark raving lunatics, young Jim’s childhood was chaotic. His father was a WW1 veteran and a member of the Ku Klux Klan whose family shack had no plumbing. Those who knew him described the younger Jones as a “really weird kid” with obsessions concerning both religion and death.
Jones employed a warped theology to manipulate people. However, he was himself either an agnostic or an atheist depending upon his particular mood. Regardless, he frequently wore a white clerical collar. Jones wielded spirituality as a form of mind control, but his real gods were Marx and Lenin.
Jim Jones championed racial integration at a time when racial integration was not terribly mainstream. His willingness to bridge racial divides bought him his first acolytes. By the early 1970’s Jones’ Peoples Temple had satellite offices in cities across the United States. For a time Jones and his buddies actually sold monkeys door to door to raise money for the group.
Jones’ communist sympathies earned him some interesting friends. President Jimmy Carter’s wife Rosalyn met with Jones on multiple occasions. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Walther Mondale publicly praised Jones and his organization. Leftist California Governor Jerry Brown gushed that Jones was a symbiotic melding of Martin Luther King Jr, Albert Einstein, Angela Davis, and Mao Tse-Tung. LGBT activist Harvey Milk was also himself enraptured.
By the summer of 1977, Jones’ group started attracting attention. Sensible minds began investigating Jones’ charlatanical faith healing as well as persistent rumors of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. In response Jones took his motley mob on the road, securing land for a church compound in the South American nation of Guyana.
The Workers’ Paradise
Jones and his followers intended to form yet another communal utopia. They titled their agrarian enterprise the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project” or more simply “Jonestown.”
They intended to pool their resources and live comfortably off of the bounty of the land. There would be no class distinction, and resources would be equally shared by all. Oddly behind every single one of these delusional mobs there resides some alpha lunatic who believes himself divinely inspired to do most of the thinking.
Most megalomaniacal nutjobs also fold a sexual component into their particular depraved fiefdoms, and Jones was no exception. He banged anything he could catch, regardless of gender. In 1973 Jones was arrested for lewd conduct in a movie theater restroom. I tried to catalog the guy’s kids and stopped counting at nine.
The Deviancy Amplification Spiral
In the fall of 1978, a Democratic US Congressman from California named Leo Ryan flew down to Jonestown with a few straphangers on a fact-finding mission. Some of Ryan’s constituents had approached the Congressman about relatives they felt were being held in Jonestown against their will.
There followed a carefully choreographed dog and pony show designed to allay the Congressman’s concerns. All went well until a few terrified cult members surreptitiously slipped notes to the visitors begging to be freed. One deranged cult member then attacked Ryan with a knife, and the group felt it was time to leave.
The visiting delegation made its way back to the airfield in a dump truck. Once there they began boarding a pair of civilian aircraft, a Twin Otter and a six-seat Cessna. A Peoples Temple true believer named Larry Layton boarded the smaller plane and produced a handgun. His original mission was to kill the pilot in flight. However, he only succeeded in wounding two passengers before being disarmed.
Meanwhile the cult’s security detail, colorfully titled the Red Brigade, approached the Twin Otter in a trailer pulled behind an agricultural tractor. Once within about 30 feet of the plane they opened fire with rifles, shotguns, and handguns. The resulting bloodbath precipitated Something Truly Horrible.
I recall news reports at the time saying that the cult had murdered the Congressman’s delegation with fully automatic AK47 rifles. It appears an uninformed media might have gotten the details wrong. All of the weapons catalogued from the Jonestown site were civilian firearms procured in the United States and smuggled into Guyana underneath false bottoms within shipping crates. In 1978 airport security was not really a thing.
At the behest of the State Department, the BATF traced as many of the recovered firearms as they could. There were rumors of as many as 176 guns at the compound, yet only 31 were ever documented. The handguns included a Walther PPK, three S&W .38-caliber revolvers, a Ruger .357 Magnum revolver, two inexpensive .22 wheelguns, a Ruger .22-caliber semiautomatic, and a Colt .25ACP pocket pistol.
The long guns included a GI M1 Carbine, a Ruger 10/22, a Browning slide-action .30-06, a Winchester .243 bolt-action rifle, a Sears Model 54 .30-30, a Remington 742 .308, a Winchester Model 88 .308, a Remington 700 in .308, a Remington 788 in .308, and a Winchester .30-30 lever-action saddle gun.
These guns represented a fairly typical cross-section of civilian-owned firearms drawn from 1970’s America. In each case, they were purchased legally by cult members and then smuggled into the compound in Guyana illicitly. What became of the other weapons rumored to have been there is anybody’s guess if they were ever there at all.
The Rest of the Story
The nine-man Red Brigade hit squad was nothing if not efficient. Congressman Ryan was shot more than twenty times. When word of the murders got back to the compound Jones, called on his followers to partake of a lethal concoction of Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan mixed in with Flavor Aid drink powder. Jones referred to this lethal brew as “the medication.”
While the colloquial term “Drink the Kool-Aide” has come to mean any circumstance wherein someone voluntarily partakes of something unlikely or stupid, in this case most of the victims were just flat-out murdered. Security personnel armed with guns and crossbows ensured that the poisoning proceeded in a fairly orderly fashion.
Jim Jones made a 44-minute cassette tape recording of his appellations to his followers to kill themselves in real time. The audio is available on Wikipedia and is absolutely surreal. Jones’ reassuring monotone stands in stark contrast to the obvious terror of the moment. He does at one point refer to a machinegun in his unhinged discourse, but I could find no evidence of such weapons in my research.
918 people died, some 304 of whom were children. Most of those succumbed to the poisoned Flavor Aid that was either ingested or forcibly injected via syringe. Jones himself went down with a bullet to the head, either self-inflicted or otherwise, at age 47.
Larry Layton, the man who fired the handgun in the Cessna, was the only survivor prosecuted as a result of the carnage. He was ultimately paroled in 2002. The group attempted to leave their accumulated assets, more than $7 million, to the Communist Party of the USSR. On the death tape, cult members are still asking about an airplane that they hoped might arrive to “take them off to Russia.”
This loss of life was the single worst case of mass death in American history prior to 911. The Jonestown tragedy serves as an extraordinary example of what results when true darkness is unfettered within the hearts of men.