On November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat from San Francisco, California, flew to Guyana to investigate charges that members of the religious group had been brainwashed and were under the dictatorial rule of Jones.
While the Ryan party were greeted warmly and shown around by Jones, there was clearly something amiss. Ryan, and his party of 18 journalists and photographers, discovered a fearful, depressed group of followers. Some members were too afraid to speak, some were angry and saw the Congressman's visit as troubles brought in from outside, and others complained of the dire situation within the compound.
When Jones learned about some of his followers' reactions, and that some of them wished to leave, he was angry and believed that those who wanted to leave the community would "lie" and destroy Jonestown. Jones and many other members of the People's Temple saw themselves as a family that had the right and the duty to stay together. Like most families they felt that they had the duty to defend itself against people who tried to take away its members.
A man attacked the congressman with a knife while one couple argued whether they should go with Ryan's party. Realizing that the visiting party along with the defectors were in danger, Ryan's group and 16 People's Temple members left Jonestown and hurried to a nearby airstrip, where they planned to use the two planes waiting there and fly to the Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.
While boarding the plane, two people were wounded when a loyal Jones member took out a gun and started shooting. Then Leo Ryan, three journalists and one 18-year-old Jonestown defector were shot and killed when several Jonestown members came out of the jungle to attack the escaping party. One of the planes was able to take off and go to Georgetown for help. They carried with them a filmed footage of the attack, a first glimpse of Jonestown for the outside world.
The Guyanese army took a day to cut its way through the jungle, and when they reached the compound, they found all its 914 inhabitants dead, including 276 children. The victims had been forced to drink a mixture of Flavor-aid (a drink similar to Kool-aid) and cyanide. Jones and some of the others were killed by gunshots to the head. Many sources (, ) claim that some bodies bore the marks of hypodermic needles with which the poison was injected into unwilling victims, although the numbers vary widely. The precise circumstances are the focus of a number of conspiracy theories (see, for example, ).
Jonestown itself became a "ghost town" after 1978 and was mostly destroyed by a fire in the mid-1980s, after which the ruins were left to decay; as of 2004 there is little to mark the site of one of the most notorious mass suicides in history.
- Troubled Society (series): Cults by Renardo Barden
- Discusses in general, the different types of cults, how they begin and prosper, deprogramming, the 60s, and detailed examination of events surrounding cult leaders Charles Manson and Jim Jones.
- The Need to Know Library (series): Everything You Need to Know About Cults by Sean Dolan
- Existence of cults, what it is and what it does, understanding cults, process of joining and leaving cults, glossary, where to go for help, and recommended further readings.
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