“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” We have all heard this phrase. Young and old, it has become a part of our popular vernacular meaning don’t follow the crowd or become engulfed by an idea outside of yourself. For many this incantation calls up the horrifying image of the hundreds in Jonestown, Guyana who did drink the Flavor Aid, a similar powdered drink laced with poison. A cult that grew to epic proportions and shocked the world with the news of hundreds dead left this simple linguistic legacy. But did you know they got their start in the Hoosier heartland? Learn about Jim Jones and Jonestown in a special Indianapolis event at the Indiana State Library Tuesday, July 27 at Noon in Indianapolis downtown.
Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple in 1978. Born in Crete, Indiana in the 1930s, Jones Jones was the son of a Ku Klux Klan member. He graduated from Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana in 1948. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana and earned a degree in secondary education from Butler University in 1961. During that time, Jones became involved with with several different religious organizations. Attracted to religion, because of his own social difficulties, Jones worked with a Methodist church in Indianapolis.
He first encountered faith based healing at a Seventh Day Baptist Church. The combination of large crowds with open wallets impressed Jones, who decided to begin his own organization. He founded the Peoples Temple during the mid 1950s in the building that is now the Phoenix Theatre in the Indianapolis cultural district of Mass Ave. It practiced “apostolic socialism.” The church grew in numbers quickly, as Jones preached integrationist views. By 1965, the group transplanted to Redwood Valley, California.
By the early 1970s, the Peoples Temple grew exponentially, opening churches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it eventually created its headquarters. The move to San Francisco for the Peoples Temple spring boarded the group into political activism. Instrumental in the election of Mayor George Moscone, Jones was ultimately rewarded for the victory with a new title: Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.
Unlike other more isolated cult leaders, Jones enjoyed relationships with extremely high profile politicians in the United States including Vice Presidential candidate Walter Mondale, Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and Assemblyman Willie Brown. However, a media backlash in 1973, with critical articles about the Peoples Temple lead to the defection of eight cult members and a dramatic shift in policy for Jones. In an effort to respond to the negative publicity, Jones created a “missionary plot,” jumping immediately on Guyana, South America. After researching the country’s economy and its extradition policy with the United States, Jones town was created as an agricultural mission for the group.
Chosen for its socialist politics and large black population, Guyana was the perfect place for the Peoples Temple to establish a large base in a climate that would accept the outwardly projected tolerance and acceptance of integration. The settlement was constructed by a small group of members from the cult. Viewed as both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary from media scrutiny” the new location spanned more than 3,000 acres. Jones organized a mass migration to his newly created site, claiming to establish as benevolent communist community.
The community was shrouded in a veil of Jones’ own creation. Each day his members were subjected to school study and night time lectures focusing on Jones’ ideas of revolution. By 1978, his health began to deteriorate rapidly. Consumed by mental illness and drug use, he controlled the camp through mind control and behavior modification techniques. Blaring his own voice from loud speakers around the camp, either live or recorded, Jones made his presence and his power constantly known. Due to power nutrition and over crowding, Jonestown members were plagued by many medicinal problems.
Although Jonestown had no prison or form of capital punishment, members were often subjected to horrible punishments including imprisonment in a 6x4x3 foot plywood box and spending the night at a bottom of a well, sometimes upside down. If members tried to escape, they were drugged with a range of medicines including Thorazine and Valium. Armed guards patrolled day and night, turning the settlement into a kind of prison camp.
Prior to the mass suicide, Jones held White Nights assembling members and placing a vote for mass suicide on the table. On two occasions when the vote for mass suicide won out, Jones’ simulated mass suicide was rehearsed. The complicated story continues, with Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit to investigate Jonestown after the mysterious death of his brother (a former cult member).
His delegation, consisting of eighteen people including members of government and the media, shot footage of Jonestown, interviewing members who said they were being held against their will. As defectors came forward, Ryan’s delegation aided in the attempts to transfer them to the United States. As the group returned to an airstrip in preparation to fly back to the States, they were attacked and murdered by Temple members. With knowledge of the impending media backlash, Jones put his mass suicide plot in motion, concocting a metal vat of Grape Flavor Aid poisoned with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide and Phenergan. Members were forced to drink or faced death by shooting, leading to the massacre of all nine hundred plus remaining Temple members.
A tragedy in the eyes of the entire world, Jonestown goes down as one of the most horrific instances of violence in recent history. Hear the whole story of the Hoosier born Jim Jones and Jonestown at the Indiana State Library, Tuesday, July 27 at Noon.
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Jim Jones and Jonestown
Tuesday, July 27 at Noon
Indiana State Library
315 West Ohio Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202