‘The Road to Jonestown’ tells horrifying tale of mass suicide

Jeff Guinn, author of the best-selling “Manson,” delves into the 1978 tragedy in Guyana, where more than 900 church members drank cyanide-laced drinks.

“The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple”

by Jeff Guinn

Simon & Schuster, 531 pp., $28

In the end, Jim Jones never drank the Kool-Aid.

Jones, the charismatic founder of Peoples Temple, famously led a fanatic group of followers to carve a compound out of the Guyana jungle in South America. In 1978, facing increasing pressure from authorities, he convinced more than 900 church members to drink cyanide-laced drinks in a horrifying act of mass suicide.

In “The Road to Jonestown,” Jeff Guinn, the author of a national best-seller on mass murderer Charles Manson, tells the fascinating story of Jones and his church. It all started innocently enough. Jones, a young minister from Indianapolis, preached a curious blend of gospel, Marxism and racial integration — all leavened with miracle “cures” and southern-tinged revivalism.

Jones taught and led his flock to serve those in need. Peoples Temple groups fed the poor, clothed the homeless and worked hard to integrate his church. He found jobs for church members and intervened to help with problems small and large. In the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s, Jones attracted an increasing number of devoted followers who donated their salaries, personal property and even homes.
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Guinn is a master storyteller with a unique expertise in murderous psychotics. The book reads like a thriller, each page forcing your attention to the next as the Peoples Temple slowly slides from groundbreaking progressivism toward madness. As Guinn notes, “there was something unique about Jones and those who chose to follow him. Traditionally, demagogues succeed by appealing to the worst traits in others … Jim Jones attracted followers by appealing to the best in their nature, a desire for everyone to share equally.”

Jones, always a dominating figure, increasingly demanded control and warned of a coming apocalyptic confrontation with outsiders. He led more than 900 of his followers to Guyana, where they hacked a rustic compound out of the sweltering jungle and Jones exercised nearly complete control.
With parents and relatives expressing increasing concern, Congressman Leo Ryan led a delegation to investigate, accompanied by reporters and distraught relatives. Jones concluded that an invasion was imminent.

Seeking to send a message of defiance, he looked to the historical example of the Jewish fighters at the walled fortress of Masada. Surrounded by Roman legions, they famously committed mass suicide rather than submit to inevitable loss. It was, to put it mildly, an inapt comparison.

Jones brought events to a crisis on Nov. 18, 1978, by sending members to gun down Ryan and others waiting at the nearby airfield. With a self-made crisis now upon them, Jones laced Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid as was widely reported) with cyanide and urged his followers to drink it. They started with over 200 babies and children. Jones himself used a handgun.
Government investigators arrived later, stunned by the eerie silence covering hundreds of bodies, already swollen in the tropical heat. It got worse. There were two other layers of badly decomposed bodies below. Snow shovels were required to remove them all. The final death count was 918. They are all buried in a mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. Jones’ body was cremated and his ashes deposited in the Atlantic Ocean.

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