Nov. 18, 2022

The Jonestown Massacre

The Jonestown Massacre

November 18, 1978. Cult leader Jim Jones leads 918 members of the Peoples Temple in a mass suicide.


Cold Open

This “Best of” episode of History Daily originally aired on November 18th, 2021

A listener note: This episode contains references to violence, suicide, and harm to children. Listener discretion is advised.

It’s November 18th, 1978.

In the remote jungles of Guyana, in South America, a 12-year-old girl runs for her life.

Branches tear her clothes as she staggers through the dense undergrowth. She has the crazed, disoriented look of someone who’s just woken up from a bad dream.

Since last year, the girl and her family have been living in a remote Guyana settlement called Jonestown, an agricultural commune run by a charismatic American preacher named Jim Jones; or as his followers call him: “Father”.

Jones claims that his church, the People’s Temple, is a peaceful organization. But just moments ago, when the little girl, her family, and others tried to leave the commune, Jones’ armed guards started shooting.

Now, she can still hear the sound of gunshots echoing through the jungle.

As she ducks and weaves through hanging vines, she sees quick flashes of the tragedy she just escaped. Her mother’s lifeless body soaked in blood. Her sister’s face covered in tears. The fear in her father’s eyes as he spoke a single word to her. Run.

Her sister got a head start. Now she’s running as fast as she can to catch up.

The two sisters will unite in the jungle. But by the time they’re rescued, the events of this day will be front-page news. The death of her mother – and the deaths of over 900 others –become a tragedy the world will know as the Jonestown Massacre.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast – every day – we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 18th:The Jonestown Massacre.

Act One: Jim, The Prophet

It’s November 17th, one day before the Jonestown Massacre.

A convoy of dump trucks rattle down a dirt road in the humid, unforgiving Guyanese jungle. Toucans and howler monkeys scream from the rainforest canopy as the vehicles shudder and lurch across the uneven ground.

Among the passengers is Leo Ryan, a 53-year-old congressman from California. He removes a handkerchief from the pocket of his khaki shirt and mops his sticky brow.

Ryan is on his way to Jonestown with a small group of aides, reporters, and an NBC camera crew. He’s been aware of the Peoples Temple, and Jim Jones, for some time.

He knows Jones founded the church back in the 1950s in the suburbs of Indianapolis, before moving to California, and setting up the Temple’s headquarters in San Francisco, near Ryan’s congressional district.

At its peak, the group had roughly 5,000 members, attracting former drug addicts and down-and-outs who saw the Temple as a way to salvation. Indeed, many have regarded the Peoples Temple as a positive force in society. The organization ran homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation facilities. The congregation is diverse, with many Black and Hispanic members who were enticed by the Temple’s message of racial equality. But as the Temple grew, so did Jim Jones’ influence.

Over the years, Ryan watched prominent San Francisco politicians like Harvey Milk and Mayor, George Moscone, seek Jones’ endorsement. But Ryan has always been skeptical. He’s heard rumors of Jones’ paranoia; of armed guards who protect him as he spreads his radical beliefs. Jones has described himself even as a prophet. And in his sermons – which often last eight or nine hours – he welcomes the impending “nuclear apocalypse” which will allow the Peoples Temple to build a “socialist utopia” on earth.

And then, in the late 1970s, several former members went on the record, speaking out about what was really going on behind closed doors. The defectors described Jones as a violent megalomaniac who would punish any perceived insubordination with public beatings and psychological torture. Members were forced to hand over their money and assets to the Temple. And anyone who attempted to leave the church was threatened with violence.

And then the defectors revealed that Jones was sending hundreds of his youngest recruits to the Temple’s agricultural outpost in Guyana, where they were subjected to exploitation and indoctrination.

The revelations were shocking. And after the story broke, Jones panicked. Fearing federal investigation, he rounded up about a thousand of his most loyal disciples and relocated to Guyana permanently.

Now, as Congressman Ryan’s truck carries him deeper and deeper into the tropical wilderness, he begins to understand why Jones moved his people so far away. From this 4,000-acre compound, thousands of miles from US jurisdiction, an unhinged cult leader could get away with anything: physical violence, exploitation, even sexual abuse.

After receiving letters from constituents about their sons and daughters who were coerced into following Jones to Guyana, Ryan knew he had to do something. So he wrote to the House Foreign Affairs Committee asking permission to travel to Jonestown and investigate the situation. His request was granted.

The State Department said the trip was unlikely to be dangerous. Still, one of Ryan’s aides, Jackie Speier, took out her last will and testament, just to be safe.

Soon, the convoy passes under a sign that reads: “Welcome to the Peoples Temple, Jonestown.” Farmers stop and stare as the trucks passes. They smile and wave. But their eyes – Ryan notices – are strangely vacant.

The convoy passes row after row of simple wooden cabins, eventually pulling up to the main pavilion – a large shed with a corrugated iron roof. There to greet them is Jim Jones, a tall man in a long red tunic and black sunglasses. He beams munificently and holds out his arms in peace.

But despite Jones’ performance, by the end of his visit, Congressman Ryan will see Jonestown for what it truly is: a prison where inhabitants are forced to work long hours in the sweltering heat of the jungle, cowed by the tyranny of the man they call “Father”. But it won’t be until he attempts to leave that Ryan will fully understand how brutal Jim Jones’ tyranny has become.

Act Two: Escape from Jonestown

It’s November 17th, and Congressman Ryan has just arrived in Jonestown.

After the warm greeting from Jim Jones, several residents of Jonestown take the congressman and his entourage on a tour of the commune. They show Ryan everything: the central pavilion, the sawmill, and school, the library, and hospital. Each stop on the tour testifies to their incessant refrain: this is a healthy and thriving settlement.

And later that night, Ryan and his companions are treated to an evening of live music and dancing. The atmosphere is one of merriment and good cheer. And Jones is a genial host. He comes up to Ryan during the festivities and assures him, “People here are happy for the first time in their lives.” And they certainly look happy.

But for Ryan, it’s not a question of appearances. Ryan has come to Jonestown to determine if its residents are free to leave the jungle. But as far as Ryan can tell, no one wants to leave. Or, at the very least, no one is willing to say so.

That is until one of the members slips the Congressman a note.

Help us, it reads. He’s keeping us here against our will.

Soon, a very different picture starts to emerge. Over the course of the evening, several more residents approach Ryan surreptitiously. They tell him that conditions in the camp are awful – much worse than Jones will allow him to see. The commune is plagued by mosquitos, sickness, and disease; by faulty plumbing; and by the relentless heat and humidity of the jungle.

Above all, they tell him, the people here are plagued by Jim Jones and his fanaticism.

Jones frequently makes his followers rehearse for something called ‘the white night’. It’s a ceremony where the nearly 1000 residents of Jonestown are startled awake by the sound of Jones’ voice, amplified through loudspeakers, preaching his extreme brand of Christianity; and extolling what he calls “the beauty of dying”. Then the residents are forced to drink what they are told is “poison” as a test of loyalty. The poison is fake. But one day - they are told - it will be real. 

It becomes immediately clear to Ryan that the Peoples Temple is a death cult. Most of the commune are completely under Jones’ spell, but there are some who want out; and who see the visiting congressman as their last chance of escape.

One by one, Ryan assures them not to worry. There’s plenty of room in the trucks. And plenty of room on the aircraft that will take them to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Ryan offers assurances that he will come back and rescue anyone who gets left behind.


At the compound, the following day, November 18th, 1978, there is a distinct tension in the air as Ryan and his companions prepare to leave. As many as forty defectors are joining them. Among them is Larry Layton, one of Jones’ closest assistants. His presence is the most surprising to the other departing cultists.

As the convoy prepares to leave, Jones looks on impassively. But underneath his blank impression, he is furious that his followers are abandoning him, and he’s worried what they’ll say when they get back to the United States. “They will destroy us”,he tells one member. But as the trucks pull away from the commune, Jones doesn’t say a word.

And as for those on board, freedom is mere moments away. They drive for seven miles to Port Kaituma, where small propeller airplanes sit waiting on the cracked sweep of tarmac that serves as a landing strip. Ryan and his companions help the defectors onto the smaller of the two planes.

But as they make their way toward the second plane, a tractor carrying several cult members pulls up to the landing strip. Without warning, they take out weapons and start shooting. Bullets rip through metal of the planes and screams of agony echo across the jungle.

Jackie Speier, one of Congressman Ryan’s aides, dives for cover. She peeks out from behind her hiding place to witness the carnage.

Inside the small plane, Jones’ assistant Larry Layton, who was only posing as a defector, shows his true colors when he pulls out a gun of his own and starts shooting the passengers in their seats.

Outside on the tarmac, some people manage to flee into the surrounding jungle. But most aren’t so lucky. Their bodies are strewn all over the airstrip. Among them, lying dead on the muddy ground, is Congressman Leo Ryan.

Act Three: Drinking the Flavor Aid

It’s November 18, 1978, moments after the slaughter on the airship.

Back at the commune, Jim Jones has just learned of the carnage. He knows that Ryan has been killed, and that other members of his party have escaped. So he orders his guards to round up his followers at the Central Pavillion. As they arrive, Jones is already there, waiting for them.

He tells his people that the time has come to perform their final act: the white night ritual. This time, the poison will be real. Jones and his inner circle have laced a large quantity of Flavor Aid with cyanide. As cups of the poisoned drink are handed out, Jones urges them to “Hurry, hurry”.

Some parents voluntarily poison their children. Others resist, only to have their babies ripped out of their arms. Most of the adults drink the poison willingly.

A journalist, who visits the site shortly after, will report that all of the bodies were face down, with their heads pointing towards Jones, who lay face up in the center, with a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. More than 900 innocent souls were lost at Jonestown; over 300 of them were children. It will be the single greatest loss of civilian life in American history until 9/11.

But there were also 87 survivors; including Tracy Parks, the 12-year-old girl who escaped running into the jungle. Tracey’s father and sister also survived, but her mother was not so lucky.

Jonestown is often described as a mass suicide. But Tracy Parks believes that’s not accurate. In a 2018 interview with People magazine, Tracy maintains, “This wasn’t suicide. This was murder.” And evidence suggests Tracy is right. Jonestown was a murder; with armed guards forcing people to drink poison against their will. Tracey explains, “Those children didn’t want to die and neither did many of the adults.”

Tracy often warns that people should never forget the Jonestown Massacre or the lesson it provides about the dangers of charismatic demagogues like Jim Jones. In an interview, Tracy recalled that Jones hung up a sign at church that read: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Tracy said, “I didn’t understand what that meant back then. But I do now.”


Next, on History Daily. November 21st, 164 BCE: Judas Maccabeus recaptures Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt and rededicates the Second Temple, an act commemorated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.