When Guyanese authorities arrived at Jonestown on November 19, 1978, the only survivor present was Hyacinth Thrash, a 76-year-old black woman who had joined Peoples Temple in Indianapolis. After hearing stories of violence on the airstrip, Thrash hid under her bed — and then fell asleep through the rest of the day. As she later recalled, “When I got outside, it was like a ghost town. I didn’t see or hear anybody … I said, 'Oh, God, they came and they killed them all, and I’s the onliest one alive! Why didn’t they take me, too?’”
An Uninvited Guest
U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown on November 17 without an invitation. Jim Jones had stalled the California politician’s delegation for days in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, and for another several hours at Port Kaituma. Yielding to pressure from his attorneys and some in the Temple leadership — who argued that they had nothing to hide — Jones eventually allowed Ryan, several relatives of Peoples Temple members, and the news media covering the story into the community.
Happy, or In Jeopardy?
American authorities had visited Jonestown before, but always announced days in advance. According to survivors, official visits were days when they were given half a day off work and meat to eat, and were authentically happy. For Ryan’s visit, the camp rock band, the Jonestown Express, played for a joyful crowd. In a private meeting after the festivities, Jones complained to Ryan and the journalists about American government interference in his church.
“Help Us Get Out”
The next morning, Ryan invited anyone who wanted to leave to join him on his return trip to the United States. Publicly, none of the residents had asked to leave, but a reporter showed Jones a note he was given: “Help us get out of Jonestown.” Jones’s temper flared. Ryan and his aide, Jackie Speier, canvassed the crowd. Edith Parks, an elderly woman, stepped forward, and then the rest of her family asked to go home as well. “My most vivid memory — it’s one that haunts me still — is of a couple pulling on the arms of their child, who was 3 or 4,” Speier recalls. “One parent wanted to leave; the other wanted to stay, and the child was caught between.”
Residents gathered outdoors watching the truck with Ryan and the defectors leave Jonestown. Sixteen people asked to leave, and Ryan volunteered to stay behind as the truck made its first run to the airstrip. Then came the shouts. Congressman Ryan staggered forward, his shirt covered in blood. He had been attacked by a man with a knife, but other Peoples Temple members had pulled his assailant from him; the blood belonged to the attacker who had cut his own hand in the melee. Unhurt, Ryan hurried to join the truck.
Attack at the Airstrip
The size of the group at the airstrip had swelled with the number of defectors, and a second plane had to be chartered from Georgetown, delaying their departure. As the group waited, a vehicle drove out of the jungle. Peoples Temple members rode up and fired at the group around the airplanes. NBC cameraman Bob Brown, correspondent Don Harris, San Francisco Chronicle photographer Greg Robinson, defector Patricia Parks and Congressman Leo Ryan were all killed. Eleven others were shot. They survived by pretending to be dead until the killers drove off.
The Only Person Arrested
The people outside the planes weren’t the only victims. Larry Layton, who had pretended to defect but instead pulled out a gun when the firing began outside, wounded two before he was overpowered and disarmed. Layton would be the only person arrested for the crimes of that day.
After the Attack
The party abandoned on the runway found what shelter they could. No medical care was available but the group obtained a bottle of rum from a local disco as a crude anesthetic. A rescue plane arrived the next day and the wounded were airlifted to be treated at hospitals in the United States.
Deaths in Georgetown
In Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, Peoples Temple members, including Jones’ own sons, who were in town to play an exhibition basketball game, were given orders over the radio to commit suicide. One loyal member did, using a knife to slit the throats of her three children before killing herself.
Deaths in the Compound
Back in Jonestown, Jim Jones played his endgame. The community had practiced “revolutionary suicide,” drinking from vats of Fla-Vor-Aid they had been told was laced with poison. This day, the vats contained Valium to render people unconscious and cyanide to kill them.
The proceedings were taped and later transcribed by the FBI. A recording documents Jones saying: “My opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back.”
First, Temple members gave the drink to babies and young children, using syringes to squirt doses into the back of their mouths.
On tape an unidentified woman is heard to say: “There’s nothing to worry about, so everybody keep calm and try and keep your children calm. And the oldest children can help love the little children and reassure them. They’re not crying from pain. It’s just a little bitter tasting but, they’re not crying out of any pain.”
But the cyanide worked faster than the valium. Parents watched their children shudder painfully before dying.
Jones, invoking the Temple’s enemies as he had so many times before, said: “They invaded our privacy, they came into our home, they followed us 6,000 miles away. ... the Congressman’s dead … please get us some medication. It’s simple, it’s simple, there’s no convulsions with it, it’s just simple, just please get it before it’s too late.”
Anyone who had any doubts must have found the will to live sapped by the despair of watching more than two hundred children die. They lined up for their drinks.
Jones told them, “Don’t be afraid to die … if these people land out here, they’ll torture some of our children here. They’ll torture our people, they’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this.”
918 People Died
At the end of the day, 918 people had died in Guyana: five at the Port Kaituma airstrip, four in Georgetown, and 909 men, women and children in Jonestown.
A Suicide Note
They had been manipulated by Jones, exploited and confused. But to the end, the congregation of Peoples Temple believed in the promise of progressive social changes that seemed just out of reach of a flawed, cynical world. A suicide note, probably written by English teacher Richard Tropp, reads, in part:
“Please try to understand. Look at all. Look at all in perspective. Look at Jonestown, see what we have tried to do — this was a monument to life, to the [re]newal of the human spirit, broken by capitalism, by a system of exploitation and injustice. Look at all that was built by a beleaguered people. We did not want this kind of ending. We wanted to live, to shine, to bring light to a world that is dying for a little bit of love. To those left behind of our loved ones, many of whom will not understand, who never knew this truth, grieve not, we are grateful for this opportunity to bear witness — a bitter witness — history has chosen our destiny in spite of our own desire to forge our own. We were at a cross/purpose with history. But we are calm in this hour of our collective leave-taking. As I write these words people are silently amassed, taking a quick potion, inducing sleep, relief.”
Jones himself did not drink the poison; he was found dead of a gunshot wound.
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