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Death at Jonestown

The Story

It is a story that defies belief: hundreds of Americans in a jungle commune in Guyana are dead, cajoled by leader Jim Jones into drinking a poison-laced fruit drink on Nov. 18, 1978. They were members of the People's Temple, a religious group that left the United States to create a community they called Jonestown. The tragedy at Jonestown has also taken the life of a U.S. congressman Leo Ryan, who flew there to investigate claims that the People's Temple was a cult. As Ryan's party of journalists, concerned family members and 14 Jonestown defectors prepared to leave a nearby airstrip, a team of Temple security guards sprayed them with gunfire, killing five. Ryan's visit and death triggered Jones to gather his flock together for a mass suicide ritual during which members drank from a vat of fruit punch mixed with potassium cyanide, potassium chloride and a sedative. Within five minutes they were dead, leaving a scene littered with bodies piled upon bodies. In this clip from CBC Television's Front Page Challenge, CBC reporter Terence McKenna tells the panel about surveying the horrifying scene and talking with survivors of Jonestown. 

Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: Dec. 1, 1978
Guest(s): Terence McKenna
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Paul Hellyer, Betty Kennedy, Gordon Sinclair, Jr.
Duration: 10:12

Did You know?

• Rev. Jim Jones started the People's Temple in his home state of Indiana in the late 1950s. But his church's embrace of people from all races and classes, particularly poor African-Americans, garnered him so much disapproval that in 1965 he moved the congregation to Ukiah, Calif., north of San Francisco.

• In 1974 the People's Temple began building clearing the jungle to build Jonestown on a parcel of land leased from the government of Guyana. About 1,000 members moved there in 1977, believing they were creating an agricultural and socialist utopia.


• Members who managed to leave Jonestown described a place where Jones fostered a siege mentality and told members he was their only hope for salvation. He virtually sealed off all contact with the outside world, dictated who members could associate with and conducted bizarre loyalty tests called "white nights" during which members drank what they believed was poison.


• A total of 909 members of the People's Temple - many of them entire families - died at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978. In Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, four more members died in a murder-suicide after being notified by radio of Jones's wishes.


• Some members escaped death by running away from the settlement, hiding or sleeping unseen in their cabins. Another group, including two of Jim Jones's sons, were in Georgetown for a basketball tournament.

• On the Kaituma airstrip near Jonestown, three journalists and a People's Temple member attempting to leave were killed along with congressman Leo Ryan.


• Contrary to popular belief, the cyanide was not mixed with Kool-Aid. Empty packets of a similar brand, Fla-Vor-Aid, were found at the site.


• Jim Jones himself did not drink the mixture: he and two others died of gunshot wounds. 



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