From Beloved Preacher to Madman and Mass Suicide: the Dark Descent of Jim Jones and Jonestown

The Jonestown massacre of 1978 -- which happened 41 years ago today -- is the largest mass suicide in modern history

01 of 09

Jim Jones: Murderous Cult Leader Was Once Champion for Downtrodden

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Before he became infamous as a murderous cult leader who led more than 900 of his Peoples Temple followers to suicide, Jim Jones (pictured in November 1978) was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden who preached a message of racial harmony and equality.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former Vice President Walter Mondale and California Gov. Jerry Brown lauded Jones’ then-Northern California-based church for its charitable efforts — such as drug treatment, free college tuition for impoverished youth and clothing giveaways.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown once described him as “an American Gandhi.”

In a 2017 interview with PEOPLE, Jones biographer Jeff Guinn said, “Most demagogues work from a negative angle, but Jones recruited from the aspect of, ‘Let’s all work together and make this a positive world.’ ”

02 of 09

Church Moves to Jonestown Compound in Guyana

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Over time, whispers of Jones’ drug use and sexual affairs with male and female congregants began to surface as he sought to control every aspect of his followers’ lives. Jones began to surround himself with bodyguards and took to wearing dark sunglasses at all times.

In 1977, after a scathing and meticulously reported magazine piece on Jones’ physical and emotional abuse of his followers, he moved them to a 3,800-acre jungle compound in South America (pictured in November 2011) that he’d leased from the government of Guyana, promising a vision of utopia.

03 of 09

Tracy Parks: Childhood Jonestown Member Sensed Evil

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Jonathan Sprague/Redux

For as long as she can remember, Tracy Parks' life revolved around Jones and his church. Her parents, Jerry and Patty Parks, joined the Peoples Temple in 1966, having been drawn by the ministry’s eclectic gospel of Christianity, socialist politics and racial equality.

But Tracy (pictured in November 2016) always sensed darkness in the group, from the armed guards who stood watch over worship services to how Jones would stomp on Bibles and rant against the government.

“Even as a child, sitting in these meetings,” Tracy recalls, “I’d look at all the adults and think, ‘What’s wrong with these people? How can you think this is okay?’ ”

04 of 09

Jonestown Was ‘the Closest Thing to Hell on Earth’

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Tracy, along with her parents and sister, reluctantly arrived in Jonestown in April 1978. Very quickly, they discovered it was far from the paradise Jones promised.

“That place was the closest thing to hell on earth,” she remembers.

Within hours after the family’s arrival, Tracy’s father, Jerry (pictured with Tracy in 1978), announced he wanted to return to California. Tracy looked on in horror as Jones goaded some followers into beating him.

“I dare you to try to escape,” Jones, who by then had become addicted to a range of narcotics, would threaten his followers.

05 of 09

Congressman Tries to Help Members Leave Cult

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Greg Robinson/San Francisco Examiner/AP

Back in San Francisco, pressure from worried relatives of Jonestown members forced authorities to investigate Jones, who was being accused of crimes including abuse, kidnapping and money laundering.

In November 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan (pictured that same month) arrived at Jonestown. After hearing from members that they were being held against their will, he offered to escort via plane those who wanted to leave back to the U.S.

06 of 09

Congressman and 4 Others Slain on Airstrip While Trying to Leave

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Courtesy William Chaffin

Among those who wanted to flee Jonestown were six members of the Parks family. But before their planes could depart Guyana, the passengers were ambushed by gunmen sent by Jones.

Ryan, three journalists and Tracy’s mother, Patty (pictured hours earlier), were killed in the gunfire.

As 12-year-old Tracy beheld the bodies scattered around her, her father said, “Run. I’ll take care of your mother.”

Tracy and her sister, Brenda, sprinted into the dense rainforest to hide.

07 of 09

Followers Die After Drinking Cyanide-Laced Punch

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David Hume Kennerly/Getty

After the airstrip shooting, Jones summoned his congregation to the compound’s open-air pavilion, telling them that soldiers would soon be “parachuting” into Jonestown to kill everyone. He urged them to drink a cyanide-laced punch that had been prepared in nearby vats.

“Don’t be afraid to die,” he said in a disturbing 45-minute audio recording found afterward. “This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide.”

Pictured: some of the dead at the compound afterward.

08 of 09

908 Followers Dead, Including 304 Children

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The mass suicide is considered the largest in modern U.S. history. (Pictured are American military personanel with coffins of the victims.)

The death toll at Jonestown was 908 followers, a number that includes 304 children, whose parents forced cyanide-filled syringes into the mouths of those too young to sip from cups.

Tracy Parks, now a 41-year-old California day care owner, believes that to characterize the massacre as a “suicide” fails to acknowledge the children who were killed — along with Jones’ violent threats and coerciveness toward the adults who died, many of whom drank the poison under threat of armed guards.

“This wasn’t suicide,” she insists. “This was murder. Those children didn’t want to die and neither did many of the adults.”

09 of 09

Jones Revealed His Abusive Nature Incrementally: Biographer

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Jones’ biographer, Jeff Guinn, who wrote The Road to Jonestown in 2017, wondered how seemingly intelligent, high-minded people could succumb to Jones (pictured in January 1976).

The answer, Guinn said, was that Jones revealed his controlling and abusive nature incrementally. Guinn used this familiar analogy: If a frog is placed in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if the frog is placed in lukewarm water that is slowly heated to a boil, it will stay until it dies.

By the time Jones’ nature revealed itself — and, eventually, his plans of “revolutionary suicide” — church members were in too deep, according to Guinn. It was easier to concoct rationalizations than face reality head-on.

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