Mock Suicide Drills, Child Labor and Armed Guards: Inside Jonestown in the Days Before Mass Poisoning

More than 900 people died in the 1977 Jonestown massacre, the largest mass suicide in U.S. history

When Tracy Parks’ parents joined the Peoples Temple in 1966, they were drawn by the Christian gospel, socialist politics and racial equality espoused by the founding pastor, Jim Jones.

In the church’s early days, Jones was considered an advocate for the downtrodden and marginalized, drawing praise from a host of politicians. Former San Francisco Mayor even described him as “an American Gandhi.” (Jones and his cult are featured on People Magazine Investigates: Cults, airing tonight (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.)

But Tracy, who was 12 when more than 900 people died in the largest mass suicide in modern history in 1977, was always skeptical. She got an eerie feeling from the armed guards who stood watch over worship services and the way Jones would stomp on Bibles and rant against the government.

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

Girish Gupta/Reuters

As time went on, rumors escalated about Jones’ drug use and sexual affairs with male and female congregants, as well as stories about his controlling nature and abuse. Jones took to wearing sunglasses at all times, saying it was “because he sees too much without them on,” Tracy’s father Jerry Parks tells PEOPLE.

In 1977, after a scathing magazine article, Jones moved his congregants to Jonestown, a 3,800-acre jungle compound in Guyana, where he promised a vision of paradise.

It was the scandal that rocked America’s most storied political family and changed the course of presidential history. PEOPLE‘s first-ever podcast, Cover-Up, dives into the Chappaquiddick scandal and attempts to piece together what happened in the hours after Ted Kennedy’s car went over a narrow wooden bridge, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or wherever podcasts are available.

But the reality was far different, says Tracy. She and the other children spent eight hours a day working under the blistering sun with gun-toting guards watching her every move, while Jones’ paranoid, delusional rants played on the compound’s loudspeaker.

Worst of all were the mock suicide drills, called “White Nights,” in which Jones would rehearse mass suicides by making cult members drink from a mixture they thought contained fatal poison.


• For more on how Tracy Parks escaped Jonestown, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Kayt Jones

All of it culminated in a tragic chain of events that began when California Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown in response to complaints from relatives about Jones’ abuse.

When Ryan tried to take 15 members back to the Unites States with him on a plane, the group was ambushed by gunmen sent by Jones. Ryan, three journalists and Tracy’s mom, Patricia, were killed in the gunfire.

Tracy and her sister hid in the jungle as Jones summoned his congregation to the open-air pavilion, the same sight as the suicide rehearsals. Jones told them soldiers would soon be “parachuting” into Jonestown to kill everyone, and that it was time to drink the cyanide-laced punch that had been prepared in nearby vats.

People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs tonight (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.

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