On November 18, 1978, one of the most tragic events in history took place in Jonestown, a commune founded by Jim Jones, pastor and founder of People’s Temple. On that day, 918 people lost their lives in a mix of collective suicide and murder.
Jim Jones’ Utopian Project
The Jonestown project began in 1956 in the US state of Indiana. Jones promoted egalitarian ideals and attracted a large following, offering fraudulent “miracle” cures, imposing modest dress on worshippers, and distributing free food. His approach attracted people from different racial and social backgrounds.
The move to California and growing suspicions
In the 1960s, Templo Popular moved to California, in search of an environment that was more open to the ideals preached by Jones. The movement gained popularity and attracted the attention of the powerful, such as First Lady Rosalynn Carter. However, the sect has also aroused suspicion and investigation by the American media due to reports from dissidents about the pastor’s messianic and dictatorial style.
Seeking refuge in Jonestown, Guyana
Due to increasing scrutiny, Jones decided to seek refuge in Guyana, where he obtained permission to create an isolated commune in 1974. Jonestown was built in the middle of the jungle, with a school, bungalows, central pavilion and areas for growing food. The inhabitants of the commune had only a shortwave radio as a means of contact with the outside world.
Rumors of dictatorial regime and the “revolutionary suicide”
There were reports that Jones imposed a dictatorial regime on Jonestown, with severe punishments and the presence of armed guards to prevent escapes. The pastor also claimed that the American security services were conspiring against Jonestown and that a solution was “revolutionary suicide”. This practice would have been tested in assemblies.
Deputy Leo Ryan’s visit and the tragic outcome
In 1978, US Congressman Leo Ryan, concerned about reports from relatives of commune members, traveled to Guyana with a delegation to visit Jonestown. After negotiations to enter the site, the visit took place on November 17. The following day, Ryan and four other people were shot dead on an airstrip next to the settlement. A few hours later, the collective suicide took place.
Jonestown’s Legacy and Current Controversies
After the tragic event, Guyanese authorities found Jim Jones dead from a gunshot wound to the head, in a position suggesting suicide. Of the inhabitants of Jonestown, only 35 survived. Four decades later, the tragedy still provokes controversy in Guyana. Some want the site to be exploited as a tourist spot, similar to former Nazi concentration camps in Europe. However, the Guyanese government has refused to consider this possibility.
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