On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 people living in the intentional community (a polite way of saying commune) Jonestown committed suicide. Their weapon of choice? A grape-flavored drink mixed with cyanide. While it wasn't Kool-Aid (generic — they were socialists!), it is where the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" originated.
Before Jonestown became a full-blown commune in the jungle, it was a church called the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones was its founder and powerful leader, though he also went by "Dad." Not a sign at all! With a congregation heavily dominated by African-Americans from poor communities in San Francisco, his goal was to care for parishioners. And in many ways, he did. Social programs were created; sexism was preached against; and racial integration was supported.
Nobody saw it as a cult, though. Nobody wanted to. To find out why,
Jim Jones, who was head of San Francisco's Housing Authority, was active in San Francisco politics and, unlike other cult leaders, in touch with the outside world. But when reports of sexual abuse, public beatings, and staged healings emerged, Jones moved the group to Guyana, a former British Colony in South America.
California congressman Leo Ryan visited the commune with reporters after concern from family members at home arose. It was a tense trip. Dozens of members pleaded to leave with him and several did. Jones's men followed them to the airport and shot at their plane. The congressman was killed along with several reporters and escapees.
Later that day Jones told the 900 remaining members that they had no choice but to commit "revolutionary suicide." And all but a few, who pretended to be dead, did. Until 9/11, it was the greatest single, non-natural disaster loss of American life.