Skip Nav

Who Is Jim Jones?

How Crazed Cult Leader Jim Jones Orchestrated 1 of the Biggest Mass Murders in History

This season of American Horror Story sheds light on multiple infamous cult leaders, including Charles Manson, artist Andy Warhol, and Jim Jones, the founder of The People's Temple — one of the most intense and abominable cults out there. Founded in 1955 by the ordained pastor, it was initially used to spread messages of social change and racial equality — sounds sweet, right? During the '60s and '70s, People's Temple had nearly 5,000 members and the support of loads of liberal political figures, including Harvey Milk, California Governor Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and even First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In 1974, things took a turn in a way that not many people saw coming (but they probably should have).

The group moved to a property in Guyana, where they developed a community called Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, also known as "Jonestown." Jim Jones considered it both a "sanctuary" and "socialist paradise," and by late 1978, it boasted over 900 residents. Once members started leaving the cult, though, they started telling stories about being forced to watch Soviet propaganda films and work six days a week to keep up the crumbling buildings and overgrown fields.

Jones subjected followers to behavior modification and mind control techniques borrowed from North Korea and made them surrender their children into communal custody and call him "Dad." He lied to them about what was happening in the United States — including tales of African-Americans being herded into concentration camps — and made them do "suicide drills" in an attempt to prepare them for a government attack. Oh, and he also stole their money, to the tune of $65,000 a month in social security checks.

Sh*t hit the fan on Nov. 18, 1978, when San Francisco Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in an attempt to investigate claims of abuse. Many members expressed their desire to leave the cult with Ryan, and as the group headed to a local airstrip that afternoon, they were stopped by Temple "security guards" and shot. Congressman Ryan was killed, along with three journalists and one of the cult members.

What followed is what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre and what many consider a "mass murder": that evening, Jim Jones ordered his followers to drink grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide (and now you know where the expression "drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from). Jones instructed the children to drink first, basically ensuring that the parents and elders would have no reason to live. He also made sure that the area was "surrounded with armed guards with guns and crossbows," because he was an evil, evil monster. Jim Jones was found with a single bullet wound to the head, though it was never confirmed whether he shot himself or made a member of his congregation do so. A total of 918 people, including 276 children, died at Jonestown — and the killings marked the greatest single loss of American civilian life until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Image Source: Getty / Bettmann
Latest Celebrity & Entertainment