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November 18th 1978: Jonestown Massacre

On this day in 1978, 918 people died in a mass murder-suicide led by Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. The self-ordained Christian minister Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s and relocated to California in the 1960s. Here the Temple gained a reputation for charitable works and egalitarianism, and the group’s membership expanded to almost 20,000 by some reports. However concern began to mount as accounts surfaced of how Jones forced his followers out of their belongings and about violence in the community; the group increasingly came to be seen as a cult. In 1977, following this negative media attention, the paranoid Jones relocated with over 1,000 members of the group to the Guyanese jungle in South America to establish a utopian community. However the Jonestown settlement proved far from utopian, with gruelling work regimes and their movements and activities being monitored by armed guards. Jones himself became increasingly unstable and megalomaniacal, comparing himself to Jesus Christ and sitting on a throne. On November 18th some of Jones’s gunmen murdered US Congressman Leo Ryan and several reporters, who had gone to the community to investigate allegations of abuse and people being held against their will. Faced with retribution for the murders, Jones told his followers they would be tortured by soldiers, and ordered them to drink poison-laced punch. The murder-suicide led to the deaths of over 900 people, including almost 300 children who were the first to be fed the deadly concoction. The next day the authorities found hundreds of dead bodies, including Jones who had seemingly shot himself. Until the 9/11 attacks, the Jonestown Massacre marked the single largest loss of American civilian lives in a non-natural disaster.