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Episode 19: Jonestown Mass Suicide

The Peoples Temple was an American Communist Evangelical church led by the charismatic preacher Jim Jones. Due to the persecution of communists, the church had left the U.S. and built a compound in northwestern Guyana, Africa, known as Jonestown. Relatives worried about their family members in the church had written to their Congressman, Leo Ryan, asking him to investigate the group. Ryan and a group of other concerned parties flew to Jonestown and visited the compound in November 1978. When they left, on November 18, a few members of the church requested to go with them. On the airstrip, as Ryan’s plane was about to leave, a cult member who had infiltrated the group began shooting, killing Ryan and five others.

“How very much I’ve tried my best to give you the good life,” begins Jim Jones in the recording. Jones realized the murders meant his church had come to an end, and that evening he instructed his followers to commit mass suicide, an act that had been rehearsed a number of times previously in what the church called its “White Nights.” Cyanide and phenobarbitol was mixed in vats with Kool-Aid, and everyone drank from the vats. A total of 909 individuals died in Jonestown; a third of the victims were children.

On the tape, which captures the first 45 minutes of the event, Jones, in great despair, refers to “revolutionary suicide.” Although young children can be heard crying in the background, most of the adults express pleasure that they are finally entering the kingdom of heaven, and they exhort one another to be brave and to die with dignity and without fear. One woman who suggests they try to get airlifted to the Soviet Union is soon argued down, and she comes to realize the folly of her idea. Jones, who is addressed as “Dad” by his followers, speaks with a lisp, sounding tired and defeated. The distortion towards the end of the tape adds an additionally creepy element to the recording.

Listen to the recording here.

Transcript of the recording

Collection of articles about the Jonestown tape by Josef Dieckman