Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Blog #98: The Jonestown Memorial

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the tragedy in Jonestown.  Every year when this date rolls around, I always plan to do a blog post about it.  Then I promptly forget.  So here we are in 2020.

A brief history lesson for those unfamiliar with the story.  On November 18, 1978, 918 members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, South America committed mass suicide.  They did so at the behest of their leader James Warren Jones, who founded the organization in Indianapolis in 1955.  Jones ordered his followers to do so after a Congressional visit to their community, through which he believed they were about to be shut down. 

Jim Jones.
Following the visit, Jones made the ultimate decision, ignoring his followers suggestions that they either relocate to the Soviet Union or disband entirely.  Jones, an avowed socialist, told his followers to commit revolutionary suicide as he called it, saying "you can go down in history, saying you chose your own way to go, and it is your commitment to refuse capitalism and in support of socialism."  You can listen to his entire 45-minute decree here.

Jones ordered his followers to die by poison, in this case cyanide.  History and pop culture often tell us that they consumed it with Kool-Aid, but this was not the case.  The drink of choice was actually Flavor Aid, a Kool-Aid knock off.  Oh yeah!  Many were hesitant to drink the lethal concoction, so Jones gave them a choice - drink it or my guards will shoot you.  

While a handful of followers did survive, 918 died that day.  Of those, 412 bodies were unclaimed.  They were buried in a mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland California, the city from which Jones ran the People's Temple before its exodus to Guyana.  Jones himself was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.

In 2011, relatives of those who perished came together and created a memorial to the victims at Evergreen.  Four large slabs were placed atop the remains, on which are carved all 918 names.  

The very last name on the list is James Warren Jones.

This blogger, joined by friend Jonathan Daitch, visited the site in December 2017 to pay their respects. Daitch took the photos seen on this page.

Rest in peace.  And remember - don't drink the Flavor Aid.

Next week: The countdown to blog #100 continues.


  • For more than two decades after the tragedy, Jonestown remained the largest single loss of American civilian life at 918.  This would be eclipsed on September 11, 2001, when more than 3,000 Americans were killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

  • This blogger first became aware of Jonestown in the early 1980s via the documentary series In Search Of hosted by Leonard Nimoy.  You can watch the episode on Youtube.

  • The tragedy took place the day after the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special had its one and only broadcast on network television.  Watch it on Youtube.

  • The term "don't drink the Kool-Aid" has its origins with the tragedy.  Despite its reference to the wrong drink, its another way of saying think for yourself.

  • Evergreen Cemetery is also the official cemetery of the Hell's Angels biking group, who have their own section in the park. 

  • If you want to learn more about Jim Jones or the tragedy at Jonestown, take a voyage to your public library.  It's all in books.
      * The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and People's Temple
         Jeff Guinn.
      * Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People
         Tim Reiterman.
      * 1,000 Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown
         Julia Scheeres.

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