Jonestown Revisited banner

'We Win When We Go Down': Jim Jones Commits the Largest Mass Murder-Suicide in History

In this series, Newsweek reconstructs the events leading to the Jonestown Massacre as it happened in 1978, day by day.

Warning: this article contains material that people may find distressing.

November 18, 1978: On Saturday, Jones gave the residents a rare free day. He wanted the community to appear relaxed. Teens played basketball, a girls' drill team practiced their routines to music, grade-schoolers watched American cartoons in the pavilion.

Ryan and Speier, who'd stayed in a guest house, rose early to continue their interviews.

The journalists arrived from their Port Kaituma lodgings mid-morning, angry that the Temple dump truck was two hours late retrieving them. The NBC crew set up for the final interview with Jones, who wore the same red shirt and sunglasses as the night before. NBC reporter Don Harris sat down to face him in a light-blue leisure suit. He again asked Jones about the rumors of false imprisonment and again Jones denied them. Harris then pulled out Gosney's note and handed it to the Temple leader. Jones read then looked at Harris with disgust.

"People play games, friend," Jones said. "They'll lie, they'll lie. What can I do about liars? Are you people gonna... leave us I just beg you. Please leave us."

An elderly woman wearing cat's-eye glasses walked over to the reporters. "We want to leave," Edith Parks said. There were seven people in her party. An aide went to the radio room to call for a second plane. Jones walked up to the Parks family, which had joined his church in Indianapolis. "Please don't go with him," he begged; it would look very bad if his oldest followers abandoned him now. "Wait a week or two and I'll give you your passports and $5,000 each."

It was a provocative offer. Like all Temple members, the Parks had signed over their worldly wealth to the church and would return home dirt poor. But they now knew better than to trust Jim Jones. Edith's son, Jerry Parks, didn't mince words. "You held us here as slaves and now we are getting out," he said.

The Temple leader turned and walked away. Gone was the gloating, the crowing, the preening vulgarity. He sat on a bench, alone, his shoulders slumped.

Edith Bogue Jonestown
Edith Bogue talks to Jim Jones at Jonestown. The Bogue family (except one) left Jonestown on the 18th, and survived the massacre. The Jonestown Institute

More residents came forward. All the Bogue family except 19-year-old Marilee, a true believer. All of the Simon family except the mother. Al Simon tried to lead his three young kids to the waiting dump truck, but Charles Garry stopped him—he couldn't just take the kids away from their mother. Ryan volunteered to stay behind to negotiate the matter.

At 2:30 p.m., the newsmen and fourteen defectors stood in the truck bed, anxious to go. The driver got out to speak with Jones and his security guards and then returned and drove the truck into a deep ditch. As the anxious passengers waited for a bulldozer to pull it out, shouts came from the pavilion. The reporters sprinted over. Congressman Ryan's shirt was bloodied. As he was discussing the custody problem with the lawyers, he said, a large number of residents surged forward and said they wanted to leave with him. He was taking down their names when a burly resident ran up behind him and pressed a knife to his throat. Onlookers pulled the assailant away; the blood on his shirt was from his attacker, who'd cut his hand in the melee. Jones watched the altercation as if he were in a trance and afterward said, to nobody in particular, "I wish I had been killed."

Sensing the high level of tension in the camp and worried about further violence, Garry and Lane convinced Ryan to leave. As the congressman walked toward the dump truck, a last-minute defector joined him in a long green poncho: Larry Layton, a known Jones loyalist. The other defectors were alarmed, but Ryan had no choice but to take his declarations at face value.

Jonestown leavers
Harold Cordell, Edith Bogue, Juanita Bogue, Jerry Parks leaving Jonestown after Congressman Ryan's visit. California Historical Society

When they got to the airstrip, there were no planes waiting. Anxiety spiked again. Don Harris took advantage of the lag to interview Ryan about the attack.

"What do you intend to do now?" Harris asked. "Put it all together," Ryan said.

After 15 minutes, a five-seat Cessna appeared overhead. It was followed, several minutes later, by a 20-seat Guyana Airways Twin Otter. As the defectors loaded their gear onto the planes, they noticed Layton talking to a security guard. The two men appeared to shake hands under Layton's rain poncho. The defectors' agitation grew when the settlement's tractor trailer arrived and parked 200 yards away. "I think we've got trouble," Harris said.

Speier was jotting down seat assignments. There weren't enough seats to fly all 30 people out; some reporters would have to wait until the following day. The newsmen protested—they had deadlines to meet. Layton insisted on being seated on the Cessna and climbed aboard to sit behind the pilot. Four defectors boarded the Cessna after him. The reporters continued to argue while the remaining defectors climbed about the larger plane. Suddenly they heard the tractor trailer's diesel motor gunning over the noise of the plane's twin engines. The tractor stopped parallel to the open door and six men who'd been crouching in the trailer stood up, holding guns.

They shot out the larger plane's front wheel before training their weapons on the passengers inside. "Duck down!" someone yelled, but Patty Parks didn't move fast enough; a bullet caught the back of her head and her brain landed on the seat beside her. Two teenagers jumped up and managed to shut the heavy door but were shot in the legs.

Outside, the gunmen walked around the plane, shooting people as they dived for cover. Congressman Ryan ran around the plane's nose and crumpled in the dirt. He grabbed his neck and yelled, "I've been shot," then wrapped his body around the front tire, trying to shield himself. NBC cameraman Bob Brown bravely continued to record the attack from where he lay on the ground until a slug burrowed into his leg. The gunmen walked among the wounded, shooting them at point-blank range, killing Bob Brown, San Francisco Chronicle photographer Greg Robinson, Don Harris, and Leo Ryan, the only U.S. congressman to be assassinated in the line of duty.

As the attackers drove back to Jonestown, witnesses would later say, they flashed victory signs at onlookers.

* * *

Back in Jonestown, Jones summoned residents to the pavilion. Hundreds of people streamed up the wooden pathways from the cottages and dormitories to the brightly lit meeting space. Parents sat with their small children in their laps; teens sought out friends.

After a long delay, Jones appeared. He stepped onto the small stage at the front and sat in his light-green chair, then reached over to turn on a cassette recorder resting on the table beside him. His voice was weary and he spoke in the past tense: "How very much I've loved you. How very much I've tried my best to give you a good life." He said that one of the supposed defectors was planning to shoot the pilot on the congressman's plane, which would prompt the Guyanese army to invade Jonestown.

The so-called "Death Tape," as his final speech became known, runs for 44 minutes, and includes more than 30 edits where Jones stopped and started the recording, presumably to censor voices or sounds he didn't want on the tape for posterity. (After one early edit, Jones warns a resident named "Ruby" that she'd regret what she said, if she doesn't die first.)

His voice is addled. Like Elmer Fudd, he lisps: "Suicide" becomes "thuicide," "simple" sounds like "thimple." Most likely, he was high; his autopsy report would reveal long-time barbiturate abuse.

"So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide. It's a revolutionary act. We can't go back. They won't leave us alone. They're now going back to tell more lies, which means more congressmen. And there's no way, no way we can survive... Anyone who has any dissenting opinion, please speak," Jones said.

Christine Miller, 60, a native of Brownsville, Texas, stood to speak. Miller had no family in Jonestown and only attended Temple services in Los Angeles sporadically before coming to Guyana. Soon after arriving, she wrote Jones a note stating that she "did not find the peace she expected" and felt "like a caged bird". She asked to leave. On Jonestown's final night, she was the only person Jones recorded objecting to his macabre plan.

"I feel that as long as there's life, there's hope," Miller said in a clear, strong voice. "That's my faith... When we destroy ourselves, we're defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us."

"We will win," Jones responded. "We win when we go down."

Miller continued. "I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. I have a right to choose mine, and everybody else has a right to choose theirs."

Several people shouted her down, accusing her of being afraid to die. An old man stepped up the microphone, crying. "Dad, we're all ready to go. If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we're ready—I'm pretty sure all the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me." His words were roundly applauded.

The tide had turned in Jones's favor. He'd been goading them toward this night for years.

Jones's aides carried a large metal drum into the pavilion and placed it on a table. It contained a dark purple liquid that had been prepared by Dr. Schacht: a mixture of grape Flavor-Aid, potassium cyanide, Valium, chloral hydrate (used to put patients to sleep before surgery) and potassium chloride, which is used in lethal injections to stop the heart muscle. Nurses tore open syringes and filled them with the deadly mixture. A line of guards with crossbows circled the pavilion, and beyond them, a ring of men holding guns. But the weapons weren't trained on the jungle, where phantom invaders supposedly lurked; the guards faced inward, toward the community. Residents had a choice: they could die by poisoning or by bullet. Life was never an option.

Mothers were instructed to bring their babies forward. The first in line was Ruletta Paul, whose husband Robert fled the community that morning, leaving behind Ruletta and their three young sons. As the stunned audience watched, Ruletta picked up a syringe from the table and squirted it into the mouth of one-year-old Robert, Jr. then used another on herself. Her actions were calm and deliberate. She walked out of the pavilion and sat down in the adjacent field, rocking her baby.

Jonestown dead
Jonestown dead aerial
Port Kaituma bodies
Port Kaituma bullethole
Jim Jones shot

Some mothers followed willingly. But others refused to yield their infants, who were then prided from their arms. At the beginning of the Death Tape, you can hear the chatter of little children; a few minutes later, it turns to crying.

"There's nothing to worry about," one of Jones' aides told the crowd. "Everybody keep calm and try and keep your children calm... They're not crying from pain. It's just a little bitter tasting."

On the tape, kids begin to scream. High-pitched, terrified screams. "Die with a degree of dignity," Jones chided them. "Lay down your life with dignity. Don't lay down with tears and agony. Stop the hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. There's nothing to death... Look, children, it's just something to put you to rest."

Poisoned parents, weeping, carried their poisoned daughters and sons into the muddy field, cradling them as best they could, as their children began to convulse and froth at the mouth. As they watched their children die they began to strain for air themselves.

[Warning: this audio, from what is known as the Death Tape, contains scenes that many may find distressing]

Audio courtesy of the Jonestown Institute

The crowd dwindled and Jones taped one last lie for posterity: "We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world." After clicking off the recorder, he descended from his throne and pulled stragglers toward the vat.

After watching his people die in agony, Jones took an easier route. It would be interesting to know his last, drug-addled thoughts before he placed the barrel of a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver to his right temple temple and pulled the trigger. He left no final note. But he did accomplish his cherished goal: he became world-famous. Not as a great Socialist leader, but as a madman, the architect of the largest mass murder-suicide in modern times.

Julia Scheeres is an award-winning journalist and author. Her books include Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.