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Heat, Hunger and Fear: How Jim Jones Kept his Followers in Check

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

November 3 1978: There were many things about his eponymous settlement that Jim Jones wanted to hide. First on the list: it was an abject failure.

In the early 1970s, the Guyanese government put out an international call looking for groups to farm its hinterland as a way to address the nation's chronic food shortages. The rent was cheap and Guyana—a Socialist, English-speaking country of dark-skinned people—was a rough reflection of the Temple, whose majority was also Black.

Jonestown Guyana lease
Julia Scheeres

The church signed a lease for 3,800 acres platted along the Venezuelan border at 25 cents per acre, paying roughly $1,000 a year for its slice of socialist heaven. It took Jonestown pioneers several years of intense labor to clear the triple-canopy rainforest and erect 48 cottages laid out in neat rows.

But although the Guyanese government touted Jonestown as a "model of cooperative agriculture," the community couldn't produce enough food to feed itself—much less hungry Guyanans.

Seedlings emerged from the thin jungle soil diseased and dying. Field workers picked beetles and worms off plants, but there was no way to stop the onslaught of acoushi leaf-cutter ants, which could reduce entire plots of cassava to leafless stalks overnight. The community only grew enough beans to feed residents every third day and enough rice to feed them once a week. Jones sent trusted aides to scavenge castoff fruit from local growers and fish heads from Georgetown markets. But on too many days, dinner was just a wedge of watermelon or a bowl of weevil-infested rice covered in flour gravy.

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The famished residents resorted to stealing—wolfing down seed peanuts and raw sweet potatoes, swiping food from the elderly or toddlers. A guard detained a group of hungry children for picking unripe fruit from the orchard.

If you want to go home, you can swim.

Meanwhile, Jim Jones lived high on the hog. While the rank-and-file sweltered in the heat and felt faint with hunger, Jones kept a small refrigerator in his air-conditioned cabin that was stocked with snacks imported from the States and Diet Pepsi. After the massacre, a survivor would remark bitterly that Jones was the only person who got fat in Jonestown. Most residents lost alarming amounts of weight. Despite the fact that Jones had $900,000 hidden in his cottage and millions of dollars more socked away in overseas accounts, he constantly complained to his followers about how expensive it was to feed them all and used the supposed lack of funds as an excuse to not feed them. Keeping residents hungry was also a control mechanism: It's hard to think straight when your stomach is grinding on air. It's hard to resist.

He also kept them tired. In the evenings, he summoned them to the pavilion, where they sat for hours listening to him rant about conspiracies to destroy the Temple. He made up fake news, telling them black children were being castrated in the streets of Chicago, and that eighty cities had been destroyed by race riots. And weren't they lucky to be spared all that, living in the peaceful, socialist community that was Jonestown?

They weren't allowed to complain. Doing so was considered "capitalist" behavior. It was verboten to mention the heat or the paltry meals. To say you missed California. Troublemakers were sentenced to the "Learning Crew" to dig ditches under the blazing sun. Runaways—they never got far, with no money or passports, in the thick, snake-infested jungle—were hauled to the "Special Care Unit" where they were injected with Thorazine and kept in a quasi-vegetative state.

By the time people regretted coming to Jonestown, it was too late. "If you want to go home, you can swim," Jones told them. "We won't pay your fucking way home."

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