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Jim Jones Conducted a Mass Murder-Suicide Dry Run

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

November 9, 1978: On this day, Jones ordered every adult resident of Jonestown to sign a statement protesting Congressman Ryan's visit.


Many of us, the undersigned residents of Jonestown, Guyana, have been visited here by friends and relatives. However, we have not invited and do not care to see Congressman RYAN (supporter of military aid to the Pinochet regime of Chile), media representatives, members of a group of so-called "concerned relatives", or any of the persons who may be traveling with, or associated with, any of those persons.

Dated: This 9th day of November, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana.

The document carried nearly 900 signatures of residents, the vast majority of whom would be dead 10 days later.

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It wasn't until they were sequestered in a remote corner of Guyana—4,500 miles from home—that Jim Jones first raised his idea of "Revolutionary Suicide" with rank-and-file members at a meeting in the pavilion. Aghast, they roared their outrage: they hadn't come to Guyana to die, but to carve out a better life for themselves and their children. Nonetheless, Jones held a vote to see who was in favor of his idea. Only two of his closest aides raised their hands. He voted again a few nights later, and the number of aides rose to three.

But he wouldn't let it go. He kept advocating for mass suicide, kept holding votes. He began keeping lists of residents who didn't raise their hands in favor of his idea, and of parents who were "too attached" to their children. Night after night, he held his death vote, each time under more duress. Security guards nuzzled those who refused to raise their hands with their guns or brought them before Jones for violent confrontations. The meetings wore on until dawn glimmered along the horizon, until residents nodded off on the hard wooden benches. After weeks of psychological warfare, Jones' suicide talk lost its shock value; residents began to vote in favor of his plan just so they could return to their cottages for a few hours of blessed sleep.

Emboldened, he held a dry run. In February 1978 Jones told his followers that the pavilion was surrounded by mercenaries who planned to invade and torture them to death. It would be easier for them to die by their own hands, to take a "potion" and cross peacefully "to the other side." Rather than letting themselves be killed, they should boldly take their own lives in an act of "Revolutionary Suicide."

His aides carried a large vat of dark liquid to a table, along with towers of paper cups. The guards stationed themselves along the perimeter of the pavilion, and Jones warned that anyone who tried to flee would be shot. It would take about 45 minutes for the "potion" to work, he said; after everyone was done, he'd take it himself.

Jonestown cyanide drink syringes
Paper cups and syringes filled with poison. Jim Jones had carried out a mass murder-suicide dry run several months before. Getty Images

Residents who objected were hustled to the front of the line by security guards and forced to drain their cups before being led into the field and told to lie down. This intimidation stifled further objections. Some people went mute with disbelief; others sobbed with abandon. Children huddled next to their parents and mimicked their responses.

The line was very long and moved slowly. Jones didn't wait for everyone to drink before interrupting the proceedings. "You didn't take anything," he said quietly into the microphone. Tears ran down his face. "You had only punch with something a little stronger in it."

He'd conducted the drill to learn which of his followers would obey him in an emergency, he said, and which would defy him.

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