The Guardian

An apocalyptic cult, 900 dead: remembering the Jonestown massacre, 40 years on

More than 900 people, many of them children, died in a mass murder-suicide in 1978 by drinking cyanide-laced punch at the order of cult leader Jim Jones
An aerial view of the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, which took place 40 years ago, on 18 November 1978. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Four decades ago this Sunday, the Rev Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of an American cult in the Guyanese jungle, ordered his followers to murder a US congressman and several journalists, then commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch.

The Jonestown massacre was, before 9/11, the largest single incident of intentional civilian death in American history. More than 900 people died, many children. It was also a devastating cultural trauma: the end of the last strains of a certain kind of 1960s idealism and 1970s radicalism. Jonestown’s legacy lives on in the ironic phrase “drink the Kool-Aid”. (In actuality it was Fla-Vor-Aid.)

Although he would later become a symbol of the darker side of the west coast counterculture, Jim Jones was born to a poor family in Indiana. Described as an intelligent and strange child, Jones was instinctively attracted to religion, especially charismatic Christian traditions like Pentecostalism. He

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