Jonestown: The Death of Congressman Leo Ryan


On Sip & Shine Podcast: the answer may not lie at the bottom of a bottle of wine. But you should at least check.

In the era of flower power, new religious movements bloomed, and one of them was the People's Temple. 

This utopian church movement, founded by Jim Jones in 1955, based its core believes on social and racial equality, combing with principles of Christianity. Reverend Jim Jones targeted the homeless, sick, poor and people who needed something to believe in, and offered them an image of society based on freedom and love, where everyone was equal and it was their mission to help the ones in need. 

After a few years, Jones became obsessed with the idea that a nuclear catastrophe will bring about the end of the world, and make place for a socialistic Eden, so he wanted to move his congregation to California, where they would be safe. As the time passed by, Jones revealed more and more that his vision of religion wasn't based on Christianity at all, but rather on communism and socialism, which became the sole focus of his preaching. 

His utopian vision attracted many, and in the mid-70s, People's Temple transferred the majority of its flock to Jonestown, Guyana, after a newspaper article in which former members accused Jones for physical and sexual abuse. Jones leased thousands of acres of the jungle, and founded the People's Temple Agricultural Project, which was supposed to be an agricultural mission, but became a mass tomb for almost a thousand people. 


After some of the relatives of Jones' followers voiced their concerns about living conditions in Jonestown, claiming people were there against their will and treated as they were in a concentration camp, Assemblyman Leo Ryan decided to pay them a visit.

On November 14, 1978, Ryan arrived in Jonestown. Even though Jones instructed his followers to maintain an image of a happy community, when time came for the congressman to leave, more than a dozen people from Jonestown expressed their wish to leave with him. Jones pretended that this was completely fine with him, and let them go to the local airstrip. While they were waiting for the plane, Jones' guards arrived and started shooting at everyone present. They killed Congressman Ryan and four more people- three journalists and one ex-follower as well as wounding eleven others. 

Back at the camp, paranoia and madness took their toll. Jones, completely rattled by deflection of some of his followers and Congressman's visit, decided that the only way out was to force his followers to commit mass suicide. Chaos followed, since not all of the followers wanted to proceed with his plan, and while majority willingly drank grape flavored Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and sedatives, some of them were forced. They injected the elderly people unable to defend themselves and held their hands over the children's mouths in order to prevent them from spitting out the poison. In the aftermath of the Congressman's visit, 914 people died- 638 adults and 276 children. 

Excluding wars and natural disasters, massacre at Jonestown was the biggest mass loss of life in history of mass suicide. In 1983, Congressman Ryan was awarded a Congressional Medal Gold Medal for being killed in the line of duty, as the only member of Congress to be killed while serving.

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