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Jonestown: 912 cult suicides that shocked the world

March 27, 1997 GMT

It was one of the world’s most bizarre disasters and it took modern suicides to a new level of horror.

More than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones were ordered by Jones to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Most of them complied, although some were shot, injected with poison or forced to drink the deadly beverage when they tried to resist. Sounds of the carnage that occurred on Nov. 18, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, could be heard on a tape recording left behind.

Jones had moved the headquarters of his Peoples Temple to San Francisco in the early 1970s. There, he established a free health clinic and a drug rehabilitation program, eventually emerging as a political force. He became chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1976.

But allegations of wrongdoing mounted and Jones moved the settlement to Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. The cult leader believed he would be safe there from what he perceived as media and police persecution.

Hundreds of followers, including women and children, moved with him to Jonestown, eager to live the dream of an agricultural commune where they would pursue socialism and racial harmony.

They built cottages, workshops and dormitories in tidy rows, grew fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and pigs over 300 acres carved from dense tropical rain forest 140 miles from Georgetown, the capital.

They made their own shoes, educated their children, and cared for the old and sick.

Then a congressman from San Francisco spent one day at the jungle pavilion investigating allegation of abuse. As Rep. Leo Ryan was preparing to return to the United States with 18 temple members who had wanted to leave, he was ambushed on the airstrip.

Ryan, three newsmen and a Temple defector were killed. Eleven others were injured.

Hours later, Jones urged 912 of his followers to drink the grape punch.

Children died first; babies were killed by poison squirted into their mouths with a syringe. Then the adults. Most were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by security guards. Jones was found with a bullet wound in his head, whether suicide or murder is unknown.

When the bodies came home, many could not be identified.

Several cemeteries refused to take them until the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland stepped forward in 1979 and accepted 409 bodies. The remaining victims had been cremated or buried in family cemeteries.

Now, Jonestown has all but vanished, stripped by villagers and consumed by a fire in the early 1980s _ nothing to remind the world of the worst mass suicide in modern history.