Jonestown: from Socialism to Slaughter

In 1978 over 900 US citizens died at Jonestown, a remote settlement in Guyana. The vast majority were members of a community run by the charismatic Rev Jim Jones, taking their own lives under armed guard on his orders. But how does a church known for racial integration and practical help for the poor, come to such a destructive end?  How could one man’s increasing paranoia have driven so many people, who had built a mission community from nothing in four years, into a seemingly pointless sacrifice?

In this two-part series, Erin Martin – who herself grew up in a religious group that exercised strong control over its members – talks to survivors of what’s become known as the Jonestown massacre, an event that captivated and horrified the US and international media.

The survivors include Stephan Jones, son of the Rev Jim Jones; Vera Washington, for whom People’s Temple was “a wonderful, warm family” before it all went wrong; Jordan Vilchez, who at 16 already belonged to Jones’ inner circle; John Cobb, Tim Carter and Mike Cartmell, who each lost several family members in Jonestown; and Temple archivist Fielding M McGehee III.

Between them, they reflect on the attraction of People’s Temple, trace the road that ended with the destruction of the Jonestown community, and explain how they escaped with their lives. And they try to answer one crucial question: what could have turned an idealistic group of community-minded people to such self-destruction?

Listen to parts one and two here:

The descent and the decline is very vividly drawn and very resonant. It's presented with zip too. Very moving indeed.

Simon Pitts, Commissioning Editor, BBC World Service
Pt 1: 7th December 2020
Pt 2: 14th December 2020
Presenter: Erin Martin
Producer: Paul Arnold