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40 Years Ago Today 900 People Died In The Jungles Of Guyana


On this day 40 years ago, more than 900 people died in the jungles of Guyana. Most were poisoned. Some drank the cyanide-laced liquid willingly. Others, including children, were forced to take it. They were following the orders of the charismatic leader of a group called the Peoples Temple, a man from the San Francisco area named Jim Jones. The year before, Jones had fled with his flock to South America when questions were raised about abuses at the congregation.


JIM JONES: I don't want you to worship me. I want you to be like I am. I want you to become what I am. I want you to enjoy the fearlessness that I have, the courage that I have, the compassion that I have, the love that I have, the all-encompassing mercy that I am. I want you to be what I am and something greater. I want you to give you more...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1981, NPR's Noah Adams and Deborah Amos produced a documentary called "Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown," using some of the hundreds of hours of cassette tapes Jim Jones had recorded in Guyana. The tapes had been obtained by journalist James Reston Jr. whose research helped form the basis for the documentary. "Father Cares," told with Noah Adams' haunting narration, is delivered in the persona of a former cult member. And it won a number of journalism awards. To mark this anniversary, we're going to play an excerpt from "Father Cares." And a caution - some of this content may be disturbing to some listeners. Here's Noah.


NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: At the end, he would say he was born out of due time, the world not ready for his message.

JONES: The most segregated institution in America is the church at 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. The most segregated institution in America... The most racist institutions are the churches.

ADAMS: Those who didn't like these displays or later the crude language, left right away. Those who stayed accepted the fraudulence to receive the message, one that became a combustible mixture of sacrilege and socialism. And yet, many of those who had come to the Peoples Temple from the other churches came with Christianity. And they could say, why not? In this time, why not the second coming? - this time, this man.


JONES: I don't mind losing my life. What about you? I don't mind losing my reputation. What about you? I don't mind - I don't mind being tortured. What about you?


ADAMS: The people of the Temple worked long days in the fields, stood in long lines for food. And at night after dinner, they would be assembled in front of the pavilion, looking up at Father. He would ascend to the big wooden chair cushioned with pillows, a small table beside him, a cup of soda pop always full. His aide stood behind him, the Temple band off to one side. And for long hours, well into the morning, he would hold forth as the leader and inquisitor and judge, Father and God. He led the songs and the prayers and the trials and told them of fearful events happening out in the world they'd escaped. He was their only source of information, their only dispenser of justice.

Thousands of miles away in California, the relatives of Jonestown residents, their contact cut off from their loved ones by Dad, were becoming troublesome. A group was formed called Concerned Relatives. They also sent a petition to the U.S. State Department charging human rights violations in Jonestown. And at night, the people of Jonestown lined up in front of the pavilion, eager to get to the microphone to testify, to tell Jim and the congregation the best story of what they would do to their families if they had the chance.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think that I should take a knife and cut Mr. Tupper all up real good.

JONES: (Laughter) Cut him up real good (laughter).

Let the night roar with it. They're out there. They're out there. They're listening. Let the night roar with it. (Yelling).


JONES: Let the night roar because they can hear us. They know we mean it. We'll kill them if they come.


ADAMS: The Concerned Relatives in California had found an important ally - a Congressman, Leo Ryan. Congressman Ryan had a niece who had become deeply involved with Scientology. And he sympathized with the torment of the Temple relatives who came to him for help. Late on the night of November 17 after the festivities at Jonestown - put on for the visiting press and Congressman Ryan and his staff - a note was given to Ryan from a Temple member who wanted to escape. The next day, 14 people asked to leave with the congressman. Later, Congressman Ryan was attacked by a man with a knife, not seriously hurt. And he soon left with his staff, with the defectors, with the news men. A flatbed truck followed into the jungle, carrying the gunman. The congressman was dead. And three newsmen were dead. And a defector was dead.

The line formed. The children were first, the seniors next. Be kind to the seniors, Dad said. Some seemed peaceful, even grateful. Others fearfully doubtful, but they saw no escape, no rescue. A few resisted physically. They were held down, the poison injected. There was screaming, almost chaos. Father had said it would not hurt. And now he scolded those who made a fuss. The screaming was not dignified, not communistic. But many now knew that this had nothing to do with communism. And a few got away. An old man lay in a ditch pretending he was dead. An old woman slept through it all. A security man tricked a nurse and hid under a house.

And one man made his way to the back of the crowd. There, a guard - a woman - challenged him with a crossbow. No, sister, he just wanted to say farewell to some friends. She softened, they embraced. And when she turned away to look again on what was going on in front of the pavilion, he ran for the jungle, fighting his way several hundred yards in and waited there perhaps two hours listening to the wail of pain, slow to end. And then it was quiet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: An excerpt from the 1981 documentary, "Father Cares: The Last Of Jonestown," narrated by NPR's Noah Adams. In the end, Jim Jones didn't drink the cyanide himself. Instead, he instructed an aide to shoot him in the head. All told, 913 Temple members died, including more than 300 children. Also killed were Congressman Leo Ryan and three journalists. Some 33 Temple members on the ground that day survived the Jonestown Massacre.