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Amazon reclaims site of U.S. cult tragedy

JONESTOWN, Guyana (Reuters) - Wilfred Jupiter clears foliage from an oversized gravestone on a site deep in the Guyanese rainforest where more than 900 Americans died.

The 80-year-old is one of few locals in the remote Amazonian nation who recalls the commune set up here by Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple cult in 1974.

Four years later, the cult ended in a mass murder-suicide that was one of the largest ever losses of civilian U.S. life.

"I was shocked," said Jupiter, who had helped clear the thick jungle so Jones and his followers could set up their self-styled Utopia.

"I worked with these people every day ... then they all killed themselves."

Jones took his followers to this remote corner of Latin America, sandwiched between Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil, as U.S. authorities and the media began to scrutinize his activities, threatening the organization's existence.

Just a few rusty remnants remain at the site, which Jones billed as a socialist idyll complete with hospital, workshops and dormitories for the roughly 1,000 followers.

It was left to decay after Jones persuaded almost all his members to kill themselves in the tragedy that also took the life of a U.S. congressman in November 1978.

California representative Leo Ryan had travelled there following reports members of the cult were held against their will, according to media accounts from the time. He had wanted to offer them a chance to return to the United States.

As Ryan arrived at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip with several defectors in tow, he was killed by Jones' security guards along with four others, according to witnesses, some of whom played dead until the gunmen drove off.

"It was the most horrific thing you'll ever see in your life," said Gerry Gouveia, then a young army pilot who loaded Ryan's body into a bag and flew it to the country's coastal capital Georgetown.

Gouveia had previously flown Jones to the commune and knew it well.

"These people had gone into the jungle and cleared it to create a beautiful living space," he said during an interview in the Guyanese capital Georgetown. "To me, it represented a kind of Utopia."

On November 18, 1978, that dream came to an end as, according to media reports, Jones forced followers to drink cyanide-laced "Flavor Aid" in a "revolutionary suicide" that Jones had forced them to rehearse many times before.

Those who resisted were shot or stabbed to death, according to the reports.


Local resident Carlton Daniels was present as U.S. troops came to collect the decaying bodies three days later.

"You can tell the of people from the texture of their hair," said Daniels, 65, as he looked down at the ground where he had seen the bodies, their faces unrecognizable due to the effects of cyanide poisoning.

"The skin was transparent and covered in a grey fluid. Their features weren't there."

In all, according to U.S. authorities, 918 people died that day, 909 in Jonestown, five at the landing strip and a family of four in the country's capital Georgetown, having received orders to commit suicide.

Cheap corrugated plastic signs poke out of the jungle now in a feeble attempt to show the site's layout, pointing out the playground, kitchen and hospital. Despite only having been erected two years ago by local authorities, they are in tatters as the jungle rapidly takes over.

The memorial that Jupiter so fondly clears was built in 2009 though its white paint is already peeling under a relentless sun.

The site is now unrecognizable as that of a massacre.

"It would be nice to remind people of the dangers of cults," said Daniels. "You have to be more careful when you enter these organizations. They tell you one part of it but you've got to think for yourself and see if the truth is there."

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by Anonymousreply 21November 23, 2011 5:57 PM

Still hard to imagine it happened.

by Anonymousreply 1November 22, 2011 10:53 PM

When it comes to religion,people will believe the silliest things.

by Anonymousreply 2November 22, 2011 10:57 PM

Has anyone read or know of any well written books about Jonestown?

by Anonymousreply 3November 22, 2011 10:59 PM

Has Jeff Bezos no shame?

by Anonymousreply 4November 22, 2011 11:00 PM

This is kind of off-topic, but it reminds me of how silly people are when they say that we're killing the earth.

The earth will shrug us off in a second.

We're killing ourselves, not the earth.

How little time, in the general scheme of things, it takes for any trace of humankind to disappear.

by Anonymousreply 5November 22, 2011 11:03 PM

There is a great book written about that subject r5 - "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman.

by Anonymousreply 6November 22, 2011 11:10 PM

"You can tell the of people from the texture of their hair," said Daniels, 65, as he looked down at the ground where he had seen the bodies, their faces unrecognizable due to the effects of cyanide poisoning.

"The skin was transparent and covered in a grey fluid. Their features weren't there."

WTF? How could their features not be there?

by Anonymousreply 7November 22, 2011 11:11 PM


by Anonymousreply 8November 22, 2011 11:14 PM

Why do you say that, R8?

It may not be the most original observation, but it's true.

by Anonymousreply 9November 22, 2011 11:32 PM

It's not true anymore, R5. We have polluted the planet so much that eventually even if we all die, we're taking the planet with us. We can destroy it faster than it can heal now.

Just check out Fukushima news at enenews.com. There's so much radiation coming out of there it's likely fish in the sea for thousands of miles around will be poisoned or die off. So will the birds that eat them. The whole planet is connected ecologically. If fish die, reefs die, etc, it affects the entire food chain and oxygen level of the whole planet.

Then there's fracking. Now they're saying that will eventually pump chemicals into the water table and poison vast areas of drinking water. Not to mention the earthquakes that may have been caused by fracking. That damage won't just disappear if we do.

Up until recently, we didn't have the technology to cause this kind of damage. It's just going to get worse due to overpopulation and conservatives wanting to destroy the earth for a quick buck. They can rationalize anything no matter how dangerous it is.

by Anonymousreply 10November 22, 2011 11:48 PM

Let's get back to the subject at hand, shall we?

"Has anyone read or know of any well written books about Jonestown?"

"Raven: the untold story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People" by Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs. The title comes from a quote from Jim Jones: "I come with the black hair of a raven. I come as God Socialist!" It's a very thorough, frightening book, with sickening details.

A very recent book, "A Thousand Lives: the untold story of hope, deception and survival at Jonestown" by Julia Scheeres is also a good read.

The story of Jim Jones and the pathetic, vunerable, idealistic people that followed him and died for him is an incredible story. Some of his followers were poor, mistreated and uneducated; it's understandable that his flamboyance and bombastic sermons on finding a better and more prosperous life would appeal to then. But some held college degrees and came from well-to-do backgrounds; what made them want to blindly follow such an insane, creepy blowhard? People are just incredibly weak, I guess.

Not all of the people who died at Jonestown committed suicide. Many were murdered, forcibly injected with the cyanide. The children did not commit suicide; they were murdered, the cyanide grape drink forced down their throats. These crazies were killing their CHILDREN because "Father" told them to. The deaths were not quick and painless; the dying convulsed and gagged and vomited and frothed at the mouth. They died in agony.

It seems fitting and right to have the jungle obliterate what's left of that evil place, Jonestown.

by Anonymousreply 11November 23, 2011 12:22 AM

This is from "A Thousand Lives" by Julia Scheeres:

"Today, few Americans born after 1980 are familiar with the Jonestown tragedy, although anyone with an Internet connection can listen to the haunting tape of the community's mass extinction. And while the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has entered the cultural lexicon, its reference to gullibility and blind faith is a slap in the face of the Jonestown residents who were goaded into dying by the lies of Jim Jones, and especially insulting to the 304 murdered children. As the FBI files clearly document, the community devolved into a living hell from which there was no escape."

"If anything, the people who moved to Jonestown should be remembered as noble idealists. They wanted to create a better more equitable, society. They wanted their kids to be free of violence and racism. They rejected gender roles. They believed in a dream."

"How terribly they were betrayed."

by Anonymousreply 12November 23, 2011 12:28 AM

Thanks r11. I'll check them out.

by Anonymousreply 13November 23, 2011 1:05 AM

"WTF? How could their features not be there?"

I guess he meant that the ravages of decomposition and cyanide poisoning had decayed and distorted the faces of the dead people so badly that their features had been reduced to mush. I heard that many of the dead could not even be indentified, they were so unrecognizable.

by Anonymousreply 14November 23, 2011 4:19 PM

Ugh. Time to turn off the computer. I thought amazon.com was buying the site as its shipping warehouse for South America or something.

by Anonymousreply 15November 23, 2011 4:24 PM

My husband and myself lived in SF at the time. It was horrible. The descriptions of the cleanup were awful. A week later Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated. It was a bad November that year. We knew the travel agent who wrote the tickets to Guyana for People's Temple.

by Anonymousreply 16November 23, 2011 4:29 PM

Lol R15 I did the same thing. I realized that I had never thought about Amazon the business being the same name as the river. Anyway, not to take away from the Jonestown story.

by Anonymousreply 17November 23, 2011 4:52 PM

r15 and r17see r4.

by Anonymousreply 18November 23, 2011 5:02 PM

It's highly sensationalized but the 1980 miniseries "Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones" is a must-watch if you're interested in the story. And it features DL icon Diana Scarwid giving a surprisingly subtle performance for once. Well, maybe it's just that everyone else is so over-the-top she looks restrained in comparison.

by Anonymousreply 19November 23, 2011 5:06 PM

I saw some man interviewed in a documentary who was a member of the People's Temple. He and his wife went as an idealistic young couple who really wanted to work with others establishing a kind of socialist Utopia, all races working together, blah blah. He watched Jones get more and more controlling and paranoid. His wife had a baby while there and when Jones finally went nuts and shot the congressman and the others he tried getting his wife to leave but she wouldn't. I think Jones had done a pretty good job of brainwashing her. When Jones ordered the mass suicide he managed to get into the jungle but he watched as his wife gave their baby cyanide and then drank it herself. He said her expression was utter resignation and despair. He said others, not obeying, were being shot. It was a really good documentary but so sad what that man went through.

by Anonymousreply 20November 23, 2011 5:18 PM

If you've never listened to the audio tapes of the people drinking the grape drink while Jones drones on and on, be forewarned. I heard it maybe 20 years ago and it still haunts me. You can hear people screaming and crying as they watched their children die. They killed the kids first knowing the parents would kill themselves next.

by Anonymousreply 21November 23, 2011 5:57 PM
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