It’s November 19, 1978, in a remote part of the South American nation of Guyana, and troops entering the settlement of Jonestown are greeted by a haunting scene. Bodies of men, women and children numbering in the high hundreds lie all around. Each one has paid the ultimate price for their devotion. Even the religious encampment’s founder, Jim Jones, is lifeless on the ground.
And it would not be long before the Jonestown massacre became public knowledge. A reporter at the site who had escaped from a shooting on November 18 swiftly gave the full details to the San Francisco Examiner, with the newspaper going on to share the shocking news with the rest of the world.
In total, more than 900 bodies were found at the site, with nearly every member of the Peoples Temple – the cult that Jones had headed – having either been shot or taken their own life. Of these individuals, nearly 300 were children, as even they had not been spared from the culmination of Jones’ gruesome plan. But as the soldiers walked through the camp, they realized that not everyone had been killed.
The few survivors at Jonestown were not alone, either, as some Peoples Temple members based in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown had also escaped with their lives. One of them, Laura Johnston Kohl, had only returned to the city a month before, in fact. And at the time, she naturally had not known that her assignment would ultimately save her from joining those who perished at Jonestown.
All in all, the massacre represented the worst ever slaughter of U.S. civilians until the 9/11 attacks. And while the jungle of Guyana may be a long way from rural Indiana, the head man of the cult, Jones, had actually been born in the U.S. state 47 years before. He’d grown up in poverty in the Indiana boondocks, where he’d developed a fierce interest in communism as well as in death and religion.
And although there is some suggestion that he found making friends difficult, Jones nevertheless took a wife. In 1949 he wed Marceline Baldwin – who would also later meet her end in Jonestown – with the pair going on to make their home in Indianapolis. The couple had lived for a while, however, in Bloomington, where Jones had gone to school. Then, after ten years of study, Jones finally earned a degree in secondary education.
In the meantime, Jones had also started preaching, being involved with the Methodists in Indianapolis before beginning his own church. Ordination in the Independent Assemblies of God then followed in 1956. And Jones’ ministry earned some form of legitimacy, too, after his church was accepted into the Disciples of Christ denomination.
The Peoples Temple itself, meanwhile, had been intended to be racially integrated. And by the time it had moved to its Redwood Valley, California, home, it was spreading a message of goodwill and equality of the races. Not only that, but its members – along with Jones – did many things to help the poor in the area.
Jones’ belief in his racial message seemed sincere, too, as with his wife he adopted a gaggle of children of different ethnic origins. Calling the clan his “rainbow family,” Jones apparently once said, “Integration is a more personal thing with me now. It’s a question of my son’s future.” Interestingly, the leader would also use the same label for his church.
And the Peoples Temple had chosen northern California as a base because of its suitability as a potential refuge should atomic war break out. After its arrival in the state, then, the church grew into Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it would become influential in both social activism and politics. But its reach would soon spread beyond California, as Jones sought a new home for his movement.
Having first considered Grenada, Jones ultimately reached a deal with the then-prime minister of Guyana, Forbes Burnham, to settle land in his country. And the leader had wanted to live in Guyana for two reasons in particular: because the nation speaks English and because it was socialist at the time. Fortunately for Jones, then, Burnham was more than happy to let the Peoples Temple have land near the border with Venezuela. Venezuela was currently contesting the chosen territory, you see, and letting the Americans enter would only strengthen Guyana’s control over the area.
So, in 1977 and 1978 Jones’ temple moved to Guyana en masse. Altogether, close to a thousand people made the trip to South America, with the church leaving behind only a few members in California. And the community would receive a new name, too, being called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project – although it would become better known as Jonestown.
In Guyana, then, Jones and the Temple members hoped that they could live their lives in the way that they wanted and away from the prying eyes of the media. But it turned out that the land wasn’t all that good for farming, meaning the Americans couldn’t rely on themselves as much as they had hoped. That was despite long hours spent broiling in the tropical sun while working in the fields.
Despite the hard work, however, it seems that life was not all bad in Jonestown. Tapes that the community recorded, for instance, appear to document happy days full of laughter and friendship. Yet while some thought that their time in Guyana was a high point in their lives, others believed that they had been subjected to brainwashing in a camp from which escape was close to impossible.
And in the fall of 1977, a group called “Concerned Relatives” was founded by former Temple members who had left behind relatives in Jonestown. One of them, Tim Stoen, had even gained the notice of a member of Congress, Leo Ryan, and spread word of concerns about the settlement. A legal fight also ensued over custody of John Stoen, Tim’s son.
However, when Congressman Ryan paid a visit to Jonestown, he was met by an apparently bucolic scene. It seemed, then, that the Concerned Relatives’ tales may have been exaggerated; in any case, the starvation that they had described didn’t look to be in evidence. Nevertheless, the Temple members felt that they were being attacked, and things only took a turn for a worse when a group of Jonestown residents defected with the congressman.
Jones’ response, for one, was to send gunmen to shoot up Congressman Ryan’s party as they readied to fly out from Port Kaituma airstrip. But the horror did not end with Ryan’s murder. Next, Jones and his lieutenants urged his people to take their own lives, motivating them with the fear that the Guyanese military would soon be arriving. And a tape made of the final meeting captures the resolve of the Temple members as they prepare for the end.
After that fateful decision had been made, the people at Jonestown shared around a fruit punch poisoned with cyanide. Many perished as a result of consuming the liquid, while yet others were shot dead. But given that members of the media had accompanied Ryan – and not all had been murdered – it didn’t take long until word of what had happened got out. Naturally, the news had already reached Georgetown, where Temple members had been ordered to take their own lives, too.
Indeed, Jones’ secretary soon received a communication from Jonestown telling her, “Everybody in Jonestown is dying or dead. Everyone else needs to commit revolutionary suicide right now. We are all doing it right now.” And having practiced for this day during their rehearsals for mass suicide, the Georgetown contingent knew well what was expected of them.
In fact, the Jonestown members had apparently prepared for dying for their cause on as many as 100 previous occasions – explaining, perhaps, why they had obeyed their commands so easily. On top of that, Jones’ drug use may also have helped fuel a paranoia that had been sparked into action by Ryan’s visit. And the final tape of Jones exhorting his followers to get ready to commit suicide shows that his fear of reprisal from the authorities was strong.
Whatever the reasons, though, nearly everyone at Jonestown did commit suicide. Only a handful of individuals managed to walk away, with some spared by the leadership for a mission to Russia. Three others also hid away, while another woman feigned death to escape the insanity. Others at Port Kaituma and in Georgetown survived, too, meaning 87 members of the Peoples Temple in Guyana lived on after November 18, 1978.
Among the survivors, moreover, was Washington D.C. native Laura Johnston Kohl. She had lived through some of the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s and had developed a commitment to social activism and racial equality that had been partly fueled by a childhood in a segregated area of Maryland. And after leaving college in Connecticut, Kohl had thrown herself into the battle for justice.
That fight had seen Kohl suffer from tear gassing while part of a protest against the war in Vietnam; at one point, she had also joined up with the Black Panthers. Then, in 1970, she ended up at the door of the Peoples Temple. Of this time, Kohl told the BBC in 2018, “My life was in turmoil. I had a failed marriage, and I was looking for a place to be political in a safer environment after a series of bad decisions.”
In fact, Kohl initially had doubts about joining the Temple – particularly given her longstanding atheism. But Jones’ politics began to win her over, and the more that she heard him speak, the more his message of “apostolic socialism” – a potent mix of leftist politics and religion – appealed to her. Kohl ultimately believed, then, that she had found a group she could use to channel her activist energy to good ends.
As a result, Kohl shifted her own base to Mendocino County so that she could reside with and collaborate with Temple members. And while there, she helped in good works, including time assisting with the running of both a children’s home and a drug rehab center. She also contributed her services on top of a regular job for the state welfare department.
Then, along with most of the other Temple members, Kohl moved to Guyana, arriving in Georgetown in April 1977. Given Jonestown’s distance from civilization, a city base was essential, and Kohl found herself arranging supplies for the settlement. This job involved fraternizing with Guyanese public servants in the upmarket surrounds of the Temple’s home in the capital.
A year into her stay, however, Kohl broke the Temple’s rules by sleeping with a Georgetown pharmacist. This ended her stay in the city and earned her a summons to Jonestown to boot. And Jones would express his disappointment with Kohl at a public meeting, telling her that he should have had sex with her himself – a thought that had made Kohl wince.
That embarrassment wasn’t the end of Kohl’s punishment, either, as she also found herself subjected to a slapping from a few Temple members. After that, she was put on a punitive detail. Yet things could still have been worse: some offenders on the Temple’s campus ended up confined in a tiny cell underground, while others had close encounters with snakes.
Kohl didn’t mind the outcome for her, though; she worked in the fields, which she found fulfilling. Looking back on that period, she told San Diego University’s Jonestown project, “I loved it. I would never have left. We had 1,000 people living in the middle of a rainforest, and we were feeding everybody three meals a day.”
But although Kohl loved Jonestown, the leader himself needed her to return to Georgetown in October 1978. With his troubles growing and Congressman Ryan due to visit, he felt gloomy about his settlement’s prospects. Jones wanted Kohl back in the capital, then, because she was so keen on Jonestown and would speak well of it. In addition, Kohl’s relocation would allow some of the people in Georgetown to go to the Temple’s distant base.
Thanks to that move, then, Kohl happened to be in Georgetown on the day of the massacre. She was in the city, too, when word came through to the Temple’s secretary that the contingent in the capital should “commit revolutionary suicide.” Fortunately for Kohl, though, a couple of Jones’ own kids were visiting, and they told the folks in Georgetown to just ignore the call to end their lives.
Despite this edict, the secretary in Georgetown followed Jones’ orders, killing herself and her children. And Kohl told the BBC that she didn’t know what she would have done had she received the message from Jones. She suggested, too, that she may indeed have taken her own life if she had been among Jones and his followers. Kohl added, “I think if I were in Jonestown and I saw 900 people who I loved make a choice, I can’t imagine wanting to survive that.”
Then, in the wake of the massacre, Kohl went back to the States and again lived with the Peoples Temple. She explained to the BBC, “They were my family. I had lived with them for eight years; I knew them so intimately.” Kohl had had no concerns about another massacre, either, saying, “Jim Jones was the only one who was invested in the deaths.”
For many years, however, Kohl didn’t feel that she could talk about what she had been through. And it wasn’t until 1998 that she got together with other survivors and decided that she could finally discuss what had gone on. Having found it too distressing to figure out who had lived and who had died, Kohl now felt shocked to learn that some people whom she had believed had died at Jonestown had actually fled the horror.
Since then, Kohl and other survivors have made November 18 a special day to remember those who did not survive. And encountering others who had gone through the tragedy helped Kohl remake her life, too. In the meantime, she has come to terms with not ever receiving closure on the massacre, telling the BBC, “It’s not fixable.”
In addition, Kohl has revealed that she felt the Jonestown experience had made her more hardnosed. She told San Diego University, “In a sense, it turned all of us from idealists into cynics and people who are just really angry that, you know, we were in that situation.” Kohl turned the lesson to the good, however, by teaching people to avoid the lure of cults.
And Kohl has remained an activist, although she has found words much less seductive than before. The survivor added to San Diego University, “I want to see the works that are done [by people]. If they’re not doing it so that I can see it, I’m not going to believe it.” She insisted, then, that she had learned not to take people at their word, adding, “They’re only as good as their acts.”
Yet even despite her disillusionment, Kohl has benefited from the togetherness of the people whom the cult had touched. She explained to the BBC, “We are one big dysfunctional family. It doesn’t matter if you were somebody who had a lawsuit against Jim Jones or somebody there the last day; we were survivors, and we made it through.”
Having been a full-time teacher in public schools, Kohl has since retired and now shares her experiences as a speaker. She has visited colleges, for example, to give her expertise on cults and associated subjects. Her activist bent, meanwhile, has led her to work to help improve the prison system from her home base in San Diego.
And Kohl now sees her Jonestown experience as a cautionary tale. She explained to San Diego University, “There’s never anything that is so absolutely perfect that it doesn’t need course direction and careful guidance. Not any politician that you worship, not any belief, not any event – there’s not anything in life that is so perfect that you can close your eyes and just go on faith. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”