Nearly 40 years ago, on November 19, 1978, 73-year-old Hyacinth Thrash woke up to a dreadful scene at a jungle encampment in Guyana.
About 918 people from The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ church, of which she was a member, were lying dead, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of cyanide and fruit punch at the urging of their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones, in the secluded South American jungle.
The bodies, which were largely black people, comprised extended families of elderly women, young mothers, aunts, nieces, grandmothers and children.
They had come from several communities across the U.S. to the jungle which would later be known as Jonestown in pursuit of a better life far from America’s racist ideologies as promised by their white spiritual leader.
They have now been identified as victims of one of the world’s largest murder-suicides. Thrash, who was the sole survivor on the premises, was the exceptional person as a few others had escaped just before the tragedy occurred.
The story of the Jonestown carnage starts with Jones, a white preacher who espoused socialist and progressive ideas to a primarily African-American congregation called Peoples Temple, which he founded in the 1950s during the post-civil rights and post-Black Power era.
The church, which had roots in Indiana, would over the next two decades establish operations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ukiah before moving a large percentage of its members to Guyana in the 1970s to escape government’s persecution due to some of its weird policies.
About 75 per cent of the church members were African American, 20 per cent were white and 5 per cent were Asian, Latino and Native American. The majority of its black members were women, even though its core leadership was predominantly white, according to Religion Dispatches.
The charismatic leader attracted a huge following through the promise of miracles, such as curing cancers and blindness, and the psychological hold he had over many members through intimidation, humiliation, isolation, and brainwashing.
By 1977, Jones had come under scrutiny from the media and government due to the Temple’s suspicious activities. Consequently, he relocated, along with his several followers, to the jungle settlement in Guyana.
U.S. Congressman, Leo Ryan, who was deeply concerned about the welfare of people in the jungle, visited Jonestown in November 1978 but after doing his checks on the settlement, he was shot dead with four others by gunmen of the church at an airstrip.
Some accounts state that the congressman was shot by Temple members as he attempted to board a small plane with a few Jonestown residents who had wanted to leave.
Following this incident, Jones told his followers that they would soon come under attack from government and commanded his followers to drink the cyanide-laced drink, starting with the children first. Those who were reluctant to drink were allegedly threatened by armed guards while others were injected with the poison.
By the next morning, over 900 people had died in Jonestown, including Jones. He had died of a gunshot wound to the head, though there were reports that he may have taken his own life or that his nurse had shot him.
Thrash was reportedly the only one person who remained alive at the premises. Her sister, Zipporah Edwards, and several friends were among the dead, she told The New York Times during the 10th anniversary of the tragedy in 1988.
She had joined the Peoples Temple at her sister’s encouragement and had grown to admire Jones for his civil rights work and his support for underprivileged blacks. Upon the urging of Jones, she sold her Indianapolis home for $35,000 and gave him the proceeds. A few years later, when the church moved to California, she purchased and sold another home, once again giving the money to Jones, she said.
However, by 1977, when they all followed him to Guyana, Jones had “changed in so many ways”. ”He said there was no Jesus, there was no God – that he was the onliest God. I think he got possessed of the Devil,” Thrash said.
Thrash would later fall out of love with Jones to the extent that on the night of the mass suicides when the preacher called for his followers, she refused to go. Her sister and friends heeded the call.
She turned out her lights and hid under the bed in order not to be seen by Jones’s security guards who would be searching the settlement for idlers. Thrash said she hid there for about five minutes and later came out of her hiding place, undressed and went to bed, oblivious to the ongoing carnage.
The next morning, she found the bodies of about 15 people on her way to breakfast, and it immediately dawned on her that she had been spared from the massacre because “guardian angels” were protecting her and “God was in the plan.”
Thrash returned to her cottage and had to live with the bodies till the following day when she was found by Guyanese authorities.
The old woman said that though she hated to relive those painful memories, she continues to tell her story to prevent the younger generation from “falling into the same trap.”
Until the September 11 attacks, the November 18 Jonestown massacre represented the largest number of civilian casualties in America in a single non-natural event.
Since the tragic incident, scores of films, books, a play as well as an opera have tried to retell the events at Jonestown over the years.
Watch below the TV movie “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.”