Excerpts from "the first rough draft of history" as reported in
The Washington Post on this date in the 20th century.
Rep. Leo Ryan and several members of the group accompanying him on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown, in the South American country of Guyana, were attacked and killed by followers of cult leader Jim Jones as they prepared to leave the region. By playing dead, The Post's Charles A. Krause survived the massacre and went on to file an exclusive, first-person account of the horrific mass suicide-murder that followed. His report appeared in The Post of Nov. 21, 1978. An excerpt:
By Charles A. Krause
Washington Post Foreign Service
JONESTOWN, Guyana --
When the Rev. Jim Jones learned Saturday that Rep. Leo J. Ryan had been killed but that some members of the congressman's party had survived, Jones called his followers together and told them that the time had come to commit the mass suicide they had rehearsed several times before.
"They started with the babies," administering a potion of Kool-aid mixed with cyanide, Odell Rhodes recalled yesterday when I revisited Jonestown to view the horrifying sight of 409 bodies -- men, women and children, most of them grouped around the altar where Jones himself lay dead.
Rhodes is the only known survivor of Jonestown who witnessed a part of the suicide rite before managing to escape. He was helping Guyanese authorities identify the dead yesterday.
Most of those who drank the deadly potion served to them by a Jonestown doctor, Lawrence Schact, and by nurses, did so willingly, Rhodes said. Mothers would often give the cyanide to their own children before taking it themselves, he said.
But others who tried to escape were turned back by armed guards who ringed the central pavilion where the rite was carried out, Rhodes said. They were then forced to drink the poisoned Kool-aid and shortly after the mass killings began, Rhodes said, "it just got all out of order. Babies were screaming, children were screaming and there was mass confusion."
It took about five minutes for the liquid to take its final effect. Young and old, black and white, grouped themselves, usually near family members, often with their arms around each other, waiting for the cyanide to kill them.
They would go into convulsions, their eyes would roll upward, they would gasp for breath and then fall dead, Rhodes said.
All the while, Jones was talking to them, urging them on, explaining that they would "meet in another place." Near the end, Rhodes said, Jones began chanting, "mother, mother, mother" -- an apparent reference to his wife who lay dead not far from the altar.
Yesterday, a stilled Jonestown looked much as it must have moments after the mass suicide ended two days earlier. The bodies were where they had fallen, the half-empty vat of cyanide-laced Kool-aid was still on a table near the altar in the open air pavilion. The faces of the dead bore the anguished expressions of their terrible deaths.
More than 390 of the bodies were grouped around the altar, many of them arm-in-arm. They were so thickly bunched together that it was impossible to see the ground beneath them.
Even the dogs that lived in Jonestown had been poisoned and now lay dead on sidewalks near the pavilion. The Peoples Temple's pet chimpanzee, Mr. Muggs, had been shot dead.
This series is now in a book that can be purchased online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/2000/collectors.htm