Who was Jim Jones? Leonardo DiCaprio to play US cult leader who orchestrated mass murder

Oscar-winner is in final talks to portray the self-proclaimed 'messiah' who caused the deaths of more than 900 of his cult followers in a mass poisoning

If you’ve ever heard the saying “drank the Kool-Aid”, the reference to someone fully immersing themselves in a culture or group to the exclusion of all outside influences, you have cult leader Jim Jones to blame for its entrenchment in modern culture.

On November 18, 1978, Jones and his inner-circle oversaw the mass murder-suicide of 918 followers of his Peoples Temple cult, 304 of them children, by encouraging, and forcing, them to consume a cyanide-laced drink, telling them that people were on their way to torture and kill them. The deaths, which Jones called a “revolutionary suicide”, were, until the events of September 11, 2001, the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act.

Jones's horrifying yet fascinating story is set to get the big-screen treatment, with Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly in final talks to take on the role of the cult leader, in a film penned by Con Air and Venom writer Scott Rosenberg.

Jim Jones’s early life

James Warren Jones was born in Indiana on May 13, 1931, and spent his early life studying Marxist and Communist writings, including those of Stalin, Marx and Hitler. Later joining the Methodist church, he realised early on that money and religion need not be mutually exclusive and began preaching for the Independent Assemblies of God International alongside evangelists and self-proclaimed faith healers.

A virulent anti-segregationist, he would also – rare for the time – rail against racial discrimination, and went on to adopt black, Native-American and Korean-American children – who he dubbed his “rainbow family” – with his nurse wife Marceline Baldwin.

Building a cult

Jones and Baldwin established the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1955. In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war between the West and East looked inevitable, Jones travelled to Brazil with an eye to establishing his cult in what he thought would be a safe haven from nuclear fallout. However, a stop in Guyana convinced him that the country would be more suitable. After setting up churches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in 1974, the temple leased more than 1,500 hectares of jungle land from the Guyanese government.

Jones, a rumoured drug addict, Baldwin and 500 followers set about creating what he called a “socialist paradise” on the land. The community was funded by the $65,000-a-month welfare checks his followers signed over to the cult.

Life in Jonestown

Peoples Temple members were expected to follow up their eight hours of labour each day with eight hours of study, including classes in socialism, Soviet and North Korean politics. Followers were also subjected to mind control and behaviour modification experiments. Poor soil quality made crop-growing difficult, so followers lived on rice, beans, greens and occasionally eggs, and slept in small communal houses.

Jones also lived humbly, despite having amassed an estimated $26 million fortune through the personal and property members had signed over to the cult, all of which was hidden in bank accounts in Panama and Switzerland.

Jones declared himself permitted to sleep with anyone within the cult, and those who tried to escape were forcibly administered drugs such as Valium and Thorazine to sedate and control them. Children were placed into communal care with minimal access to their parents, and Jones insisted he be called “father” by his acolytes.

US Congressman murdered by Jones’s supporters

On November 17, 1978, US Congressman Leo Ryan, along with a handful of newspaper reporters, a camera crew from NBC, and relatives of some Peoples Temple members, arrived in Jonestown, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights abuses.

While there, Ryan was attacked with a knife by cult member Don Sly, but was unscathed. When he and the group hurriedly left the following day, they took with them 15 cult members who had asked to leave.

When the group reached the local Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones’s armed guards, the “Red Brigade”, followed in lorries and shot at them, killing Ryan and four others. NBC cameraman Bob Brown would capture footage of the first moments of shooting before he was killed.

Mass murder: 'Don't be afraid to die'

Later that day, a message was broadcast across Jonestown in which Jones told his followers that men were coming to “shoot some of our innocent babies” and “torture our children”. He also told them the Soviet Union, with which Jones had been negotiating for their relocation, would no longer let them into the country following Ryan’s murder. Jones told his followers their children would be forced to convert to fascism, and spread the message that suicide was the only answer.

Black-and-white footage shows temple members mixing cyanide and a sedative into large vats of grape-flavoured Kool-Aid-style drink, called Flavor Aid. When the time came to drink, Jones urged them: “Don’t be afraid to die”, and called death a “friend”. At the end of the tape, the preacher aged 47 declares: “We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Among the 918 bodies were 304 children, found laying side by side around the compound, some with their arms around each other. Jones was found with a gunshot wound deemed to have been self-inflicted.

“Jones put all the pieces in place for a last act of self-destruction,” Tim Reiterman, a San Francisco Examiner reporter who was injured at Port Kaituma airstrip wrote in his book Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev Jim Jones and His People. “Then gave the order to kill the children first, sealing everyone’s fate.”

Updated: November 9th 2021, 10:26 AM