On Nov. 18, 1978 Jim Jones, founder of The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, manipulated over 900 people to commit suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Only 78 survived the mass suicide that day.
One of them, survivor Laura Johnston Kohl, spoke about her experience and gave insight about Jonestown on Feb. 23 in Old Main Theatre.
Kohl said Jones began his journey as a cult leader after seeing people sitting in silence listening to a minister.
“I think he saw the power that a minister can have,” Kohl said. “He thought ‘That’s the job I want.’”
Kohl heard about Jones and the Peoples Temple movement from her sister’s coworkers in legal aid. She kept going to meetings and eventually committed to Peoples Temple.
“Being at Peoples Temple was absolutely unpredictable,” Kohl said. “You never knew what was going to happen the next day.”
In 1974, Peoples Temple began studying Jonestown and started creating the idea of a promise land. Then in 1976, the group began sending members from the U.S. to Jonestown.
Kohl moved to Jonestown in March of 1977. Her job was to live in nearby Georgetown and transport new residents and supplies to Jonestown.
Kohl said part of Jones’ strategy was to keep people exhausted.
“If you’re exhausted, you’re not going to be so much of a fighter to resist some of the thing [Jones] came up with.”
In the summer of 1978, congressman Leo Ryan of California contacted Jones about visiting Jonestown, but Jones denied the request. Ryan traveled to Guyana anyway, where Jones sent a group of men to kill the congressman and anyone else traveling with him.
“[Jones] told people, ‘Nothing will ever be the same, you’ve killed a U.S. congressman. We’re all felons. You can’t go back,’” Kohl said.
Before the people got to say anything back, Jones had his nurses and secretaries give the children poison, Kohl said.
“At that point, there was no way for the adults to stand up and stop it,” Kohl said. “It was too late before they realized that part was going on.”
Using the good work Jones had previously done, like providing soup kitchens, free legal aid, doctors and housing, convinced people he was not capable of such a terrible deed.
“People did not come to Jonestown to die,” Kohl said. “They moved there to create a better world.”
Freshman Cassie Rossow was informed by her professor about the event and became fascinated with the Jonestown story. Rossow wanted to get an insider’s perspective.
“To hear someone’s story that survived was incredible,” Rossow said.
Situations like Jonestown are still very prominent in today’s culture, especially politically, Rossow said.
Kohl gives these speeches and wrote her book “Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look” to show one can survive almost anything.
“No matter how difficult things get, you can’t give up. That’s not an option,” Kohl said. “You need to keep going.”