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History Book: Jonestown drinks the Kool-Aid 45 years ago

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WORLD Radio - History Book: Jonestown drinks the Kool-Aid 45 years ago

Plus, saving a castaway in the Bahamas and Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan is arrested


Bodies of victims of Jonestown mass suicide are loaded from U.S. Army helicopter at Georgetown's international airport, Nov. 23, 1977. Photo by Associated Press

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, November 13th.Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Up next, the WORLD History Book. This week: John Bunyan pens one of the greatest books of Christian literature. Plus, over 60 years ago, a young girl is lost at sea for three days. But first, religious followers in South America meet an untimely end under the influence of their cult leader.

Here’s WORLD Radio intern, Emma Perley.

JONES: Little news is forthcoming from the capitalist press …

EMMA PERLEY, INTERN: On July 3rd, 1978, the congregation of Peoples Temple church gathers around pastor Jim Jones as he delivers the morning news. Audio courtesy of the Jonestown Institute.

JONES: Where does the bourgeois stand on the question of equal rights?

Jones’s congregation has spent four years establishing the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, a country on the northern coast of South America. They are exhausted, overworked, and malnourished. Jones is a charismatic, Marxist preacher who isolates them from the outside world.

JONES: You must participate in the saving and the working and the production here.

Stateside, concerned relatives realize the commune is not what it appears. No one is allowed to leave. On November 14th, Congressman Leo Ryan journeys to Guyana with a news team to assess the situation. But after an altercation with the Jonestown guards, Ryan is gunned down along with four others while boarding a plane out of the country.

AUDIO: Medical evacuation aircraft flew out of Timehri airport this afternoon, eight wounded people, following Saturday afternoon’s shooting that left five Americans dead, including Congressman Leo Ryan.

Terrified that the United States government will now investigate Jonestown, Jones decides to take a drastic step: a “revolutionary death” to protest capitalism. On November 18th, he laces a flavored drink with cyanide and directs everyone to drink it.

Survivor Leslie Wagner-Wilson is spared from the massacre. Audio here from her interview with Daily Blast Live two years ago.

LESLIE WAGNER-WILSON: That morning there was a feeling in the air of quietness, almost surreal. All of us on that day were ready to die.

Over 900 people die from the poison cocktail, and only 85 escape Jonestown alive. And the legacy of the event produces the popular catchphrase of “drinking the Kool-Aid,” where people go along in blind obedience to someone or something.

Next, on November 16th, 1961, another story of a brave survivor. Sailors in the Bahamas catch sight of an 11 year-old girl floating on a lifeboat, severely sunburned and dehydrated. Her name is Terry Jo Duperrault. Audio here from a DoxNM Documentary.

AUDIO: She just floating on the ocean was very near death when she was picked up.

On November 8th, the Duperraults set off on a small sailboat named the Bluebelle with Captain Julian Harvey and his wife Mary. A few days into the trip, Captain Harvey makes an unusual decision to sail at night. Here’s Terry.

TERRY: We were all excited because we thought wow, sailing at night, we hadn't done that. And it was, seemed like a very nice, you know, friendly evening and everyone was fine.

Suddenly, Terry awakes to her brother screaming for help. She rushes above deck to see Captain Harvey standing over the bodies of her mother and brother. Harvey then scuttles the ship by opening valves in the hull. And he escapes in a dinghy. As water floods in, Terry scrambles to find a lifeboat.

TERRY: I knew the boat was going down, and it was do this or die.

Terry drifts in the open ocean for three and a half days without food or water. The lifeboat is so small that she is forced to sit up the entire time. And throughout it all, she prays for rescue.

TERRY: The cold was just terribly miserable …

After Terry is rescued, she learns that Captain Harvey was picked up a few days earlier. She’s told there are no other survivors. Police arrest Harvey, but he commits suicide just days later. For years, Terry grapples with the death of her family.

TERRY: I didn't believe my father was dead because I had not seen him, until I was about 35, and I accepted it finally.

She credits her strong faith in God for coming to terms with the ordeal. And now, Terry has a loving family of her own.

TERRY: I hope that I can just continue to be healthy and happy and you know, have the wonderful love that I share with my family.

Finally, the inspiring history of a beloved Christian novel written over 350 years ago.

On November 12th, 1660, police arrest John Bunyan for unlicensed preaching. Audio here from Church historian and pastor Dr. Steven Lawson.

STEVEN LAWSON: He was a powerful preacher. He was uneducated. And God does have those men that were never trained and yet they rise above their generation, because the hand of God was so powerfully upon them.

While behind bars, Bunyan begins to write Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory about the Christian life. A pilgrim named Christian journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, encountering danger and struggle. Along the way, Christian stumbles upon a place called Vanity Fair—a place full of temptation and sin. Audio here from the 1978 Pilgrim’s Progress feature length film.

NARRATOR: But then, from across the nearby hills, came the sounds of Vanity Fair.

EVANGELIST: Go, you are in the world, but not of the world.

Many aspects of Bunyan’s time in prison are reflected in the book. The Slough of Despond resembles Squitch Fen, a boggy area near his cottage. Evangelist, who helps and counsels Christian, is based on his longtime friend and pastor John Gifford. And the House of the Interpreter is St. John’s Church, where Gifford also preaches.

Pilgrim’s Progress is a celebrated and widespread success after publication. Since then, dozens of popular authors reference Pilgrim’s Progress in their own works, from Charles Dickens and C.S. Lewis to Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Steinbeck.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Emma Perley.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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