The 35th Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre

David Goehring, Flickr / CC BY 2.0
David Goehring, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" is common in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means "to blindly follow," and it usually has a negative connotation: iPhone buyers waiting in line for days have "drunk Apple's Kool-Aid," so to speak. But where did this phrase come from? And does it even refer to the correct beverage? We're gonna have to go all the way back to the 1950s to answer this one.

The Road to Jonestown


The Jonestown Institute

Before we get to the Kool-Aid part, let's recap some horrible American history. Jim Jones was a complex man. Long story short, he was a communist and occasional Methodist minister who founded his own pseudo-church in the late 1950s, the "Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church," known in short as the "Peoples Temple." (And yes, the omission of the possessive apostrophe is intentional, as the name apparently refers to peoples of the world.) While Jones called it a church, it was actually his version of a Marxist commune, with a smattering of Christian references thrown into his sermons/diatribes. The Peoples Temple was arguably a cult, demanding serious dedication (and financial support) from its members.

While Jones was a cult leader and ultimately a homicidal madman, there was one bright spot: Jones and his wife Marceline were strongly in favor of racial integration, and they adopted a bunch of kids from different racial backgrounds. In fact, they were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African American boy. (Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had one biological child.) Jones called his adopted retinue the "Rainbow Family," and he made a name for himself desegregating various institutions in Indiana.

As the Peoples Temple grew throughout the 1960s, Jones lost the plot on the whole Marxism thing, and began to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date (July 15, 1967), and suggested that after the apocalypse, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. And where would that new Eden be? Jones selected the remote town of Redwood Valley, California, and moved the Peoples Temple (and its peoples...) there prior to the deadline.

As you know, that end-of-the-world deadline came and went with no nuclear holocaust. In the following years, Jones abandoned all pretenses of Christianity and revealed himself to be an atheist who had simply used religion as a tool to legitimize his views. Jones said: "Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment -- socialism." Oh, and Jones was a drug addict, preferring literal opiates to metaphorical ones.

As media scrutiny increased and his political profile became more complicated, Jones became concerned that the Peoples Temple's tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. would eventually be revoked. He was also paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community. So in 1977, Jones again moved the Temple and its peoples, this time to a settlement he had been building since 1974 in the South American nation of Guyana. He named it "Jonestown," and it was not a nice place. It occupied nearly 4,000 acres, had poor soil and limited fresh water, was dramatically overcrowded, and Temple members were forced to work long hours. Jones figured his people could farm the land in this new utopia. It didn't hurt that he had amassed a multi-million-dollar fortune prior to arriving in Jonestown, though he did not share (or even use) the wealth. Jones himself lived in a small shared house with few luxuries.

What Happened at Jonestown


The Jonestown Institute

Again, let's make a really long story just a smidge shorter. U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978, investigating allegations of human rights abuses within the Jonestown community. Ryan was accompanied by NBC News correspondent Don Harris, various other members of the media, and concerned family members of Jonestown residents. While visiting Jonestown, Congressman Ryan met a little over a dozen Temple members who wanted to leave (including a couple who passed a note reading in part, "Please help us get out of Jonestown" to news anchor Harris, mistaking him for Congressman Ryan). That number of defectors was actually quite low, considering the population of Jonestown, which was then over 900.

While processing paperwork to help Temple members return to the U.S., Ryan was attacked by knife-wielding Temple member Don Sly, but the would-be assassin was restrained before he could injure Ryan. Eventually the entire Ryan party plus the group of Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip and boarded planes, hoping to leave. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members (his creepily-named "Red Brigade") with the group, and the Red Brigade opened fire, killing Ryan, one Temple defector, and three members of the media -- and injuring eleven others. Those who survived fled into the jungle.

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started up what he called a "White Night" meeting, inviting all Temple members. But this wasn't the first White Night. On various occasions prior to the murders, Jones had hosted White Night meetings in which he suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown; he had even staged fake attackers around Jonestown to add an air of pseudo-realism to the proceedings (though it's hard to imagine that such a small community wouldn't recognize their own people pretending to threaten the Temple). Faced with this hypothetical invasion scenario, Jones offered Temple members these choices: stay and fight the imaginary invaders, head for the USSR, head for the Guyana jungle, or commit "revolutionary suicide" (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest). On previous occasions when Temple members mock-voted for suicide, Jones tested them: Temple members were given small cups of liquid purportedly containing poison, and were asked to drink it. They did. After a while, Jones revealed that the liquid didn't contain poison -- but that one day it would. And, by the way, he had been stockpiling cyanide for years (not to mention piles of other drugs).

On the final White Night, Jones was not testing his Temple followers. He was killing them all.

Don't Drink the Poisonous Fruit-Flavored Beverage


Clyde Robinson, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (aka Valium -- an anti-anxiety medication), promethazine (aka Phenergan -- a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called "knockout drops"), and most interestingly...Flavor Aid -- a grape-flavored beverage similar to Kool-Aid. We'll get back to that last one in a moment.

Jones urged Temple members to commit suicide in order to make a political point. Some discussion ensued -- an alternate plan put forth by Temple member Christine Miller involved flying Temple members to the USSR -- but Jones prevailed, after repeatedly telling his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead, and that would bring the authorities soon (an audiotape of this meeting exists, and is just as creepy as you'd think). Jones first insisted that mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were dosed as well, though they were allowed to drink from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground, where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown -- primarily residents who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills stating that their assets should go to the Communist Party of the USSR. Jones himself did not drink poison; he died from a gunshot to the head, though it's not entirely clear whether it was self-inflicted. (Because Jones likely died last or nearly so, he may have chosen suicide by gun rather than by cyanide, because a cyanide death is extremely traumatic -- and he would have seen hundreds of people experiencing cyanide death's effects, including foaming at the mouth and convulsions.) Toxicology reports found high levels of barbiturates (sedatives) in his blood. Jones was reportedly hooked on a variety of substances, possibly explaining his increasingly erratic behavior over the decades.

What Does Kool-Aid Have to Do With Anything?!

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" became a popular term for blind obedience, as the Temple members had apparently accepted cups of fruity poison willingly. What's strange is that, according to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes styled "Flav-R-Aid") -- although there is photographic evidence that packets of both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were present at the scene. In an early inquest (PDF), coroners referred to "Cool Aid" [sic]. But initial media coverage described the scene differently. One read, in part (emphasis added):

A pair of woman's eyeglasses, a towel, a pair of shorts, packets of unopened Flavor-Aid lie scattered about waiting for the final cleanup that may one day return Jonestown to the tidy, if overcrowded, little community it once was.

This snippet was from an article printed in the Washington Post on December 17, 1978, written by Charles A. Krause. Less than a month after the deaths, here was major media specifying that the beverage was "Flavor Aid," but "Kool-Aid" is the term that stuck in Americans' minds. Why?

The most likely explanation comes in three parts.

The Kool-Aid Brand

First, Kool-Aid was a better known brand than Flavor Aid. Flavor Aid was a Jel Sert product first sold in 1929 and it was a rival of Kool-Aid, which was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. (Trivia note: prior to the Kool-Aid powder, the same beverage was available in liquid form as "Fruit Smack." Powdering the drink reduced shipping costs.) So when Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (at least one that was not "Tang"), "Kool-Aid" came to mind as the market leader. A major brand builder for Kool-Aid was Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of red Kool-Aid who is best known for his 1980s catchphrase "Oh Yeah!" He was already in the media spotlight in the 1970s.

The Merry Pranksters & LSD

Second, and more intriguing, was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe's nonfiction book published in 1968. In the book, Wolfe follows Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they travel the country in their party bus, encouraging non-drug users to try LSD in an Acid Test -- including a formulation of LSD in Kool-Aid, dubbed "Electric Kool-Aid." The book includes possibly the first negative instance of the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid," and it came a decade before the deaths at Jonestown. Wolfe's book includes this passage, describing a man who had a bad trip (emphasis added):

"... There was one man who became completely withdrawn ... I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all ... he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town ... he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did ... and it was very bad."

Because of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, many Americans were familiar with the idea of being urged to drink Kool-Aid containing, um, unusual chemicals -- even if they hadn't themselves participated in an Acid Test. This familiarity perversely boosted the profile of Kool-Aid, especially in this particular (adulterated) circumstance.

Both Beverages Were Onsite

Third, plenty of evidence suggests that both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were present at Jonestown -- though there was more of the latter. Therefore, in a sense, everybody's right. It may simply come down to whether the term "Kool-Aid" is catchier than "Flavor Aid," and history decided -- much to the consternation of Kool-Aid's marketing department.

Today, the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" is firmly entrenched in popular language, although the evidence suggests that it should more realistically be either "drink the Flavor Aid/Kool Aid mix" or the even less-catchy suggestion by Al Tompkins of Poynter: "[drink the] grape-flavored drink mix laced with poison." I think this linguistic horse has left the barn, quenching our thirst for metaphors with it. "OH YEAH!"

Further Reading

For a thorough examination of the cultural and linguistic effects of the Jonestown massacre, check out Drinking the Kool-Aid: The Cultural Transformation of a Tragedy by Rebecca Moore. In it, she makes the point:

... References [to "drinking the Kool-Aid"] are not uniformly negative. On the contrary, they describe the positive qualities of corporate loyalty or team spirit. For example, when Michael Jordan, a former Chicago Bulls basketball player who now plays for a competing team, returned to his former home to attend a Chicago Bears football game, he was willing to drink "Bears' Kool-Aid."[ii] This meant that Jordan was willing to set aside basketball rivalries in support of the home team at a football game.

Moore's paper is just one part of the encyclopedic Jonestown Institute website.

It's also worth checking out this Chicago Tribune story rounding up various media mentions of Kool-Aid versus Flavor Aid, 30 years after the Jonestown massacre. If you're into documentaries, I recommend Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (it's on YouTube), which aired on PBS's American Experience in 2008.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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