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.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

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