Parallels between the Manson Family and the People’s Temple

Charles Manson and Jim Jones had a lot in common

Excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story (published June 2019 from Swann Publications)

Manson’s personality began to shift in the winter of 1968–1969, to harden. He started to dole out more drugs to control the others, and he began to take more drugs himself. He got meaner and more brutal and controlling. Disappearing was the charming and witty man who’d smooth-talked his way into people’s homes and hearts in 1967. Gone was the gentle ‘gardener’ who welcomed lost souls with his sage wisdom. This was now an angry man with the lives of dozens of young people in his grip. The more desperate and dangerous he became, the less likely that things were going to go his way. Eventually, backlash from his failures would prove disastrous for everyone.

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Charles Manson in 1969, pictured with a crow that he named ‘Devil’

Charlie had a way of blaming others for his woes: his mother, the prisons, his ex-wives. When pushed too far, Charlie went on the attack. The brunt of his attacks were often his first and most loyal followers: Mary Brunner, Katie (true name Patricia Krenwinkel), Sadie (true name Susan Atkins), Snake (true name Dianne Lake). Mary was once beaten so badly she could not get out of bed for several days. Snake was punched, kicked, hit over the head with a chair and whipped with an electrical cord.

Patricia Krenwinkel recounted Manson’s escalating violence,

“He began to do things like grab me by the hip. I remember when I laughed at him once and he jerked me by the hair and said, ‘You won’t ever laugh at me again.’ And then I started watching him beat Mary… When we were out in the woods… he threw knives over my head, he threw hatchets over my head into a tree… He, at times, gave me to other people to use for sex… The idea was to let you know that he always had that control… Between the drugs and the violence and my inability to make the correct decisions and to take my own life, get some self-respect back and just leave, I didn’t.” — Patricia Krenwinkel, from her 2004 Parole Hearing

Leslie Van Houten also shared that Manson slapped her once.

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Patricia Krenwinkel (left) and Leslie Van Houten (right) — both women were convicted of first degree murder during the Manson Family’s Tate/LaBianca 1970 trial

So, why didn’t these women leave? If not when he first started showing signs of violence, then later when it became more demeaning? Why did Pat stay when Manson first brutally beat her friend Mary, then tormented and humiliated her? In order to answer those questions, you need to understand cult mentality.

Nine years after the Manson Murders, nearly one thousand people died at Jonestown, a religious settlement in Guyana, South America. Charismatic pastor Jim Jones of the People’s Temple took his congregation out of the U.S. in 1977, to avoid meddling family and the authorities. The following November, they were visited by several U.S. officials and journalists investigating accusations of coercion and kidnapping. During the visit, several congregants stepped forward and begged their guests to take them away from Jonestown, which led to a scuffle. The defectors were permitted to leave the compound with the camera crews and U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan. But on the tarmac, at a private airstrip outside the settlement, aggressors from People’s Temple showed up and began firing on the passengers.

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U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan (right) with his assistant Jackie Speier (center) on board the plane that would take them to Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Photo Credit: AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner, Greg Robinson

Five people were murdered on the airstrip including Ryan, one defector and three seasoned newsmen. Back at Jonestown, Pastor Jones then gathered his followers. He announced that the Congressman and everyone who defected was dead, that they all would be arrested and tortured as a result. He had his most ardent congregants line up barrels of Flavor Aid™ (a knock-off of Kool-Aid™) dosed with cyanide, then ordered everyone to drink.

Weeks earlier, Jones gave his followers at the compound a sweetened drink and then, after they consumed it, told them it was poison and they would die. It is unclear how many of his parishioners that November day drank the poison knowing what it was or how many believed it was just another test of their loyalty.

Women with babies and toddlers were first ordered into line and syringes were filled with the grape-flavored poison and injected into their children’s mouths. It took two to five minutes for the babies to die, frothing at the mouth and convulsing in their mother’s arms. Those mothers then willingly drank the cyanide and the rest of their families lined up to join them in death. Jim Jones also died by suicide that day, from a self-inflicted gunshot.

The Reverend Jim Jones. Photo Credit: Associated Press (AP)

These were folks who had followed the People’s Temple as it grew in size, first in Indianapolis and then northern California. 68% of those who died at Jonestown were African-American, most were poor. They’d been lured to the People’s Temple with the promise of equality and fairness. Jones made a name for himself, first back in Indiana, as a color-blind pastor who practiced what he preached (he and his wife adopted several black and Asian children). Many of these black congregants, by 1978, were older and some were disabled. They turned their social security checks over to the cult. Their whole families — multiple generations were there with them. They had nowhere else to go.

But there were many reasons why members initially, idealistically joined the People’s Temple.

“Jones’s idealism was a large part of what made him so lethal. He tapped into the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and 1970s, feeding on people’s fears and promising to create a ‘rainbow family’ where everyone would truly be equal.” — “Drinking the Kool-Aid: A Survivor Remembers Jim Jones” by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz ©November 2011 The Atlantic magazine

In fact, nine former members of Fountain of the World — the messianic group who lived near Spahn Ranch, later joined the People’s Temple and also perished at Jonestown.

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An earlier photograph of members of the Fountain of the World, a messianic cult that lived in California near Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family stayed in 1968–1969

One of Jones’ former followers, Teri Buford O’Shea, explained his mass appeal.

“He was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised… Most of them were African-American, but there were also white people, Jewish people, people of Mexican descent. There were religious Christians and communists. If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he’d be your father. He always homed in on what you needed.” — “Drinking the Kool-Aid: A Survivor Remembers Jim Jones” by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz ©November 2011 The Atlantic magazine

But Jones was also a megalomaniac who’d become delusional and controlling. He conducted staged ‘healings’ in the church and courted media attention, while conducting several affairs with Temple women — sometimes taking them from their husbands. There were rumors of beatings and brainwashing. The IRS began to investigate the church and several family members went to the press to find out why Jones would not let them see or speak to loved ones. He needed to put his Temple in a place where defection was eliminated. Jones arranged to purchase nearly 4000 acres in remote Guyana, in the northern part of South America. He sent several dozen people to Guyana first to build the structures needed to house at least one thousand people, then he and the others followed a year later.

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A photograph of the entrance to Jonestown in remote Guyana

By the end of his life, Jones was paranoid-delusional, addicted to heavy narcotics and dangerous. He choked people. He lied. He gathered his parishioners each night, forcing them to listen to hour upon hour of his deranged sermons, including the night he pretended to poison them. By the end, his followers were so trapped and frightened and hopeless. The People’s Temple was all they had.

There were a few individuals who managed to leave Jonestown before that fateful November 1978 day (including O’Shea) and a few who miraculously escaped death (one hid under their bed) but for most on that compound, their fate was sealed the day they arrived. To understand the inertia that gripped Jonestown and the complexity of the victims’ reasons for staying, I would highly recommend reading A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Free Press, publisher).

To this day, the phrase ‘drinking the Kool Aid’ indicates people blindly following a bad idea, and stems from the death of those People’s Temple members. But this author takes exception to the idea that they killed themselves. It was not ‘ritual suicide’ as Jim Jones encouraged, but mass murder. Armed guards circled the camp that day. Several people were attacked as they tried to break free. As survivor O’Shea explained,

“Anyone who didn’t want to commit suicide was held down and shot with needles filled with potassium cyanide. Unless you were one of the lucky ones who happened to sneak off into the jungle, you were dead. They went around with stethoscopes, and if you still had a heartbeat, you’d be shot. Furthermore, they killed all the children first. That killed a lot of the people at heart before they actually took the Kool-Aid.” — Teri Buford O’Shea, quoted in “Drinking the Kool-Aid: A Survivor Remembers Jim Jones” by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz ©November 2011 The Atlantic magazine

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An aerial photograph of the carnage at Jonestown. 909 people died at the compound on November 18, 1978 at the orders of their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones

Like with the Manson Family, there are lessons to be learned from what happened in Jonestown. Or with Heaven’s Gate, who did commit mass suicide in 1997, believing they were leaving Earth to go to a UFO. Or more recently, NXIVM — the sex cult where victims were ritually branded with the leader’s initials. We can rightly ask why people stay in such demeaning, dangerous situations, which is why it is imperative that survivors of cults speak out. Manson Family members Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Paul Watkins, Dianne Lake and Lynette Fromme have written books on their experiences with Charles Manson and that is a good thing. Even those who committed murder on Charlie’s orders have something valuable to teach us today.

You can learn more about our book by visiting

You can also read this article about the Fountain of the World cult:

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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