Jonestown massacre survivor to share story

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On November 18, 1978, in what became known as the “Jonestown Massacre,” more than 900 members of an American cult called the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide-murder. Laura Johnston Kohl was one of only 87 people to survive the incident.

Johnston Kohl will speak about her experiences at Jonestown and life after the tragic event at Grand Valley Monday, October 12, at 7 p.m. in the Mary Idema Pew Library Multipurpose Room on the Allendale Campus.

The ordeal took place at the Jonestown settlement in the South American nation of Guyana, which was designed to be an agricultural haven and community. On the day of the tragedy, Jonestown gunmen murdered U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan (California), and four members of his delegation. The group traveled to the settlement to investigate claims of abuse. That same day, Jim Jones, the congregation’s leader, ordered his followers to ingest a cyanide-laced fruit drink while armed guards stood by.

Johnston Kohl joined Peoples Temple in 1970 and was an active member of the group until it ended. At the time of the massacre, Johnston Kohl was acting as a supply procurer in Georgetown where Peoples Temple owned additional properties.

“Laura was living in one of these houses with another woman and her children," said Heather Van Wormer, associate professor of anthropology and presentation coordinator. "When the order came via phone to commit suicide, Laura was out of the house. When she returned, she found them dead."

Johnston Kohl then called Jim Jones, Jr., the congregation leader’s son who was also in Georgetown, to tell him what had transpired. He violated his father’s wishes and ended the Peoples Temple. Johnston Kohl credits this as the only reason she lived through the ordeal.

Johnston Kohl is currently a bilingual educator, member of both Read Local San Diego and the Speakers’ Bureau of The Jonestown Institute, as well as a board member of the Communal Studies Association.

She will also speak at the Grand Rapids Public Library on Tuesday, October 13, at 7 p.m., and visit multiple classes while at Grand Valley.

This presentation is being sponsored by Grand Valley’s Anthropology Department, Political Science Department, School of Communications, History Department, Latin American Studies Department, Religious Studies program and Frederik Meijer Honors College.

For more information, contact Heather Van Wormer at or (616) 331-8673.