On 18 November 1978, 909 members of The People’s Temple died in Jonestown, Guyana. Many believe this to be the largest mass-suicide in history, whist others believe that it was not suicide, but mass-murder. Did the people of Jonestown want to take their own lives, or were they forced into it by their charasmatic leader, Jim Jones?
History of Jim Jones
Jim Jones was born 13 May, 1931 in Randolph County, Indiana to Lynetta Putnam and James Jones. His father was renowned as an unemployed alcoholic, and it was left to Lynetta to provide for the family. She worked long hours, and barely saw her son, leaving Jim with an unusual amount of freedom at such a young age.
Whilst Jim did have a small amount of friends as a child, he was always known as the ‘weird’ one of the group. Obsessed with both death and religion, Jim conducted funerals for dead animals which he had found, and was even caught stabbing a cat to death, so he could perform the death ceremony. The family moved to Lynn, Indiana in search of work and it was here where Jim felt particularly isolated among his peers.
The Jones family were incredibly poor, and for the majority of his life, Jim lived in a run-down house with no running water. Because of his family’s economic situation, he felt as though he was not welcome in his community, and sought comfort in other communities. One of the main communities where Jim felt he belonged was among the African-Americans, as he too felt the prejudice of the average white man. His compassion for the black community further ostracised him from the white people of Indiana, and he finally moved out of Lynn when his parents separated in the mid 1940’s.
Now living in Richmond, Indiana, with his Mother, Jones began studying notorious political leaders and philosophers, such as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx. He married Marceline Baldwin in 1949 and moved to Bloomington where he attended Indiana University and was particularly moved by a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt regarding African-Americans. Two years later, Jones became a regular participant at Communist party rallies and meetings, and became part of the political community. Frustrated at the country’s lack of understanding of communism, Jones looked for a way to demonstrate his Marxist views without facing persecution.
Jones found his method via religion, and soon became a part of the Pentecostal Church. Amazed by the level of control and power the preachers had over their followers, Jim became a student pastor in Sommerset South-side Methodist Church. Jones soon left the church, as he claimed he was banned form allowing black people into his congregation, and started a church of his own called The People’s Temple Christian Church Full Gospel.
The Rainbow Family
Jim and his Wife Marceline adopted numerous children throughout their marriage, and the majority of them were not white. Three children were Korean-Americans, one was partly of Native American decent and the other was African-America, making the Jones family the first white couple to adopt a black child in Indiana. They also adopted a white American boy from a member of the People’s Temple, and had their own biological child (who was also white American.) The Jones family were frowned upon by many communities in Indiana and hated in others. On one occasion, a stick of dynamite was placed in a coal pile in the Temple, alongside Swastikas stuck on the Temple door.
Jim Jones also described The People’s Temple as his ‘Rainbow family’ too, as people of all colours and creeds were welcome. Despite this, the church was predominantly filled with the black community, who were dawn to his compassion for race equality. Despite his instant success, Jones was frustrated at the white community of Indiana, and began searching for a new land for his congregation. In 1962, Jones took his immediate family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the town where he had heard was the safest place to be in a nuclear apocalypse. He rented a modest home for himself and his family, and studied the culture, politics and economy of the Brazilian town. Keeping his Marxist views well hidden, Jones spoke of an apostolic communal lifestyle to the local community, and studied how it was received.
Once again, Jones became frustrated with his surroundings and lack of resources and moved his family to Rio de Janeiro where they worked with the poor in the city’s slums. They lived there until Jones received information from fellow preachers in Indiana, indicating The People’s Temple was failing without him. He packed his possessions and he and his family and returned to Indiana in 1965. Adamant that a nuclear war was about to break out, Jim Jones searched for a safe place for his family and congregation, and found it in Ukiah, California.
Believing completely in their pastor, many members of The People’s Temple packed their belongings and drove across the US in a parade of around 15 cars. It was an exciting time for the followers, and they embraced the move to Redwood Valley, Ukiah with open arms. In the valley, the religious sect abandoned their social roles and classes, living communally as equals. Jones was building his vision of a socialist utopia, and it appeared to be thriving. Greyhound buses were being bought, refurbished and sent on tours across the country, spreading the message of Jim Jones and acquiring more and more members.
Promising to take care of people of all ages and races, Jones quickly became an influential leader and admired by his people. His faith healing miracles were awe inspiring to those around him, and members witnessed him give sight to the blind, and help those in wheelchairs to not just walk, but run and dance. Believing that San Francisco would be a better location for his community, The People’s Temple moved there in 1975 and Jim’s political career soon accelerated. Jones dictated that his followers would rally and canvass for George Moscone in the San Francisco mayoral election, helping him to win. In return, Moscone awarded Jones the role as Chairman of the San Francisco Authority Commission
Jones thrived in this position, and became popular with politicians and the public alike. Meetings that were once known as dull and uninteresting to the public, became lively debates, with hundreds of his followers standing to his attention. He met privately with vice president candidate, Walter Mondale, and was later publicly praised by him for his excellent work with The People’s Temple. Jones was also known to have met the First Lady, Rosalynn Carter on numerous occasions and was also endorsed by her and her supporters.
Jim commissioned a small town to be built in the heart of the jungle in Guyana, Africa, and labelled it to his followers as ‘Jonestown’ aka ‘The Promised Land’. Videos began to come back to San Francisco of People’s Temple members who were already there, describing the land as paradise. The members still in the US longed to be in Guyana, but patience was needed whilst it was still being built.
Despite the new influential friends Jones was making, the media began questioning the actions and methods of Jim Jones, and began speaking to former members of the church. Jim learned of an article that was due to be published the following day and used his political influence to get the editor to read it out to him via telephone. Allegations of sexual abuse, torture and holding people against their will drove Jim to move his people out of San Francisco to Guyana immediately. Many members, including Jim left the very night he heard of the article, leading journalists to the conclusion that he was running away.
Now that The People’s Temple resided in Jonestown, they believed they would be free from the persecution which Jones portrayed to them. Soon, a fruitful community arose out from the jungle, with cabins, medical clinics, day care centres, retirement homes and farms, and the members of The People’s Temple appeared happy and content in their new found utopia.
The People’s Temple belief system was composed of several different religious and political elements. The group was initially founded as a Christian sect, however, Jones’ communist views soon spread into the doctrine, alongside aspects of the Pentecostal church.
The Pentecostal Church played a huge role in the initial years of The People’s Temple, and many experts argue that Jones’ used this to attract followers. He performed many ‘miracles’ in front of his people, predominantly of the healing nature. One surviving member recalled an old woman in a wheelchair being healed. She went form being completely unable to walk, to literally racing around the church in a state of euphoria. Other church members claimed to be healed of cancer, blindness, drug addictions and a range of other ailments. It was later revealed that the elderly lady in the wheelchair was in fact Jones’ able-bodied secretary, and his faith healing was merely a tactic to gain additional followers.
As The People’s Temple grew, the emphasis shifted from following the Bible to discrediting it. In many sermons, Jim Jones preached how it was filled with lies and contradictions, blaming the Bible for the inter-racial issues between the black and white community. Showing its lack of power, Jones would throw his copy of the Bible across the room during his sermons saying: “Now, did you see any lightning come from the sky and strike me dead?” He would continue by adding:
“Help yourself or you’ll get no help. There is only one hope of glory, and that’s within you! Nobody is going to come out of the sky. There’s no Heaven up there, we’ll have to make Heaven down here!”
In California, The People’s Temple lived as a communal society, merging Jones’ communist ideals into everyday living. The children of the group were not independently raised by their birth parents, but by the whole group, with Jim Jones as the head of the family. Initially, Temple members were required to donate 20% of their earnings to the church, but as the group steadily grew in size, as did the amount they had to contribute. By the time the group were living in California, the members were donating 100% of their income, alongside any real estate or business they had. Reflecting a communist society, the money was then distributed equally among the church members, after paying for the group’s upkeep and administration costs.
Loyalty was repetitively demanded of all Temple members, and whilst many followers believed that they had proved their loyalty by leaving their friends and families behind to live in Redwood Valley, this was not enough for Jim Jones. On numerous occasions, Jones fed his followers drinks, and told them afterwards they they had just consumed cyanide. Many experts believe that this was in preparation for the ‘mass-suicide’, but at the time, Jim was using this as a test to see how far his group would follow him. Many members cried out in fear and despair, but others sat down and simply accepted their fate, showing the ultimate faith in their leader.
Thrown into the mix, The People’s Temple upheld a utopian vision, creating their own paradise here on Earth. The conglomeration of Christianity, Communism and the utopian vision served to create a very unique and distinctive message that many people found appealing. They could see problems with society and were looking for answers, and Jim Jones appeared to have them.
Back in the US, congressman Leo Ryan was becoming increasingly concerned with reports he was hearing about The People’s Temple. Many of the residents in his constituency had left for Guyana, and their families informed him that many of them were being held against their will. Announcing his visit at the beginning of November, 1978, Ryan asked fellow politicians to accompany him, but they all declined. As soon as the media heard of the visit, they decided they they would also go, and Ryan left with a party of people, including his own team,17 relatives of The People’s Temple members, numerous newspaper reporters and a NBC TV news team.
When Jones was informed of the visit, both him and his lawyer did everything they could to keep the politician at bay, but they did not succeed. Ryan was persistent, claiming he would be travelling to Jonestown whether Jim Jones liked it or not. Ryan and his team set off from Washington on 14 November and flew directly to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Staying at a local hotel, Ryan and his legal team conducted further battles with Jones and his lawyers for three days before they were allowed into Jonestown.
On 17 November, Leo Ryan, his aide Jackie Speier, the United States embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Dwyer, a Guyanese Ministry of Information officer, nine journalists, and four Concerned Relatives representatives of the delegation boarded a small plane to fly to an airfield at Port Kaituma, just outside of Jonestown. At first, none of Ryan’s party were allowed off the plane, but eventually Ryan’s entire team was granted access to Jonestown. Despite the difficulties in getting into Jonestown, the team were given a warm welcome, and the Temple members held a reception for him on the night he arrived.
Leo Ryan and his team set about speaking to the members of the group, asking if they were there according to their own free will. Everyone answered that they were happy, and Ryan began to see a tinted and rehearsed version of The People’s Temple. At some point that night, group member Vernon Gosney spotted NBC correspondent Don Harris walking around the perimeter of the town pavilion, and stuck a small note in the fold of his arm which read: “Help us get out of Jonestown.”
That night, Jim Jones ordered all members of the media and delegation party off his land, refusing to allow them to stay the night. Ryan, Speier, and Dwyer remained, and continued conducting interviews the next day, meeting several families who wanted to leave Jonestown. The media and delegation teams arrived back at the village at 11am and continued the interviewing with Ryan and his group, showing him the note that was given the previous night. Ryan confronted Jones, and calmly, Jones declared that if his people wanted to leave they were free to do so. However, by 3pm, 14 Temple members were boarding a truck to take them to the airstrip, when Jones and the rest of his people began begging them to stay. It was clear to Ryan and his group that the people were not free to leave at all, and Jones took it as the ultimate betrayal.
Leo Ryan stayed a further night in Jonestown, in case any other members wanted to leave. He was helping a family to leave the group when another member of The People’s Temple stabbed him. Knowing the wound was not serious, Ryan wanted to stay on at the village to get more people out, but Deputy Chief of Mission Dwyer ordered Ryan to leave, promising a return visit at a later date.
Ryan’s group, including all People’s Temple defectors arrived at Kaituma airstrip by 4:45pm, 25 minutes before their planes were due to take off. The smaller plane of the two was boarded and about to leave when one of the ‘defectors’ opened fire on everyone inside the vehicle. At the same time, a truck containing more People’s Temple members drove up and shot at the rest of the group who was not on the plane, killing Congressman Leo Ryan, a genuine defector of the group and three journalists. Nine other people were seriously wounded, including Ryan’s aide, Speier, and the remaining survivors fled into the surrounding fields for safety.
Hours later, Jones ordered his people to the pavilion to discuss the day’s events, where he told them that Congressman Ryan was dead, and the group would no doubt get the blame. Using fear against his people, he told them that the government would come and torture the children and elderly, and ruin their land. The only way out of this was to leave, and he didn’t mean to move on to another country again, he meant death: “If we can’t live in peace, then lets die in peace.” Asking if anyone disagrees, one woman stood up in the crowd of over 900; Christine Miller. She tried to explain that they had accomplished too much to just give up, but her words fell on empty ears:
CM: Is it too late for Russia?
JJ: It’s too late. I can’t control these people. They’ve gone with the guns. And it’s too late.
CM: Well, I say let’s make an airlift to Russia. I don’t think nothing is impossible, if you believe it.
JJ: How are we going to do that?
How are you going to airlift to Russia?
CM: Well, I thought they said if we got in an emergency, they gave you a code to let them know.
JJ: No, they didn’t. [Apparently to pacify the woman, Jones said he would try to check with the Russians, but doubted it would help.] To me death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s cursed. It’s not worth living like this.
CM: I think that there were too few who left for 1,200 people to give their lives for those people that left.
JJ: Do you know how many left?
CM: Oh, 20-odd. That’s small compared to what’s here.
JJ: 20-odd. But what’s gonna happen when they don’t leave? When they get on the plane and the plane goes down? That plane’ll come out of the air. There’s no way you fly a plane without a pilot. You think Russia’s gonna want us with all this stigma? We had some value, but now we don’t have any value.
CM: Well, I don’t see it like that. I mean, I feel like that as long as there’s life there’s hope.
JJ: Well, everybody dies. I haven’t seen anybody yet didn’t die. And I like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell. Tired of it. [Applause.]
CM: But I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live.
JJ: But don’t they deserve much more? They deserve peace.
CM: I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. And I have a right to choose mine, and everybody else has a right to choose theirs.
JJ: The best testimony we can make is to leave this god dam world. [After applause, more argument breaks out in the crowd. Jones’ voice, remarkably controlled, begins to rise.] Everybody hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Lay down your burdens. Down by the riverside. Shall we lay them down here by the side of Guyana? When they start parachuting out of the air, they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies. Can you let them take your child?
Voices: No! No! No!
Jones had promised his people that if things grew too difficult in Jonestown, they could move to the Soviet union. By the end of the ‘debate’, Miller was shouted down into submission, and no one else disputed the decision. Group survivor, Tim Carter described how it was the moment when Miller was shouted down that he noticed there were armed guards situated around the pavilion, and realised there was no way out.
It was decided that the children should die first, and parents injected cyanide-laced Kool aid into their mouths on mass. Witnesses describe mothers holding their dying babies as they screamed in agony, foaming at the mouth violently until they were dead. In total, 276 children were murdered in Jonestown. Next it was the adult’s turn: “Let us not fall into the hands of the enemy. Hurry my children, hurry!”
People lined up before the ‘death barrel’ of Kool-Aid and took their drinks as they were instructed. Many of them had just killed their own children, and had nothing left to live for. Reports of people trying to flee were given by witnesses, but only five people managed to escape into the jungle, one of which was Tim Carter.
In a message left behind by Jones, he said: “We laid it down….We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide, protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
909 members of The People’s Temple died on 18 November 1978, including Jim Jones himself, who died from a shot to the head. Five people also died on the airstrip, including Leo Ryan. There were approximately 80 members of The People’s Temple who were not in Jonestown when the mass-suicide/ murder occurred, including three of Jones’ sons.
Whilst the message being spread was one of freedom and equality, life in The People’s Temple was anything but. Members lived extremely active lives. They worked their usual jobs through the day, returned to the commune where they would work for the Temple throughout the evening and night. Many members were forced to go several nights with no sleep at all, where others were allowed approximately two hours per night at best. Many surviving members claim they were so tired, physically and mentally, that they allowed Jones to think on their behalf, offering up their rights and freewill to him.
In Jonestown, loud speakers were placed around the compound and tape recordings of Jones’ voice were played through them repetitively. It was through this system that Jones would read news of the outside world, but it was always tinted by his paranoia and need for propaganda. The recordings and readings never ended, and those members lucky enough to get some rest would fall asleep to the sound of Jim’s voice. The group were constantly being preached to by Jones, and by this point, his sanity and drug use was under scrutiny.
It was widely accepted in Jonestown that Jim was using drugs of some form, and it was apparent in his behaviour and attitude to his followers. He would snap into rages of anger, only to come out of it seconds later as though nothing had happened. Many former members remember Jim’s voice being slurred, and some days he was unable to speak at all. Jones had always preached of his paranoia regarding the U.S Government to a certain degree, but at Jonestown his paranoia became a primary focus of the group. Armed guards were posted around the perimeter of the town to ‘protect’ them from the evil outside. Many surviving members believe that these guards were also to prevent any members of The People’s Temple from leaving, and claim that this was an accepted fact among their fellow followers.
Besides the actual ‘suicide’, the major controversy surrounding The People’s Temple and Jim Jones was one of sexual abuse. Although Jim preached of chastity and celibacy in church, behind closed doors Jim did not practice any of this. The vast majority of the surviving members claim to have been sexually abused by Jones at some point in their time at The People’s Temple, and this included men, women and children. One former member recalls being told “I’m doing this for you” as he raped her in the back of one of the Greyhound buses on tour across America.
The controversy which The People’s Temple will be forever remembered is the one surrounding their deaths. A total of 909 people died in Jonestown (a further five were killed at the air-strip) and experts believe that some of these were injected with cyanide, as opposed to having willing drank it.
In his article entitled: ‘Murder or Suicide: What I saw’, survivor Tim Carter says:
On 20 November 20, I, and two others, were asked (i.e. told) to return to Jonestown to help identify bodies, a task and experience nearly as traumatizing and painful as the final day itself. While attempting to identify bodies, I viewed many (at least two dozen) that had huge protruding abscesses. I stayed in a very self-proscribed area within the pavilion itself, as I refused to identify bodies in any other location. Too, while doing my best to make identifications, I did not physically move or rearrange any of the deceased to see if the individuals underneath met a similar demise.
The location of these injections was haphazard and varied, despite the testimony of Guyana’s chief pathologist Dr. Leslie Mootoo at the inquest in Matthews Ridge that all injections were found located between the shoulder blades. I personally saw abscesses on a left temple, neck, back of hand, upper arm, lower leg, cheek, and back of shoulder.”
It is widely accepted that all children of The people’s Temple were murdered, as were all of the elderly, which instantly takes the murder toll up to around 426 victims. The amount of bodies found with forced injections is under dispute, and ranges from 20 to181 people, but as the count continues, it is also acknowledged that many members were forced to drink the poison under the watchful eye of the armed guards. In his article, Carter concludes:
“How does one assign a numerical total to the people who fall into the above categories? It is impossible. Perhaps one guideline would be this: During the so-called “September Siege” of 1977, Jones twice asked the approximately 700 people in Jonestown “Who wants to commit revolutionary suicide?” The first vote revealed a total of two who voted “for” (Maria Katsaris and Harriett Tropp). The following day the total rose to three (Carolyn Layton, along with Maria and Harriett).
That constitutes less than one percent of Jonestown’s population who felt revolutionary suicide was an option. Were the percentages higher on November 18, 1978? I say no, not discernibly. Those who were not in Jonestown on that day bolster that argument. Of the approximately 300 or so full-time members who were not in Jonestown, only two committed suicide (one after murdering her children). Again, we are left with a figure of around one percent.