Why did people have so many different names in Jonestown?

There were a number of reasons that a number of people did not claim the bodies of their relatives who died in Jonestown, and perhaps one of the most tragic is that some of them didn’t recognize the names of their kin on the lists that were compiled following November 18, 1978.

Some of the name changes came about as they would have in the United States, with young women assuming their husbands’ names in marriage, or adopted children taking the names of their new parents. There are also a few known instances of people changing their names – and cloaking their identities – to avoid legal difficulties or to escape abusive relationships. In addition, several women from Father Divine’s Peace Mission in Philadelphia followed Jim Jones to San Francisco and later to Guyana, and while one or two still carried records of their given names – Ever Rejoicing could be identified as Amanda Poindexter, for example – at least two or three were buried under their Peace Mission names.

But there were other reasons more or less unique to Jonestown.

• As happened with other African-Americans from the late-1960s to the mid-1970s, a number of people were ready to give up their given names – which they considered their “slave names” – and to adopt names from their continent of origin. The Temple leadership encouraged this, urging them especially to consider names in Swahili. This change was not limited to black people, though, as demonstrated by Donald Edward Sly’s switch to Ujara. This practice was the one that led to the greatest number of missed identifications.

• To demonstrate their commitment to the Soviet Union, to their communist beliefs, and to the revolution, a number of people assumed names of the heroes of their cause. All the members of the Tupper family changed their last name to Lenin, although the ones in the family most known by the surname were Rita and her daughter Janet. James Cordell changed his last name to Stalin, and some of the other Cordell children changed their names to Guevara (although no one seems to have adopted the name of Che’s comrade in Cuba, Fidel Castro). Kenneth Joseph Wilhite Jr. was nicknamed Che, but it was his age and place of birth – born in Jonestown, he was nine months old at the time of his death – that precluded identification. Finally, there are records of one young man calling himself Cuffy, after the martyred leader of a Guyanese slave revolt, but there is no indication that this nickname interfered with his identification.

• Several people changed their last name to Jones – at least while they were in Jonestown – to demonstrate their loyalty to their leader, Jim Jones. Most still had records of their original names, however.

• Following the defection of Linda Swaney – also known as Linda Dunn – in the early 1970s, Jim Jones declared the first name of “Linda” as anathema in the church. It is not known how many women changed their name as a result of this edict, and whether the change prevented any identifications, but at least one Temple leader acceded to the request: Linda Amos took her middle name as her preferred name and became Sharon Amos. She and her three children died in the Temple’s house in Georgetown on November 18.

• Nevertheless, a few name changes remain mysterious. Richard Grubbs became Ken Norton, not just to the people in Jonestown, but even to his brother Tom, who wrote several memos about and letters to “Ken” during the years that they both contributed to the construction of Jonestown. Phyllis Chaikin, née Alexander – who became increasingly distant from her husband Gene Chaikin while in Jonestown – took the name “Phyllis Bloom,” although its origin is unknown. Also for reasons unknown, Joseph Helle III referred to himself as Joe Beam.

Last modified on October 6th, 2013.
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