November 19 Tape Adds Perplexing Postscript: A
Commentary by Fielding McGehee, III
Over the years, the Peoples Temple audiotape which has been the
subject of greatest interest -- from researchers, documentarians and
curiosity-seekers -- is the FBI-designated Q 042, better known as
"the death tape." While some casual listeners and conspiracists question
elements of the tape's authenticity, there is little debate about
the voices on the recording and the circumstances under which it was
made. Shattered by the departure of members of two of the oldest and
most prominent Peoples Temple families earlier in the afternoon of
November 18, Jim Jones reminds the people of Jonestown of what brought
them to this place, and why they must leave now by committing "revolutionary
Even so, the death tape is part of a whole, a period (perhaps an exclamation
point would be a better description) to the life of Peoples Temple.
Most of the other 971 tapes recovered from Jonestown document the
history of the group; they give lessons, either instructional or institutional;
they include loyalty oaths and statements that could be used against
people who defected; they provide entertainment in the form of music
or comedy. In that sense, the death tape is part of the continuum,
a final message of resistance, defiance and political outrage directed
to the world outside.
Much more mysterious -- indeed, at this point, unexplained -- is tape
Q 875, found along with the hundreds of others at Jonestown. There
was apparently nothing special about the location of the tape, or
any differences in appearance to distinguish it from the others, or
anything else. It was just there. As opposed to all the other tapes,
though, this is the only tape made after the deaths.
Q 875 consists of four broadcast news stories recorded off the air
on November 19, 1978, all concerning the deaths of Congressman Leo
Ryan and members of his party "last night" at the Port Kaituma airstrip
in Guyana. Two of the broadcasts are of Guyanese origin, and two are
American, including an ABC broadcast. The first newscast includes
"unconfirmed reports reaching Georgetown" of mass suicide at Jonestown.
Later broadcasts said that Temple attorneys Charles Garry and Mark
Lane are safe, although at the time there was still "nothing [confirmed]
about reports of mass suicide in the commune."
Throughout the broadcasts, there are unknown people moving about at
the recording end. Doors open and close, chairs squeak, voices murmur,
voices shush others, there is at least one electronic beep of some
duration. More importantly, the stories coming out of Guyana's Northwest
District are the only items on the tape. As a new story begins, someone
tunes the radio to another station -- ostensibly looking for more
coverage? -- then turns the recording equipment off.
Almost as important, the voices are American. Even though most of
the conversation is unintelligible, there are a couple of exceptions.
When the ABC broadcast cuts to the interview with Autumn Ryan, the
congressman's mother, someone says quietly, "Oh boy." During the third
broadcast -- which was the last on side one -- someone says "Shit"
following word that there will be autopsies done on the bodies at
the airstrip. There is no way of knowing whether the speaker was referring
to the decision to perform the autopsies, or was upset about something
There are many questions which the contents of tape raise but do not
1) Who made the tape? Most of the people at Jonestown were dead. The
few known surviving members of the Jonestown community had left considerably
earlier -- some before the deaths actually started -- or were stunned
by what surrounded them when they returned after escaping to the bush.
Yet the people who made this tape were calm, competent and even methodical
in the recording. On the other hand, there were no confirmed reports
of the mass deaths when the recordings were made. That means it was
much too early for the known Guyanese military or American State Department
personnel to have arrived on the scene. Anyone representing a governmental
agency on the ground at that time was there one or two days earlier
than any acknowledged presence.
2) Where was the tape made? It seems to have been made in the Jonestown
radio room. The space is small with the echoes of an interior setting,
there are sounds of metallic and/or heavy objects being shifted, and
there is an electronic pulse near the end of the last segment. Moreover,
the tape is similar in tone to many of the other tapes made at that
location. It could have been made in the Temple's radio room in Georgetown
-- and if the recorded ABC broadcast was from a television instead
of a radio, that might be more likely -- but that adds an additional
layer of questions about transporting the tape to the Jonestown settlement.
3) What were people doing as they made the tape? The Guyana military
personnel who came into Jonestown on Monday found a contaminated crime
scene. There had been some looting -- attributed to Amerindians and
Guyanese living in the area -- and more looting followed. By the time
American military personnel arrived to clean up the bodies, some buildings
had been ransacked, and paper was strewn everywhere. Were the people
who made the tape doing other things at the same time, cloaking it
under the mess of simultaneous vandalism?
4) Why did anyone bother to make a tape? As opposed to the other Jonestown
tapes, this serves no purpose for the Jonestown community. It is an
obituary, written in first person, by the deceased, after death. The
motivation for making the tape defies reasonable explanation.
5) And finally: Why did they leave the tape behind?