(This blogpost was originally published on 24 November 2019.)
Reading the history and records of Jonestown, something stands out in those last few months is the failing health of Temple leader Jim Jones. His long list of physical and mental illnesses can be attributed to his heavy drug use. But there’s a few issues noted that lead me to wonder. Even as early as 1978, is it possible that Jim Jones had developed AIDS?
You can’t get far down the rabbit hole of Jonestown research without running into a plethora of conspiracy theories. The idea that Jim Jones, titular head of the communal settlement in Guyana where 918 people died in November 1978, was HIV positive if not actually living with AIDS at the time of the mass death sounds like another of these bizarre fringe theories. These theories abound: that Jim Jones was a CIA operative, that Jonestown itself was part of the MK ULTRA mind control experiments, that hundreds of Jonestown residents initially escaped into the jungle only to be murdered at the behest of the American government, that Jones himself escaped whilst the body of a body double, as it were, took his place amongst the carnage.
It’s natural for people, struggling to make sense of something as nonsensical as the deaths of Jonestown, to attempt explanations that seem to make more sense than the official narrative; a tendency exaggerated in by the facts of this case: a large group of socialist Americans living communally in a socialist nation and openly speaking of plans to migrate to the USSR at the height of the Cold War; the sheer horror of hundreds of people purportedly killing their children before taking their own lives; the dramatic changes in the body count in the immediate aftermath of the deaths; and the shameful investigation by the US Government into the tragedy.
In the canon of conspiracy theories which have been so pervasive they now form part of the Jonestown story itself, the idea that Jim Jones could have had AIDS seems to fit right in. Didn’t Jones die several years before AIDS began to make its horrors felt in America in the early 1980s? Was Jones deliberately infected as some part of the government program that ended with a thousand deaths?
But as I outlined in my previous post looking at Jonestown, I am not an adherent of the conspiracies; the truth of Jonestown is strange and terrible enough already. The possibility that Jim Jones had AIDS is, however, simple enough (if anything related to Peoples Temple can be called simple) based on the early history of AIDS in America and what we know about Jim Jones’ life during the Temple years in California in the mid 1970s, and his health during the last years of Peoples Temple in Guyana. This is only a theory; it is based only on circumstantial evidence. But there’s no conspiracy involved. So let’s head back to California in the 1970s, in the midst of the sexual revolution and gay liberation, where a charismatic, progressive and increasingly powerful preacher was building his socialist movement.
I. Jim Jones and sex
Jim Jones arrived San Francisco in 1972, having spent nearly two decades building his Peoples Temple movement first in Indiana, then rural Northern California. Having built his church in these more conservative places and times, he’d been careful to present the appropriate image of a preacher, marrying Marceline Baldwin, a nurse, in 1949, not long after his 18th birthday. Jim and Marceline would stay legally married, Marceline a much loved and respected Temple leader, until their deaths on November 18 1978. However, the marriage was marred by Jim’s repeated infidelities; in the late 1960s he began a long term affair with Carolyn Moore, who would later bear his child and function as his de facto wife; they lived together in a cottage at Jonestown whilst Marceline had her own, separate living quarters. Jones also carried on sexual relationships, unbeknownst to the majority of Jonestown residents, with several of the other young women who made up the Temple inner leadership group. Of course, when such a power differential is involved, there’s always the question of coercion; Temple members who escaped before the final months have reported Jones sexually assaulted them.
As well as sexual activity with women, there are multiple accounts of Jones engaging in sexual activity with men. Whilst still in Northern California, Jones had an affair with a young pianist who was forced from the area by Temple members when Jones refused to give the commitment he sought. He openly propositioned male Temple members, and would spend frequent evenings visiting gay bars in San Francisco on the pretext of needing to understand the “homosexual mind.” On December 13, 1973, Jones was arrested in a Hollywood adult movie theatre after exposing himself to an undercover police officer and was charged with homosexual activity, though Temple attorneys has the charges dropped, the records sealed. After that, Jones was more circumspect, but according to former Temple pastor David Parker Wise: “Jim claimed that every homosexual act he had was for the cause. This is…not true. Jim had homosexual affairs from the beginning and with men outside of the church that had nothing to do with furthering the group’s cause.”
It’s unlikely that Jim Jones was actually homosexual; his continued relationships with women (rather than simply hiding behind the facade of a marriage in name only) make that unlikely. It seems more likely that Jones was bisexual, a fact he seems to have struggled to reconcile with himself. What we do know is that Jim Jones was engaging in sexual activity with men in Los Angeles and San Francisco at least, during the early and mid 1970s, when San Francisco was the centre of gay liberation on the West Coast. LGBTQ people from all over the US left their conservative home towns to move to San Francisco and a lively scene of bars, nightclubs and bathhouses thrived in the city.
II. The early days of AIDS in the US
For most people, the recorded history of AIDS begins on June 5, 1981, when the Centers for Disease Control published an article about a worrying spate of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a rare cancer previously seen only in elderly men, targeting young, previously healthy homosexual men; the New York Times published an article about the cancer cluster a few weeks later. But as medical professionals treated and documented the spread of the terrifying new phenomenon which would be named AIDS in 1982, there was little federal funding or will to address the epidemic dismissed as “gay plague” in the conservative atmosphere of Ronald Reagan’s America. Tens of thousands of people would die before the indifference turned to calls for action (it wasn’t until 1985, following the death of his long time friend Rock Hudson, that Ronald Reagan even said the word “AIDS” in public). HIV is a blood borne virus, the two most frequent methods of transmission in developed nations being sharing drug injecting equipment and unprotected anal intercourse, taking a terrible toll on marginalised populations.
But there was a terrible silence long before this. Social and health workers in New York City had been witnessing a condition dismissed as “junkie pneumonia” among the injecting drug users and homeless communities they worked with 1970s; dancer Floyd Dunn wrote of gay Black friends suffering from drastic weight loss, swollen lymph glands in the late 70s. In recent years, science has proven AIDS was present in the US long before 1981; a study of HIV genomes by the scientific journal Nature estimates the arrival of HIV in the United States, primarily in New York City, in 1970; it had spread to the West Coast by 1976. (Isolated cases occurred even before this; Robert Rayford, a 16 year old African American boy who died of a mysterious case of pneumonia in St Louis in 1969, was proven to have been HIV positive through testing done on preserved blood samples in 1987). Of the blood samples in the Nature study, collected in 1978 and 1979, 4% of those collected in California were positive for HIV.
So HIV had arrived in San Francisco by 1976, a year before Jim Jones left for Guyana. And it began to spread through the gay scene there and in Los Angeles, a period when Jones was likely to continue to visit gay bars and engage in sexual relationships with the young men he met there. It’s also worth noting that Peoples Temple made numerous cross country bus trips through the 1970s, fundraising and attracting followers. Did Jones prevail himself of the gay scene in any East Coast cities during one of these trips? Again, it’s possible; we just don’t know.
III. Jim Jones, health and AIDS
Everyone agrees that Jim Jones’ health declined sharply in the sixteen months between his final arrival in Guyana and his death on November 18, 1978. Jones’ son Stephan, who survived the massacre by being in the Guyanese capital Georgetown with the Jonestown basketball team, has stated in interviews that his father would have been dead in a year.
However, contemporary Temple records such as recordings from Temple rallies and the journals of Temple member Edith Roller indicate Jones frequently complained of high temperatures, muscle aches, headaches and coughs and claiming to have lung cancer. Some of this may have been to elicit sympathy from the membership, but there’s no doubt he was physically ill, and suffering some unknown virus or infection. Jonestown had its own medical centre, staffed by a Temple doctor and nurses, so the majority of Jones’ medical care happened in house, but in August 1978 Jones was examined by physician and friend, Dr Carlton Goodlett, who said of the examination (emphasis mine):
We went into the doctor’s office and examined Jim Jones. He had a spiking temperature which fluctuated between 96 and 102.8 degrees. He also had a deep, nonproductive cough. Physical findings did not indicate any notable pathology. X-rays were normal, without any objective signs of pneumonia, TB, or cancer.
We tried to reassure Jones that he did not suffer from any disease. I did indicate, however, that he might be suffering from a fungus infection of the lung…
Dr Goodlett, an American physician in Guyana for a visit, admitted he did not know enough about tropical of diseases of the type which may be found in a jungle environment like that surrounding Jonestown to be able to diagnose Jones definitively (although the CDC Traveler Advice site does not list fungal infections as a particular concern for visitors to Guyana). What’s the red flag here, however, is that pulmonary fungal infections are a classical manifestation of full blown AIDS.
Let’s take a look at how HIV infection progresses without treatment. There’s three stages of HIV. When a person is first infected, the virus multiplies rapidly in the blood. Most people won’t show any symptoms at this stage, but some people will show flu like symptoms 2-4 weeks after infection. These symptoms will recede and the multiplication of the virus in the blood slow; this is the latent phase of chronic HIV infection, which is often asymptomatic and can last from 2-10 or more years. During the chronic stage, a person may be without symptoms but the virus is working in the body, damaging the immune system.
The final stage is advanced HIV, previously known by the pejorative description of “full blown AIDS.” In advanced HIV, the person’s immune system is now so damaged that it cannot resist the slew of germs, bugs, bacteria, viruses and fungi that we all encounter living in the world and being in contact with other people.
This puts a person with advanced HIV at risk of opportunistic infections – infections that are of little danger to a person with a fully functioning immune system that can resist or fight them off, but find an easy way in to damaged immune systems. Opportunistic infections can include toxoplasmosis, staphylococcus, salmonella and thrush – all little threat to healthy people but dangerous in compromised immune systems (pregnant people, for example, are also at increased risk of salmonella and toxoplasmosis). Fungal infections are also a deadly risk for people with advanced HIV. As noted in this article from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, most patients with advanced HIV battle deep seated fungal infections; they are a major worldwide health risk to people with advanced HIV, leading to protracted illness with fever and weight loss. This lines up with what we know about Jim Jones’ health: that he had a fungal infection of the lungs, and was coughing, losing weight and complaining of general illness. The weight loss can be attributed to the drug use, but the lung fungus points to a man battling a compromised immune system years before doctors would think of the possibility of HIV.
These days, we are very fortunate to have treatments for HIV such as antiretroviral therapy, which works to reduce the spread of HIV in the body, as well as medication like PrEP which can be taken by HIV negative people at risk of infection to reduce their risk of transmission. People diagnosed with HIV today can expect to enjoy the same life expectancy as people without the condition. But in the early days of AIDS, without a name for the condition let alone treatment and support, the trajectory of the illness was often tragically short.
There’s no way to ever know whether Jim Jones did have AIDS. After the mass deaths at Jonestown, Jones was cremated, his ashes scattered at the behest of his surviving sons, who were ashamed and appalled at their father’s role in the deaths of so many innocent people (by contrast, they had their mother’s body buried in the family plot in their home state of Indiana). And it is only a theory. I don’t believe that Jim Jones did have AIDS; after my years of research into Peoples Temple, it’s something I have considered as a possibility, not something I consider as an undiscovered truth. It’s an idea is all, one that will forever remain untested.
It’s no way my intention to hurt any Jonestown survivors who may come across this post; what happened at Jonestown was a very real human tragedy that has never been publicly acknowledged. On the other hand, Jonestown is also an historical event – a fact also overlooked in our collective memories – and I believe it is valid to speculate on the causes.
* * * * *
Finally, I want to pay tribute to Laura Johnston Kohl, who passed away in California this week at the age of 72. Laura was a Jonestown survivor, but much more than that – she was a teacher, a gifted writer, and a dedicated member of the survivors’ community, supporting her fellow survivors, advisor to the California Historical Society’s Peoples Temple Archives, and devoted to keeping the memory of those she loved and lost alive. You can read her some of her extensive writings on Jonestown here and here, and I warmly recommend doing so.