Final Witness: The Legacy of Marceline Jones

by Laurie Efrein Kahalas

We appear to have a dispute regarding the authorship of the final letter found at Jonestown. It was unsigned, yet (I believe) mistakenly attributed to Richard Tropp, apparently based upon a handwriting sample of…. just seven words, ALL CAPS! Compared to five words ALL CAPS, and not even the same words. Nothing in small letters, no continuous writing, not even a signature. Even a passport would have a signature, but we do not seem to even have that much.

I contacted the California Historical Society personally (who originally claimed the attribution in, I believe, 2005), and all they could locate in Dick Tropp’s handwriting was all of ONE word. So however that “verification of handwriting” was done in the first place is unclear.

My own calling to contest the authorship is partly that the oblique reference to “one Jonestown researcher” in the article “Richard Tropp’s Last Letter” herein, was me; so I wish to clarify. First, re that “a handwriting match had been made”: I had seen no handwriting sample from Marceline Jones until quite recently; and although yes, the handwriting looked similar to me, I believed that she had authored that letter going all the way back to 1999, and found the 2005 attribution wrong.

But I do realize that I am out-numbered, and my intent not being to offend good people who have worked so hard, I will start by laying out the logic, since this is hardly just “I feel this” and “I feel that”:

First, at least it turned out that we had other handwritten pieces by Marceline Jones; whereas for Tropp we have but a few words, all of them short captions in capital letters, since he characteristically did not write by hand at all! The “Jonestown” writer,” although a prolific typist for organizational work, apparently hand-wrote nothing — well, except for an eight-page emotional tour-de-force written by hand at the last? Not too saleable on its face.

Moreover, saying that “the only aspect [equals objection]” that I cited was “the purely subjective judgment” that “the note seemed more feminine than masculine” (even though it does) way undercuts my range of objections.

I just never made an attribution in writing. What I did was to be (I believe) the first to surface this at all, in 1999, on my own website, Jonestown.com. Then when this present website attributed the authorship to Tropp, I was unaware, being sidelined for several years for other reasons, thus the lengthy delay in addressing this.

Back then (in 1999) I had been sent a very scratchy (and it turned out, incomplete) xerox of the letter. I just recognized from the accompanying typewritten transcript, Marceline Jones’ unmistakable “voice,” which I will detail. And I did know both of these people (Dick Tropp and Marceline Jones) personally.

Tropp was a dedicated, productive guy, and apparently well-liked at Jonestown. Not knocking Dick Tropp. He was just a core ideologue and a propagandist, with a dry blunt sarcasm, no icon of maternal compassion. So unless he had a miraculous personality transplant in his final few hours of life, and could also be in two places at once (explanation to follow), no, in my estimation, he could not have written this. Nor, again, did he write by hand, since a bulk of his work was manuscripts, strategic write-ups, PR pamphlets, and the like. And we had no more handwriting to verify from him than SEVEN WORDS — a hand-written capitalized heading across the top of a wholly-typed document.

Marceline Jones, Jim Jones’ wife, did characteristically write by hand, with samples remaining and letter constructions matching. Graphology is an art as much as a science, and even factors like stress can skew handwriting. Like in this case, a severely-dipped line at “Jim Jones did not order…” shows a person utterly averse to violence.

This was an emotional person, a natural empath, and under great stress, so sometimes letter construction can vary. (Like with Marceline Jones, the “J” in “Jones” in her signature, and the “J” in “Jim” in a different letter [written for an anniversary,] are same writer, different construction.) The author of this letter was under such stress emotionally, that paragraph separations are unevenly spaced, there are shifting margins, and the letter literally trails off into scribbles. Yet even within a relative range of variations, I do see the same handwriting herein. I looked at it and first impression was “the same.”

And especially since we have NO other document in Tropp’s hand but a sparse few words, and ALL CAPS, that is not quite a pillar of historical verification, is it?

But here we are, back to simple logic:

Let’s nail the absolute disclaimer that Dick Tropp authored this letter. The website article herein, “Richard Tropp’s Last Letter,” marks him as “removed from what is going on at the pavilion.” But the letter itself is a heart-wrenching ON-SITE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT. So that’s not even an “argument.” No one could have written such a lengthy, detailed on-site account who was not even there!!

Another claimed qualifier was that Tropp had a position of “trust and leadership”? Would that mean that the person who was ON-SITE, suffering through the entire ordeal with hundreds of others with profound compassion, was NOT “leadership”? Whereas the person (and again, not in criticism – people probably wound up where they might characteristically be) at a removed location was thus a “leader,” so he still might have written the letter even though he was not even on-site at the Pavilion? Makes no sense, Nor does the “darkness” detailed in the letter indicate the author being in a cabin, as of course they had electricity! “The sky is gray,” finally sequeing into “darkness” was simply how day progressed into night outdoors!

But if the next “qualifier” for the authorship was, additionally, to be “political,” I cannot even go there. This was a painful, prolonged emotional ordeal for people. It was in no way “The Communist Manifesto.” It was people dying. I have no clue why this is called “overtly political.”

Moreover, the author of the claim of “Richard Tropp’s Last Letter,” even concedes that he had had “vehement opposition” to the whole thing! Well, I am sure it was excruciating for people, and that should be honored. But apparently, Dick and his sister Harriet were spotted arguing with Jim Jones just before he went to the podium. And Kathy Tropp, Dick’s wife, said in her own article in 2010, that Temple attorney Charles Garry (visiting Jonestown concurrent with the Congressman), himself saw Tropp so opposed, that he told her that he thought they would have had to “murder Dick” to get him to comply. So then he was right on site at the pavilion, hugging and comforting people, along with heart-breaking pleas for the world to understand? No.

That’s all painful, and I respect however people responded. It just would make responding like this, unlikely. And Marceline was the most empathetic person in the entire community, Indeed, she was called “Mother.” It is exactly what she would write. If anyone still alive has anyone to compare her to, (moreover who was also on-site at the Pavilion), then give the name, by all means.

Last, in listing reasons given for attribution by the author of “Richard Tropp’s Last Letter,” that author said that “moreover, Marceline’s remains were found at the pavilion; not with those of the Jonestown leadership in Jones’ cabin.”

And even past issues of authorship, I find that disturbing! There was an elite few, removed from the site where much of the agony happened, but after all, they were “leadership”? Whereas the person who was hugging and comforting people on site, loving them, calming them, while pleading with the world to understand…. That person was in some lesser category that was NOT leadership?

I cannot “go there.”

And like I said, I am not knocking Tropp. Tropp was a propagandist — a good one, and highly useful organizationally. But he was a notably dry, blunt personality; so again, minus an eleventh-hour personality transplant and a bi-location, he did not write this.

And me, I’m fine with simply changing the attribution to “Author Unknown,,” as there are still unknown factors in play. But let me tell you why all of this so matters:

The world saw nothing but horror out of Jonestown. And sometimes I think that all that was left in its wake was “bizarre murder/suicide ritual,” and a decades-long trail of bad Kool-aid quips and brainwashed robots and regimented lives and not a bit of accomplishment or commitment there. Not even human, those people. Even though there are still copious records left that at least prior to the crushing circumstances at the end, these were a vibrant, constructive people who loved their home-grown community, and visitor after visitor heaped on acclaim. Even the Congressman. Who said (exact quote and on film), “All that is being done here is significant, valuable and worthwhile, even of great significance on a worldwide basis.”

It is still daunting, and can never be explained to anyone’s satisfaction, no; but there was an extraordinary crush of calamities by the end, with the leader terminally ill and psychologically de-stabilized, then panicked about an ensuing military invasion in the wake of the assassination.

Which assassination, incidentally, I’ve gone to lengths to dissect with documentary proofs, that I do NOT believe that those people even did, nor did anyone there confess! Primarily “deep dark jungle, who else could it have been?” Yes, convoluted and immensely tragic all ‘round. But I respect the lives of the dead enough to let the most compassionate heart-felt voice get the last word.

And that’s why I want the attribution at least adjusted to “Author Unknown.” Because Dick Tropp, whom I knew, did not write this. This was the one voice crying into the wilderness who could. This wasn’t The Communist Manifesto or a PR brochure. It was a paean in equal parts to human bravery and heart-rendering calamity. It was a Greek tragedy of unfathomable sorrow and more. And I reject its being trivialized as less, or marginalized as mere politics, rather than a heart-breaking display of humanity under crushing turns of fate.

Surely someone, even after all this time, needs to finally say this. Even though I was the very first to bring this letter to public attention at all, all the way back in 1999, under the piece of same name (“Final Witness”) in the Jonestown.com website housed herein; but back then, it was simply ignored.

Otherwise, it was all said to just be about Kool-aid and cults and bizarre murder/suicide rituals. Well, of course I have also maintained that these people did not commit the airstrip murders, as I’ve documented in my “In Plain Sight” project. No, that’s not the topic of this piece, even though how very much more tragic that would render this. It’s just to put a fine point on observing that the world believes what the world believes. There is just sometimes a far poignant cry between what the world believes and what is actually true. But at least here, we know that no one can author an eyewitness account who was not on-site!

These were people who had lives that were precious to them, and their accomplishments in their utopian jungle community were great. They wanted to live, but they were also on the cusp of a military invasion; and a great majority would NOT have been willingly dragged away from the only truly good life they had had. We had zealots for sure, but the final hours were based in not zealotry nor “politics.” It was the profound sacrifice of close to a thousand souls in grave peril in any case, racing against a hidden countdown to military invasion.

And look to an even wider screen present day: If we can no longer distinguish between ideologues and empaths, then we are in serious trouble as a culture; though regrettably, I fear that that’s where we already are.

Back to the letter: It’s not an intellectual nicety, much less political propaganda. It does not traffic in blaring headlines, which was Tropp’s crass (however brilliant) style for years. It’s the litany of a 12-alarm fire, by the most compassionate human at Jonestown, Marceline Jones, whom many called “Mother” (albeit not the “mother” on the final tape — that was clearly spoken to the mother of a small child.) Who is agonized, and pleading with the world for understanding of a catastrophic plight, while she is also hugging and comforting frightened, yet brave people as they move towards their deaths.

Of the many specific proofs in the text that this letter was authored on site:

As I write these words, people are silently amassed, taking a quick potion, inducing sleep, relief. Many of us are now dead. Each moment, another passes over to a peace…. These are a beautiful people, a brave people, not afraid… There is a quiet as we leave this world…. People file slowly and take the somewhat bitter drink. Many more must drink…. People hugging each other, embracing, we are hurrying… we do not want to be captured. We want to bear witness at once… Hugging and kissing and tears and silence and joy on a long line. Touches and whispered words as this silent line passes. Determination, purpose, a proud people…. This sight…. a terrible victory.

And from The New York Times, post-tragedy, is Stanley Clayton, who escaped at the last, saying: “…Jim Jones stepped out into the crowd and began guiding them towards the poison vat. Jones’ wife, Marceline, also walked among the followers, Clayton said, hugging them and saying, ‘I’ll see you in your next life.'”

This was a profoundly spiritual human. Never on ceremony, no — but this letter is sprinkled with the best of what the “church” background of Peoples Temple had to say: “bearing witness,” “our living not be in vain,” “new birth of social justice,” and “world dying for a little bit of love.”

What do people even think that “bearing witness” (as this letter says) IS? It’s being there! Which Dick Tropp (the very proponents of this attribution claim) was NOT.

And yes, everyone gave their lives. Everyone sacrificed. Honor everyone, none to be omitted. It had to have been horrendous stress for everyone. Nor can I judge anyone else’s motives. But let’s just look at the relative positions that people were actually in. The woman who authored this letter was a Mother of Mercy, not dying herself until she had embraced and comforted others. Not off in some cabin at a distance with “leadership.”

So removal from that scene was “leadership,” whereas heart-wrenching, hands-on, compassionate personal involvement was somehow…. lesser?? NOT leadership? That’s what the most updated article claiming a Tropp authorship implies. That loving and comforting the fallen when one’s own heart is breaking, is NOT “leadership”? What Universe do we inhabit to be saying that?

Precious people died, each of great value, and we could argue the circumstances forever, I suppose. But to not put Humanity, not politics, at the forefront, seems to me a gaping travesty. And in a world long-since drowned in Kool-aid quips, it seems little enough to finally shout, “Enough!”

I don’t even know why politics is cited as central. Because the letter alludes in passing to people being “broken by capitalism”? This was the same woman who travelled to D.C. during the pre-tragedy period, to tell Congresspeople that “My husband is a Marxist”! This was also the same woman who reportedly spoke on the P.A. system the day prior to the tragedy, strengthening people to stand as “proud socialists” when the Congressman arrived. But because of the labor of their lives — not as a political manifesto.

There was nothing in Marceline Jones that did not comprehend societal deficits. But as she said explicitly, “We merge with millions of others — we are subsumed in the archetype.” A plea for a more humane world.

There is also the matter of characteristic voice: This was someone who, going way back, was based in a church. For her an expression like “bearing witness” would be natural; whereas someone like Dick Tropp would not have even known what that meant, or given it weight. And expressions like “world dying for a little bit of love” and “new birth of social justice” would have also rolled right off her tongue, almost echoing songs she had sung in her beautiful soprano voice.

Something else should be made clear. That it would be wrong to mark Marceline Jones down as “pro-death.” Indeed, in a memo Carolyn Layton authored just weeks prior to the end called “Analysis of Future Prospects,” she said that whenever mass suicide came up, “Marcie totally freaked out.” She loved that community and new life. Indeed, her favorite place was the nursery. And when the Congressman first arrived at Port Kaituma and there was a confab about whether to let him in, it was Marceline who advocated his entering because “We have nothing to hide.”

Yet this profoundly empathetic woman was also a pragmatist. (She worked for years as a nursing home inspector in California. She would have carried someone out on her own back rather than see them abused.) Once the killings had happened at the airstrip, then the fear of an ensuing military invasion, and the course forwards set into place, then however aching was her heart, she could only act in profound empathy, right there on site, as people died, to be there for people, under the looming spectre of (as she put it) “We would be taken.” Thus the anguished plea to the world in that letter, to “Please try to understand”!

One last thing: The handwriting itself. What it conveys — I guess I would call it “vibrationally.” Well me, I had a copy of that letter in my possession since 1999. I was sent it by a fellow named Brian Czuk with icehouse.net. But it was a scratchy copy, a bad xerox, only legible enough to confirm that it and the accompanying transcript were the same. And two pages had been inadvertently omitted, with the transcript omitting them as well.

Well, the abridged typewritten transcript alone was powerful enough for me, that I instantly thought, “This was written by Marceline Jones.” But with a xerox copy that scratchy, it might have been daunting to verify. And it was unsigned, so I simply used the pronouns “she” and “her” in referring to it, rather than stating an attribution.

But recently, when I finally could see a vivid clear copy of the letter, I could not get though it without being nearly felled to the ground in tears. Even how and why phrases like “Please understand” (reiterated several times!) and “It is finished!” are underlined. This missive goes high-octane palpably. This person was under such unendurable stress, even in eloquence, that by the last page, the writing is going wavy and trailing off into scribbles. I don’t know if graphologists can analyze that. I just know that it was there and it hit me.

And ironically, the “kicker” in this letter is “Jim Jones was crushed by a world he did not make.” That’s a wife speaking, combining defeat in Herculean tasks, and exculpation in the same sentence! The irony of it. But she was not only his wife, but honestly, had a wisdom others lacked, and knew that ultimate power can sometimes reside in places we would not wish. She knew that this was definitely terrible, all while perhaps inevitable, despite that Herculean tasks had been done across the years. But that the only course left was profound human compassion.

Academic discussions become pointless, especially when even logic does not seem to matter. Just honor this great human — even in the face of crushing tragedy, or maybe even enhanced by it. People use Jim Jones as a universal punching bag, for sure, but Marceline Jones was an unfathomably deep, loving and compassionate human.

Just one more vital note, as I did examine handwriting samples, and I do want to resolve this in a way which is both equitable and makes sense:

When I saw the only handwriting sample for Dick Tropp that the California Historical Society seemed to have (at least by present date), it was, in all caps. “FATHER,” in large letters and underlined. On the back side of a typewritten memo about a pamphlet, and signed (albeit also a typewritten signature), “Dick T.” It was taken from a trove of documents left in San Francisco by the end.

Then I saw that a heading on the notebook in which the letter was written, had also all in caps and underlined, “LAST WORDS.” And at least that gave comparative letters for “A,” “T,” and “R,” which letter constructions looked quite alike. And of course both handwriting samples, though very limited, were large capital letters, fairly widely-spaced and underlined.

Not much to go on, yet so much un-like the more reserved, fluid handwriting of the letter itself. So this is what I think probably happened. (Can’t prove it, just makes sense, and no one can DIS-prove it):

Both Jim and Marceline’s bodies were apparently found at the head of the Pavilion. (Do not have the early photos. Want to obtain.) Dick Tropp’s body was apparently found in the garden in front of the radio room. Jim Jones, just because it was in his character to do so, would not have left the final disposition of everything to chance. He would have, after the deaths at the Pavilion, which was a majority of the population, walked through the grounds to bid farewell and to be sure that everyone was “gone.” I have no way to imagine that he would not have done that.

And if the letter was composed by Marceline at the Pavilion, leaving it right there amidst scores of rotting bodies, would have been an IN-secure place to leave it. And he characteristically turned to Tropp for organizational writing, and to keep track of writings. (Tropp apparently authored much of The Peoples Forum, the publication in the States.)

So the most plausible is that Jim (whether accompanied by Marceline or not) left off the notebook with Tropp prior to his demise, with instructions to put it somewhere where it might be found. And the radio room being right there, that would be a likely place — enclosed. and perhaps even a repository for papers, being a common space, not living quarters. (No one seems to know where that notebook was found.)

That’s what I think happened. That Jim Jones gave Dick Tropp the notebook, telling him to put it some place secure and Tropp then scrawled across the front of the notebook in CAPS and UNDERLINED, “LAST WORDS.”

If someone has ANY other plausible explanation, then offer it. I may not be able to prove this one, but no one can prove otherwise. And it is what these people would have characteristically done.

So I say, to be utterly fair: Produce anything handwritten in ongoing sentences by Dick Tropp. A letter, a memo, anything. I’ll look at it. Otherwise, given the obvious uncertainties, what I would prescribe is to at least change the attribution of the final letter from “Richard Tropp” to “Author Unknown.” I believe that Marceline Jones wrote it. I believe that she was the only one there with the capacity to have written it. No one has to believe me. But I believe that at least changing the attribution to “Author Unknown” is clearly the right course.

(Laurie Efrein Kahalas is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous writings may be found here. She can be reached through dan_laurie44@comcast.net.)

Originally posted on November 22nd, 2021.

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