(Blair Alan Gadsby is on the Adjunct Faculty of Religious Studies at Maricopa County Community College District and at Arizona State University teaching World Religions, among other courses. He is the author of Religious Delusions, American Style: Manipulations of the Public’s Mind. Two writings adapted from chapters of that book are here. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
The mass deaths at Jonestown constitute one of the darkest chapters in modern American political, cultural, and religious history. Naturally, it was immediately catapulted into the American consciousness as what would come to be known as the archetype of the dangerous religious cult. Novelist Armistead Maupin would weave it into his Tales of the City series beginning in 1978 – though serialization of the first novel in the San Francisco Chronicle would begin in 1976, allowing Maupin to incorporate current events (Peitzman) – in the first and second volumes and then climax his third installment (1982) with the death of the character who is a parody of Jones. These novels portray gay life in San Francisco at the height of the “gay revolution” in the mid-to-late 1970’s – the very period Jim Jones and Peoples Temple were active, and arguably Jim Jones was at his most unhinged mental state – perhaps something which caught Maupin’s attention.
Maupin’s novels reference via literary allusion the most nefarious allegations leveled against Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. At the time of Maupin’s work on these novels, these elements were not noted by investigative journalism, the academic field of Religious Studies or any other academic field of study for that matter, and most certainly not by government agencies. For Maupin to have incorporated these elements into his plots suggests that they were discernible at the time but were either covered up and suppressed, or even worse, that government agencies deliberately covered up the crimes to conceal their own involvement.
But that’s only part of the story.
In 1988, a decade after the Jonestown deaths, Michael Meiers published Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence. While barely referenced in academia, despite thorough documentation, the book most convincingly to my mind proposes the idea that Jim Jones was an asset of the CIA in one of their MK-ULTRA or MK-Delta mind control experiments. Here is the description of the book from the publisher’s website:
A work of investigative journalism that presents the theory that the Central Intelligence Agency employed the Reverend Jim Jones to administer a pharmaceutical field test in mind control and ethnic weaponry to a large test group, namely the membership of the Peoples Temple. Proposes that Dr. Laurence Layton (Former Chief of the U.S. Army’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Division) cultured the AIDS virus to be tested and deployed in a CIA-backed experiment in Jonestown, Guyana.
That pharmaceutical field test was directed at Black members of Jonestown, and even more so directed to women and women with children. As if these weren’t enough, Meiers asserts something additionally that cannot be determined with absolute certainty but is most provocative and historically curious, if rather frightful, and that is a Nazi connection between the infamous Joseph Mengele and Jim Jones. The connection goes something like this: in the early 1960s, Jones travelled to Belo Horizonte, Brazil where he lived ostensibly as a missionary, although he is reported to have participated in some rather unusual activities which betrayed a Christian missionary lifestyle (Thielmann). While there, he met Mengele who gave Jones this “assignment.” Mengele would die some ten weeks after Jonestown.
That’s about as much as can be said, and about as far as it can be taken – that is, in establishing, never mind proving, some opportunity for direct contact between the two individuals. Meiers points to other circumstantial evidence such as family connections to various German and even ex-Nazi players over Jones’ career. But these do not directly circumstantiate the contact.
I’ve isolated four of the darkest elements about Peoples Temple in Meiers’ research that are alluded or referred to in Maupin’s novels. Three references appear in Further Tales of the City; the fourth is a very general observation emerging from the next installment. The four elements are: Jones survives the mass killing; De De Halcyon’s twins serve as a reference to Joseph Mengele; Emma, a Black lady, shoots Jones; and lastly, Maupin’s overall setting and story is about gay culture at the time of the arrival of AIDS, and his Tales series is the first serious American literary attempt to incorporate the AIDS crisis into its storyline.
Let’s take them one at a time.
First off, in Maupin’s story Jim Jones did not die at Jonestown but instead escapes, changes his name to Luke, and returns to the San Francisco area where he gets involved with one of Maupin’s other characters. This notion of Jim Jones surviving Jonestown and escaping is virtually overlooked in academic works and never in political discourse. According to Meiers, Jones was known to use body doubles (522, 532), and the fingerprints used to identify him were a set from a 1971 arrest for lewd behavior in a public restroom (as if that isn’t enough to make one question Jones’ character) in which it was one of the doubles’ fingerprints.
While there are several grotesque photos of Jones’ body – in different positions, apparently in different locations – during the four days it was left to rot in the sun (529), it seems as though there could have been more thorough photographic documentation of it given the crime. Jones’ survival is something that would be impossible to confirm, therefore it can be left as an open possibility in the historical record.
Secondly, Maupin’s character De De Halcyon has twins fathered by a Chinese lover. The twins are a reference to the medical barbarities of Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, the aptly-called Angel of Death, who was known to experiment on twins (542-544). This element of Joseph Mengele’s career lives large in stories about his career, which can be found in great detail with a Google search for “Mengele,” “twins,” and “South America.” I’ll leave it at that.
Thirdly, and in my opinion the ultimate poetic justice Maupin administers, is in the murder – justified killing more aptly – of the Jones stand-in Luke by Emma, a Black housemaid. This couldn’t be more perfect – especially that she shoots him between the eyes. That’s an added bonus, if you will, on behalf of those who have been cruelly abused, and by all indications the mind control experiment Jones was operating targeted Black women with children. It appears that the purpose of this particular experiment was to determine if the motherly bond with her children can be overridden in a kind of Manchurian Candidate or Bourne Identity set of circumstances. Meiers also recounts how that when the final White Night was launched, the mothers with children were called up first to administer the cyanide to their children, but not to themselves at that point. Only after their children died were they to return to the front of the pavilion to obtain their dose. As Meiers puts it – and probably the most damning indication of Jones’ cruelty – “The first to die in Jonestown were the babes-in-arms” (445-446).
The thoroughly documented fact (King) of the obscenely large quantities of psychotropic medications including everything from Quaaludes to Valium to Thorazine – a veritable psycho-pharmacopoeia plentiful enough to drug one hundred times the population of Jonestown – is among the forensic evidence that indicates some form of mind control program was underway at Jonestown. The photograph in King’s article alone is stunning, and it’s only a partial list.
Lastly, and reserved for the next installment in the Tales series, in the 1984 Babycakes, Maupin addresses the arrival of AIDS in the gay community of San Francisco (Meiers, 401-402). On one hand, this is hardly surprising giving the time Maupin is writing, and the impact AIDS was making then. But if Maupin is aware of the Mengele contribution to Jonestown, then medical abuse is part and parcel of Mengele’s story. Meiers notes that in affidavits from certain defectors prior the event that “half of Jonestown was ill with severe diarrhea and fevers” (403). Again, here the trail ends, except for a few intriguing connections to people like Dr. Schacht, another name that harkens back to the Nazis.
The acknowledgment of government agencies’ involvement at Jonestown, principally the CIA but also others, in academic literature is rather scant, rarely elaborated upon, and almost always glossed over as something of a deadend when it comes to a forensic determination of CIA guilt. Be that as it may, so far as the broader narrative of the Jonestown event goes, academia, the news media, and most certainly government agencies to this day all maintain the theme of Jonestown as products more of the socio-political, cultural, and religious milieu of America in the Civil Rights era, rather than as a product of clandestine government involvement. This is despite the fingerprints of the CIA peppering everything from the crime scene itself and their admitted presence there in the form of a secure radio communication, but also acting in conjunction with Guyanese and American militaries in the aftermath, under direction of the US State Department, all while access to the site was barred to journalists for at least the first two days. None of these issues is in dispute.
Accomplishing this kind of tight control requires the cooperation of states at the very least, if not direct government involvement, as only governments wield the authority over such matters as access to the site, the authority to confiscate reporters’ videos, the ability to direct the movements of military personnel, and the like. Just as J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI would pull all sorts of dirty tricks to undermine the Black cause during the Civil Rights era, Jones too exploited the fear of the US government by Black Americans and frequently shepherded them with racial anxieties rooted in an authentically-politically racist society. Riding this wave of Black anxiety, Jones combined his political message with his own version of a social/ist gospel and incorporated any number of social and economic services into his ministry. These gave him cover to run a series of nursing care facilities through which he apparently obtained the large quantities of pharmaceutical and psychotropic medications referred to above.
The massaging of the evidence speaks very loudly, and perhaps ominously, to those who are listening carefully.
I request the reader understand that my purpose for highlighting this angle on the Jonestown event is not to here establish these darkest elements as historiographic facts – after all, I am examining a novel – but instead, to consider if any awareness of these darkest possible elements of the Temple story were apparent to observers aside from Meiers. My reflection is, we have in Maupin’s Tales of the City an American novelist, whose Naval background may (or may not) sensitize him to government activities, crafting a story that suggests artistic references or parallels to what Meiers would later reveal in his investigative book.
Six years passed from Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City to the publication of Michael Meiers’ Was Jonestown a CIA Experiment? I would suggest that Maupin’s reading of Jonestown is thoroughly independent of the latter’s research and these four allusions to Jones’ history in the Tales story are either sheer coincidence, the product of my own imagination, or poetic justice sought for those Black women abused by our very own intelligence services, perhaps on behalf of a Fourth Reich.
King, Peter (1978). How Jones Used Drugs. San Francisco Examiner. December 28.
Maupin, Armistead (1982). Further Tales of the City. New York: Harper Perennial.
Meiers, Michael (1988). Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence. Studies in American Religions, volume 35. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press.
Peitzman, Louis (2014). After Almost 40 Years, Armistead Maupin Is Closing The Book On “Tales Of The City”. January 21. BuzzFeed.com (accessed October 2021).
Thielmann, Bonnie with Dean Merrill (1979). The Broken God. Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing.