Remembering Peter Elsass:
The last “outsider” to visit Jonestown

by Rikke Wettendorff

(Rikke Wettendorff is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is Glenda: The friend I never met. Her collection of articles on this site may be found here. She can be reached at rikke@wettendorff.net.)

Peter Elsass in Jonestown
One late afternoon, not long before 18th November 1978[1], a man turned up at the gate to Jonestown and asked if he could come in for a visit. Nobody knew who he was, and naturally it caused quite a stir that someone would turn up unannounced like that. You just don’t happen to leisurely stroll past the entrance to Jonestown and decide to pop in. This guy must surely be up to something. Why, he might even be CIA! After five hours of research, however, the leadership decided that he could come in.

The visitor was Peter Elsass, and he became the last person without any prior contact or link to Peoples Temple to visit Jonestown.

Although visiting Jonestown was not quite a spur of the moment decision, it was not Peter’s main reason for being in South America either. The young Dane was establishing himself as an esteemed researcher of the counterculture of indigenous peoples and emigrant groups in Latin America. At the time he had just completed work on a film in Peru with the Danish filmmaker Morten Bruus. Morten Bruus had heard about Peoples Temple from their solicitor Charles Garry whom he had met on a trip to San Francisco earlier the same year. He thought it sounded interesting and suggested to Peter that he added Jonestown to his itinerary, as he had already planned to go to Venezuela and therefore was – relatively speaking – in the area. Peter agreed. When he showed up on Peoples Temple’s doorstep, then, he knew only slightly more about Peoples Temple than they knew about him.

Even though Peter only wrote or spoke about Peoples Temple on very rare occasions, the two days he spent in Jonestown had a profound impact on him. He did not want to be known as “Mr Jonestown,” to be called upon to comment every time a religious or political group did something atrocious to themselves or others. However, his reasons were not only academic. He also felt responsible in some way.

The experience will always stay with me, and when I tell about Jonestown, I will do it slowly and carefully to try to understand my own culpability.
(Excerpts from Peter Elsass’ Emigrant Life, Samlerens Bogklub 1980, translated from the Danish original by Rikke Wettendorff)

In fact, it was not until he was in his late sixties that he began to open up to the idea of revisiting his experience with Peoples Temple. When I contacted him for an interview in 2016, his first response was a firm “no,” followed by the small opening that he would think about it. When I finally met him a year later over tea and biscuits in his kitchen, I realised that it was not academic vanity that had made him  turn me down so brusquely. After all, by then he was an esteemed professor of psychology at University of Copenhagen with glowing credentials in his field. Rather, he was still processing his experience. So many years later he was still coming to terms with – as he put it – having been seduced by Peoples Temple. While he had certainly noted some red flags during his visit – some answers had seemed rehearsed and Jim Jones had appeared to be mentally ill to the trained psychologist – he had also felt a connection with the people of Peoples Temple. Their goals seemed on point with was going on in the Danish counterculture, for instance with the Christiania free town experiment in Copenhagen. Peter arrived open-minded and unaware of the flip side of Peoples Temple and the trouble that was brewing in the States and was about to spill over into Jonestown. His guard had been down. Almost 40 years later he still felt the senselessness of the loss of their lives and a culpability for not asking more questions. The feelings he had expressed in 1980 still applied.

I was seduced into not seeing the everyday-life of Jonestown. I left the camp without knowing anything concrete whatsoever about their working and living conditions. I chose not to poke my nose into too much.

It turned out that another reason Peter had not talked about his experience in all those years was that he wanted to preserve his positive memories of the people, young and old, whom he had met in Jonestown and to protect them from being tarnished by the dominating narrative about Peoples Temple. He wanted them to stay human. “I wanted to keep them for myself,” he said, but in doing so his own trauma had also become frozen in time.

I had come to love the black people from the ghettos. They made a great impression on me. I chose to be loyal to the approximately 1000 people who tried to build a new life according to socialist ideals in the middle of the jungle. I let them show me what they wanted to show me. I didn’t kick up a fuss.

In our conversations, which often revolved around the discord between the horror of 18 November and our personal positive experiences with the people of Peoples Temple, we rediscovered Jonestown and its people in all of its complexity. It was meaningful for him to listen to tapes, look at photos and share his thoughts, and I was happy to be able to help dissolve some of the tension by simply listening and contributing what I knew as a framework for his reexamination of his own experience. It was like we were unpinning butterflies, watching them come to life and flutter away.

Peter was a fearless adventurer with an immense appetite for life. When I visited him after my own visit to Jonestown in 2018, I mused about how the human scale becomes utterly unimportant against the vastness of the jungle. He recognised the feeling. He told me of the time when he had done fieldwork with a tribe of indigenous people deep in the Amazon rainforest and had insisted that he be left on a desolate island in a river hours away from any kind of civilization, so that he might feel an unmitigated oneness with the jungle. It had been a profound, existential experience. Once, of course, he had shaken off the primal fear brought on by the sudden realisation that the people who had promised to pick him up a week later might not return, he had added with a smile.

Ever the adventurer Peter wanted to return to Guyana and revisit Jonestown. He also talked about his desire to meet former members. Sadly this never came to be. On 1st October 2022, Peter Elsass embarked on his final adventure. Surrounded by people who loved him dearly, he died peacefully after a short period of illness. He was 75 years old.

Peter Elsass will be sorely missed.

Note

[1] Peter’s own diary has him visiting Jonestown from late afternoon 5 November to midday on 7 November 1978. According to the Temple’s label on the box for tape Q219 – on which he speaks at the end – the date was 31 October 1978. The summary of the tape can be found here.

Peter Elsass’ account of his visit to Jonestown can be found here.

Originally posted on October 21st, 2022.

Last modified on October 28th, 2022.
Skip to main content