Were cattle prods used for discipline in Peoples Temple?

“If children wet themselves, they might be shocked with an electric cattle prod.” That’s the way the sentence from an unpublished manuscript reads. It was written in 2021, more than 40 years after the deaths in Jonestown, in a description of living conditions inside Jonestown. It is stated as a fact, without qualification or sourcing.

But it is a myth.

The earliest appearances of this rumor – all unattributed – include the following:

  • The first known use came from a report following an investigation by the U.S. Customs Service that had been requested by, and provided to, INTERPOL, the international police agency in 1977: “Due to JONES’ infiltration of the political structure in San Francisco, it was impossible to get a local investigation into the allegations of voter fraud, child abuse (including the use of electric cattle prods on children), sado-masochistic practices, welfare fraud, etc., started” (p. 4).
  • Two weeks after the Jonestown tragedy in November 1978, Marshall Kilduff, the co-author of the 1977 New West article, and Ron Javers, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle who accompanied Leo Ryan to Jonestown, had written and published Suicide Cult, the first instant paperback. In it, the authors claim that cattle prods were used during the Temple’s Redwood Valley days: “There was also talk of the ‘blue-eyed demon,’ a device which no one was allowed to see. … Jones took the kids to the church infirmary, where he ordered Temple nurses to use either an electric cattle prod or heart defibrillator to send an electric shock through the child’s body” (p. 64)
  • One of the first in-depth articles following the deaths – “Suicide for Socialism,” by Maurice Brinton, an investigative piece written in 1979 for the British Socialist newsletter Solidarity – passed along the canard: “There certainly was an all-pervading and very rigid discipline. Children who wet their pants were submitted to ‘reconditioning’ with electric shocks administered through cattle prods.” (March-April 1979, Solidarity #07, Supplement, pp. 1-12)

The Brinton article was the first in a long list of references to the use of cattle prods in Peoples Temple, most of them, like Brinton, referring to each other, and all of them unattributed. They include the 1995 edition of the book Snapping, by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (using the language of Kilduff and Javers); the 1999 book, Mass Control: Engineering Human Consciousness, by Jim Keith; an article accompanying a 2019 podcast on Jonestown from Roll Call (citing the Customs report); and an Encyclopedia.com entry on Jonestown (also quoting Kilduff & Javers). Articles which appear on this site include those by Kristian Klippenstein and Rose Wunrow.

The fact is, there were no allegations of the use of cattle prods in the history of Peoples Temple from those who had been in the group. No defectors alleged it. The charge does not appear in the New West article which Kilduff and Phil Tracy wrote in 1977 – long after the Temple’s Redwood Valley days – nor does it appear in “The Accusation of Human Rights Violations” made by the Concerned Relatives in April 1978. Even in the hyperventilated atmosphere of the tragedy’s aftermath, no survivors, former members or relatives leveled the charge.

But perhaps the most telling refutation of the assertion is that no cattle prods were recovered from the carnage of the Jonestown site following the deaths.