Attempting to Document the Peoples Temple Story: The Existence and Disappearance of Government Records

by Fielding M. McGehee III

(Fielding McGehee is the primary investigator and editor for this site, for which he also manages tape transcripts, Freedom of Information Act requests, general inquiries, and community relations on questions concerning Peoples Temple. He is also the Editor and Publisher of Reivers Press, a publishing house specializing in memory works for families whose children have died. He can be reached at fieldingmcgehee@yahoo.com.

(This article was originally presented in October 2003 as a paper at the Annual Convention of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Salt Lake City.)

For much of the American public, the history of Peoples Temple began and ended on one day: November 18, 1978. While there are notable exceptions to that statement – the San Francisco Bay Area being the most obvious, as well as Indianapolis, Indiana, and Redwood Valley and Los Angeles, California, other places where the Temple had churches and congregations along the way – the fact is that Peoples Temple did not exist for most Americans until the news wires crackled with the stories of the assassination of a U.S. Congressman and the deaths of more than 900 of the group’s members in a remote South American jungle.

In the days and weeks that followed, many disturbing images and stories flashed across our TV screens and screamed at us from newspaper headlines. There was the NBC videotape of the attack on the congressman’s party, a tape which ended abruptly when the cameraman himself was shot dead. There was earlier footage from Leo Ryan’s two-day visit to Jonestown, including the congressman’s laudatory remarks during a gathering of the community on the night of November 17. There was a confrontational interview of Temple leader Jim Jones conducted by NBC correspondent Don Harris, who became another airstrip fatality. There was a precursor of what was to come, when a bloodied Leo Ryan shakily said that a knife attack on him as he prepared to leave Jonestown would change some things, but not everything, in his report.

And then there were the pictures of the Jonestown dead, photographs of brightly-clothed bodies bloated under the South America sun, video footage shot from the air over Jonestown showing the full extent of the carnage, and – soon afterwards – images of Jonestown survivors, American embassy personnel and military troops walking (one might say staggering) around Jonestown in shock and horror, handkerchiefs at their faces trying to keep the smell out and the grief in.

These were all mediated images, of course, by which I mean they came to us through the press and television reporters. Everything that was said about Peoples Temple in those first days was expressed through the words of someone else, the people outside the Temple, whether they were government officials, former members and apostates (especially apostates), or grief-stricken relatives. Indeed, my only memories of surviving members from that first week, whether they were in Jonestown, Georgetown, or back in San Francisco, are of silent hollow-cheeked shadows whose eyes gazed on infinite sadness.

The American public was therefore somewhat surprised when it started to realize that Peoples Temple had its own documents about its life before November 18. It started to leak out as part of the “in depth” reporting from the period, although most of it was limited to titillating, bizarre and sensationalistic coverage of the jungle cult. This coverage included video images made more sinister by their home-movie quality of Jim Jones denouncing Christianity, throwing Bibles to the floor, and watching approvingly as elderly women cured by his faith-healings ran and danced before an appreciative congregation.

Even more newsworthy, though, the Temple had apparently documented its own death. Within a couple of weeks, the press reported the existence of a letter to the world – a suicide note – written by Jim Jones’ nurse and my sister-in-law, Annie Moore. By early spring, rumors swirled of the existence of some audiotapes found in Jonestown, including one purporting to be of the Temple’s final hour. Both reports turned out to be true. As sensational as they were, though, the public had grown weary of the story. We knew what had happened – the media had told us- and we had turned our attention to other stories, other concerns.

It would be an understatement and a cliché, which I would never use, to say that Annie’s suicide note and the so-called “death tape” represented the tip of the iceberg of what truly was out there in terms of information about Peoples Temple. More accurately, those were two ice cubes.

We (meaning Rebecca Moore and I, the manager and researcher for the Jonestown website, respectively) see evidence of this lack of appreciation for the available resources almost every day. Dr. Moore has received more than one request – usually from a high school student, but sometimes from someone who should know better – to “tell me everything you can about Jim Jones.” Researchers, teachers and students visit the site because they’ve heard we have a copy of the death tape, and stay because of the amount of even more compelling material. Other, more ambitious scholars put in requests for copies of “all the Jonestown tapes,” but when they find out there are more than 700, they decide they aren’t so ambitious after all.

We have to deal with our own ambitions, and our own frustrations arising from them. As large as the site is, and as much as we hope it will grow, we know that we will only get a few thousand ice cubes onto the site in our lifetime. I can stand in the middle of my office, make a full turn, see 20 years of uninterrupted work on hand. Beyond that, I know that there are hundreds of other resources we’ll never see. And that doesn’t even include the donations of materials we are encouraging former and surviving Temple members to make to repositories like the California Historical Society and the Peoples Temple Collection at San Diego State University.

The fact is, Peoples Temple was like Nazi Germany in one important respect: they saved everything. There are the business records of Peoples Temple as a corporation, including receipts, tax records, bank accounts, and internal memoranda. There are the trappings of the Temple as a church, ranging from Jim Jones’ robes to donation envelopes, from prayer requests to testimonials of Jones’ healing powers. There are the ephemera from the community at large, such as copies of Peoples Forum, the Temple’s newspaper, membership and passport photos, handwritten requests for extraordinary purchases, and of course, more receipts. There are individual writings, such as the private journals of at least one Temple member, confidential memos to Jim Jones and other Temple leaders, papers with signed confessions to unbelievable crimes and just as many pages which are blank except for a signature at the bottom. There are flyers for political demonstrations protesting the treatment of minorities in capitalist America, and brochures heralding a new life in Jonestown. There are letters to the editor condemning the approaching police state in America, and internal surveillance reports of Temple members.

And then there are the tapes, hundreds and hundreds of glimpses of the Temple beyond the death tape. There are meetings of the Jonestown community in which people give farm reports, complain about petty grievances and discuss political issues of the day. And while there are tapes in which miscreants submit to discipline both from Jones and from their peers, and in which community members engage in fantasies of revenge against their perceived (and real) antagonists, there are many more times of laughter, of singing, of children acting like children and of adults acting like children. Beyond that, there are sermons and public addresses by Jim Jones from the Temple’s years in the United States. There are recorded phone calls with reporters, community activists, and nationally-known political figures.

Indeed, there is so much information about Peoples Temple that, whatever your point of view is regarding the Temple and its power and internal workings and leadership, you’ll find evidence to support it. But there’s also plenty of ammunition for anyone who wants to argue with that point of view. Rather than answer questions about the Temple, the totality of the group’s own documents serves only to raise more and more questions. In the end, Peoples Temple as an organization, revealed with all its complications and contradictions and inconsistencies, shows itself to be as immensely human as any one of its members, as any one of us are.

While the amount of information about Peoples Temple is immense, I would like to suggest that there are ways to divide it into smaller, slightly more accessible pieces. Rebecca Moore and I have made a conscious effort to recognize those divisions and to limit our own efforts to one piece.

Most of the work that Rebecca and I have done has been with Temple records held by agencies of the federal government, records which we have sought under the Freedom of Information Act. In the course of our work, I estimate we have made well over 100 requests to at least 50 departments and agencies, and we have obtained thousands and thousands of documents and other materials as a result of those requests. The purpose of this paper, then, is to give an overview of, what’s out there and what has sadly disappeared. Indeed, we see our task as that of collecting as many of the remaining records in government files as we can, to ensure that it will be available to future generations as well as our own. I offer an illustration of why this task is so important to us.

In the mid-1980s, when Rebecca was researching her books on Peoples Temple and Jonestown, we made a FOIA request to the Social Security Administration for all its records on Temple members. We received a fairly sizable stack of material – photocopied from the original, of course; no one expected that we would receive the actual documents themselves – and Rebecca studied it for her work. In the late 1980s, we donated several boxes of research materials to the California Historical Society, a collection that’s now known as the Moore Family Papers.

About eight years later, we returned to some of the federal agencies we had previously requested documents from, to see what additional materials they might have developed. In the case of SSA, not only had it not added to its original records, but it had purged the ones that it had. There was no malice or cover-up in the decision to purge – we don’t think – but rather, the agency reasoned that the recipients of SSA assistance were dead, the files were closed, and the information was old. Besides, they needed the warehouse space. But the effect was the same: As far as the SSA was concerned, those records are gone forever. That means that the documents we obtained from the agency and that we donated to CHS are the only records in existence of Social Security payments to Peoples Temple members. That also means that the photocopies we turned over to CHS – those duplicates which archivists tend to sneer at – are now the originals. The existential implications of that paradox are staggering and still unresolved.

This is our challenge. We need to pry as much of the remaining information as we can before the rest of it is purged pursuant to administrative house-cleaning policies and practices.

Within the universe of information which we have already obtained from the government or which we are still seeking, we recognize that we can make further divisions of the types of information in agency files (see accompanying chart).

The first major division of information in government files is between the material that it produced and the material it collected. This is true not only for Peoples Temple, but also for other groups and movements in which the government has an interest or a relationship. As it pertains to Peoples Temple, though, the first part of that division includes documents generated by different agencies in the course of providing services or otherwise interacting with the Temple, such as the records of Social Security Administration payments that I just mentioned, and the State Department’s issuance of passports to Temple members emigrating to Guyana. It also includes agency investigations of the Temple and its members, conducted with or without the Temple’s knowledge. Finally, it includes reports or internal reviews of the administrative contacts with the Temple and of the investigations.

The second part of the division, the material that agencies collected from the Temple itself, is easier to define, but in this case is of a much larger scale. These are the papers, the audiotapes, and the ephemera produced by the Temple itself and which ended up in government agency file cabinets.

There is another division in the information, though, one that cuts perpendicular across the first division: it represents the watershed moment of November 18, 1978, when the Temple died, and when the government interest in the Temple went from active and ongoing to reactive and, in some cases, defensive and, in other cases, even somewhat reflective.

Let’s consider the government-generated records first, the ones produced by the agencies themselves. Prior to the events of November 18, Peoples Temple came to the attention of a number of agencies. Some contacts were known to the Temple – indeed, some of the contacts, such as with the Social Security Administration, were initiated by the Temple – but some were not. Even with SSA, the State Department, and others with whom the Temple had a voluntary relationship, there were aspects of the agencies’ interest of which the Temple was not aware. Using SSA as an example again, there were hundreds of Temple members who received Social Security checks or SSI benefits. That contact was voluntary and seemingly benign. However, when the agency heard rumors from San Francisco that the Temple was forcing seniors to deposit their Social Security checks directly into Temple bank accounts, it investigated the matter. In 1977, when Temple seniors began to migrate to Guyana, the agency took steps – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – to stop payments to Jonestown residents. Later that fall, SSA asked the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown to ensure that beneficiaries were alive.

There were other federal agencies in this part of the Temple story. Acting upon an SSA request for notification of all changes of address to Guyana, the U.S. Postal Service freelanced with a decision to return all Treasury Department checks to Washington, D.C., a decisions that delayed payments to Social Security recipients for six months. The U.S. Customs Service searched several cargo shipments headed to Jonestown and had the group under general surveillance for at least 20 months. The Federal Communications Commission monitored radio communications between Jonestown and San Francisco to document violations of the amateur ham network which the Temple was using to conduct its business. The Internal Revenue Service investigated the Temple to consider whether its activities were in accordance with its tax-exempt status. And of course, the State Department was necessarily involved with all of these investigations, since it served as the point of liaison between domestic government agencies and the émigrés to Guyana.

The Temple knew about these investigations, even if it didn’t fully comprehend their full scope. It also appreciated the threat that each of them represented to the survival of the Jonestown project. A cut-off or delay of Social Security funds would deny the community over $30,000 every month which it counted on to meet its expenses; an IRS decision to revoke its tax-exempt status would reduce contributions from its stateside members and increase its financial liabilities; a Customs decision to quarantine or even delay shipments of material and equipment would hinder the community’s ability to cultivate crops, to provide basic necessities to its members, even to clothe itself; a revocation of its ham radio license, which the FCC was considering, would shut off the lifeline to the States. Jim Jones may have exaggerated the threat for dramatic effect at times, and he may have been genuinely paranoid, but that doesn’t mean the threat wasn’t real, or that no one was really after him.

And there are the two agencies which Jim Jones used as his perennial bête noirs: the FBI and the CIA. We may never know the full extent of these agencies’ interest in Peoples Temple, the FOIA notwithstanding. While the FBI released numerous memos, reports and other records outlining its periodic, seemingly uncoordinated, but persistent brushes with Peoples Temple, many of them were heavily redacted under various exceptions to the open records law – including many citations to the national security exemption – and we were unable to piece together a comprehensive picture. In addition, many of the records may still exist in file folders under the names of various Temple members, just as there were on Rebecca’s sister Carolyn Layton. We have not followed up on that possibility.

Records which the CIA released to us under court order in the early 1980s had an even higher percentage of material withheld – again, under the national security exemption – although we have renewed our request and asked the agency to review its decisions, given the passage of time and the intervening events, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Following the deaths on November 18, almost all of these agencies were called to account for their investigations and to review what they had done, what they had uncovered, and how their actions might have affected the events in Jonestown. Some of these reports were quite extensive and formal, such as the so-called Crimmins Report – a substantial State Department document which examined the agency’s handling of Peoples Temple – but others consisted of little more than a single letter to the House committee which investigated Leo Ryan’s death. Such was the case with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the predecessor agency to Health and Human Services), whose secretary, Joseph Califano, attempted to exonerate the Social Security Administration of any improper payments to Temple members. Subsequent investigations by the SSA itself revealed some disparities and, of course, revealed the efforts to block payments altogether.

Nevertheless, there were numerous actions which federal agencies had to take after the mass deaths, and most of them generated a paper trail. The most immediate, of course, was the State Department’s compilation of a list of the Jonestown dead, a list which was issued in mid-December 1978 and which the agency has not officially updated since that time. The American Embassy in Georgetown received hundreds of cables in the first weeks, some related to Washington’s handling of the crisis, some responding to media inquiries and efforts to get into Jonestown, some passed along from congressmen and senators representing relatives of the dead. Then there were the FBI and Secret Service interviews of Jonestown survivors and other Temple members returning from Guyana. After a few days of diplomatic and political negotiations between the American and Guyanese governments, the U.S. Air Force was called upon to remove the bodies from Jonestown and transport them to Dover AFB in Delaware. Once the bodies arrived in the U.S., and under the supervision of the FBI, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology conducted autopsies on seven of the Jonestown dead, even though the advanced decomposition and the embalming process rendered any meaningful conclusions on cause of death impossible.

There were other activities as well, not immediately related to the government’s most fundamental responsibilities of identification and evacuation of the bodies. Government investigators recovered 35 weapons from Jonestown, and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was assigned to trace their ownership and to determine whether the Temple had intended “to supply firearms illegally to extremist groups.” ATF found no violations of laws under its jurisdiction, although it’s also true that the Temple did not obtain export licenses for the guns, nor were they registered in Guyana. In other words, despite the Customs Service monitoring of shipments, the Temple was able to smuggle 35 weapons into Jonestown.

The FBI also began working on piecing together criminal cases against Jonestown survivors, and agents swarmed over Temple records and stateside facilities. In the end, the FBI focused its probe on Larry Layton, the only surviving gunman from the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip that resulted in the deaths of Congressman Ryan and four others. The Justice Department prosecuted Layton upon his return to the U.S., and secured a conviction in the second trial, after the first one ended with a hung jury.

And then, of course, there is still the CIA. Most of its activities following the deaths are still hidden behind magic marker blackouts and citations of the national security exemption, although we have been teased with the knowledge that at least a few records dated after November 18 exist. But the only substantive information about the CIA that we have received came from another agency. The Defense Department compiled an After Action Report following the Air Force’s airlift of the bodies which included an overall chronology of events. The listings include a notation from 3:29 AM on Sunday, November 19, 1978, that “CIA NOIWON [National Operations Intelligence Watch Officers Network] reports mass suicides at Jonestown.” The time on this bulletin is hours before any other hint of the deaths – much less the nature of the deaths – was whispered to the outside world.

There are records of all of these investigations. Not all of them exist in government files anymore – in other words, you may not be able to get the records from the agencies themselves through the Freedom of Information Act – but they are intact at the Peoples Temple Collection at San Diego State University. The two largest collections of agency-generated documents on the Temple come from the State Department, which has more than 5000 pages of documents available on microfiche, and the U.S. Air Force, which presumably summarized its bodylift operations in three rolls of microfilm. (I say presumably because, other than to verify that the microfilm responded to our FOIA request for the military service’s records on the humanitarian mission, we have not studied the rolls to any great extent.) The most accessible agency documents are located at the website for the FBI’s Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Office, which includes more than 360 pages from its investigation into the assassination of Rep. Leo Ryan. Code-named RYMUR, for “Ryan Murder,” those files are located here. [Editorial note: The original FBI listing of 360 pages was later reduced to 287 pages.]

By far the largest cache of documents related to Peoples Temple, though – larger than the combined total of all government-generated records on the group – is a 43,000-page collection which the FBI compiled of Temple records. The value of this collection cannot be understated. Nor can the frustration in accessing it.

The FBI swept through Jonestown following the deaths in November 1978, gathering as many papers as it could. Some papers were undoubtedly lost forever. Initial reports from Jonestown were of a contaminated crime scene, with many papers scattered about, mostly by looters or by the first Guyanese military troops arriving on the scene 36 hours after the deaths. There are rumors of other, more sensitive papers disappearing. Such is the stuff of conspiracy literature, especially since the papers have not shown up elsewhere, nor has anyone come forward admitting to their removal, nor has anyone described where the holes in the Jonestown oeuvre may be. The FBI examined the papers with an eye towards their use initially in prosecuting Jonestown survivors and later in prosecuting Larry Layton. But the agency did organize the papers into something of a coherent whole, and even provided an index which was as helpful to early FOIA requests as it was to the agency’s law enforcement purposes.

Somewhere along the line, though, the agency lost interest in making the documents readily available to the general public. We learned of this a few years ago when we made a seemingly innocuous FOIA request for a limited number of papers and were told that there were 43,000 pages which “may or may not be responsive” to what we sought. We were also told that we could have the documents at a cost of ten cents per page, although the first 100 pages would be free.

What had happened, of course, is that all the Jonestown papers were lumped together as a single entity. You could not longer ask for documents by index number, first of all because the records were no longer sorted according to the index, secondly because the index itself was merged into anonymity within the larger collection, and thirdly because the new arrivals to the FBI’s Freedom of Information staff didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the index, until we provided them with a copy.

We have resolved one of the issues related to the FBI’s Jonestown papers. The agency has scanned all 43,000 pages onto three CD’s, which are available from the FBI for $30. We have made copies of the CD’s ourselves, and suggest it might be faster to order them through us rather than through the agency, especially since one person who recently requested the CD’s from the agency itself was told they were no longer available, but that Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore had some extras.

Even though the cost of the records has come down to the affordable, the question of the index still remains: the records are scanned randomly, with no guide, no search engine, nothing to help you find your way around it. The comparison we use is that of a bookstore or a library with its stock jumbled onto the shelves. Sure, the book you want is there, but who has the time and patience to search through thousands of uncatalogued volumes to find it?

The records are as inaccessible to the FBI as they are to us or to anyone else who has copies of the CD’s. When the agency cited the privacy exemption in denying us access to some of the documents, we filed an administrative appeal, complete with obituaries for two dozen people who had died since 1978 and who, if they were included among the deletions, should lose their claim to privacy. When the agency responded within six weeks that it stood by its initial decision, we realized it is just as lost as we are. We have a lawsuit pending against the government which essentially asks it to fulfill its responsibilities under the law and provide us with a means by which we can locate the information we requested and still seek.

The FBI also is the repository for the hundreds of Peoples Temple tapes recovered from Jonestown. They are slightly more organized – the tapes have numbers, and the numbers correspond to brief (sometimes cryptic) summaries – but the waiting list for the FBI to respond to FOIA requests has ballooned to a full 18 months. As with the CD’s, people who are interested in copies of Jonestown tapes should order them through us.

As I say, there are undoubtedly a few other caches of documents lurking in other agency files, or even in the agencies we have queried, filed under the names of individual Temple leaders and members. We know they’re there. We just hope there aren’t very many, that they aren’t very big, and that they don’t hold a crucial, previously-uncovered piece of the Jonestown story.

More important, in my opinion, than the small, scattered, still-undiscovered pieces, is the fact that many agency-sized chunks of information have completely disappeared. In addition to the SSA which I mentioned earlier, we know that the IRS has purged its files and – in a way – the FBI might as well have. As time goes on, we anticipate more and more agencies will do the same, which is why it’s so important for researchers and scholars to collect as much of the material that’s still there as we can.

Another example: We spent two years in various FOI offices of the U.S. Army trying to track down records about the Joint Humanitarian Task Force which was thrown together with volunteers to actually bag the bodies and load them onto the Air Force planes. We knew the task force existed – we have been in touch with three of its volunteers, including one who wrote a book about his experiences – so we were surprised when office after office, command after command, came back with the reply, no records found. Eventually, one caseworker with the Army in Puerto Rico clued us in: the Southern Command, under whose auspices the operation was carried out, was notorious for sloppy record-keeping and for recycling its records into oblivion throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the fact that one of the most graphic pieces of evidence is gone. We learned from the congressional report into the Ryan assassination and the deaths in Jonestown that the original of the videotape I mentioned at the outset of my talk was turned over to the Justice Department by NBC. We filed a FOIA request with Justice, but after a yearlong search, both in Washington and in the offices of various U.S. Attorneys, the agency reported back that there was no record that the tape had ever been in its possession. We have a fifth-generation dub, pirated from somewhere, so all is not completely lost, but it is washed out enough to obliterate any of the detail that might answer some questions about the airstrip shootings.

There is one wild card left in the deck, one untapped resource. Following the assassination of one of its own, the House of Representatives asked its Foreign Affairs Committee to investigate Congressman Ryan’s death and the mass deaths in Jonestown. The resulting volume which was published in May 1979, while impressive in size, is disappointing in content: much of it consists of news articles about Peoples Temple before and after its demise – in other words, more mediated images – as well as such tangential inclusions as copies of the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act.

The most interesting part of the report is the table of contents, because in addition to listing what the volume contains, it lists what was left out. “Conspiracy Against Jim Jones and the People’s Temple?” In classified version only. “Opponents and media intimidated, public officials used.” In classified version only. “Awareness of danger, predicting the degree of violence.” In classified version only. And so on. In short, the guts of the report – the independent investigation, the contacts with government agencies, the interviews with former Temple members and apostates – all that was withheld. It is still being withheld.

We don’t know how much material there is. Five years ago, a group of religious studies scholars led by Gordon Melton, Massimo Introvigne and Mary Maaga, petitioned Congress to open the files to public scrutiny. Three years ago, when we followed up with our own lobbying campaign in Washington, a congressional staffer told me there were “boxes and boxes” marked classified. She cautioned me about getting too excited about what I might find: a box of 5000 pages might contain only one classified document, but that was enough to block access to all the contents. Talk about one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel.

We also don’t know when, or even if, we’ll ever see it. The material is protected by a 30-year rule – it will not be considered for release for 30 years – and at that point, the decision will be up to the then-chairman of the International Relations Committee. We cannot use the Freedom of Information Act as leverage because, as with many other laws, Congress exempted itself from the statute’s provisions. When the timer on the 30-year clock goes off, we’ll return to coordinate an effort to spring the material, but we will also try to keep our expectations low.

We did try at one point to get to some of the material through the back door. We knew the State Department had submitted numerous records to the congressional committee, because the report said so. Since the State Department is covered by FOIA – even if Congress isn’t – we made a request for all State Department documents which it turned over to congressional investigators. State’s response was, you need to identify the documents with greater specificity – dates, titles, tracking numbers – before we can begin a search. We replied, if we could provide you with that type of information, we wouldn’t have to make this request, because that would mean we would already have the documents we want. The fact is, we don’t have any information, beyond the fact that you gave it to Congress. State shrugged its collective shoulders and told us, it was sorry.

>We don’t know what was in those State Department documents. We don’t know what the congressional committee has in its boxes and boxes of classified materials. We don’t know what is in the documents which the CIA has withheld in their totality, or the documents which the FBI has withheld in whole or in part.

To be honest, we don’t know the full content of the materials we do have. We haven’t examined many of the 43,000 pages which the FBI released, or the full set of microfiche that State released, or the microfilm that the Air Force released. We have transcribed and summarized about 120 of the Jonestown tapes, but there are more than 600 remaining (and believe me, each one is like a Christmas present: until I drop a new tape into the transcriber and press “Play,” more often than not, I have no idea what I’m about to hear). There’s a lot we don’t know yet, and a lot of work to do to find out.

At this point, I doubt there are many earth-shaking revelations left for us to discover. We’ll fill in gaps of knowledge, we’ll find the resources that confirm or deny different accounts of life in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Indeed, if our previous experience is any indicator, many of the documents we have yet to review will do both. Rather than answer questions or find resolution, we will continue to make things messy.

There are some questions for which we will likely never know the answer. How extensively did government agencies monitor Jonestown activities? Who, if anyone, in the Jonestown community reported to intelligence or investigative agencies? What arrangements and understandings did the Temple leadership have with the U.S. government, with the Guyana government, with the Soviet government? And on the final day, what exactly happened in Jonestown? How did those 900 people die? How many people died by their own hand, of their own free will, and how many were murdered? The answers to some of these questions – if those answers exist in government files – will never see the light of day.

The answers to some of the other questions – the ones we haven’t had time to fully research or document – will see the light of day, but maybe not in our lifetimes. The challenge to all scholars of new religious movements, is to recognize the unique opportunity we have to acquire, organize and preserve the vast amounts of information that still exist, and to present it intact, not only to those of us caught up in the memory of the event itself, but also to future generations who will want to understand what we all experienced.

Last modified on March 21st, 2014.
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