Reconstructing Reality:
Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown

by Rebecca Moore

The following essay appeared in Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 200-20.

As I was describing this article to a colleague during a taxicab ride at a conference, I noticed that our driver was listening intently. When we got out of the cab, I asked him what he thought. He said it was "interesting." Coincidentally or not – in the world of conspiracism there are no coincidences – the same driver picked us up later that evening. I asked what he knew about Jonestown; he said that he had been in the Air Force in November 1978, and had been in contact with people who participated in the evacuation of the 913 bodies of Peoples Temple members who died there. The CIA was definitely involved in Jonestown, he said, but things got out of control when the congressman was killed. The discussion then turned to Waco, the Branch Davidians, and the government conspiracy there, and to Timothy McVeigh, who was then awaiting execution for the Oklahoma City bombing. Our conversation with the cabbie revealed what we more or less already knew: that the official accounts of the murders and suicides which occurred in Jonestown, Guyana have generated belief in a number of conspiracy theories. This article discusses what these theories are, and why they have arisen.

On 18 November 1978, residents of the Peoples Temple agricultural project assassinated Congressman Leo Ryan, and killed four others at a remote airstrip in the northwest corner of Guyana. At their settlement a few miles away, Temple leader Jim Jones assembled more than 900 followers who then ingested a mixture of potassium cyanide and tranquilizers in a fruit punch, either voluntarily or by force.  

Initial accounts were conflicting. It was not clear if weapons had been involved. The reported number of those who died kept increasing as more and more bodies were uncovered. The appearance of the dead – laid out in neat rows – raised questions about how they died. Was it suicide or was it murder? The quantity of psychoactive drugs at the settlement seemed to indicate the possibility of widespread behavioral control or modification. In addition to the sheer magnitude of the numbers, the utter incomprehensibility of parents taking their children’s lives generated shock and disbelief. Skepticism thus arose concerning reports on the exact sequence of events.  

At the same time, conspiracy theories about Jim Jones, about the assassination of Ryan, and about the nature of the agricultural project itself took root shortly after November 1978. Within weeks, political activist Dick Gregory claimed that CIA-FBI forces killed the people in Jonestown in order to use their bodies to smuggle heroin into the U.S. (Hall 305). In 1979 an organization sponsored by the Church of Scientology began to circulate reports that a CIA agent had been present in Jonestown at the time of the deaths (Alliance for the Preservation of Religious Liberty). In addition, Joe Holsinger, Congressman Ryan’s Legislative Assistant, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Operations in 1980 that the CIA had a covert operation in Guyana. Those comments would later serve in part as the source for a number of conspiracy theories. A report dated 20 July 1980 by Information Services Company notes connections between the CIA and Jim Jones as well as CIA interest in Guyana politics. The document connects the Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974, which required prior review of CIA and National Security Council operations, with the death of one of its co-sponsors at the Port Kaituma airstrip (Information Services Company).  

In the twenty-three years since the deaths in Jonestown, conspiracy theories have blossomed in number and sophistication. Time has not adequately answered the initial questions. Rather it has spawned new questions, with new and surprising answers. These answers comprise what I would call a canon of conspiracy theories.[1] Some are more plausible than others. Some are better researched. All of them attempt to explain the mysteries and ambiguities which available narratives fail to address.  

This article focuses on some specific conspiracy theories about Jonestown after first discussing the nature of conspiracy theories in general. The Jonestown theories fall into three main categories: those produced by professional conspiracists who tend to see conspiracies everywhere; a sub-grouping of the professionals, which comprises Internet conspiracy sites; and those theories developed by non-professionals which concentrate primarily on Jonestown. What these theories demonstrate is that in the absence of a credible narrative – that is, a believable reconstruction of what happened in Jonestown and why – alternative explanations arise. The conspiracy theories attempt to make sense of what appears ultimately senseless: that parents willingly killed their children and their elders, and that they willingly chose a rather painful death. Instead of accepting this possibility, the conspiracy theories provide alternatives which blame conspirators for the deaths. The theories argue for coercion, either through external violence or internal "brainwashing," enforced by a few individuals. Furthermore they reject the possibility that Jonestown residents made a rational choice in terminating their collective project through what they considered mercy killings and suicide. Indeed, the presupposition of most of the conspiracists is that Jonestown residents did not make a choice. This view challenges most popular and scholarly accounts of the events of 18 November 1978.  

Conspiracy Theories

The title of this article, "Reconstructing Reality," may suggest that I have a clear and accurate picture of what the reality of Jonestown was. I do not. At issue here is not the truth or falsity of these conspiracy theories, but rather their nature and purpose in explicating the Jonestown tragedy. As David Brion Davis notes, "[T]he phenomenon of countersubversion might be studied as a special language or cultural form, apart from any preconceptions of its truth or falsity" (Davis xv). I plan to examine the phenomenon of conspiracism in light of Davis’ observation, rather than to refute any theory.  

The word "conspiracy" works much the same way the word "cult" does to discredit advocates of a certain view or persuasion. Historians do not use the word "conspiracy" to describe accurate historical reports. On the contrary, they use it to indicate a lack of veracity and objectivity. I am not using the word "conspiracy" in this derogatory sense, but rather in a descriptive way to mark those views which depart from popular or scholarly explanations of what happened in Jonestown.  

A number of writers have identified a rise in conspiracism in the twentieth century in general and in the post-war United States in particular. Richard Hofstadter calls it the "paranoid style" which sees a huge sinister conspiracy "as the motive force in historical events" (Hofstadter 29, italics in original). In other words, nothing happens randomly or according to chance. All events are connected and stem from a specific cause or causal agent. Dieter Groh notes the problems in attributing causality to agents of history, which include the "underestimation of the complexity and dynamics of historical processes," and "[t]he [faulty] belief that one can ascribe in a linear manner the results of actions to certain intentions" (Groh 11). He sees yet another problem with the argument for causality, which is the inability to demonstrate a "causal nexus" between two or more historical events.  

Despite the failure to actually certify causality, conspiracists are nevertheless able to marshal an incredible number of facts – or "factoids" in the words of Daniel Pipes – to support their assertions (Pipes 41). Hofstadter calls it an "obsessive" accumulation of evidence, and in fact finds the plausibility of conspiracism "in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail" (Hofstadter 37). Conspiracists pay careful attention to sources; the good ones use footnotes, sometimes extravagantly. There is a genuine type of scholarship in the citing of references, and indeed references are not the problem. It is the conclusions which the conspiracist draws from the sources that are problematic. The conspiracist finds causality here, determines linkages there, and constructs an impregnable edifice out of myriad facts and details.  

When I say impregnable edifice, I mean that such theories are difficult to disprove. The good ones are logically consistent, very plausible, and frequently "equipped with everything associated with a scientific paradigm as understood by modern history of science" (Groh 4). But unlike academic hypotheses, particularly in the field of history, conspiracy theories leave no loose ends. Absolutely everything is accounted for, fitting together into a single jigsaw puzzle. The conspiracist begins with the completed puzzle, however, rather than its pieces, or in Timothy Melley’s phrase, "the master narrative" (Melley 8). Although Melley says that conspiracies are "hermetically sealed," I would assert that conspiracy theories are also hermetically sealed, due to a worldview which abhors both coincidence and ambiguity.  

What is the appeal of these master narratives? Analysts of conspiracy theories offer several explanations. Melley says that the rise in conspiracism in post-war America stems from "agency panic," that is, the "[i]ntense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control – the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else, that one has been ‘constructed’ by powerful external agents" (Melley 12). Groh sees them as coming from individuals’ sense of injustice. "The world is no longer as it was and as it should be," he writes. "It is unhinged, turned upside down" (Groh 7). Because things are not the way they’re supposed to be, people search for the guilty: who is responsible? This view is quite evident in African American culture, according to Patricia A. Turner, who documents the history of conspiracy and contamination motifs in Black American folklore (Turner 6). Arie Kruglanski sees conspiracy theories as a form of scapegoating, related to the search for the guilty party (Kruglanski 219). Frequently the scapegoats are foreigners, aliens in our midst. The presence of the "other" creates "the need to integrate one’s image of society in one cause," according to Serge Moscovici (Moscovici 157, italics in original).  

I would add to these analyses the clarification that it is the marginalized people of society who tend to believe in conspiracy theories. They might be materially marginal, which is to say, poor, and seeking an explanation for their poverty. Or they might be ideologically marginal, which is to say that they believe their (correct) views have been pushed aside by powerful outside forces. This explains how Ross Perot, a billionaire, can believe that political forces tried to disrupt his daughter’s wedding, how bankrupt farmers in the Midwest can believe that Jewish bankers are foreclosing on their farms, and how urban African Americans of different socio-economic classes can believe that government scientists are promoting AIDS in their communities. The marginalized believe that someone is benefiting at their expense. In fact, the question "who benefits" is key to understanding the popularity of conspiracy theories, and the answer reveals the universe of good guys and bad guys.  

Almost by definition, conspiracy theorists exhibit dualistic thinking, the us-versus-them mentality. How could one consider compromising with conspirators? The idea is unthinkable. Those running the conspiracy seek power and fortune at the expense of everyone else. They are inherently evil. "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values," says Hofstadter (Hofstadter 29). One’s adversary is an enemy, rather than a mere opponent, and thus is capable of almost any depravity (Pruitt).

Professional Conspiracists

Dualistic thinking certainly characterizes the writing of the professional conspiracists, whom I define as those writers who see all events through the hermeneutical lenses of conspiracy. They have developed a reputation among followers of knowing what is really happening. They interpret the daily news in the light of a over-arching story in which current events serve as plot developments in an on-going soap opera. Ultimately the drama depicts a battle between the forces of good and evil. The primary professional conspiracists who analyzed the Jonestown events include Mark Lane, John Judge, Jim Hougan, the Church of Scientology, and Dr. Peter Beter.

Dr. Beter is perhaps best-known for the 1973 bestseller The Conspiracy Against the Dollar. He saw three rival factions vying for world power: the Rockefeller Cartel, the Bolshevik-Zionist Axis, and the new Kremlin rulers (Anonymous).[2] The summary to Dr. Beter’s collection of 80 audiotapes concludes admiringly that:

[t]he most striking thing about this picture is that countless seemingly unrelated, chaotic-appearing news events turn out not to be chaotic at all. Instead they are all tied together by a limited number of forces at work behind the scenes. Once one knows these forces, one becomes far better able to sort out the true meaning of events (Anonymous).

Dr. Beter’s Audioletter 40 for 30 November 1978 explains that the events in Jonestown were staged to camouflage the United States’ destruction of a Soviet missile base located in Guyana (Beter). According to this account, U.S. intelligence agents infiltrated Peoples Temple in the early 1970s. These intelligence forces converted Jim Jones into a "semiconscious agent of death and intrigue." Given the fact that Jones was "born a Jew," it was only natural that he would organize his group along the style of a kibbutz. The U.S. State Department deliberately provoked Congressman Leo Ryan into going to Jonestown in order to hide the true nature of the upcoming military operation. The deaths at the Jonestown kibbutz served as the excuse for a massive influx of U.S. military personnel into Guyana, and concealed the casualties that resulted from the military operation, which involved both U.S. and Israeli forces. In other words, the U.S. government and military benefited from the deaths in Jonestown, because they disguised the real possibility of the upcoming "Nuclear War One."  

One might wonder what happened to Jim Jones in this scenario. According to Beter, the body identified as Jones was a double. The real "cult leader" fled to Israel to receive cobalt treatments for the cancer which had infected his head, his left lung, his stomach and his colon. Told that he would receive additional treatment elsewhere, Jones boarded a small airplane, "shortly after 5:00 P.M. Israeli time," and headed for Turkey.

At about 35 miles east of the town of Jerablus on the Euphrates River, the plane crossed briefly to the Syrian side of the border. At that point the door of the plane was thrown open and three men grabbed Jones. In his weak condition and caught by surprise, he was thrown out of the plane with almost no struggle (Beter).

Dr. Laurence Schacht, the presiding doctor in Jonestown, had also flown to Israel, arriving in Jerusalem "[a]t approximately 3:00 A.M. Israeli time December 11." Dr. Schacht also had cancer, and like Jones, was thrown from an airplane along the Turkish-Syrian border.  

I begin with Dr. Beter’s explanation of Jonestown because it is the most seamless of all conspiracy accounts of the tragedy, by which I mean that it fits into an on-going meta-narrative with little interest in, or even consideration of, the particulars of Jonestown. It really doesn’t matter what happens in history: Dr. Beter will weave it into his analysis. His depiction is rife with the kind of minute details that characterize celebrity interviews in Vanity Fair. The exact times of the flights, the geographical specifics, and other small points all create the impression that Dr. Beter knows what he’s talking about. The over-arching history is created in the details, which simultaneously defuse skeptics and disarm critics.  

Much more convincing accounts by professional conspiracists come from John Judge, Jim Hougan, Mark Lane, and the Church of Scientology. After all, they generously footnote or cite their sources. While Dr. Beter seems to know a great deal, these others provide independent confirmation: you don’t have to take my word for it, they suggest, here is the source. For example, John Judge has 291 endnotes for his 25-page essay "The Black Hole of Guyana." Judge looks skeptically at the changing body counts and explains the growing numbers by suggesting that British Black Watch troops who were on "training exercises" with American Green Berets killed 700 Jonestown residents who had fled into the jungle. He asserts that they were all murdered after living a terrible existence in a CIA-sponsored program of mind control, known as MK-ULTRA. "The story of Jonestown is that of a gruesome experiment," he says, "not a religious utopian society" (Judge 141). Indeed, Judge argues that Jim Jones had ties to the CIA, that other Temple members had ties to Nazi war criminals, and that still others had ties to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Judge 146). "The ultimate victims of mind control at Jonestown are the American people," he concludes. "The real tragedy of Jonestown is not only that it occurred, but that so few chose to ask themselves why or how, so few sought to find out the facts behind the bizarre tale used to explain away the death of more than 900 people, and that so many will continue to be blind to the grim reality of our intelligence agencies" (Judge 151-152). In other words, Judge puts the tragedy at Jonestown into the context of his larger concern, which is the threat to democracy posed by U.S. intelligence agencies. This is a theme throughout his work, and in this sense the Jonestown piece fits well into his worldview.  

Jim Hougan has only 68 footnotes for his 18-page article "Jonestown. The secret life of Jim Jones: a parapolitical fugue." He is indebted to Judge, in part, and yet skillfully points out the problems in Judge’s account. Of all the conspiracy theories extant, Hougan’s is the best-researched and the most convincing. He concentrates on the mysterious character of Jim Jones, tracking down his connections to Dan Mitrione, an American intelligence agent who was ultimately killed by Uruguay’s Tupamaros. He traces Jones’ movements throughout the western hemisphere. Like Judge, Hougan asserts that the people in Jonestown were murdered, albeit for a different reason:

Jones initiated the Jonestown massacre because he feared that Congressman Leo Ryan’s investigation would disgrace him. Specifically, Jones feared that Ryan and the press would uncover evidence that the leftist founder of the Peoples Temple was for many years a witting stooge, or agent, of the FBI and the intelligence community, where it was feared that Ryan’s investigation would embarrass the CIA by linking Jones to some of the Agency’s most volatile programs and operations (Hougan 2).  

In his book The Strongest Poison, Mark Lane also argues that people in Jonestown were murdered. Hired by Peoples Temple to explore what the group believed was a government conspiracy against it, Lane accompanied Ryan to Guyana. He remained behind in Jonestown when the congressman left for the airstrip, and fled into the jungle with another Temple attorney, Charles Garry, as the deaths were beginning. He reported hearing automatic weapon fire, and presumes that U.S. forces killed Jonestown survivors. He believes that, given the radical politics and power of Peoples Temple, intelligence agencies regularly monitored the group in the U.S. and in Guyana. U.S. officials, particularly at the State Department, allowed Congressman Ryan to visit Jonestown knowing that it was a dangerous mission. Lane places blame for the murders of the Jonestown residents on Jim Jones and on armed security guards who forced people to take poison. But he also blames U.S. officials who knew that violence was a real possibility, and who in fact exacerbated the dangers with agents provocateur. By labelling the deaths suicide, rather than murder, both the government and the media covered up evidence of the existing conspiracy to destroy Jonestown as a progressive political organization – much as these same forces had destroyed Martin Luther King.  

Like Lane, the Church of Scientology believes that government agents had penetrated Jonestown and Peoples Temple, although – unlike Lane and others – Scientology has been claiming this for years. In a 1997 article, the Scientology magazine Freedom depicts Jonestown as a mainstream, progressive organization with wide support, and reports that Ryan was pleased with what he saw in the community (Whittle and Thorpe 8-9). But CIA operatives deliberately targeted Ryan for assassination because of his previous opposition to the agency’s activities, including his co-sponsorship of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment in Congress. The article mentions a lawsuit filed by the Ryan family which charged that the CIA had infiltrated Jonestown. The lawsuit was dismissed, "for reasons that have to date never been fully disclosed" (Whittle and Thorpe 10). According to Charles Huff, a former Green Beret who was one of the first at the scene, many in Jonestown had been forcibly injected with poison, or had been shot as they ran toward the jungle. U.S. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty suggested that the deaths in Jonestown masked the real victim and target. Paraphrasing Prouty’s remarks, the authors write that:

Leo Ryan had moved in too close to certain skeletons that could never be safely disturbed. A relentless and uncompromising investigator, nothing could stop Ryan – short of violence. But how could such a high-profile personality be eliminated without bringing down upon the perpetrators an investigation to end all investigations? (Whittle and Thorpe 11).

The solution was to obscure the assassination by making it part of a larger catastrophe.

We see that the theme of the professional conspiracists is that people in Jonestown were murdered by U.S. government agents – either military or intelligence. These agents committed the murders to conceal some other, more damaging information: a military operation against the Soviet Union; the assassination of a member of Congress; the disclosure of the true identity of a radical leader; the revelation that the government was conducting mind control experiments. What is most striking is the conviction these writers hold that so many lives were deemed expendable for so little. This view reflects either the deepest cynicism, or the deepest fear, one can imagine: 900 lives sacrificed to get one individual? or to spare one individual humiliation? But that is the nature of conspiracism: with high stakes, the conspirators take big risks. And since conspirators by nature are depraved and indifferent, we should expect nothing less from them.

Internet Conspiracists

The Internet conspiracists form a sub-category of professional conspiracists, since their meat and potatoes is exploiting rumors, innuendoes, and wild stories.[3] There is frequently a sense of humor and fun in most of the conspiracy sites, best illustrated in the comments of Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen, co-authors of The Seventy Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, a major source for the Jonestown Internet conspiracists:

Back in the good ol’ days when conspiracy theorists were still considered crackpots, it actually took some kind of evidence to get this kind of frenzy underway… Now anytime some poor sap dies every frat boy with an Internet account races to be the first in his quad to post the conspiracy of the moment (Vankin and Whalen, quoted by a reviewer on amazon.com).

It is not clear, therefore, how deeply committed the Internet conspiracists are to their beliefs in various conspiracies.

A search of the word "Jonestown" on google.com, came up with 55,400 hits on 22 January 2002. After eliminating all of the hits for the Jonestown, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi Chambers of Commerce, and hotel-motel guides; and after eliminating all of the sites devoted to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a rock band; and after eliminating a number of anticult sites, that is sites devoted to alerting readers to the dangers of cults, and thus forming their own conspiracy category; there really are only a few conspiracy sites that continue to pop up under different headings or guises. These comprise a Crime Library article by Fiona Steel (number 12); Vankin and Whalen’s frequently reprinted article, "The Jonestown Massacre: CIA Mind Control Run Amok" (appearing as number 14, under www.conspire.com and as number 56 under former United Kingdom Green Party Leader David Icke’s "Mind Control Archives," at www.davidicke.net); Scientology’s Freedom Magazine site, with information noted above (number 25); and Ken McCarthy’s brasscheck.com, which is devoted to exposing the "unholy alliance of media, government,nand big business" (number 32).

Since Vankin and Whalen pop up across the Internet, it is appropriate to note their argument. They question the idea that Jim Jones was a "lone madman," and challenge the plausibility that 900 people willingly took their own lives at his request. They claim that there are hints of human experiments in mind control, even genocide, "and the lurking presence of the CIA." Vankin and Whalen cite sources which include books written within one or two years of the Jonestown deaths, as well as Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs’ Raven, an extensively researched account of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, and my own A Sympathetic History of Jonestown. Most illuminating, however, is the authors’ acknowledgement that "[t]his chapter owes a debt to research assembled by John Judge."  

Judge’s influence seems evident in "The Jonestown Genocide" by Robert Sterling as well,[4] with reports of British Black Watch troops and Green Beret involvement in the deaths, in addition to the Jim Jones-Dan Mitrione connection (developed by Jim Hougan, but first introduced by Judge). Sterling also quotes Michael Meiers, author of Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence, who answers his own question affirmatively (Sterling). (Although I discuss Meiers below, it is important to point out here that he bases much of his book on Joe Holsinger’s charges.) Like Holsinger and Meiers, Sterling believes that the CIA’s secret program was about to be exposed by Leo Ryan, and thus Ryan had to be killed.  

The twelfth site listed under Google’s hits on "Jonestown," is Fiona Steel’s "Jonestown Massacre: A ‘Reason’ to Die," which appears as part of The Crime Library’s "Crime Stories." The blurb which accompanies a glamour shot of Fiona Steel says that the author "is a former marketing and business administrator whose writing talents include writing top-selling marketing and training video scripts for international companies as well as writing training manuals on business skills and computer software." The chapter titled "Sinister Connections?" repeats the theories of CIA involvement, the Jones-Mitrione connection, and the animus the CIA had toward Congressman Ryan because of his support for legislation restricting agency activities.  

Ken McCarthy authored "Made in San Francisco. Jonestown and Official San Francisco: The Untold Story," which appears on his brasscheck.com site. McCarthy emphasizes the ties Jim Jones had with San Francisco’s political leaders, such as then-Assemblyman Willie Brown; former mayor George Moscone, who was assassinated along with Harvey Milk by ex-supervisor Dan White in November 1978; former county District Attorney Joseph Freitas; former governor Jerry Brown; former mayor Art Agnos; and former police chief Charles Gain. McCarthy describes himself as a defender of human rights who is fighting for the underdog. His site seems more focused on discrediting San Francisco’s liberal Democratic establishment, however, than on Peoples Temple.  

Perhaps the most honest, and entertaining, of the Internet conspiracists is Matthew Farrell, who publishes the "World Domination Update" online. The December 2000 issue featured an article Farrell wrote on "Jonestown: a skeptic’s perspective."[5] The article asks what happened exactly, and replies that "[t]here are no easy answers, unless you swallow the Brain Police’s placebo explanations." Farrell examines the question of whether or not Jim Jones killed himself:

You’d think if Jones killed himself it’d be known anti-Jones propaganda. Likewise, if the whole thing was framed to look like a group suicide, why would ‘they’ be so sloppy about details: just shoot Jones and put the gun in his hand – that’s a no-brainer. The very absence of such important information makes me wonder – and starts my spidey senses tingling (Farrell, italics in original).

Farrell considers the CIA to have been involved in some way, although he is not sure how. He finds the fact that the MK-ULTRA program "officially" ended in 1973, the year before Peoples Temple members began to settle in Guyana, significant. He rejects the idea of suicide, saying "[i]t was not a Masada wet run’ or a Waco beta test’ which they want you to think it is." He concludes: "Something bad happened in Guyana, and we will probably not find out exactly what it was" (Farrell, italics in original).  

The evidence shows that Jonestown conspiracism is alive and well on the Internet. But rather than develop new sources, the Internet conspiracists have relied on print sources, primarily Judge, Hougan, and Scientology.[6] At times these sources are mediated through the reading of Vankin and Whalen; at other times they seem to have been excerpted directly. Like their professional counter-parts working in print, the Internet conspiracists discount the suicide explanation as implausible and unlikely, preferring to see the deaths as murders conducted to protect CIA or other government interests. Unlike the professional conspiracists, however, the Internet conspiracists seem to write more in a sense of play. The game is to be outrageous, and the Internet writers appear to take the deaths less seriously. It’s not the deaths that are important, but rather the idea of conspiracy. The deaths merely incidentally prove the existence of the conspiracy.

Non-Professional Conspiracists

In some respects, the non-professional conspiracists argue a bit more believably than the professionals because they concentrate on Jonestown, rather than on external forces or on-going narratives. Nevertheless, most come to the same conclusion, namely that residents of Jonestown were murdered. Some believe that Jonestown was a mind-control experiment. Others have focused on the conspiracy against Jonestown which persuaded people it was better to die than to live. In general, however, the non-professionals, with one exception, argue that people in Jonestown were murdered. Even if they killed themselves, it was still murder because the victims had been brainwashed, tortured, or coerced in some fashion.  

The title of Michael Meiers’ book, for example, says it all: Was Jonestown A CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence. Relying on interviews he conducted with Ryan’s legislative aide Joe Holsinger, the author concludes that it was part of such an experiment, i.e., the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, which tested mind-control drugs on unsuspecting victims. Meiers argues that the quantity of psychoactive drugs, together with the meticulous medical records and the layout of the bodies, indicates an attention to detail and evidence that the experimenters wanted to follow. "As the cause of death was noted on the medical records of each Test Person," writes Meiers, "the corpses were dragged to one side and placed in neat, orderly piles" (Meiers 413). The cause would be suicide or murder, since not all victims went willingly. Of course, part of the experiment was not to test the children, but rather the willingness of mothers to kill their children (Meiers 445). A convenient side benefit was the CIA’s assassination of Ryan. Another benefit was the discrediting of Mark Lane, who had been targeted for assassination. It was more advantageous to destroy his career rather than his life, since he was within days of proving the conspiracy against Martin Luther King, and his death might have led others to continue his investigation.  

I should add that Meiers says that "[i]t is entirely possible that Rebecca Moore was a communications conduit between the experiment and the faction of the federal government that sponsored it" (Meiers 509). Just for the record, I am not and never was a communications conduit for any government agency.[7] Despite this warning, Meiers highly recommends my book, A Sympathetic History of Jonestown, as long as readers understand that it is a defense of my family’s connection to Jim Jones and to the CIA.[8]  

Meiers provides a universal conspiracy theory which ties Jones and Jonestown to Nazis, AIDS, the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Bay of Pigs, Richard Nixon, and the NAACP, to name just a few. Dan White allegedly murdered Moscone and Milk – after all, we only have his confession – because they had learned of Jim Jones’ connection to the CIA. Most interesting in this regard:

There is absolutely no record of Jim Jones or his Peoples Temple ever having anything to do with Dan White, which is somewhat suspicious in itself, considering the major influence Jones exerted in San Francisco politics (Meiers 326).

Like Matthew Farrell, noted above, Meiers sees the absence of evidence as evidence itself.

Another non-professional conspiracist, Nathan Landau, looks at Jonestown from the opposite perspective in Heavenly Deceptor. Far from Jonestown being a CIA operation, it was an un-American and anti-American concentration camp which Jones established so that he could take over Guyana, in preparation for launching an assault against the United States. More effective than his Nazi antecedents, Jones used drugs to control "poor black pseudo-slaves who were totally exploited by their new masters on the Jonestown plantation" (Landau 101). Jonestown’s "final solution" focused on homosexuals, blacks, and drug users, who were murdered. Meanwhile many in the white leadership group, including Jim Jones, planned to escape with millions of dollars. "A man planning to die doesn’t deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into foreign bank accounts" (Landau 14, italics in original). Leo Ryan interrupted the group’s plans, however, and had to be eliminated in order for Jones to get away with the money.  

Landau is also sympathetic to Joe Holsinger, and admits that Jonestown’s successful behavior modification program might suggest the involvement of the CIA. But this view "discredits the very highly skilled and motivated upper echelon members of Jonestown who really engineered the commune" (Landau 164). Jonestown was essentially a prototype for small fascist groups which are targeting certain races and religions for elimination.  

One of the most distinctive conspiracy theories concerning the deaths in Jonestown comes from Laurie Efrein Kahalas, a former member and Temple loyalist. She writes that a government conspiracy followed Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana and ultimately caused the deaths of the Jonestown residents by framing them for the murder of Leo Ryan. Her book Snake Dance: Unraveling the Mysteries of Jonestown, provides documents supporting her belief – and that of Temple members – that different government agencies were spying and harassing the organization.[9] Kahalas claims that an elite core of Army sharpshooters, not Jonestown residents, shot Ryan. As part of her evidence, she cites the audiotape made on the final day on which Jim Jones says, "I didn’t order the shooting… I don’t know who shot the congressman…" (Kahalas 321). Kahalas believes that government assassins killed Ryan because of his support for congressional oversight of the CIA. His assassination set the stage for the deaths in Jonestown because the community would have to take the blame for it. She again cites the death tape: "Now there is no choice. Either we do it or they do it… When they’re shooting out of the air, they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies… They’ll torture our people. We cannot have this…" (Kahalas 323, italics in original). In this way, government forces eliminated two thorny problems: Leo Ryan and the Jonestown community.  

An interesting footnote to all of this is Jeff Brailey’s description of his visits to Jonestown in the week after the deaths. Brailey came as part of the 193rd Infantry Brigade from Panama to evacuate the bodies from Jonestown. He writes that as he was leaving Jonestown by helicopter, an American government official hopped on board, carrying a large crate of documents he had retrieved from the community. The man told Brailey to shoot anyone who attempted to take the crate away. Brailey said he wouldn’t, but he assumed the man was "a spook," that is, a CIA agent, who was removing incriminating evidence (Brailey 104-105).  

With the exception of Kahalas, the conspiracy theories developed by non-professional conspiracists tend to locate the evil at the very heart of Jonestown: it was either a mind-control experiment or a concentration camp. Either way, people did not actually "choose" to die in any meaningful sense of the word. In this respect, the non-professional conspiracists are similar to the professionals, and to the Internet conspiracists, who all believe that the residents were murdered. In other words, no one finds the option of mass suicide credible.

 

Conclusions

There are definite gaps and problems in the official story which the Jonestown conspiracy theories address with varying degrees of success. Much information remains classified, and the suspicion that it demonstrates the culpability, in one way or another, of the U.S. government in the deaths, also fuels the conspiracy fires. The elements of the story are titillating as well: drugs, sex, race relations, communism, and violence make a much more interesting story than do farming, furniture-making, or playing basketball, all part of the daily life of the Jonestown community. Finally, professional conspiracists will find conspiracies everywhere, a tendency which discredits them to all but their true believers. Even if they were right this time, we would never know.  

Moreover, the question of suicide feeds the conspiracy theorists. Certainly I would agree that the deaths of the children and the seniors were acts of murder, since they had no choice in the matter. It is the deaths of the able-bodied adults – the perpetrators, if you will – that are really what is at issue. Eyewitness accounts are conflicting. Evidence from audiotapes indicates that the community had rehearsed suicide on several occasions. Was the group merely completing a ritualized behavior? Or was external coercion involved? The conspiracy theorists either ignore the suicide rehearsals, or they explain them as part of a mind control experiment.  

The fact that almost all of the theories reject the suicide explanation is significant for several reasons. First, they imply that people in their right minds do not commit suicide. Similarly, no sane person kills either their children or their parents. If they do commit suicide, infanticide, or parricide, it follows that they must be insane, or certainly not of sound mind. Therefore, if the people of Jonestown did commit "suicide," it was certainly not voluntary. That means that they were drugged or tortured. The most likely scenario, according to the theorists, is that the people were sane, and hence had to have been murdered.  

By rejecting the suicide explanation, the conspiracists attempt to seek justice for the victims. In their dualistic worldview, which pits the evil forces of government conspirators such as the CIA or the Green Berets, against the forces of good embodied in individual American citizens, calling the deaths "suicide" allows the conspirators to get away with murder. They read Jonestown as a political rather than a religious event. They see it as a battle between great secular forces of good and evil, with evil embodied in either the CIA, Nazis, racists, or megalomaniacs. The religious aspects of the group fade away in the face of this explanation.  

Conspiracy theories, for all their inherent secrecy and implicit danger, are nonetheless comforting because they eliminate uncertainty and moral ambiguity. It is far more troubling to think that people had practiced suicide and then went through with it, believing that they were doing something noble and right, than it is to think that malign powers did away with them for nefarious purposes. It is far more disturbing to imagine that sane and even idealistic people more or less willingly killed their children, than to imagine that some supra-personal power of darkness killed them. Thus conspiracy theories reassure us that what appears wrong or out-of-kilter in the world has a cause outside of individual or collective human weakness and vulnerability. In other words, the moral order, though jeopardized by conspirators, remains in effect.  

If we believe that ordinary decent people did extraordinary acts of "evil," then the moral order is demolished. It seems preferable to believe in evil in the guise of conspirators, than in evil in the guise of our neighbors. Given the profound questions raised by the events themselves, conspiracy theories about Jonestown will undoubtedly continue to proliferate, because they attempt to restore morality and order to a chaotic and immoral world.

 

Notes

[1] Rebecca Moore, "Is the Canon on Jonestown Closed?" Nova Religio 4,1 (October 2000): 7-27.

[2] Though the website containing "A Bird’s-Eye View of the Dr. Beter AUDIO LETTER (R)," is maintained by Michael Christol, a Ufologist from Owensboro, Kentucky, Christol does not appear to be the author of the "Bird’s-Eye" digest.

[3] I would like to thank Amanda B. Hensley, a student at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, for pointing me in the right direction for some Internet conspiracy sites.

[4] I last accessed "The Jonestown Genocide" on 6 May 2001 at <http://www.parascope.com/articles0997/jonestown.html>, but the site was no longer online as of 22 January 2002. An announcement said that the website was moving to a new server in 2002. Sterling continues to maintain links to Jonestown conspiracy sources, however,at <http://www.konformist.com/vault/jnstwn.htm> [accessed 22 January 2002].

[5] Kool Ade, Hot Tape, published 22 November 2000; accessed 1 June 2017.

[6] Another article relying on these sources is "Jonestown, the CIA, and Mind Control," at <http://www.totse.com/en/conspiracy/mind_control/jjones.html> [accessed 24 January 2002].

[7] In the world of conspiracism, of course, my denial merely proves the truth of Meiers’ assertion.

[8] The irony of all this is that we provided Meiers with much of the material for his book, and recommended the Edwin Mellen Press after the volume had been rejected by other publishers.

[9] For more information on U.S. government harrassment of Peoples Temple, see Rebecca Moore, "American As Cherry Pie: Peoples Temple and Violence in America," Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, ed. Catherine Wessinger (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 121-137. The article also appears on this website here. I argue there that U.S. government agencies were in fact monitoring the activities of Peoples Temple, and were threatening the group’s survival in a number of ways.

Works Cited

Alliance for the Preservation for Religious Liberty (APRL), "Unanswered Questions Involving Jonestown and the CIA," 31 March 1980, contained in the "Moore Family Papers," Baker Research Library of the California Historical Society.

Brailey, Jeffrey. The Ghosts of November: Memoirs of an Outsider Who Witnessed the Carnage at Jonestown, Guyana. San Antonio TX: J&J Publishers, 1998.

Davis, David Brion. The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Presence. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Groh, Dieter. "The Temptation of Conspiracy Theory, or: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Part I: Preliminary Draft of a Theory of Conspiracy Theories." Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy. Ed. Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1987. 1-13.

Hall, John R. Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books, 1987.

Hofstadter, Richard. "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Ed. Richard Hofstadter. New York: Knopf, 1965. 3-40.

Hougan, Jim. "Jonestown. The secret life of Jim Jones: a parapolitical fugue." Lobster 37 (Summer 1999): 2-20.

Information Services Company. "People’s Temple, Ryan Assassination Investigation," 20 July 1980, contained in the "Moore Family Papers," Baker Research Library of the California Historical Society.

Judge, John. "The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre." Ed. Jim Keith. Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas and Hidden History. Portland OR: Feral House, 1993. 127-165.

Kahalas, Laurie Efrein. Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown. New York: Red Robin Press, 1998.

Kruglanski, Arie W. "Blame-Placing Schemata and Attributional Research." Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy. Ed. Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1987. 219-229.

Landau, Nathan. Heavenly Deceptor. Brooklyn: Sound of Music Publishing, 1992.

Lane, Mark. The Strongest Poison. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1980.

Meiers, Michael. Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.

Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Moore, Rebecca. A Sympathetic History of Jonestown. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985.

Moscovici, Serge. "The Conspiracy Mentality." Trans. Kathy Stuart. Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy. Ed. Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1987. 151-169.

Pipes, Daniel. Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Pruitt, Dean G. "Conspiracy Theory in Conflict Escalation." Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy. Ed. Carl F. Graumann and Serge Moscovici. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1987. 191-202.

Reiterman, Tim with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

Turner, Patricia A. I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Vankin, Jonathan and John Whalen. The Seventy Greatest Conspiracies of All Time: History’s Biggest Mysteries, Coverups, and Cabals. New York: Citadel Press, 1998.

Whittle, Thomas G. and Jan Thorpe. "Revisiting the Jonestown Tragedy." Freedom (1997): 4-11.

 

Internet Sources

Anonymous. "A Bird’s-Eye View of the Dr. Beter AUDIO LETTER (R)," excerpted from the Dr. Beter AUDIO LETTER(R) REFERENCE DIGEST, c. Audio Books, Inc., 1983, [accessed 22 January 2002; no longer available].

Beter, Peter. "Audioletter 40," , 30 November 1978 [accessed 22 January 2002; no longer available].

Farrell, Matthew. "Jonestown: a skeptic’s perspective." [last accessed 19 December 2000, no longer online 22 January 2002].

McCarthy, Ken. "Made in San Francisco. Jonestown and Official San Francisco: The Untold Story." http://www.brasscheck.com/jonestown [accessed 22 January 2002].

Steel, Fiona. "Jonestown Massacre: A ‘Reason’ to Die." [accessed 22 January 2002; no longer available].

Sterling, Robert. "The Jonestown Genocide." http://www.parascope.com/articles0997/jonestown.htm [last accessed 6 May 2001, no longer online 22 January 2002].

Vankin, Jonathan and John Whalen. "The Jonestown Massacre: CIA Mind Control Run Amok?" In David Icke E-Magazine "Mind Control Archives" and at [both accessed 22 January 2002; neither are currently available].

(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown (listed here), including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, and numerous articles on this website, of which she is the co-manager.)

Last modified on February 13th, 2018.
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