Peoples Temple

Dr. John Walliss is an Associate Fellow of the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK. The following essay is a draft chapter from his book Apocalyptic Trajectories: Millenarianism and Violence in the Contemporary World (Peter Lang, 2004). For more details, contact Dr. Walliss directly at


The collective suicide of over 900 members of Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana on the 18th of November 1978 has in many ways become in the public consciousness the archetypal example of the ‘suicide cult’. John Hall, for example, speaks of how the story of what transpired in Jonestown on that day has become ‘infamous as the ultimate “cult” nightmare’; an almost mythical event that ‘drifts on a sea of memory, only loosely tied to the moorings of history’ (Hall et al, 2000:15, 17). The word ‘Jonestown’, in particular, has become a shorthand in the popular consciousness and among various ‘anti-cult’ campaigners for both the dangers posed by ‘cults’ and their ‘manipulative leaders’ to their ‘brainwashed followers’, and also for incidents where it is believed a, typically non-mainstream, religious movement will undertake, or has undertaken, a similar act of collective suicide. Every subsequent case of apparently similar behaviour is thus, for those who hold and promote such a view, ‘another Jonestown’ (Maaga, 1998; Moore, 2002).

The problem, of course, with such an approach is that it invariably reduces the causes of complex phenomenon to psychopathology. The explanation for what transpired in Jonestown, in other words, is located fundamentally in the psychology of Jim Jones, the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, who, it is claimed, was able to manipulate, order, or ‘brainwash’ his followers into taking their lives.[1] Although an examination of Jones is indispensable in any discussion of the Peoples Temple and what transpired in Jonestown, in this chapter I intend to focus instead on broader socio-cultural factors, examining in particular the role of a combination of exogenous and endogenous factors (Robbins and Anthony, 1995) in precipitating the tragic events of the 18th of November.

Peoples Temple

Any discussion of the Peoples Temple inevitably has to begin (and, as we have seen, many often end) with its founder, Jim Jones. James Warren Jones was born on the 13th of May 1931, the only child of Lynetta and James Thurman Jones, in the small Indiana farm village of Crete. Jones was born into a poor family and consequently ‘grew up with a strong sense of resentment toward people of wealth, status, and privilege’ (Hall et al., 2000:18). Jones’ later accounts of his life, according to Moore,

reveal a man consumed by self-pity and anger, a man alienated from his community. Jones saw himself as a “big, bad mean motherfucker.” One person who knew him as a child called Jim the town’s “Dennis the Menace”. Jim’s teachers angered him, his father infuriated him, racists incensed him. He spent his youth in a constant rage (Moore, 1985:148).

As a child, Jones attended a variety of Protestant churches, although he found himself drawn particularly to what he later described as a ‘setting of freedom and emotion’ that he encountered at Pentecostal Services. Indeed, Jones later recalled how he ‘had had my religious inheritance in Pentecostalism’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:2). In 1945, Jones’ parents divorced and he and his mother moved to Richmond, Indiana, where he met and, four years later, married Marceline Baldwin. Shortly after marrying, the Jones’ moved to Indianapolis, where Jones attended various local Communist party rallies. He also became involved with several churches (ostensibly, he later claimed, as a way of spreading Communist ideas); accepting in 1952 a position as student pastor at Somerset Methodist Church and then, in 1954, the position of associate pastor for the Laurel Street Tabernacle, Independent Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church. Here, Jones ran into controversy when he insisted that not only should the all-white church be racially-integrated, but that the black congregants should be allowed on the platform (Hall, 1989; Chidester, 1988). Consequently, whether out of a desire to keep their church racially segregated or perhaps seeing the need for a separate church, the church board offered to build Jones a church where he could pastor to black congregants. Jones, however, according to an account left by his wife, was outraged by the proposal and resigned on the spot, telling the board that ‘any church where I pastor will be opened to all people’ (Marceline Jones quoted in Moore, 1985:152; see also Hall, 1989:42).

Accordingly, Jones rented a building in a racially-mixed area of Indianapolis, where he formed his own Community Unity Church, which he subsequently renamed Wings of Deliverance, before finally settling on the name Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church a year later (Maaga, 1998). Here, Jones built up a reputation for his healing ministry and, in particular, his alleged ability to cure people ‘of everything from bad hearing and poor eyesight to Hodgkin’s disease, thrombophlebitis, and breast cancer’ (Hall, 1989:21). However, for Jones such displays, although important for attracting people to the church and increasing his charismatic authority, were a sideshow to his primary concern which was preaching the social gospel. Believing that ‘in order to bring people out of their superstition you have to give them a substitute’, Jones ‘approached Christendom from a communalistic standpoint with only intermittent mention of [his] Marxist views’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:28, 26). Consequently, he used the platform and the framework and language of Pentecostalism to address a variety of socio-political issues, most notably class and racial inequalities. However, Jones did not only preach the social gospel, he, and through him the Peoples Temple, also became engaged in a number of social projects, such as establishing several nursing homes (including one in his own home), and adopting two orphans from the Korean war. Indeed, according to Hall (1989:48), Jones and his wife ‘became the first white couple in Indianapolis, and perhaps in the state, to adopt a Black child’. Moreover, taking inspiration from Father Divine’s Peace Mission in Philadelphia, Peoples Temple developed a series of inner city projects such as a church adoption programme, a free restaurant for the poor and homeless and a social service centre established in the Temple’s basement.

In 1960, Peoples Temple became affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a move that increased its profile within the liberal establishment and attracted positive attention within governmental circles. The following year, Jones was appointed as executive director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, a position that, along with his work with ethnic minorities, made him and his family a target for racists, who, according to Moore (1985), spat at Marceline Jones and called the family ‘nigger-lovers’. On other occasions dynamite was found in the automatic coal feeder to the furnace in the basement of the church, swastikas were painted on the church door, and shots were fired at Jones’ home. Although Jones put on a brave face, by late 1961 the effects of the pressure were beginning to show. In October, he was hospitalised with an ulcer and, two months later he resigned his position on the Human Rights Commission citing ‘continuing poor health’ (Hall, 1989). Looking for new opportunities, in early 1962 Jones and his family flew to Hawaii before finally settling on Belo Horizonte, Brazil; a location listed in the January edition of Esquire as one of nine places in the world that would be safe in the event of a nuclear holocaust (Bird, 1962; Chidester, 1988:109-110). There he worked in several orphanages and spent some time teaching; all the while searching, without success, for a location where he might build a colony.

On his return to the USA in December 1963, Jones began to make preparations for moving his congregation to another of the locations discussed in the Esquire article; northern California. As he later recalled,

I figured it was the furthest point I could go from Indiana before I fell off into the ocean. There was hope, but there certainly wasn’t blind pollyannaishness. I’d heard there was more acceptance there. California was supposed to be more liberal. So we had to go (Jones quoted in Moore, 1985:153-4).

Consequently, in July 1965, Jones and 150 members of his congregation made the journey to northern California, settling in Redwood Valley, ten miles from Ukiah (Macmillan, 1989). Here, the adult membership of the Temple more than tripled between 1966 and 1969, to around three hundred, largely as a result of an influx of white, middle class graduates and professionals (Moore, 1985). As Hall (1989) notes, the swelling of the Temple’s ranks by such individuals served to not only attract others from the affluent sectors of society, but also, perhaps more importantly, to significantly expand the Temple’s operation. By the early 1970s, the Temple had branched out from its base in Redwood Valley, opening branch churches in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also purchased a fleet of eleven buses that transported members to services in the three locations and which also allowed Jones and Temple members to go on nationwide evangelical tours throughout the summer months.

More importantly, as it had in Indianapolis, the Temple pursued its ‘human services ministry’ through, for example, its nine residential homes for the elderly; its six homes for foster children; and its forty-acre ranch for children with special needs (Hall, 1989). It also rallied support and gave away thousands of dollars to a variety of humanitarian and political causes, such as Chilean refugees, freedom of the press, gay rights, and the anti-Nazi and anti-apartheid movements (see Moore, 1985:119; Hall, 1989:155-65). Consequently,

When [Jones] talked about helping the sick, people knew his church ran a medical centre which offered free testing for sickle cell anaemia. When he talked about helping the poor, people knew his church – with its soup kitchens and day care centres – operated out of the heart of the black ghetto in San Francisco. Church members, white and black, lived in the area, in the same housing as everyone else. Even Jim lived in the ghetto. When he talked about prisoners, people knew he’d helped men and women stay out of jail, and had assisted those who landed in prison. And when he reminded them of what he’d done for them – “I gave you a bed, I gave you a home, I gave you food” – he spoke the truth (Moore, 1985:160).

It also developed alliances with politicians and public leaders from across the political spectrum, becoming particularly involved with local San Francisco politics. In 1975, for example, Jones and the Temple worked on the Democratic Party caucuses and, through canvassing and getting voters registered and to the vote, played a critical role in the election to office of Mayor Moscone (Hall, 1989). In return, the following year Jones was appointed to the Housing Authority Commission, after he initially turned down an appointment to the Human Rights Commission. Jones also received numerous accolades and awards, such as being named by Religion in Life magazine as one of the nation’s 100 outstanding clergymen; receiving the Los Angeles Herald‘s ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ award in 1976; receiving the Freedom of the Press Award from the National Newspaper Publishers’ Organisation in 1977; and being one of the recipients of the annual ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Humanitarian of the Year’ in the same year (Chidester, 1988; Hall, 1989).

However, despite all its good works, as Moore (1985) has observed, within Peoples Temple there were two churches, and two congregations. There was a public institution working for the collective good of humankind. And there was a private club that delved into the fears and hopes of individuals (Moore, 1985:125).

Within this latter, ‘dark side of the Temple (Moore, 1985:126), members were subject to a range of disciplinary techniques ranging from group surveillance and public confessions, through to the use of psychological and physical violence. As a test of loyalty, members would also sign statements in which they ‘confessed’ to have committed any number of crimes or misdemeanours, such as, in one case killing President Kennedy and his brother, Robert. In other cases, members claimed that they were homosexual or revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the government (Moore, 1985). Indeed, new members were routinely asked to sign blank pieces of paper on to which, if necessary, statements or confessions could be added. Although these statements were very rarely put to use, and, in fact, could not have been used ‘in any credible way’, they served instead as tools of social control and, potentially, blackmail (Hall, 1989). The statements

underscored the belief of some members that they had compromised their moral worth in the outer world. With the stigma of soiled identities as confessed homosexuals and revolutionary criminals, they would think twice about leaving the Temple, and with the Temple holding files containing damning statements in their own handwriting, those who did leave would think twice about causing trouble (Hall, 1989:119).

Similarly, although by the mid-1970s the Temple’s left-of-centre political position was being expressed explicitly, within the Temple itself Jones was espousing a much more radical message. Whereas he had originally expressed his communism implicitly through a social gospel, beginning in the early 1970s, Jones began to express his political views in much more explicit terms to the extent that, as he later recalled, ‘there wasn’t a person that attended my meetings that did not hear me say at some time that I was a communist’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:26). Indeed, by the mid-1970s it was clear to those who heard him preach that Jones was not only a Communist, but that he was promoting a much more radical ‘theology’ of ‘Apostolic Socialism’ within which the ‘Sky God’ of religion was rejected in favour of what Jones termed the Divine Principle or Divine Socialism.

For Jones, although the fact of creation might demonstrate the existence of a God, it did not demonstrate the existence of a God that was benign or caring. Rather, he argued, it revealed the existence of a creator that deserved to be charged ‘with murder, abandonment of his children, abandonment of his people, desertion, torture, cruelty, inhuman treatment beyond description’ (Jones quoted in Chidester, 1988:54). How, Jones asked, could one reconcile the existence of suffering and inequalities in the world with the existence of God? As he pointed out in one sermon;

if they came in his home and found babies starving, people hungry, naked and suffering, and human beings discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, they would say that Jones was a bad creator .[similarly].because he [the Sky God] had allowed these things to go on in the home for humanity that he had built, he had proven himself to be an evil God (Chidester, 1988:54).

Not only this, Jones went on, the Sky God could ultimately do nothing to deliver humanity from real suffering. Indeed, for Jones the worship of the Sky God was intrinsically bound up with human suffering; ‘wherever the Sky God is worshipped, freedom’s light goes out’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:55). Jones in particular raged against the Bible as a tool of oppression; a text filled with lies designed to reinforce the subjugation of blacks, women and the poor. As such, Jones (1973: no pagination) told his congregation, ‘The Bible is your enemy’.

In juxtaposition to this ‘unknown God’, Jones placed the true God, of whom he claimed to be the manifestation; Divine Principle or Divine Socialism. This, Jones claimed, was a God that, in contrast to ‘Sky God’, had real and practical consequences for humanity. As Chidester (1988) notes,

What Jones called the “Divinity of Socialism” was manifested when love became the central ordering of society. “When God is Socialism,” he declared, “God is love. Socialism means that all the means of production that man has, are owned by the same people, the family of man, the family of God. There is only one source of ownership – love. No one can privately own the land. No one can privately own the air. It must be held in common. So then, that is love, that is God, Socialism” (Chidester, 1988:57).

It also had supernatural consequences, manifested, Jones claimed, through him as the ‘God personification of Socialism’. As he told his followers, when they looked at him ‘They’re not looking to Jim Jones. They’re looking to God, which is love, which is socialism, which is each according to his ability to each according to his need’ (Jones, 1974: no pagination). In particular, Jones claimed to possess a number of paranormal abilities that he had derived from the Principle, such as ESP, the ability to walk on water, turn water into wine and pass through walls. He also claimed that his ability to heal and even raise the dead all derived from this source. In one sermon, for example, Jones claimed that if his followers were ‘sympathetic to Socialism, and learn my teachings, I can teach you how to master death’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:58-9). Elsewhere he recounted how,

You’ve seen three people drop dead and you saw them resurrected. Their attitudes were prejudiced and they would drop down dead, but I resurrected them. And I’ve done it sixty-three times in eleven months this year in a public meeting (Chidester, 1988:58).

Linked to this, Jones also claimed to be able to predict the future and, in particular, to see the imminence of the final apocalyptic battle between the forces of Good and Evil. Again, as noted previously, from very early on Jones had demonstrated a fascination with the apocalypse and with nuclear war. However, it was after Jones’ return from Brazil in the mid-1960s that both became central themes in his sermons. Indeed, beginning in 1965, Jones went so far as to predict that nuclear war would occur on the 15th of July 1967; a prediction he quickly revised when it was subsequently disconfirmed. Nevertheless, despite this setback, Jones continued to emphasise the imminence of the Final Battle; claiming in 1973, for example, that ‘we’re close to the time of the settling day, of Judgement Day’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:110).

Within Peoples Temple the nuclear apocalypse served as a mechanism whereby the present social order would be destroyed, with a new order being (re)born from its ashes (Chidester, 1988). According to Jones, the world was heading inexorably towards the final battle between the Antichrist (Capitalism) and Christ (Socialism), from which Divine Socialism would emerge as victor and heir to the new world. During the final confrontation, Jones went on, ‘the elements will melt with the fervent heat, and cities in America all over, [will] burn down and [be] melted down to powder’ (Jones, 1974: no pagination). Indeed, America ‘will suffer worse in this war than all other nations’, largely because its leaders had made no preparations for saving the population;

We don’t even have four days of grain. Rather than give milk to people – the government could buy it up, because the government gives money to Lockheed, the government gives money to Trans World Airlines, the money gives welfare to the rich, gives money to keep the rich richer. But it won’t give a dime to buy up milk, and this past few days, they’ve been pouring milk in the rivers of California, because they cannot get the price they want, while our people in Mississippi have no more food stamps, and Alabama and Georgia, and they’re eating starch three times a day. Our government does not love its people (Jones, 1974: no pagination.).

In contrast, Jones claimed that the population of socialist countries would be protected in huge underground ‘lead granite’ fallout shelters, ‘that reach out like anthills throughout their universe, that accommodate millions of people down beneath the surface of the earth. Hospitals, doctors, stores, hotels, all underground’ (Jones, 1974: no pagination). Consequently, Jones told his congregation, after the capitalist nations had been destroyed, the Communists would emerge from out of their protective shelters and establish the socialist Heaven on earth (Chidester, 1988).

In Search of the Promised Land

In anticipation of the final battle, Peoples Temple sought a ‘Promised Land’; a place where it might escape both the ‘American Antichrist system’ and the destruction that Jones predicted would be wrought upon it. Initially the Temple had believed that it would be safe in Redwood Valley, being, as it was, one of the places described in the 1962 Esquire article. Indeed, Jones went so far as to claim, that, like the populations of socialist countries, Peoples Temple possessed a fallout shelter deep within a mountain in Redwood Valley, within which he and his followers could sit out the destruction before joining their comrades in the rebuilding of the world (Chidester, 1988). As one former member recalled, in one service in 1969 Jones told the congregation of how

I have seen by divine revelation the total annihilation of this country and many other parts of the world. San Francisco will be flattened. The only survivors will be those people who are hidden in the cave that I have been shown in a vision. Those who go into this cave with me will be saved from the poisonous radio-active fallout that will follow the nuclear bomb attack. This cave is what led our church to migrate to this little valley from Indianapolis, Indiana. I have been shown that this cave goes deep into the earth. All the members of my church will stay in it until it is safe to come out. We have gathered in Redwood Valley for protection, and after the war is over we will be the only survivors. It will be up to our group to begin life anew on this continent. Then we will begin a truly ideal society just as you see it here in this room today. Elderly people will be made to feel needed and will be allowed to be productive. People’s needs will be met because they are loved, and not because they have money. This church family is an example of what society will eventually be like all over the world. There will be peace on earth. I have seen this all by divine revelation (Jones quoted in Mills, 1979:128).

However, as a result of several critical events, the Temple began in the early 1970s to explore locations outside of America where it could establish its ‘Promised Land’, safe from the forthcoming apocalypse. In September 1972, Jones came under attack in a series of articles published in the San Francisco Examiner, by the former Episcopal priest-turned-journalist Lester Kinsolving. In the articles, Kinsolving attacked Jones’ messianic pretensions and, in particular, his claims to have raised forty-three people from the dead. In response, the Temple organised demonstrations in front of the Examiner‘s office and threatened the newspaper with a lawsuit if the series continued. As a result, the remaining articles were held and the Examiner agreed to publish an interview with Jones. Shortly afterwards, eight young members of the Temple left, claiming that the leadership were racist and not radical enough in their socialist ideals. Although none of the ‘Eight Revolutionaries’ held positions of responsibility within the Temple, their departures were nonetheless still perceived as a threat to the Temple, not least because, following their departure, two threatened Jones with pistols (Maaga, 1998). Finally, in August 1973, the Temple’s church in San Francisco was fire-bombed, causing $100,000 of damage to the building and its contents.

Consequently, after ruling out several other locations, in October 1973, the Temple’s board of directors resolved to establish ‘a branch church and an agricultural and rural development mission in the Cooperative Republic of Guyana’ (quoted in Moore, 1985:116). The following spring and summer a small group of Temple members travelled to Guyana to begin clearing land leased from the Guyanese government for what was formally named the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. According to a plan drawn up by the Temple’s lawyer, Tim Stoen, around the time of the first migration, the Temple would stay in California consolidating its finances and other affairs ‘until first signs of outright persecution from the press or government’. At this point, the Temple would ‘start moving all members to [the] mission post’ (Hall et al., 2000:29). Consequently, in the period between the arrival of the first settlers in 1974 and early 1977, around fifty to one hundred settlers prepared for the Temple’s eventual relocation from California to Guyana by sowing crops and building the necessary infrastructure for the predicted five to seven hundred settlers. The settlers also acquired a house in Georgetown, Guyana where they set up radio equipment so as to keep in contact with the Temple headquarters in San Francisco (Moore, 1985; Hall, 1989).

In this way, by early 1977, Peoples Temple was effectively straddling the divide between an optimistic, progressive millennialism and a more pessimistic, catastrophic millennialism (Wessinger, 2000). As we have seen, throughout the mid-1970s the Temple, in appearances at least, was reaching the pinnacle of success. It was not only beginning to receive widespread recognition for its various social projects, but was also forging alliances with the Democratic Party in San Francisco. Everything, even the possibility of Jones embarking on a political career, seemed possible. However, at its core the Temple’s view of the future was fundamentally pessimistic. As Hall (1989:33) observes, while Jones did indeed support a number of progressive causes, he ‘shared the pessimism of Pentecostals and other Adventists who take seriously the Book of Revelation prophecies about the apocalyptic downfall of the present evil world order as a prelude to the Second Coming’. From at least the early 1960s, Jones had been fascinated with nuclear warfare and as his Communist views became more overt, so did his statements regarding what he believed to be the inevitability of nuclear war between the forces of good (Socialism) and evil (Capitalism). Linked to this, during this period Jones increasingly came to locate the Promised Land beyond the borders of America. Whereas he had initially claimed that Redwood Valley would afford the Temple sanctuary from the effects of nuclear warfare, as a result of the Kinsolving articles and the firebombing of the Temple’s San Francisco church, by 1973 Jones and the Temple leadership were actively planning their flight from America to the jungles of Guyana. It was not, however, until the summer of 1977 that, in an attempt to head-off two threats to its existence, the Temple’s plans became an actuality and the mass exodus of Temple members from San Francisco began in earnest.

While its various social projects had no doubt been a success and the Temple had always paid property tax on buildings not used for religious purposes, in many ways its operation ‘operated at or beyond the boundaries of religious tax exemption’ (Hall, 1989:197). Moreover, beginning in 1975 the Temple began to move vast sums of money beyond the reach of the United States authorities into oversees bank accounts in preparation for the move to Jonestown. A year later, in February 1976, in an attempt to resolve its tax situation with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Temple formed a legal entity, the Apostolic Corporation, and applied for tax-exempt status as a religious group. However, the following March the IRS informed the Temple that its application had been turned down, thus rendering it liable to pay business taxes on its various enterprises. Consequently, in an attempt to save its assets from the IRS, the Temple began to plan the mass exodus to Guyana (Hall, 1989).

These plans were given an added impetus a few months later when the Temple became the subject of a ‘hatchet job’ in the conservative New West Magazine. Earlier in the year, New West had published an extremely critical story on Mayor Moscone in which its author, Phil Tracy, described Moscone as ‘usually uninformed and incredibly ineffective’ and perhaps ‘the worst political disappointment in the west’ (quoted in Hall, 1989, 177,178). Following publication of the piece, Tracy turned his critical attention to Moscone’s political allies, settling on Jones and Peoples Temple as the targets of his next piece. Despite the Temple’s attempts to prevent publication, the piece, which Tracy co-authored with San Francisco Examiner journalist, Marshall Kilduff, appeared in the mid-July edition of New West under the title ‘Inside Peoples Temple’. In it, the authors drew on the accounts of several high-level defectors from the Temple to expose ‘the dark side of the Temple’ to public view. As the subheading of the article asked, ‘Jim Jones is one of the state’s most politically potent leaders. But who is he? And what’s going on behind his church’s locked doors?’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:185-6). The answer, they claimed, was a life that consisted of ‘a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear, and self-imposed humiliation’ (quoted in Moore, 1985:138); a world of financial abuses, faked healings, brainwashing, psychological punishment, and physical discipline (Weightman, 1983; Hall et al., 2000). Indeed, Kilduff and Tracy, concluded the piece by listing several reasons ‘Why Jim Jones Should Be Investigated’, offering ‘their report as a warrant for official probes of potential Temple child abuse, care-home fraud, and real estate misdealings’ (Hall, 1989:186).

In the aftermath of the ‘Inside Peoples Temple’ article, several other newspapers interviewed a number of Temple defectors and reprinted variations on the accusations made in the New West article. The Mendocino Grapevine, for example, ran a story shortly after the New West piece, in which one Temple defector described the ‘constant brainwashing’ that, he alleged, took place within the Temple. Similarly, the San Francisco Examiner drew on similar accounts, to note how ‘former members explained that Jones’ rules and rituals left them terrified, emotionally confused, and, in the words of many of them, “brainwashed”‘ (quoted in Hall, 1989:187). Indeed, within a month of the New West article, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat was describing the Temple as a ‘controversial cult’. By this time, however, Jones had long since left the country and the exodus of Peoples Temple to the ‘Promised Land’ had begun.

‘A City Under Siege’

As we have seen, by the summer of 1977, Peoples Temple had begun to encounter opposition from both the United States Government, in the form of its rejected IRS application, and the mass media. Moreover, it was also beginning to encounter opposition from disaffected apostates who were using the media to air their grievances against the Temple (Hall et al., 2000). Although the Temple may have hoped that its migration from the United States would lead to an end of this threefold opposition, this was not to be the case. Rather, in many ways, following the Temple’s relocation, the opposition to it intensified. As Chidester (1988:138) observes, ‘beginning in September 1977, Jonestown became a city under siege’; surrounded on all sides by a variety of real, and sometimes imagined, foes that sought to undermine and destroy it.

The ‘Concerned Relatives’

Chief among the Temple’s opponents was a group calling themselves ‘the Concerned Relatives’ who emerged publicly around the time of the New West article, although its origins may be traced back to a series of high-level defections from the Temple that began in October 1975 with the defection of Deanna and Mert Mertle. In the summer of the following year, Grace Stoen, another senior member of the Temple leadership followed them, leaving behind her husband, Temple attorney Tim Stoen, and her four year old son, John Victor Stoen. By the autumn of that year, Stoen and the Mertles (who subsequently changed their names to Al and Jeannie Mills) made contact with other ex-members and joined together to form a group where they could make sense of their shared experiences within the Temple. In doing so, the ex-members drew on anti-cult discourses regarding unconventional new religious movements, and, consequently, came to conceptualise the Temple as a ‘cult’. Moreover, in an attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility for any actions that they had taken while they were members of Peoples Temple, they began to claim, again drawing on anti-cult discourses, that they had been ‘brainwashed’. As one of Al and Jeannie Mills’ daughters put it, ‘we were all brainwashed in there.the one thing we have learned is not to blame ourselves for the things Jim made us do‘ (quoted in Hall, 1989:181; emphasis added). More importantly, the defectors also began to seek ways by which they could bring their experiences to the attention of the public and, in doing so, expose the negative side of Temple life.

The New West article gave them the opportunity to do this, as did the numerous subsequent interviews that they gave for the media throughout the summer and autumn of 1977. However, this was only one tactic in what quickly developed into an all-out campaign by the Concerned Relatives against Peoples Temple. In addition to airing their grievances in the media, the Concerned Relatives also fed negative information about the Temple to a variety of government departments as well as to the San Francisco Police Department. A number also filed lawsuits to recover property and money that they had donated to the Temple while they had been members. Although this had little real impact on the Temple, the ensuing media furore served as a catalyst in raising the concerns of other relatives of Jonestown residents, especially when newspaper exposés on the Temple were portraying the exodus as ‘an exercise in abduction’ (Hall, 1989:216). Consequently, many relatives began to make ‘welfare and whereabouts’ inquiries to the US State Department regarding their relatives in Jonestown and, in some cases, revoke power of attorney agreements that they had made with the Temple regarding their offspring.

The most notable example of the latter was the custody case fought over John Victor Stoen. Indeed, the struggle between the Concerned Relatives and Peoples Temple over the custody of John Victor became for both sides an extraordinarily powerful symbol of their conflict with the other. As such, John Victor became an innocent pawn in a struggle between conflicting ideologies and conflicting understandings of family life and, as such, neither side was willing to surrender him to the other. Jones even went so far as to designate John Victor as his heir and future leader of Peoples Temple, claiming that the child was his reincarnation in the flesh.

However, aside from any ideological dimension, what made the custody case so bitter was that both sides claimed that John Victor was their own flesh and blood. Shortly after John Victor’s birth in January 1972, Tim Stoen had signed an affidavit in which he stated that Jones, and not he, was the father of the child. According to the affidavit, which he later claimed to have signed as a test of faith, Stoen ‘very much wished to raise a child, but was unable, after extensive attempts, to sire one [himself]’. He therefore asked his ‘beloved pastor’ if he would father a child with Grace for him. As the affidavit went on, ‘I wanted my child to be fathered, if not by me, by the most compassionate, honest and courageous human being the world contains’ (quoted in Moore, 1985:228-9). Following Grace Stoen’s defection from the Temple in July 1976, Stoen signed a notarised power of attorney in which he appointed Jim Jones and others within the Temple ‘jointly and severely’ as legal guardians of John Victor, and sent the child to Jonestown. Early the following year Grace Stoen went to court to file for divorce and custody of her son. Within a few months, however, Tim Stoen himself left the Temple – ostensibly he later claimed because of an incident a year before during a catharsis session on the subject of homosexuality (Hall, 1989) – and by August of that year he had joined forces with his wife in a battle with the Temple over custody of John Victor.

Initially, it appeared that victory would go the Stoen’s way. On the 26th of August 1977, Grace Stoen was granted custody and four days later her attorney, Jeffrey Haas, travelled to Guyana to bring John Victor back to the United States. However, within a very short period of time the legal process in Guyana stalled. Following Haas’ first visit to Jonestown, where he was informed that John Victor would not be turned over to him, he went to the Guyanese courts and obtained an arrest warrant for Jones and an arrest order for the child. The warrant, however, was never signed and the Temple’s lawyer successfully argued that the court had no evidence that the Stoens had revoked an earlier standing grant of custody that they had made to Jonestown resident, Joyce Touchette. The Stoens thus returned to the US courts and on the 18th of November, the California court issued an order revoking all previous powers of attorney and custody grants, and awarded custody to the Stoens. However, yet again their application was to stall in the Guyanese legal system. In January of the following year, the Stoens travelled to Guyana to attend a hearing in their custody case only to be told by the judge that due to the complex legal issues involved in the case, he would take the matter under submission and withdraw to his chambers (Hall, 1989).

Following the apparent failure of the Stoens’ custody case, the Concerned Relatives turned to other means to bring Jim Jones to account. As well as filing suits against the Temple for damages totalling over $38 million (Moore, 1985), the Concerned Relatives also turned to the court of public opinion. On the 11th of April 1978, they produced a document entitled Accusation of Human Rights Violations by [the] Rev. James Warren Jones Against Our Children and Relatives at the Peoples Temple Jungle Encampment in Guyana, South America, in which they charged Jones with violations of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Guyanese constitution. According to the ‘Summary of Violations’ placed at the beginning of the Accusation, Jones was alleged to not only be ’employing physical intimidation and psychological coercion as part of a mind-programming campaign aimed at destroying family ties, discrediting belief in God, and causing contempt for the United States of America’, but also ‘prohibiting our relatives from leaving Guyana by confiscating their passports and money and by stationing guards around Jonestown to prevent anyone escaping’. Moreover, it went on, Jones was also
depriving [the Jonestown residents] of their right to privacy, free speech and freedom of association by:

(a) prohibiting telephone calls;
(b) prohibiting individual contacts with “outsiders”;
(c) censoring all incoming and outgoing mail;
(d extorting silence from relatives in the U.S. by threats to stop all communication;
(e) preventing our children from seeing us when we travel to Guyana (quoted in Moore, 1985:251).

To support the claims made in the Accusation, the Concerned Relatives included several affidavits in the document, including one from a woman named Yulanda Crawford, who had lived in Jonestown for three months during 1977. According to Crawford, Jones had told his followers that

nobody will be permitted to leave Jonestown and that we was going to keep guards stationed around Jonestown to keep anybody from leaving. He said that he had guns and that if anyone tried to leave they will be killed (“offed”) and their bodies will be left in the jungle and “we can say that we don’t know what happened to you” (quoted in Moore, 1985:252).

Indeed, she went on,

before Jim Jones allowed me to leave, I was forced to promise him I would never speak against the church, and that if I did, I would lose his “protection” and be “stabbed in the back” (Moore, 1985:252).

Similar accusations were presented two months later in the affidavit of another former Jonestown resident and senior Peoples Temple member, Deborah Layton Blakey. In the affidavit, which she had produced with the help of Tim Stoen, Layton repeated Crawford’s description of a harsh life within Jonestown. The food, she claimed, was ‘woefully inadequate’; consisting of ‘rice for breakfast, rice water soup for lunch, and rice and beans for dinner’ (Layton, 1978: no pagination). In contrast, Jones, ‘claiming problems with his blood sugar, dined separately and ate meat regularly’ and ‘had his own refrigerator which was stocked with food’. Indeed, Layton alleged, ‘In February, 1978, conditions had become so bad that half of Jonestown was ill with severe diarrhoea and high fevers’. Going further, she described a world of paranoia, armed guards, conspiracy and growing ‘irrationality’. Jones, she claimed

saw himself as the centre of a conspiracy. The identity of the conspirators changed from day to day along with his erratic world vision. He induced the fear in others that, through their contact with him, they had become targets of the conspiracy. He convinced black Temple members that if they did not follow him to Guyana, they would be put into concentration camps and killed. White members were instilled with the belief that their names appeared on a secret list of enemies of the state that was kept by the C.I.A. and that they would be tracked down, tortured, imprisoned, and subsequently killed if they did not flee to Guyana. When I first joined the Temple, Rev. Jones seemed to make clear distinctions between fantasy and reality. I believed that most of the time when he said irrational things, he was aware that they were irrational, but that they served as a tool of his leadership. His theory was that the end justified the means. At other times, he appeared to be deluded by a paranoid vision of the world. He would not sleep for days at a time and talk compulsively about the conspiracies against him. However, as time went on, he appeared to become genuinely irrational (Layton, 1978: no pagination).

However, Layton’s most serious allegation concerned the possibility of a mass suicide at Jonestown. Within Jonestown, she claimed, ‘there was constant talk of death’ and, in particular, amongst a ‘general rhetoric about dying for principles… the concept of mass suicide for socialism arose’. Indeed, she went on, at least once a week Jones would declare a state of emergency, or ‘White Night’ during which

The entire population of Jonestown would be awakened by blaring sirens. Designated persons, approximately fifty in number, would arm themselves with rifles, move from cabin to cabin, and make certain that all members were responding. A mass meeting would ensue. Frequently during these crises, we would be told that the jungle was swarming with mercenaries and that death could be expected at any minute (Layton, 1978: no pagination)

During one such “White Night”, Layton recalled;

we were informed that our situation had become hopeless and that the only course of action open to us was a mass suicide for the glory of socialism. We were told that we would be tortured by mercenaries if we were taken alive. Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands (Layton, 1978: no pagination).

As such, she concluded, ‘on behalf of the population of Jonestown, I urge that the United States Government take adequate steps to safeguard their rights. I believe that their lives are in danger’ (Layton, 1978: no pagination).

Government Investigations

Aside from any threat posed by the Concerned Relatives, throughout this period the Jonestown residents were also under threat from another source; the United States Government. From the very beginning the apostates had, as part of their campaign against Peoples Temple, fed information to officials from various governmental and law enforcement agencies. However, as the Concerned Relatives ‘media war’ against the Temple intensified, a number of U.S. government departments – most notably the Customs Service, the Social Security Administration and the Federal Communications Commission – began to conduct their own investigations into the Temple’s affairs.

The Customs Service’s investigation into Peoples Temple began in the spring of 1977 at the instigation of around a dozen of the apostates. In a meeting in March of that year, the apostates met with a Customs officer and informed him that Peoples Temple was arming itself and that around 170 firearms had been sent from Redwood Valley to San Francisco, from where, they claimed, they could be smuggled into Guyana. The Customs Service passed these allegations on to several other government departments – including The State Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI and the Secret Service – and began its own investigations. However, a year-long surveillance operation of various Temple properties and searches of cargo destined for Jonestown revealed ‘no indication of illegal activity’ (Moore, 1985). Nevertheless, a report concerning Peoples Temple was still forwarded by the Customs Service to the State Department. Copies were also sent to Interpol and to the Government of Guyana, a representative of which showed the document to Peoples Temple (see Moore, 1985:280-1). By this point, however, Peoples Temple had been aware for several months that it had been under investigation. In August 1977, several Customs officials had swooped on ninety crates belonging to the Temple which were about to be loaded onto a ship bound for Guyana. When a Temple lawyer had protested against this, stating that the operation would not have taken place without some ‘prior information’, he was informed by the Customs Service that, although examinations are conducted on a routine basis’, ‘any information which might have prompted an examination would be of the type which would be exempt from disclosure to your clients’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:215).

As a result of the media furore surrounding the Temple, in the summer of 1977 the Social Security Administration (SSA) also began its own investigations of Peoples Temple. In August 1977, it asked the American Embassy in Guyana to interview SSA beneficiaries at Jonestown in order to ascertain that they were alive and not being held against their will.[2] Consequently, between August 1977 and May 1978, the American Consul interviewed seventy-five residents on three separate visits to Jonestown; a practice that, according to Moore (1985:287), was perceived by the residents ‘as intrusion and harassment from the U.S. government and the Concerned Relatives’. In addition, the SSA office in San Francisco asked the Postal Service to alert it to any address changes marked Guyana, an instruction the latter apparently interpreted as meaning that they should return all SSA cheques destined for Guyana to the Treasury Department. Although this apparent misunderstanding was resolved three months later, in the spring of 1978 some cheques were still being misrouted. Indeed, as the SSA interim report into the matter observed, the San Francisco office ‘went to extraordinary lengths to ensure Social Security Administration was notified when a member who was entitled to social security benefits moved abroad’ (quoted in Moore, 1985:299).

Finally, in August of 1978, the Temple received notification from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it faced the threat of a monetary fine or even the revocation of its licence for what it claimed were violations of regulations covering the use of its short-wave radio. Like the Customs Service, the FCC had been investigating Peoples Temple since the spring of 1977, after it had received a tip-off from a ham-operator. Within a month of beginning its investigations, the chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Division in San Francisco ordered that Temple communications be monitored on a daily basis, and in March, April, May and August of the following year it sent notices to Peoples Temple regarding several violations of FCC guidelines. Temple radio operators, they claimed, were failing to give call letters at ten minute intervals, operating outside of the authorised frequency and, more seriously, conducting private business on public airwaves. If this continued, the FCC warned, the Temple faced ‘enforcement sanctions such as monetary forfeiture, or, if necessary, revocation and/or cease and desist proceedings’ (FCC quoted in Moore, 1985:299). In addition to this, the Temple was also informed by the Maritime Mobile Network that, on the advice of the FCC, it could no longer carry telephone patches for Peoples Temple and that, instead, any calls from Jonestown had to be routed through its San Francisco office (Moore, 1985, 2000).

The combined effect of this external opposition on the Jonestown community was to both reinforce an already existent ‘siege mentality’ and heighten any tendencies towards paranoia or conspiracy theorising within its leadership. As one editorial in the Temple’s newspaper, the Peoples Forum, stated; ‘we are not paranoid. We simply have found no other logical way to make sense of our experiences’ (quoted in Moore, 2000:135). Jones in particular became increasingly convinced – arguably not without reason – that Peoples Temple had been targeted by the ‘U.S. imperialist government’ for destruction. The Temple, he claimed, was ‘in a cold war getting hotter’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:143). Moreover, he went on, armed members of the Guyana Defence Force were hiding beyond the perimeter of Jonestown, ready to strike and kill them all. Such views were heightened by both Jonestown’s physical and psychological isolation from the outside world and the fact that Jones was effectively the Jonestown residents’ only link with it. Consequently, whatever the Jonestown residents learned about the outside world was ‘filtered’ by Jones who, in doing so, put his own political and typically negative slant on it. In Jonestown, Jones, ‘took on the task of resocialising his followers to a leftist perspective on world events’;

Interrupting the soul music or classical concertos broadcast over the Jonestown P.A. system, Jones sometimes held forth from the microphone in his cabin for hours, serving up a mixture of news, commentary, and readings from leftist analyses of capitalism and revolution. Sometimes he read from U.S. left-wing sources like the Black Panther party newsletter. Occasionally he added comments about “thousands” of poor people in the United States who had died from lack of heat during the winter. With subtle exaggerations and “straight” news accounts of events like the pogrom against the Philadelphia Black anarchist group MOVE, Jones portrayed the United States as beset by racial and economic problems that his followers had escaped by coming to Jonestown (Hall, 1989:237).

The sense of paranoia and feeling besieged by enemies on all sides also led to an increasing use of disciplinary measures against any possible dissidents or defectors. As discussed previously, Peoples Temple had from at least the early 1970s utilised a variety of disciplinary techniques against errant members, ranging from public confrontations through to boxing matches and beatings. In Jonestown, however, the nature of the discipline utilised changed somewhat. Although physical punishments and public humiliations continued as they had in San Francisco (see Hall, 1989:240-1), two new disciplinary mechanisms came to be employed against delinquents. Primarily, those who slacked from their work or who offended in some other way were given extra work; this typically being the dirtiest and heaviest work, such as digging ditches, building latrines, or hauling wood and bricks. For those individuals, however, who ‘have proved themselves incapable of their own controls’ (Jones quoted in Hall, 1989:241), another, more modern, disciplinary strategy was employed: the use of psychotherapeutic drugs. Although rule breakers were assigned extra work, actual or potential dissidents were sent to the ‘Special Care Unit’, where they would be kept sedated via the administration of various psychotherapeutic drugs. In addition to this, armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the community serving to both keep outsiders out and, if necessary, keep insiders in (Moore, 1985; Hall, 1989).

Internal Pressures

In this way, by the autumn of 1978, Jonestown was under attack on several fronts by both the Concerned Relatives and the US government. Such attacks increased the tension within the community and fed into a culture of paranoia and conspiracy which, in turn, appeared to sanction the use of force against actual or potential dissidents or those who offended in some way. In other words, as a result of the actions of the Temple’s various ‘cultural opponents’, the Promised Land was beginning to resemble more and more the ‘concentration camp’ described by the Concerned Relatives. In addition, Jonestown was also under threat from a number of internal pressures; pressures which in turn exacerbated the effects of any external opposition on the Jonestown residents.

The primary internal threat to its stability that the Jonestown community experienced stemmed from its lack of self-sufficiency. As noted previously, initially, Jonestown had been planned to accommodate around 500-700 Temple members, based on the calculation of four persons to a house. However, as a consequence of the mass exodus of summer 1977, each house had to hold eight, sixteen and in some cases twenty people. Linked to this, as Moore (2004) has shown, just over half (57%) of the 1020 Jonestown residents in 1978 were either over sixty years of age under the age of nineteen.[3] Although both groups contributed in some form to the economic well-being of the community (the elderly, for example, made dolls or produced paintings to be sold), they relied heavily on the able-bodied adults, who comprised less than half of the total population, for their material support, health care and education. Consequently, although ‘the dependents were not destructive, they drained the community’s resources’ (Moore, 1985:200).

One consequence of the pressure placed on the able-bodied adults to support the rest of the community was the growth of dissent. Although, as discussed previously, potential or actual dissidents were removed from the community and sequestered in ‘Special Care’, this did not entirely eradicate the problem. It also did not eradicate the desire felt by segments of the residents to leave Jonestown; an act which was seen within the Peoples Temple worldview as an act of treachery to the community and its ideals. Within Jonestown, the potential or actual defector was perceived ‘as the most dangerous person of all’, being as they were ‘the one who looks like an “insider” but is, in fact, an “outsider”‘ (Maaga, 1998:29). (S)he was also seen as a major threat to the Temple. It was, after all defectors such as the Stoens and the Mills who had caused, and who continued to cause, so many problems for the Temple. The defector could potentially be, if not another recruit to the Concerned Relatives’ cause, then, at the very least, a source of Temple ‘atrocity tales’ for the media, the government or the Concerned Relatives. Consequently, when two leading members of the Temple, Deborah Layton Blakey and Teri Buford, defected in the May and October of 1978 respectively, the aftershocks within the Temple were immense, not least because both women had intimate knowledge of the Temple’s financial assets. Indeed, Maaga (1998:115, 126) goes so far as to claim that Layton and Buford’s defections ‘were pivotal’ in the decision to commit mass suicide in that they represented a sure sign ‘that Jonestown had failed as a socialist community’.

Finally, Jonestown was also threatened by Jim Jones himself, who, according to Maaga (1998:90), ‘increasingly became a liability rather than an asset to the community’. According to Maaga, whereas Jones had been central to the existence of Peoples Temple in the period prior to its move to Guyana, following the 1977 mass exodus ‘Jones’ power unravelled’ and authority came to rest more and more within the leadership circle around him. One visitor to Jonestown in May 1978, for example, noticed the ‘enormous contrast between the adulation of Jim which was part of the affairs we attended at the church in [San Francisco] and [Los Angeles] and the absence of this in Jonestown’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:97). This shift, Maaga claims, was the result of three key factors. First, whereas Jones had controlled the majority of the Temple’s affairs in the U.S., life in Jonestown necessitated that more and more of the decisions on day-to-day matters be taken by specialists in those areas. Consequently, Jones’ charismatic authority became supplanted by the authority of those who had specialist knowledge or experience in the various aspects of the community’s existence. Second, linked to this, the move to Guyana was also accompanied by an increasing ‘decentralisation’ and, in some ways, secularisation of healing. As Maaga (1998:90) observes

Jim Jones’s apparent ability to perform miraculous healings was one of the attractions for people who joined his sect during the Indiana days.As Peoples Temple grew in numbers and political influence in San Francisco, this focus on standard medical care came to be emphasised over the miraculous healings of Jim Jones. The healing power decentralised within the group and made the leadership less dependent on Jim Jones himself for attracting new members or for keeping current members satisfied (Maaga, 1998:90).

Rather than relying on Jones’ putative miraculous healing powers, the Jonestown residents could take advantage of the Jonestown clinic which boasted of a staff of sixty trained practitioners along with many pieces of specialist medical equipment (Moore, 1985). Indeed, according to Moore (1985), in Jonestown ‘close to one-tenth of the entire population worked in some kind of health-related job’ (Moore, 1985:216).

Lastly, and arguably as a reflection of the previous two points, following the move to Guyana, Jones’ position within the Temple became increasingly undermined as he became more and more debilitated through heavy drug use. Although there is some evidence that Jones had ‘probably been a heavy narcotics user’ (unnamed source quoted in Maaga, 1998:94) as early as the mid-1960s, it was only after the death of his mother in late 1977 that the effects of his use of drugs became clearly apparent to the Temple leadership circle. Deborah Layton, for example, recalled that when she moved to Jonestown in December of that year, Jones, who she had not seen for several months, was a physical wreck;

He had gained a great deal of weight, and he complained constantly of such a number of serious ailments that it was a wonder he was still on his feet at all. He claimed to have cancer, a heart condition, a fungus in his lungs, and a recurring fever of 105 degrees. He dosed himself with painkillers, tranquillisers, and amphetamines, which only added to the incoherence of his speech (Layton quoted in Maaga, 1998:92).

However, through the summer and into the winter of 1978 it became apparent to everyone who saw him that Jones’ health was deteriorating as a result of drug abuse. Jonestown residents heard Jones over the loudspeaker speaking in slurred tones and saw him staggering around the community, urinating on occasions in public view. Residents and visitors also witnessed signs of mental confusion in him and frequent, erratic changes in his moods. Two visitors from the US Embassy, for example, who visited Jonestown in early November, later recalled how Jones ‘exhibited erratic behaviour, slurred speech, and mental confusion and appeared to need help standing up during the luncheon meeting’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:95). Similarly, Charles Garry, the Temple’s lawyer, who visited Jones at around the same time found a man who had lost thirty pounds in weight and who looked mentally and physically sick (Moore, 1985). Jones, it was clear for all to see, was in a terrible state and, according to Maaga (1998; see also Moore, 2000:133-4), it is highly likely that he would have either stepped down, been replaced or have been dead from illness within a matter of a few months.

The ‘Fact Finding Effort’

In November 1978, the several strands of external opposition to the Temple – the besiegers of Jonestown to continue with Chidester’s metaphor – came together under the auspices of Congressman Leo Ryan. Ryan, the Democratic representative for San Mateo, California, was one of around a hundred Members of Congress who the Concerned Relatives contacted following the apparent deadlock in the John Victor Stoen custody case. Although a number of congressman responded positively to the Concerned Relatives’ pleas for help, and at least eighteen senators and a dozen Representatives contacted the State Department (Moore, 1985), Ryan, who had already aligned himself with the anti-cult movement, went further and actively took up the Concerned Relatives cause. Consequently, in early December 1977, Ryan wrote to the Cyrus Vance, the then-U.S. Secretary of State, requesting an investigation of a man ‘who refers to himself as the Reverend Jim Jones’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:220). The State Department’s response, however, was not encouraging; Jones’ situation, it stated, was a legal controversy that did not warrant any ‘political action without justification’ (Hall, 1989:221). Moreover, it went on, from the position of international law, the Stoens’ California court order was not directly enforceable oversees. Although the U.S. court decision ‘may be useful’, a State Department officer concluded that, the Stoens ‘and their attorneys must.not expect that court to accept the decisions of a foreign (U.S.) court at face value’ (Hall, 1989:221).

For Ryan, however, this was not a satisfactory response, and in May the following year, he wrote to Peoples Temple declaring his support for Tim Stoen in his custody case, and notifying it of his intention to visit Jonestown as part of his ‘official oversight plans for this year’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:242). Four months later, Ryan similarly informed the State Department of his intention to visit Jonestown in early November with a party consisting of journalists and members of the Concerned Relatives. The State Department, despite offering assistance for the trip, warned Ryan against his choice of travelling companions, advising him against taking relatives or friends of the Jonestown residents with him. It also informed him that legally he would need to obtain permission from Peoples Temple to visit Jonestown, rather than, as he had planned, just arriving at the gates of Jonestown demanding entry. In order to satisfy the House Committee’s travel guidelines, he would also have to take along with him another congressman. A month later, Ryan confirmed that his ‘fact finding effort’ would be a joint trip with Republican Congressman Ed Derwinski, and that he would indeed notify Jonestown of his intentions (Hall, 1989).

Consequently, on the 1st of November, two weeks before he was due to arrive in Georgetown, Ryan cabled Jonestown to inform them of his visit. In the cable he noted the differing opinions concerning the Temple that he had encountered amongst his constituents, and stated that his visit to Jonestown was an attempt to ‘be responsive to these constituents with differing perspectives and to learn about your church and its work’. Effectively presenting Peoples Temple with a fait accompli, rather than a request, Ryan went on to state that he had arranged with the Ambassador in Guyana for transportation ‘to visit your church and agricultural station at Jonestown’, and would therefore ‘appreciate whatever courtesies you can extend to our Congressional delegation’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:259).

The Temple’s response to Ryan’s intended visit wavered for the next two weeks between an outright rejection and allowing the visit with several conditions attached; such as that the delegation be balanced with people sympathetic to the Temple, and that no members of the press be present (Moore, 1985). As Moore (2000) observes, Ryan and his entourage were viewed by the Jonestown residents as hostile threats to the community and Ryan in particular was suspected of acting in bad faith for bringing hostile members of the press with him. In a statement, for example, released on the day before Ryan left America, the Temple refused to allow access to the delegation which, it claimed, were intent on ‘provoking some incident’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:152). Indeed, Jones went so far as to refer to the congressman as ‘this disreputable fascist, Congressman O’Ryan’ and claimed that the ex-members accompanying him were ‘now as high in their salutation of fascism as they were in their devotion to socialism’ (Chidester, 1988:151). Although this was surely an exaggeration, Jones and his followers were not wholly inaccurate in their assessment of the motivations of Ryan’s entourage in coming to Jonestown. Many of the relatives accompanying Ryan had sued the Temple or threatened previously to retrieve their family members from Jonestown by force, and several of the reporters had written hostile pieces on the Temple (Moore, 2000). Indeed, two of the relatives accompanying Ryan – Tim Stoen and Steve Katsaris – planned to use the visit as an opportunity to retrieve their relatives ‘by force if necessary’ (Hall et al., 2000).

On the 14th of November, Ryan and his entourage (absent Congressman Derwinski, who had pulled out of the trip almost a fortnight previously) left America, arriving in Georgetown the following day. On arrival, Ryan was informed that Peoples Temple were still refusing to allow him access to Jonestown without conditions, a position that he rejected as unacceptable. The Temple, he was told, had stipulated that only Ryan and an aide could visit Jonestown; all other members of the delegation were refused entry. After several days of negotiation, however, Jones finally acquiesced after a discussion with Temple lawyers, Mark Lane and Charles Garry. Consequently, in the late afternoon of the 17th of November, Ryan and his party arrived at Jonestown and were greeted by Marceline Jones.

That evening, after being shown around Jonestown, the visitors were welcomed formally in the community’s main pavilion. During the festivities, however, a note was passed to Don Harris, one of the reporters accompanying Ryan, that revealed two residents, Monica Bagby and Vern Gosney, wanted to leave Jonestown. The following day, while Ryan made arrangements for Bagby and Gosney to leave, around a dozen more residents came forward and informed Ryan that they also wished to leave. These included Jim Bogue, the Jonestown agricultural manager, and his estranged wife, Edith, and Edith’s male companion, Harold Cordell. When Jones heard the news he was, according to Charles Garry ‘desolate’ (Moore, 1985); telling the attorney that ‘I have failed. I live for my people because they need me. But whenever they leave, they tell lies about the place’ (Hall et al., 2000:35).

While arrangements were being made for those who wanted to leave, several of the reporters turned on Jones, and ‘peppered him’, according to one of the journalists, ‘with hard questions about weapons, drugs and corporal punishment’ (Krause quoted in Moore, 1985:324). Jones, in turn, pleaded with the Parks family not to leave with his enemies and even went so far as to offer to pay them $5,000 to cover their flights back to the US if only they would wait a few days and not leave with Ryan’s entourage. The Parks, however, declined the offer, telling Jones that Jonestown was ‘nothing but a Communist prison camp’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:273). Ryan, however, was more positive in his appraisal of Jonestown. The previous evening he had told the assembled residents that from what he had seen, ‘there are some people here who believe that this is the best thing that has happened in their lives’ (quoted in Hall, 1989:270), and the following afternoon he reiterated this to Jones. He would, he told Jones,

describe Jonestown in basically good terms; no force was being used, he would say. Only a few people wanted to leave, he pointed out, and none of the sixty people named by the dissident families wanted out. “If 200 people wanted to leave,” Ryan told Jim Jones, “I would still say you have a beautiful place here”. The sense of imprisonment, he went on, he would explain as a result of peer pressure and lack of physical transportation (Hall, 1989:275-6).

While Ryan was speaking to Jones, however, he was attacked by a resident and husband of a Concerned Relative, Don Sly, brandishing a knife. After Sly had been pulled away, Jones asked the congressman, who was shaken but unharmed, ‘does this change anything?’. No, Ryan replied, ‘it doesn’t change everything, but it changes things’, adding that Jones should have Sly arrested (quoted in Hall et al., 2000:36). Ryan then joined the rest of his delegation and boarded the truck that was to take them to the planes waiting for them at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip.

One of those who had left Jonestown with Ryan, Larry Layton, was, however, not all that he seemed. As Ryan and his delegation began boarding the two waiting planes, a tractor and flatbed truck pulled up in front of the planes carrying members of the Jonestown security force or ‘Red Brigade’. As they got within around 30 feet of the planes, the Red Brigade members picked up rifles and began firing at the people waiting around the plane. Larry Layton, who had boarded one of the planes, then pulled out a pistol and began firing at those sat around him. When the firing finished, five members of the ‘Fact Finding Effort’ lay dead, including Ryan, Don Harris, and a member of the Parks family, and ten more lay wounded (Moore, 1985; Hall, 1989).

Meanwhile, back at Jonestown, Jones gathered the residents inside the pavilion where, less than 24 hours previously, they had received Ryan and his delegation. Jones informed them that Ryan had been assassinated and that the Guyanese Defence Force were on their way. When they arrived, he went on, they would kill the residents, torturing and castrating any who survived. ‘They’ll parachute in here on us’, he warned;

So my opinion is that you be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back; they won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies, which means more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive (quoted Maaga, 1998:147,148).

To the applause of the residents, Jones declared, ‘If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:147). Medical staff then brought out vats of Flavor Aid laced with cyanide and tranquillisers, which they administered to the residents, beginning with the young, followed by the elderly and, finally, the remaining adults. Jones and the other members of the leadership then retired to Jones’ cabin where they joined their followers in death.

Making Sense of Jonestown

The airstrip murders and the subsequent collective suicide may thus be understood as the final actions in the struggle that had been intensifying between Peoples Temple and its cultural opponents since the spring of 1977. The Temple leadership had believed that its exodus from the United States to Guyana in the summer of 1977 would allow them to escape what it took to be acts of persecution from the mass media, and the United States government, and the actions of the Concerned Relatives. However, this was not to be. Rather, as discussed previously, the pressure on Peoples Temple actually intensified following its move to Guyana, and Jonestown effectively became a city under siege from the attacks of the Concerned Relatives and the investigations of several government departments. Nevertheless, although Jonestown may have indeed have been under siege, until the winter of 1978, it had managed on the whole to defend its boundaries against its various opponents. Although a lawyer representing the Stoens and the staff from the U.S. Embassy in Guyana had visited Jonestown on several occasions, none of its cultural opponents had managed to, metaphorically speaking, ‘invade’ the community until the arrival of Congressman Ryan in November 1978.

The airstrip murders may be seen as acts of revenge by Peoples Temple against these invaders. The congressional visit had, as a number of the Concerned Relatives had hoped, found several people who wished to leave Jonestown. In doing so, the delegation also succeeded in its aim of ‘opening up’ Jonestown to the outside world. Although Ryan had been positive in his appraisal of Jonestown, one of the recommendations that he told Jones he would make in his report was that there should be ‘more interchange with the outside world.[and] that people should be able to come and go freely’ (Hall, 1989:275). Jones was in effect faced with a triple-defeat; not only had his enemies gained access to Jonestown, but they were now leaving with a number of residents and, in effect, promising to return for more whenever they wished.

Aside from representing the beginning of a potential breaking-up of the community, the defections were also devastating to Jones and the community because of who the defectors were. Jones’ reaction to the defections was, as noted previously, to declare his sense of betrayal and failure. This was arguably felt all the more so as a number of those who expressed their intention to leave with Ryan were core, white members of the community, many of whom had been with Jones for a number of years. According to Moore,

The Parks family virtually ran the medical centre. The Bogues had been longtime Jonestown residents. Harold Cordell and Vern Gosney had been Temple members for years, and Cordell had been an officer of the church. No one expected these people to leave (Moore, 1985:324).

Similarly, Maaga (1998) points out how Jim Bogue, another of the defectors,

was the agricultural manager of Jonestown. His knowledge and expertise in farming had been centrally responsible for what agricultural success the community had known. His departure was cataclysmic for that reason but also because Bogue had been one of the original settlers of Jonestown and as such was seen as one of the founders of the settlement. (Maaga, 1998:129).

The loss of such core members was thus made all the more damaging because, aside from the question of who could or would replace them, ‘these were among the last people one would have expected to leave‘ (Maaga, 1998:129: emphasis added). Moreover, the fact that longstanding members, who had been with Peoples Temple for years wished to do so sent a clear and alarming message to the rest of the community that all was not well within the Promised Land.

In this way, the airstrip murders may be seen as a desperate attempt by the Jonestown leadership to snatch a form of victory back from these enemies, albeit by confirming the worst suspicions of their opponents (Hall, 1989). The murders also presented Jones with a clear rationale for initiating the subsequent collective suicide, a situation that, according to Moore (1985:327; emphasis in original) ‘he longed for’. Similarly, Hall claims that

The strong likelihood that Jones ordered the murders at the airstrip serves as an index of how far the leaders of Jonestown were willing to go to stage the circumstances wherein they could choose death. The attack in turn became the dramatic pretext for proclaiming a mass suicide. Just as those who commit murder under other circumstances (for example, within their families) occasionally take their own lives afterwards, Jones could justify suicide to the assembled community as the only option in the wake of the murder stigma, partly on the basis of circumstances that it seems quite likely he helped to stage (Hall, 1989:301; see also Hall et al., 2000:39).

This latter point is clearly borne out when one examines the audio recording of the last few hours of Jonestown.[4] On the tape, Jones is heard telling the community that Ryan has been murdered, the Guyana Defence Force are on their way to Jonestown to torture and kill them, and that, consequently, suicide is their only option;

But when they [the GDF] start parachuting out of the air, they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies. I’m not lying – I don’t wanna (inaudible). But they gotta shoot me to get through to some of these people. I’m not letting them take your child. Can you let them take you child? (quoted in Maaga, 1998:155).

Please get us some medication [the poison]. It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. It’s just simple. Just, please get it. Before it’s too late. The GDF will be here, I tell you. Get movin’, get movin’, get movin’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:157).

There was, Jones told them, no other choice. When he was asked by one resident, why the community cannot flee to Russia, an option that they had been exploring for several months (see Hall, 1989:150-1), Jones dismissed this idea as impossible;

Here’s why it’s too late for Russia. They killed. They started to kill. That’s why it makes it too late for Russia. Otherwise I’d say, yes, sir, you bet your life. But it’s too late. You think Russia’s gonna want – no, it’s not gonna, it’s, it’s, it’s – you think Russia’s gonna want us with all this stigma? We had some value, but now we don’t have any value (quoted in Maaga, 1998:149, 150-1).

He was also tired of fleeing from his opponents. As he himself declared later on the tape, ‘death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s cursed [applause].I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of. Tired of it’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:149, 151). For Jones, such declarations, however, did not signify that the collective suicide was an acceptance of defeat. Rather, as he says elsewhere on the tape ‘we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act. This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self destructive suicide’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:148, 161). Indeed, in his last recorded words, Jones affirmed the suicides as revolutionary acts, claiming, ‘We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:164).

This notion of ‘revolutionary suicide’ was one that Jones borrowed from the co-founder of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton. In his book Revolutionary Suicide, Newton distinguished between ‘reactive suicide’, slow death through drug addiction and the acceptance of black ghetto life, and what he termed ‘revolutionary suicide’, where the revolutionary fights the forces of racist oppression even in the face of death. According to Newton (1973:5), the revolutionary must accept that ultimately ‘he is a doomed man’, and willingly embrace ‘the certainty of death in the militant struggle for liberation against the overwhelming forces of oppression’ (Chidester, 1988:129). Within Peoples Temple, according to Chidester,

Revolutionary suicide was a strategy designed to symbolically invert the dehumanising classifications of oppression, racism, and poverty by claiming an eternal, superhuman immortality through revolutionary action. Revolutionary suicide was designed as a single superhuman act to avoid a subhuman death (Chidester, 1988:130; emphasis added).

In this way for Jones and the Temple residents, the final ‘white night’ was not an acceptance of defeat, but, rather a revolutionary act that sought, ‘through a single, transcendent, superhuman act’, to transcend a subhuman death at the hands of their enemies (Chidester, 1988:133). According to Jones, all was lost; the congressman had been murdered, the GDF were on their way to torture and kill them, and there was no possibility of escape. An act of revolutionary suicide was thus the only way in which they could salvage some degree of dignity in death; as Jones is heard to ask rhetorically towards the end of the suicide tape, ‘Are we black, proud, and Socialist, or what are we?’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:163). Revolutionary suicide was also a way in which, as with the airstrip murders, the community could have their revenge against the Concerned Relatives, who, Jones claimed, would be left with ‘nobody else to hate’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:153). It would also, again like the airstrip murders, metaphorically snatch victory from their opponents by shutting them out through death.


Bird, C. (1962, January) ‘Nine Places in the World to Hide’, Esquire, 55-7, 128-32.

Chidester, D. (1988) Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press.

Hall, J.R. (1989) Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. London: Transaction Publishers.

Hall, J.R., Schuyler, P.D., Trinh, S. (2000) Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan. London: Routledge.

Jones, J. (1973) ’Sermon of Fall 1974, transcribed by Fielding McGehee III’, (accessed February 2004)

Maaga, M.M. (1998) Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press

Layton, D. (1978 [2002]) ‘Affidavit of Deborah Layton Blakey, RE: The Threat and Possibility of Mass Suicide by Members of the People’s Temple’ (accessed February 2004)

Macmillan, T. (1989) ‘Prophet without Honour: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple in Mendocino County’, in Moore, R. & McGehee, F.M. III (Eds.) The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press 23-42

McGehee, F.M. III (2001) ‘Was There Social Security Fraud in Jonestown?’ (accessed January 2004)

Moore, R. (1985) A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Moore, R. (2000) ‘”American as Cherry Pie”: Peoples Temple and Violence in America’, in Wessinger, C. (Ed.) Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases. New York: Syracuse University Press, 121-37.

Moore, R. (2002) Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. New York: A&W Publishers, Inc.

Newton, H.P. (1973) Revolutionary Suicide. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.

Richardson, J.T. (1980) ‘People’s Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 19 (3), 239-55.

Richardson, J.T. (2003) ‘Jonestown 25 Years Later: Why all the Secrecy?’ (accessed February 2003)

Robbins, T. and Anthony, D. (1995) ‘Sects and Violence: Factors Enhancing the Volatility of Marginal Religious Movements’, in Wright, S.A. (Ed.) Armageddon at Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 236-59.

Weightman, J. (1983) Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides: A Sociological History of Peoples Temple. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

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[1] It is, of course, impossible to know how many of the Jonestown residents died willingly and how many were ‘assisted’ to die, or even murdered, as immediate autopsies were not performed on the bodies. It was however, the view of the Guyanese Government’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Leslie Mootoo, that no more than 200 died voluntarily (See Richardson, 1980, 2003; Moore, 1985). It is almost certainly the case that the children of Jonestown were not aware of what was occurring and that they were effectively murdered by their parents or guardians. It is also true that several residents managed to find a way of escaping during the deaths. The audio recording of the suicide also features the voice of one dissenter, Christine Miller, who, before being talked down, objects to the idea of suicide, asking Jones several times about escaping to Russia, and telling Jones ‘as long as there’s life, there’s hope’ and that ‘when we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us’ (quoted in Maaga, 1998:151,152). This view, however, is contradicted by one of Jones’ aides, Michael Carter, who claimed that although around thirty or forty of the residents would have objected, and several hundred would have followed reluctantly, ‘a majority followed him willingly’ (quoted in Chidester, 1988:154).

[2] Aside from donations, the Peoples Temple’s main source of income during this period were the monthly SSA payments (totalling $37,000) that around two hundred of its members received and donated to the Temple. With these payments, the Jonestown community was able to feed itself and purchase essential supplies, agricultural machinery and livestock (Moore, 1985). For a discussion of whether or not social security fraud occurred at Jonestown see McGehee (2002).

[3] According to Moore (2004), approx 13% (131) of the residents were under 10 years, approx 23% (234) were aged 10-19, while approx 21% were aged over 60 years of age.

[4] For details of the so-called ‘Death Tape’ see McGehee (2001). Several transcripts of the recording are also available

I would like to thank Rebecca Moore for her useful comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this chapter.