I have been transcribing Peoples Temple audiotapes for the Jonestown Institute for several months. For me, the transcription process is not just about getting the words down on paper, it’s about getting my brain around them. Several of the tapes I have transcribed are of Jim Jones as newscaster, reading national and international news items over the PA system to Jonestown residents. Listening to these tapes is traveling to an earlier – and, for me, unfamiliar – time. Since I was too young in 1978 to remember the events that Jones is talking about, I find myself diverted into separate research into the names and places mentioned in the recordings in order to grasp what he was saying. I have learned a lot about historical events and figures in the process.
I have also learned that sometimes the news was not the way that Jones reported it. As a result, I have formulated some ideas about Jim Jones and his variety of news.
I had heard before that Jim Jones blatantly deceived Jonestown residents about the conditions in the United States, perhaps most significantly that as concentration camps were being built for blacks. Presumably, Jones’ intention was to discourage people’s ideas about returning to the States. To outsiders, especially 30-some years later, the notion of U.S. citizens being rounded up by our government and imprisoned in concentration camps seems ludicrous, but to Jonestown residents who were completely isolated from the rest of the world and thereby unable to challenge or verify what Jones said, his statements may have seemed plausible.
Some of Jones’ deceptions are more subtle than the example above, yet would serve the same agenda of presenting life in the U.S. as less preferable to that in Jonestown. In fact, the less outrageous distortions may have been more believable.
Consider, for example, three news stories from tape Q662, recorded in April of 1978. This tape was initially a puzzle for me because Jones kept mangling names of people mentioned in the news stories. I could not understand who he was talking about, only that the events seemed shocking in their brutality. After a lot of digging – and through the “miracle” of the internet – I was able to locate some New York Times articles as well as some court records about the people and events that Jones was describing. The basic information was the same, but some key details were different.
We begin with the story of Ciprian Septimo, a young boy who was shot and killed by a man in New York City. It seems that the pronunciation of the boy’s name was not the only thing that Jones twisted:
A deaf mute is being chased– a black deaf mute is chased into a building where he was sh– fatally shot by a large, land-ow– holding corporate director and owner. Two girls, 10 and 12 years of age, told police they saw a man chasing Ciprian Septimo shortly before he was killed Sunday afternoon last. One girl, who said she saw the boy running from the man near his home, a few blocks from where he was slain, told the Daily News. Ciprian seemed terrified of his pursuer. Ciprian was fatally shot to death by the landlord that owns several apartments and commercial dwellings in the Greenwood Street area. He said he thought the youth, sickly from two heart operations, as well as unable to speak and hear – deaf and mute – would perhaps– he looked like he might be thinking about trying to rob somebody’s apartment, though there was no evidence of that kind. Racism was the blatant charge by all the civil activists– civil rights activists in the New York community. The landlord, who has been charged with murder in the first degree, says he fired after Ciprian did not respond to his yells to stop. Of course Ciprian could not stop because he was unable to hear. He attempted to grunt out sounds – sounds unintelligible because he could not talk. He seemed to be trying to make a noise in the most horrifying way. But th– again, the rich landlord continued to pump five bullets into the little lad of 12, going on 13 years of age. (Pause) Thus is the corruption that we see constantly of racism all around us. Disgusting. Most disgusting. No way to describe it.
Jones’ version differs in several ways from the New York Times articles and court documents about the incident, beginning with his description of the boy as black. One source notes that Septimo was the son of a Dominican, so one might actually expect that the family was of Latino descent rather than African descent, although which of these is correct I cannot tell. Note that Jones initially does not say that Septimo was black, but rather he backtracks and inserts it. Either Jones makes an error in reading, or – more likely – he edits them on the fly. Additionally, the news articles I was able to locate clearly suggest that Septimo and another youth did not belong in the building that the man owned. Indeed, the articles indicate that the chase occurred inside one building – not from one building into another – and that the second boy managed to get away. Septimo was actually able to climb fire escape ladders and crawl out onto ledges to try to escape the pistol-bearing landlord, a strenuous feat for someone with a bad heart.
It is also unlikely that Septimo was completely deaf and mute. The news articles say that Septimo was not wearing his hearing aid on the day of the incident, a fact which leads me to think that Septimo probably had some speech ability. One also wonders why Septimo would be making pitiful grunting attempts to communicate if he never heard the landlord’s shouts to “stop.” Although some discrepancies in details could be related to the actual sources, a possibility I will test if I can obtain the relevant news archives, still one cannot help but wonder if Jones deliberately distorted the story to make the youth more sympathetic, tweaking seemingly-innocuous details to give the item a little extras object lesson for his listeners.
Another story on tape Q662 deals with a shooting on a bus in New York City. Jones’ version:
Yesterday a bus driver killed several passengers and flees. Bus driver, New York, acting on behalf of the ruling class, refused to allow a patient– a passenger, really a patient, who was handicapped, on the bus ’cause he didn’t have money to pay. At that point, when the driver mentioned to him, didn’t he think he had more responsibilities to the people than he did to big systems that control everything, all the corporations. The shooting immediately began. The driver, Ernest Davis, shot this man, and another man attempts to come to his defense and then another shooting takes place. Police chased after the bus driver, some 70 miles an hour, in an attempted getaway. It has not been released as to what the fate will be for this noble bus driver who’s representing the big business interests of the bus company, rather than the working class, and shot working class members. Strange phenomena. Strange indeed. The alienation between people in the United States is so complete that there’s no sense of solidarity between the working class, nor even one’s own ethnic group. The man that was originally shot and the second man were both black, and the bus driver was an Uncle Tom, to say the least.
The bus driver story was difficult to track down over 30 years after the actual event, but I eventually found it. As with the Ciprian Septimo story, there is no mention of the ethnicity of the people involved in the story. Similarly, the news article in The New York Times makes no mention of the passenger being a patient (although it is possible that he was drunk, according to a witness). Moreover, only one person was shot. Finally, a complete view of the case would probably point more to mental instability on the part of the bus driver rather than to an “Uncle Tom” who had forsaken the working class in favor of the ruling class.
One more story from the same news broadcast in Jonestown:
Slain girl’s parents quit the city of New York in fear of suspect out on bail. It’s a capital crime to commit murder. The parents of a slain Brooklyn teenager moved back to Italy last night frightened and furious that their daughter’s alleged murderer had been released on bail, which is contrary to the rule of law. But they said they will return for his trial to seek justice. Donato and Eleanor Zurlo are vital witnesses against the suspect, dress manufacturer Frank DiChiara. Police said he is charged with killing their only child, 14-year-old Germania, a little girl, during a recent attempt to steal the family’s life savings. He’s out on bail, and that has frightened them to death, police sources told the Post, as the couple tearfully left for Italy, a country they left 12 years ago, seeking sanctuary in the United States. The Zurlos said they are also leaving to demonstrate anger against the unfairness of the justice system in the United States, that releases people just because they have money and influence, as it was the case with this dress manufacturer who owned a factory but raped and murdered their daughter to death.
Once again, things may not have been quite as Jones depicted them. According to the Times, the move was not solely a panicked response to DiChiara’s release on bail: The Zurlos were already planning on going back to Italy. Further, the motive for the crime seems to have purely been murder, since The New York Times makes no mention of Germania being raped by DiChiara. It appears from the news story that DiChiara entered the Zurlos’ home to steal $14,000 that the couple had earned in the U.S. but planned to take back with them to Italy; Germania simply happened to interrupt the robbery, which is why DiChiara killed her. While Germania was very young, she was not quite a “little girl,” unless she was physically tiny (the articles do not say). Note that the Zurlos “sought sanctuary”, according to Jones, but other sources say that they came to the U.S. to earn money to take back to Italy. Although Germania’s murder is tragic and horrifying, Jones’ version makes the entire family seem even more sympathetic: the “American Dream” had been shattered in every possible way for the Zurlos. How could they possibly stay in a country which had betrayed its promise to them?
If I find discrepancies in only one news story, I might not wonder so much about them. It has been difficult for me to find any news articles from the era at all, let alone the specific ones from which Jones was allegedly reading. I recognize that some sources give more sensationalistic views of the news than others, so it is possible that Jones had different information than I do now. However, when I find discrepancies across several stories, all in a similar vein, I am inclined to think that these are deliberate distortions.
I also wonder when there is such a time delay between the actual events and Jones’ presentation of them in his Jonestown news broadcasts, especially when Jones doesn’t acknowledge the delay or – worse – if he hides it. The three stories highlighted here happened in February and March of 1978; Jones didn’t read them until April, even though he says that the shooting involving the bus driver happened “yesterday.” Was he merely more interested in making the story breathlessly immediate and urgent than accurate?
The vast majority of stories read in Jonestown fit Jones’ agenda in that they paint a picture of the world outside Jonestown – particularly the U.S. – as a harsh, unsafe place where one cannot even ride the bus or go about one’s daily life without falling victim to violence. They also have a ring of truth about them, which makes them seem more plausible than a story that is fabricated from whole cloth, and the fabricated details only enhance the message Jones means them to convey. Sometimes he explicitly stated the obvious conclusion that conditions in the U.S. and other parts of the world were bad; sometimes he left that conclusion to his audience. The point was obvious, the message unfailingly consistent, the repetition constant: there is no going back from here.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She transcribes Peoples Temple audiotapes for the Jonestown Institute and is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are Rewriting Jonestown and When “feeling” surpasses “thinking”: Reflections on the memorial. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)