Pulling Meaning From Rough Drafts:
Jonestown in American History

(An introductory note by the author appears here.)

“So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand…”
Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, in a 1963 speech to Newsweek correspondents in London

In the immediate aftermath of the 1978 mass murder-suicide of 918 Peoples Temple members in the jungles of Guyana, the press found itself charged with the task not only of reporting the events, but also providing the reasons. By examining the media reports filed directly after the tragedy, as well as the anniversary reporting and reflections of surviving Temple and media members, this paper will explore how the first rough draft explanations provide the foundation for what, in time, will support the accepted historical understandings.

The Jonestown tragedy was a defining moment, splitting American history into life before and after. The death of nearly one thousand Untied States citizens stunned and horrified Americans, who demanded to know “why?”[1]

Jim Jones, a Disciples of Christ minister, founded the independent Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1956. Jones was white, most of his congregation was black, and he founded his Temple on the principles of social justice and racial harmony. Congregants celebrated with faith healings and spoke in tongues.[2]

In 1965, Jones, afraid of nuclear war, moved his Temple to California, eventually settling in San Francisco.[3] According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Temple became a place of worship for many area blacks who sought “opportunities in social justice activism” not offered elsewhere. [4]

The Temple fed seniors, tutored students, and took bus trips nation-wide to spread the Peoples Temple gospel. The San Francisco Chronicle described Jones as “ a man who could spread the wealth to all the fashionable charities and, at a moment’s notice, marshal thousands of followers for a good cause.”[5] Jones quickly became a Bay Area political power broker. State Assemblyman Willie Brown said “in a tight race …forget it [winning] without Jones.” [6] In the 1975 San Francisco mayor’s race, 150 Temple members campaigned to help George Moscone win by 4,000 votes.[7] During the 1976 presidential election Jim Jones was one of the few people allowed on Democratic vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s private jet when it stopped in San Francisco.[8]

In 1977, rumors about child abuse and sexual misconduct brought the Temple its first negative attention. The 1976 death of Associated Press photographer Sammy Houston’s son, Bob, a Temple member considering defection, now seemed suspicious. A few months after his son’s death, Houston brought his concerns to a reporter friend, Tim Reiterman. In late 1977, Reiterman wrote a front-page article in the San Francisco Examiner about Bob Houston’s death. Articles in New West magazine and the San Francisco Examiner also began questioning the Temple’s activities. Jones had already founded the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, Guyana. In light of these events he abruptly decided to leave for Jonestown, taking many of his followers with him.

Congressman Leo Ryan of California began an investigation into alleged human rights abuses after hearing concerns from Peoples Temple members’ friends and relatives, especially Sammy Houston. A fact-finding trip to see “the promised land in South America” for himself was planned. Ryan was advised against it and was even sent threatening letters from Jones’ lawyer. But he, along with his aide Jackie Speier; another House committee staffer; some members of Concerned Relatives, an activist group with family members in Peoples Temple; and a media delegation that included Tim Reiterman and Greg Robinson of the San Francisco Examiner, Ron Javers of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Don Harris and Bob Brown of NBC News, went anyway. Jim Willse, then editor of the San Francisco Examiner, explains now, “I guess we always thought the story was worth pursuing. It was beyond ‘unusual’.”[9]

At first the Peoples Temple members greeted the congressman’s party warmly. A dinner with song and celebration was held in Ryan’s honor. However, later that evening, NBC News reporter Harris was passed a note from a Temple member saying that they wanted to leave. A similar request was made to another member of the Ryan party. The next afternoon, approximately 15 defectors were getting ready to board a truck for the journey to the Port Kaituma airstrip when a Peoples Temple member made an unsuccessful knife attack on Ryan. When asked by Jones “does this change everything?” Ryan replied, “It doesn’t change everything, but it changes some things.”[10]

Hours later a truck filled with Temple members ambushed the congressman’s party and the defectors at the airstrip. The congressman, along with Brown, Robinson, Harris, and a defector were shot and killed. Ten others were wounded. [11]

Back in Jonestown, all members were called to the pavilion. While reporters usually are left to speculate about events that have no witnesses, in this case a 41-minute audiotape survives. Twenty-two minutes into the recording a man enters the pavilion and announces that the congressman is dead. Jones responds, “It’s all over”.[12] Jones quickly orders the nurses to bring the “medication” – cyanide in Flavor Aid.[13] He then called for the babies first, and had mothers hold their children as syringes shoot poison into their mouths.[14] To avoid crowding, families groups were given their doses together, and then escorted away to die. The audiotape captures Jones as he constantly repeats and reinforces the idea that “It’s too late” and it was “revolutionary act,” not suicide. [15] “Dad” Jones made his “children” believe that there was “no way, no way” to survive now that the congressman had been murdered.[16] The tape fades to nothingness, with We Shall Overcome softly playing in the background.

When word of the mass deaths reached the U.S. everyone wanted answers. Jonestown became the top news story of 1978.[17] An estimated 98% of Americans had heard and/or read about the tragedy.[18] The immediate news reports out of Jonestown were “conflicting and changing stories about the identification of the dead, the death toll, and how people had died.”[19] They were also split into two clear categories: stories reported by someone who had been to Jonestown and those written by those who had not.

Rolling Stone’s Tim Cahill arrived in Jonestown a few days after the mass murder-suicides. Rolling Stone, now most commonly known for music reporting, was “in those days…the alternative news source.”[20] Cahill’s reporting was different than the typical article about Jonestown. Cahill provided the same facts, but without the “simple and convenient theories” most reporters grabbed onto.[21] The Rolling Stone reporter used literary comparisons to help the reader understand: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Orwell’s 1984. According to Cahill, he chose 1984 because he wanted to show that, like other cults he had written about, it did not matter what the Jonestown residents believed about the goals and ideals of Peoples Temple. Instead, these kinds of communities were “totalitarian societies almost precisely as depicted in 1984.”[22]

Cahill described how the few survivors were sent to stay at the Park Hotel in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, where they had a choice of only two places to be: their own rooms or the hotel ballroom.[23] The ballroom was also home to numerous reporters ready to leap at any chance of getting an explanation. At one point three survivors, accompanied by several Guyanese soldiers, entered the ballroom for brief “press availability”. After answering questions, they asked to be left alone. But the reporters persisted, Cahill wrote, like weaning puppies “fearing that they won’t get their fair share”. One reporter labeled his tape “PUNKS.”[24]

Cahill, along with about 50 other members of the media (“news ghouls,” as Cahill called them) were brought to Jonestown not long after all the bodies had been removed. For the most part they were allowed to wander fairly freely; however when they reached Jones’ private residence they found the door locked. Their Guyanese soldier escorts did allow them on Jones’ front porch, where they pieced together the bits they found among the litter there: drugs, Marxist memorabilia, letters from his congregation. Jones, Cahill concluded, was a “hypocrite, a drug addict, and paranoid.”[25] No reporter wanted to leave Jones’ jungle home, the mother lode in trying to figure out a dead man’s intentions.

One section of Cahill’s article focused on Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman, one of the few media representatives allowed into Jonestown before the bodies were removed. Chapman did not feel uncomfortable saying he did not have the answers for the unprecedented event. “There were piles upon piles of bodies,” he said. “What do you call it? There’s no definition. Nothing to compare it to.” At one point the photographer, overwhelmed by his closeness to a decaying body, wanted to stop, but “stepped back and tried to tell himself that he had to go on, that he was an instrument of history.”[26]

While TIME magazine sent reporters to Jonestown, it also provided explanations from the comfort of its New York office. TIME blamed the disaster on San Francisco’s “tradition of terror” and on the city’s need for traumatic events. According to TIME, this part of California was an “area that is a Mecca for reckless dreamers.”[27]

The events at Jonestown also received attention from media overseas. In India, a reporter labeled America as the “home of hundreds of cults” while a French reporter argued that the events at Jonestown were “un-American.”[28] L’Osservatore, the Vatican newspaper, responded to Peoples Temple’s claim to Christian inspiration, “Christianity is the religion of life, not death.”[29]

Everyone struggled to derive an explanation from an unexplainable event. Many domestic editorials were published in order to fill the “need to place the blame.”[30] Among the slew of opinion columns that flooded newspapers in Jonestown’s aftermath were ones written by Huel Washington and George F. Will. Washington wrote in the November 30th edition of the Sun Reporter that “short sighted individuals will blame a deranged preacher… the real culprit is the institution that America has become.”[31] Will argued in the Washington Post that “madness can be a communicable disease” and Jones’ own psychological issues had rubbed off on his people.[32]

Newsweek’s coverage was in-depth and detailed. In their first issue after the murder/suicides, there were three major articles: one detailed the hours from the congressman’s visit to the vats of Flavor Aid, the second detailed a day in the life of a Peoples Temple member at Jonestown, and the final, titled “The Emperor Jones.” attempted to explain the madness by looking at Jones’ past.[33] Childhood friends and former Peoples Temple members were interviewed and remembered “warning signs.” At age seven Jones, playing preacher, would hit other youngsters with a stick “and make them cry. He had a power most boys don’t have.” They recalled that by the early 1960s he began to turn his back on his fundamental Christian beliefs, and was seen spitting on the Bible and even claiming to be Jesus Christ. Jones, Newsweek said, had become paranoid, “an awesome caricature of the Biblical force he scorned.”[34]

Reader reactions suggested Newsweek’s coverage satisfied America’s thirst for answers. People as far away from the hub of the tragedy as Florida wrote to say that the coverage “covered all the bases both physically and psychologically.”[35]

However, not everyone one was satisfied with the media coverage of Jonestown. Rebecca Moore, a sister and aunt to three Temple members, and now professor in the department of religious studies at San Diego State University, awaited news of her family in Jonestown. She was disgusted with the media’s portrayal of Peoples Temple. On November 20, 1978 she wrote in her journal, “the news media are going ape—much sensationalism, lies, slander, untruths. No one seems to speak for Peoples Temple. No one speaks for the people who have died.”[36]

At first it was unclear just who and how many that was. The first death count was 373, and then it rose to 409. After the second count the passports and paperwork were found for all of the Jonestown residents. People back home became hopeful that there were hundreds more survivors. However, the third count came and so did 371 new victims, raising the total to 780.[37] As the death toll rose, many explanations, such as the New York Times’ “charismatic leader” account, were no longer enough to explain the catastrophic event.[38] The final count and the final number came, 918. No one had any more hope for survivors. The New York Times cited experts claiming Jones was “almost certainly insane.”[39]

The San Francisco Examiner, which had previously been covering Peoples Temple and had one reporter injured and a photographer killed in Guyana, searched for answers and meaning in the previous “allegations” against Peoples Temple.[40] Likewise, the San Diego Union hinted that tragedy could have been avoided if America’s history of religious tolerance had not meant the pleas for help made by former members were treated with less urgency.[41]

Some articles framed Jonestown as suicide—some framed it as murder. Some said the Jones was always crazy—some said it was the drugs. Some said that the members were brainwashed—some say they died for what they believed in. With all the competing explanations it was hard for America to come up with a universal one to log in history.

The reporter with the closest ties to Jonestown may be the San Francisco Examiner’s Tim Reiterman. He not only covered the Peoples Temple story for eighteen months before the tragedy but also was shot in the Port Kaituma ambush. “When that tragedy erupted I did not fully understand why it did,” he remembers. “What drove people to, what I believe, was a ritual of mass suicides and mass murders?”[42] Reiterman opted not to do an instant book because he felt he did not understand what had happened enough to write about it. “I wanted to have the time and put as much effort as possible into uncovering the forces that were in place.”[43] It was not until four years after the tragedy, and after Reiterman and his colleague John Jacobs retraced Jones’ steps all the way back to the Reverend’s Indiana roots, that Reiterman felt comfortable writing a lengthy book exploring the Jim Jones’ psyche and what he thought was the reason for the death of nearly one thousand people in the jungle. Reiterman’s book still stands as the most exhaustive and authoritative history of Jim Jones and Jonestown. “I didn’t ignore the fact I was part of the story,” he explains, but “I also wanted to capture as many of the other perspectives of events even though some of them may not have dovetailed with my own.”[44]

Reiterman recognizes that “nothing we do as journalists and human beings is perfect.”[45] He believes that journalists were “grappling with something that was unfathomable” and that they did their best to understand in order to report it back to Americans.[46] “It was hard to get it all to threads of meaning in [the] short period of time” reporters had before deadlines had to be met. [47]

The immediate coverage of Jonestown formed the basis for some of the most simplistic attempts to understand Jonestown as a historical event. According to Moore, “The news media, with the help of former members, helped to construct a narrative about Peoples Temple and Jonestown that focused on a crazed, all-controlling leader, and on passive, sheep-like followers.”[48] Reiterman agrees. “What they knew in broad strokes was that Peoples Temple was led by Jim Jones and that Jim Jones appeared to lead everybody to their final destruction… they portrayed [Jones’] followers as people who would do whatever he said, when he said, and how he said it… there’s some truth that but it over simplifies.”[49]

Focusing on Jones, Rebecca Moore says, “neglects the [positive] intentions and motivations of those who belonged to Peoples Temple or who moved to Jonestown. It gives too much power to Jones, and too little to his followers, for better and for worse.”

The most egregious things the news media did, according to Moore, was to “demonize and dehumanize those who died by continually publishing photos of dead bodies. This made it virtually impossible to feel sympathy for those who died.” [50]

Rebecca Moore has done her best to provide Americans with a better understanding of the events. She created a website called “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.”[51] Its goal, according to Moore, is to provide “alternatives to the generally accepted story.”[52]

Many of the explanations offered for the events at Jonestown have not stood the test of time. Theories such as Peoples Temple was Satanic, or that the entire tragedy was some sort of government conspiracy, have been generally discredited.[53] In the new preface to Raven, Reiterman disputes the most common explanations Americans still embrace. He claims explanations like “Jim Jones was a good man gone bad” are based on falsehoods,[54] and in truth “there were seeds of his madness…from very early on.”[55] Similar to Moore, Reiterman disputes “that the people who took the poison in Jonestown were sort of robotic people who marched up and willingly took poison.”[56] He believes that Peoples Temple’s story was not just about a preacher and his followers but “the bonds and common goals and idealism and caring the members had for one another… they were a community in a true sense.”

Ironically, erroneous reporting is responsible for one of the most enduring historical myths about Jonestown, one that has become part of the language of our popular culture. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is a cliché used to describe someone who is an unquestioning follower. This misunderstanding persists despite the fact there was “no Kool-Aid involved and it does not capture who the people of Peoples Temple generally were.”[57]

America looks to the media for its first account of history. Through news reports America watches history in the making. With every article a new draft of history is written, a new explanation tested. Eventually, as with Jonestown, immediate reporting of current events translates into historical understanding.

There may never be universal consensus as to why 918 people died in a remote jungle community in South America. The coverage was confused and conflicting in the weeks after the Jonestown massacre, creating confused and conflicted history. In some ways, many people know just as much now as they did in the direct aftermath of the mass murder-suicide. “Journalism is a learning process,” explained Tim Reiterman. “It’s continuing in constant education. After as many years as I put in to understanding or trying to understand what happened, I’m still learning.”[58]

It is still unclear what place in American history scholars will ultimately assign to Jonestown. But the message is as evident as the words of philosopher George Santayana painted on a sign above Jones’ “throne”: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


[1] Prior to September 11, 2001, the murder-suicides at Jonestown constituted the single largest non-natural disaster loss of American civilian life.

[2] “Speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia, is a Charismatic Christian practice of worshipping aloud in an unidentifiable “holy” language. Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982; reprinted by New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2008. (53)

[3] Reportedly Jones originally relocated to a city in Northern California, California because it was on Esquire magazine’s list of the 10 best places to survive a nuclear war. Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, “Inside the Peoples Temple,” New West, August 1, 1977. (31) [Available at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=14025.]

[4] San Francisco Chronicle, “Peoples Temple Tragedy Haunts African American Community,” November 23, 2003. http://articles.sfgate.com/2003-11-23/news/17519659_1_jonestown-black-panthers-peoples-temple. Accessed: January 11, 2010. (2)

[5] Michael Taylor, “Jones Captivated S.F.’s Liberal Elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 1998. http://articles.sfgate.com/1998-11-12/news/17735458_1_rev-jim-jones-peoples-temple-sect-leader. Accessed: January 11, 2010. (1)

[6] Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, “Inside the Peoples Temple.” (30)

[7] Barely more than a week after the deaths at Jonestown, Mayor Moscone and another Jones supporter, City Supervisor Harvey Milk, were assassinated by recently resigned Supervisor Dan White.

[8] Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy “Inside the Peoples Temple.” (30)

[9] Interview with Jim Willse with the author via e-mail, Newtonville MA, February 2010.

[10] Frank Johnston, Chris J. Harper, Timothy Nater, Tony Foller and Stuart A. Seider, “The Cult of Death,” Newsweek, December 4, 1978. (40)

[11] Congressman Leo Ryan remains the only member of the House of Representatives killed in the line of duty.

[12] “Mass Suicide,” He’s Able, 1981, Grey Matter GM04CD.

[13] Temple members had previously rehearsed mass “revolutionary suicide” during “White Nights” where Jones would tell them Jonestown was under threat of imminent attack from mercenaries. Survivors, he said, would be tortured. As an alternative, members were offered a poisoned drink. After drinking it, members would learn they had been participating not in a real event, but a “rehearsal.” Richard B. Ulman and D. Wilfred Abse, “The group psychology of mass madness: Jonestown,” Political Psychology, December 1983. (653)

[14] According to Tim Reiterman, “The order to kill the children first sealed everyone’s fate,” as the parents would not want to outlive their offspring. Raven. (xi)

[15] “Mass Suicide,” He’s Able.

[16] “Mass Suicide,” He’s Able.

[17] Denice Stephenson, Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2005 (1)

[18] Pollster George Gallup noted, “few events, in the entire 43-year history of the Gallop Poll have been known to such a high proportion of the U.S. public.” James W. Chesebro and David T. McMahan, “Media Constructions as Drama: The New York Times’ Symbolic Construction of Mass Murder Suicides,” Communication Quarterly, November 2006. (409)

[19] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (144)

[20] Tim Cahill, interview held via email with the author, February 2010.

[21] Tim Reiterman, telephone interview with the author, February 2010.

[22] Tim Cahill, interview held via email with the author, February 2010.

[23] The Jonestown survivors included those who were away at the time, a handful of defectors, the few who escaped into the jungle, and an elderly woman who slept through the entire event.

[24] Tim Cahill, “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: An On-the-Scene Report from Guyana”, Rolling Stone, January 23, 1979. (51)

[25] Tim Cahill, “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” (48)

[26] Tim Cahill, “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” (50)

[27] TIME, “Nation: But Where is What I Stand For?,” December 11, 1978. Accessed: January 11, 2010. (2)

[28] TIME, “Nation: The Press Abroad: Aghast,” December 11, 1978. Accessed: January 11, 2010. (2)

[29] TIME, “Nation: The Press Abroad: Aghast” (2)

[30] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (1)

[31] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (7)

[32] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (6)

[33] Frank Johnston, Chris J. Harper, Timothy Nater, Tony Foller and Stuart A. Seider, “The Emperor Jones,” Newsweek, December 4, 1978. (54)

[34] Frank Johnston, Chris J. Harper, Timothy Nater, Tony Foller and Stuart A. Seider, “The Emperor Jones.” (56)

[35] Letter To The Editor, Newsweek, December 18, 1978. (8)

[36] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (145)

[37] Frank Johnston, Chris J. Harper, Timothy Nater, Tony Foller, and Stuart A. Seider. “The Cult of Death.” (52)

[38] James W. Chesebro and David T. McMahan, “Media Constructions of Mass Murder-Suicides as Drama.” (411)

[39] James W. Chesebro and David T. McMahan, “Media Constructions of Mass Murder-Suicides as Drama.”(413)

[40] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (5)

[41] Denice Stephenson, Dear People. (5)

[42] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[43] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[44] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[45] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[46] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[47] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[48] Rebecca Moore, interview held via e-mail with the author, Newtonville MA, February 2010.

[49] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[50] Rebecca Moore, e-mail interview with the author.

[51] http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/ Accessed: February 2010.

[52] Rebecca Moore, e-mail interview with the author.

[53] The Economist, “Is Satan Dead?” November 25, 1978. (11)

[54] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[55] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[56] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.

[57] The potassium cyanide used in the mass poisoning of Peoples Temple members was, contrary to popular belief, actually mixed with Flavor Aid. Among the publications that got it right were the San Francisco Examiner, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. TIME magazine persisted in calling it Kool-Aid.

[58] Tim Reiterman, phone interview with the author.