Documenting the Peoples Temple Story

by Molly Doris-Pierce

(The results of Ms. Doris-Pierce’s research, “Pulling Meaning From Rough Drafts: Jonestown in American History,” appears here.)

Thirty-two years later, the horrific photograph on the cover of the December 4th, 1978 Newsweek still seemed unreal. The bodies of the dead clad in bright clothing made me want to learn what had happened to these people.

The issue was the first Newsweek published after the Jonestown, Guyana mass murder-suicides. I had found the old magazine in the effects of a family friend who had passed away. I was intrigued and read the issue cover to cover. Afterwards, I was curious how reporters came to interpret what had happened in Jonestown. With my newfound interest, I decided I wanted to write my Junior Thesis about the media coverage of Jim Jones’s “paradise.”

The Junior Thesis is a graduation requirement at my school, Newton North High School in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Every student picks an event in American history for his or her topic. Writing a long research paper helps prepare students for college.

With the help of my mother, I was able to use eBay to get issues of Time and Rolling Stone featuring coverage of Jonestown. It was helpful to have hard copies of primary documents. Through the other articles and ads I could really get a sense of the time and imagine the impact the story had on Americans.

Though it happened fifteen years before my birth, the Jonestown tragedy is not ancient history.  I had the opportunity to get in touch with people directly involved in the coverage of the story. I contacted a family friend who had worked at the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press in the mid-1970s. She gave me names and contact information for some of her former colleagues.

 I found Jim Willse, the city editor at the San Francisco Examiner in 1978, on Facebook and sent him a message asking if he would be able to answer a few questions. He was happy to do so. After my success with Willse, I decided to contact Tim Reiterman, the author of one of my sources (Raven: The Untold Story of The Rev. Jim Jones and His People). In 1978, Reiterman was a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and was one of the people wounded at the Port Kaituma ambush. It took two e-mails and a Willse-namedrop, but eventually he agreed to talk over the phone. His phone interview, which I taped, was the most valuable contributing source in my essay.

I next approached Rebecca Moore, whose journal entries I came across while reading Denice Stephenson’s Dear People. Moore lost three family members at Jonestown and has strong feelings about providing people with “alternative understandings to Jonestown.” She founded her website to do so. I used her website, as well as my e-mail interview with her, as sources.

Tim Cahill, a writer for Rolling Stone in 1978, is now a freelance adventure writer living in Montana. He proved the most difficult person to get in touch with. I finally contacted my uncle, who worked as a bouncer with the novelist Elwood Reed in graduate school. Since Reed also lives in Montana, I got his e-mail address from my uncle and wrote him asking if he knew Tim Cahill, and if he could put me in contact with him. Reed e-mailed Cahill introducing me, and Cahill, who was traveling, wrote back agreeing to an e-mail interview.

The series of interviews proved to be essential in my understanding of the events at Jonestown. Their words enriched my paper and provided a range of viewpoints that helped me understand Jonestown’s place in American history.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 25th, 2013.
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