The Role of the Receiver in Shaping the Peoples Temple Collection

by Frances Wratten Kaplan

The Peoples Temple collection at the California Historical Society comprises 139 boxes of records, their contents telling a story like no other. As a student archivist – and like most of the general public – I walked in with preconceived notions about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. After working closely with the material in the collection for three months, however, I find that it raises just as many questions as it answers. The collection is wide in scope and detailed in content although, as others before me have pointed out, it is interesting to note that it includes very little correspondence by Jim Jones, and we rely on members’ correspondence, legal and financial documents, transcripts of depositions, and a myriad of other documents to relay to us what life was like as a Peoples Temple member in Redwood Valley, San Francisco, and in Jonestown, Guyana.

The archivist who first worked with the collection noted that the records fell into two distinct groups: those that came from Peoples Temple and were created by its staff and members, and those that were gathered and created by Robert H. Fabian, the lawyer appointed by the California courts in early 1979 as the Receiver of all Peoples Temple assets. While the records generated by Peoples Temple came from the San Francisco church and other Temple sources, as well as from investigations of the Temple by the FBI and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, it was Fabian who pulled all of these records together and then added to them in his search to locate Peoples Temple assets and settle the more than 750 claims against it. His role did not end until the dissolution of Peoples Temple as a California corporation in 1985 and the transfer of all records – found, borrowed, subpoenaed, received, and created – to the CHS. For five years Fabian was the main controller and producer of records by and about Peoples Temple, and as such the role that he played in shaping the collection held by the CHS cannot be underestimated.

Instead of ending with the tragic events of November 18, 1978, Fabian started with it. One of his first tasks was to establish a list of those who died and set up a system for the filing of wrongful death claims. He oversaw the burial of those that remained unidentified or unclaimed, and attended the community board meetings to deal with the public outcry that sadly often ensued. He recovered cabinets and boxes full of records from the church on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, studying it for clues to the whereabouts of the highly-dispersed Peoples Temple assets. Even though he retained the services of law firms in San Francisco and Guyana to assist in the investigation, the records show Fabian was involved in almost every aspect of the investigation into Peoples Temple assets, from the sale (and then return and then sale again) of a single camera, to the auctioning off of buses and cars used by members for Temple business, to the sale of Peoples Temple-owned properties all over Southern and Northern California. His search for bank accounts led him to conduct investigations, not just in the U.S. and Guyana but also in Switzerland, Canada, England, Panama and Venezuela. The hundreds of suits against Peoples Temple came in the form of claims from survivors, from family members of those who died, from the Federal Government in its efforts to recoup funds spent repatriating bodies from Jonestown to the United States, and from the Guyanese government. In the records we see not just how Fabian went about liquidating the assets, but also how he set up a process by which claims could be established, equations worked out, and payments eventually dispersed.

How he felt personally about Peoples Temple and the events of November 18, 1978 is not revealed in any of the documents passed on to the CHS. The only opinions he gives are legal ones. The records do, however, reflect the systematic approach in which Fabian went about his job, revealing his extreme attention to detail, his focus and his commitment to the task at hand. It is through this that we gain some insight into his character. There are moments of humor, as when Bank of America accidentally transferred one million dollars of Peoples Temple assets into Fabian’s own personal bank account, and there are moments of slightly concealed annoyance, shown in correspondence back and forth between his office and the Swiss banks which were refusing to acknowledge his legal role as Receiver of all assets (remember, this is before e-mail so half the time correspondence crossed in the post).

There are also many moments where bureaucracy stalled the process. For example, the signature of Jonestown resident Annie McGowan appeared on several pieces of correspondence to Feodor Timofeyev, the Soviet Consul in Georgetown, including one letter in which she said she was opening the account of a million dollars “on behalf of Peoples Temple because we as Communists want our money to be of benefit” (italics added). The money wasn’t hers, of course – she was a 70-year-old black woman from Mississippi who had worked her whole life managing senior citizen centers – nor had she drafted the letter. On the contrary, because there were so many blank sheets of paper with her signature at the bottom that were recovered from Jonestown after November 18, it is most likely that she wasn’t even aware of the existence of the correspondence. Nevertheless, the letter raised the question that the Soviet Union could file a claim to the money in this and other accounts, and Fabian had to make a request to the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C. to produce a letter from the Russian Ambassador in Guyana disclaiming any interest in the accounts.

Fabian’s role as Receiver did not include establishing guilt or innocence; his job involved neither a criminal investigation nor the placement of blame. As he pointed out in an article in the San Jose Mercury News, “[M]y theory was the only common factor these claims had was the separation from something of value. I didn’t want to deal with fault, or love and affection, or try to evaluate the worth of a person who dies.” In the end, 64.6% of claims were accepted, with amounts ranging from $29 to $600,000, and only 65% of the amount on the claims was actually paid out. While I know that many people must have been hurt and angered by the reduction of their grief and loss to a monetary figure, the collection gives us insight into how and why Fabian made the decisions that he did. As a newly-minted archivist, I believe that the records collected and created by Fabian while undertaking this task have proven to be an invaluable resource.

(Frances Wratten Kaplan may be reached at franceswk@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 15th, 2019.
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