Poison in Jonestown

04-04-laura poison
Photo obtained through Freedom of
Information Act

I lived in Guyana – in both Jonestown and Georgetown – for nearly two years. I arrived in March 1977 and left in November 1978 after the tragedy. I spent months in each place. Never did I see any poison or signs of poison.

As a Peoples Temple member for nearly ten years, and a survivor, I had a clear idea of the facts about Jonestown… or so I thought. For the first twenty years after November 18, 1978, my mind and heart worked together to get me through. I was a reluctant survivor, and I rewrote or hid much of the history so that I could keep moving on. Since I first reconnected with fellow survivors on the twentieth anniversary, I have learned more and pieced together parts of Peoples Temple that I had not seen while living in it.

One belief I had for the last thirty years was about the poison that members drank when they died. Somehow I had held on to the thought that the deaths by cyanide poisoning were spontaneous. I reassured myself that I could not have seen it coming. That had to be an aberration of the lifestyle in Jonestown. My view was reinforced by the fact that one Jonestown resident left his son there on that very day, even he departed with Congressman Ryan for the airstrip, feeling secure that Jonestown was still a safe and loving environment. Many of us truly thought that Jim had just “snapped” on that day.

Within the past two years, though, I have been broadsided by a new fact: Jim Polk of CNN reportedly found evidence that persuaded him that Jim Jones had been receiving small shipments of poison into Jonestown for several years. He quoted a letter from Larry Schacht to Jim that certainly substantiated the claim that the cyanide was in Jonestown for at least four months. Regardless of whether the poison had been in Jonestown for several years or even several months, it was a gruesome fact which shook me up. Instead of believing that the act of killing everyone was Jim’s spontaneous decision, brought on by an uncontrolled mental illness, I now see it as a calculated event.

Nothing had been left to chance. Jim Jones planned, in minute detail, everything that was to transpire that day, with a handful of carefully-picked accomplices. He not only set up the arrangement far in advance, but he assigned his minions to carry it out in case he wasn’t able to. The tapes from Congressman Ryan’s visit might show Jim as incoherent and inept at least part of that day – although he apparently rallied enough to tape his final message – but events had already been set in motion. He led the membership down the path that he had cleared and paved. No argument from Christine Miller or anyone else was going to deter him from that destiny.

Congressman Ryan was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t cause Jim’s mental illness or his crazy response to being held captive in his own “Promised Land.” Jim was fighting several custody issues and could not leave Jonestown without facing possible arrest. Even in Jonestown, his august position was losing ground. From the summer of 1978, he rarely walked freely around the community, something he had always done in Redwood Valley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He no longer mingled and made contact with us. He seemed to save his energy only for nighttime meetings and gatherings in the pavilion. Although he would rant about news around the world from the radio room in the daytime, people tuned him out and life went on around Jonestown. I know that when I heard other survivors discuss Jim’s rantings, I couldn’t even remember enough about them to participate in the conversation. I was sometimes away from the center of Jonestown, working in outlying fields, but when I did hear the messages, they were either not audible or not memorable.

I really wanted it to be spontaneous. I understand that sometimes people with cancer and victims of abuse deny it so that their lives aren’t flung apart. I always excused Jim for any overzealousness in drills. I thought he was trying to get us to unify and work harder at developing our consciousness within our community. I thought he was focusing our attention back on the goal – a thriving, independent, egalitarian, socialist community. As it turned out, though, the only thing on his mind was the timing for the ending. Ever the thespian, and knowledgeable in Greek tragedy, Jim wanted to pick the most dramatic time to leave the stage, and to take the rest of us with him.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)