The Bottom Line It’s all so, so sad.
This is a disturbing story so…
I left high school with a very large graduating class, well over 400. I do reminisce from time to time and go through my copy of the 1967 year book. I do still wonder where some of my classmates are and what they are doing as I look at the black and white photographs and read some of the personal notes scribbled on the pages during those last days of school four decades ago.
A Girl I Remember
Aside from one or two people who I am still in contact with, there is one name in the book that I have thought of more often than any other. The name in the book is Harriet Tropp. In her picture she is looking out blankly to the left of the camera. There is no smile. Her look is pensive. Above her name it states she was the Editor-in-Chief of the Yearbook. She was the secretary of the G.A.L.S. and a member of the National Honor Society. Further on in the book she is listed with all those in the Most Popular and Likely to Succeed section. She is listed as Most Creative.
I didn’t really know Harriet. She was in high honors classes that I can’t even say I wish I was part of at the time. My interest then was sports and a gal who would become my wife of 35 years and still counting. I did see Harriet in the halls and cafeteria. I believe we may have been in a business law class together, but even if so, I never talked with her.
Seeing Her After Eleven Years
Eleven years after graduation I saw her name again. It was in a newspaper. I was caught by surprise, shocked. She was a victim in Guyana, in what became known as the Jonestown Massacre. More than 900 people died as they followed their leader Jim Jones in a mass suicide. Many went along with his order to drink cyanide laced Kool-Aid. Many gave it to their children first and then drank it themselves. Others died, being shot in the back, trying to get away from the scene of carnage. Some did survive.
I don’t remember reading any details about Harriet’s death then or over the years. I often did think though of how so many people could be lured by an evil man who promised them a good life only to take all life from them. It always reminded me in some way of the story of Satan and Adam and Eve. These followers of Jim Jones weren’t truly happy with what they had. They wanted more. More may have been a simpler life but apparently they didn’t have their eyes open to what Peoples Temple really was. They blindly followed a charismatic leader, Jim Jones. Was he a fake and a phony? Years later his own son called him a fraud.
Years have passed. There have been many books printed about Jonestown, the killings and the suicides. I never read any of them. I did however continue to think about Harriet every time I would hear anyone refer to blind followers as Kool-Aid drinkers. Though it may seem strange, I also wondered what the scene was like during the havoc of those moments and perhaps hours. Were they happy to be leaving this world, was there fear, were they in pain? I always thought of Harriet’s face grimacing as the poison went into and through her body.
Reading of Jonestown in Epinions
Just a few days ago I read a piece that was contributed to the Travel section of Epinions. Jonestown was mentioned. I left a comment suggesting I knew someone who died there. The writer then emailed me a link to the names of the people who died at Jonestown. A day later I went to the link. I scrolled down through the names. There are so, so many of them.
Seeing Harriet Again
I then came to Harriet Tropp. I clicked on the name, and suddenly a photograph of her, eleven years older than her yearbook picture, filled the screen. I can’t tell you the strange and eerie feeling it gave me to see Harriet again. She wasn’t grimacing as I had pictured in my mind or even having a straight-faced look as in her yearbook picture. She was smiling. There was another picture too. I clicked on that one and once again she was smiling. It kind of made me feel good to see her smile. That changed a bit later.
I followed the link further down and there was an area titled Remembrances.
There were a few words that said,
“Harriet was my first cousin. Though I am much younger than her I remember her as being brilliant and fun loving. I have never understood how she ended up where she was, but I was not surprised to know she had a leadership role of some sort.” – Anonymous
I didn’t really know Harriet, but I also wondered over and over how “she ended up where she was.” My interest was further piqued by the words at the end stating, but I was not surprised to know she had a leadership role of some sort.
A Jonestown Leader?
I then proceeded to gather some information on the internet. I found this website which is dedicated to collecting facts and stories without judgment about what happened in Jonestown. This is also where Harriet’s smiling picture was featured. I continued on, I wasn’t sure where it would take me. I did find out she was truly in a leadership role. Under a listing of Occupation at Jonestown was:
Planning Commission; Radio room; public relations (FBI document 89-4286-1207); Teacher (FBI document 89-4286-1552); Administrative Triumvarite, Legal committee
I began to feel disturbed when I read some of the tape transcripts and summaries that are available through the website, including this excerpt from one summary:
The Peoples Temple leadership in Jonestown – including Jim Jones – holds a press conference via a ham radio transmission to San Francisco, where reporters are gathered. Responding to charges made by Concerned Relatives, Harriet Tropp reads a prepared statement that condemns the actions of the Concerned Relatives organization, as well as the media attacks on the church. The statement also extols the Jonestown settlement as a beautiful place, a socialist collective, a place with a solid medical department for seniors, and an opportunity for society’s malcontents to start again. Her description of Jonestown concludes that it is “a community for a significant number of people, now over 1000, who have been hurt, angered, alienated and victimized by adverse conditions that prevail in the decaying inner cities of advanced Western societies.”
This continued with Tropp rejecting statements saying relatives aren’t allowed to visit.
A Commitment To Die
The prepared statement concludes with the criticism of “some statement, supposedly issued officially by Peoples Temple, but whose authorship we here are unaware of, to the effect that we prefer to resist harassment and persecution, even if it means death.” Instead of disavowing the anonymous statement, though, she denounces the people who would use it against the community. “Since it is clear that the persons who are actively plotting to destroy our organization have neither integrity nor courage, we are not at all surprised that they would find it offensive.” She quotes Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King, who “reaffirmed the validity of ultimate commitment,” and concludes: “It is not our purpose to die. We believe deeply in the celebration of life… But under these outrageous attacks, we have decided to defend the integrity of our community and our pledge to do this.”
Now this was a prepared text, so it may not have been Harriet’s true thoughts, but I read more later.
This was really the beginning of the end. For those who remember and more for those who don’t know, US Congressman Leo Ryan did go down to Guyana with family members and press. He visited Jonestown, and when leaving at a small jungle airstrip, he, along with two NBC reporters, a newspaper photographer and a Temple defector, was killed by Jim Jones operatives. With Jim Jones knowing his Peoples Temple days were over the mass suicide followed.
I read more of the transcripts with Harriet Tropp’s words. I was truly frightened when I read this transcript:
Harriet Tropp: This is uh— This is Harriet Tropp, and (sighs) I’ve done a lot of thinking in the past few weeks, and I just thought I should make a few things clear. Number one, I have been a member of Peoples Temple for seven years, and I have seen Jim Jones co— give his life to the ideals of peaceful change within the system to bring about a more just society. I fully have supported everything he has ever done. I believe in him. I believe (stumbles over words) in his sincerity, and I stand committed to what he believes in, his ideals, and his actions. I— I have no um, disagreement with him whatsoever. However, I know that my commitment has always been a more militant one, in the sense that he’s always had to convince me not to participate in violent activities or to uh, commit really anti-social acts. And I’ve been reluctantly convinced, because I could see the pragmaticism of his point of view. However, what was uh— what is sincere for him, what is a sincere belief in pacifism for mir— for him, has always been play-acting for me because I am basically a very violent person, and a person who believes in the disruption of this society, in the overthrow of this government by violent means, and the reinstitution of a completely different economic system, and I believe in bl— I— I believe in killing representatives of this government and of the establishment, the law enforcement. I will do so. And at— The point of time has come into my life where I can no longer maintain myself in a pacifistic organization such as Peoples Temple under the guidance of— of a person like J— Jim Jones who believes in non-violent change. And I have decided that I will in the future uh— work out my political beliefs which are for me, Communist, although Reverend Jones is not a Communist, and (pause) I will do so. I will take my Communist ideology into the streets with violent activity and destroy, kill, maim, or blow up anything and everything that I feel will be a valid way of protesting the system, which includes law enforcement, uh, elec— PG&E (unintelligible word) power stations, things like that, which I have long planned on doing and have plans to do, and have only been thwarted in doing this and prevented from doing this but by Jim Jones’ teachings.
Where and when did this girl from my graduating class pick up these ideas? Was she telling us that Jim Jones was a good leader because he was controlling those thoughts of hers? I don’t know.
A Failed Promise
Most of the people in his camp did follow along with Jim Jones in hopes of joining a society of people who could live together in peace. It didn’t turn out to be that promise to all those who went. To some who were disenchanted, wanted to leave, were beaten and stripped of their passports, Jonestown was hell. To those who lived with bare necessities believing in sacrifice and in living in a sort of union with the third world citizens of the world, it was heaven. Whatever the thoughts of those limited to the confines of a jungle with armed guards keeping them in, there wasn’t true peace.
So Much More To Know
I have decided I have read and discovered enough for now. I do know I will be going on to do more research in the future. It may seem bizarre but I need to know, “Who was that girl that edited my year book and stood with me when we graduated together?” Was she standing with guns forcing others drink the lethal liquid, was she a true believer in her cause seeing death as the only alternative to the break up of the “temple,” or was she simply duped into believing Jim Jones had all the right answers and picked up a glass filled with the poison and started drinking on her own?
I went through my 1967 high school yearbook again the other night. On one full page there is a list of names of people who dedicated the page to one simple thought. Harriet Tropp must have contributed and has her name on the page. Above the names listed in two formal rows, there is but one word on the top of the page in large print. It says PEACE. When did that word become an enigma to Harriet Tropp? I also wonder how much peace the families of those who died in Jonestown have now? It’s all so sad, so, so sad.
(This article originally appeared at Epinions.com, a website which is now defunct. Phil Jimenez lives in New York. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)