Challenging What We Think We Know

by H. D. Motyl

There’s a moment in the so-called Death Tape – the infamous audio tape of the last of hours of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, Guyana – when Jim Jones is encouraging his followers to drink the cyanide-laced grape drink:

Please get us some medication. It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. It’s just simple. Just, please get it. Before it’s too late. The GDF will be here, I tell you. Get movin’, get movin’, get movin’.

When Jones pauses for a moment, there is a general hubbub of voices before an unidentified woman yells out, as if in church, an exhortation to her comrades, “Do it! Do it now!”

Or is that what she says?

Certainly in the context of the tape, these words make sense. This woman seems to want her fellow Peoples Temple members to go through with the revolutionary suicide, as Jones calls it.

And this is also how every other transcript of the death tape reads. In the process of producing a documentary about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, I had read two transcripts – one by Fielding McGehee and another by Mary McCormick Maaga – and in both, the anonymous woman is attributed the words “Do it! Do it now.”

I had no reason not to believe these transcripts were correct. In fact, I had met both of these people and knew that they were reputable. But when my editor listened to the tape – and when I heard it myself – we heard something different.

* * * * *

I was working out how we would depict the final hours at Jonestown in the show. I decided that I would use various excerpts of the Death Tape, including Jones’ plea to “Get movin’, get movin’, get movin’” and the response, “Do it! Do it now!” As is usually the case when using audio tapes on TV, besides hearing the words, we transcribe them in subtitles.

We edited the portions of the Death Tape we would be using into the show. And we prepared the subtitles to be edited in. All along, we knew the first phrase of the first sentence on the tape was missing and asked our source for another copy. The second copy still had the first phrase missing. Apparently, the copy our source had was missing the phrase. We began a search for another copy of the tape and found one at archive.org. The first phrase was intact and we downloaded it.

When we put the first paragraph of this new tape into the show, we realized its clarity was better than the version we had been using and replaced all the excerpts that we had already cut into the show. In the course of adding the subtitles to the new audio, though, an editor believed he heard the woman saying something other than, “Do it! Do it now.” He played the excerpt for me, over and over, just so we were certain what we were hearing. We repeatedly played the women’s shouts, and I repeatedly heard her say:

“Now. Shoot ‘em now!”

Immediately, questions arose: Shoot whom? Is it one person or many? If many, who are the people to be shot? And where are this person or people? In the midst of the members? On the Port Kaituma airstrip? Somewhere else?

“Now. Shoot ‘em now!”

Had members trying to escape been captured? Or had people been spotted as they attempted to make their escape? There is no other reference to this on the tape. Jones talks about the shootings on the plane and/or airstrip, but not to shootings in Jonestown proper. Others besides Jones speak on the tape but none refer to guns or shootings either explicitly or implicitly.

“Now. Shoot ‘em now!”

Could we be hearing things? If so, we kept hearing the same thing. Not only did we play the recording over and over just to be sure, I have played it numerous times since (including as I have been writing this). We were certain – I am certain – of what she was saying:

“Now. Shoot ‘em now!”

I immediately made the decision to cut the line from the show. I couldn’t leave it in with the “new” words without addressing the change. But addressing the changes would beg for a somewhat lengthy explanation and, frankly, we didn’t have the time, either in the show or in our editing schedule (our deadline was quickly approaching). In other words, an investigation into the words “Now. Shoot ‘em now” would have meant a somewhat major re-write and a discussion that we simply did not have time for in the show.

Nor did a look of this kind – a detailed analysis of a phrase that had been interpreted differently – lie in the focus of the show. The show looked at bigger issues, becoming a kind of broader overview of specific issues, because of time constraints of the television medium itself. We had 45 minutes and 50 seconds to tell a story of a man and a movement that stretched over decades. We have to be judicious on what we can address and focus upon.

At the same time, I could not ignore what I heard and the discrepancy between what I and others had heard. When I discussed the discrepancy with Fielding McGehee, he suggested writing about what I heard on the recording as a kind of an opening for a discussion within the community. Perhaps there is someone who could shed some light.

“Now. Shoot ‘em now!”

The words still perplex me. What is she referring to? Guns or needles? And again, to whom is she referring? Someone inside the compound or those on the outside, about to come in and attack, as Jones purports? Is it known definitely that guns were not brandished in the compound on the last day? If only seven autopsies are performed and only two of those seven are determined to have died from gunshots, can we rule out that anyone else had been shot? Yet, if there was shooting, who was doing it? Who were the victims? Why would they be shot?

“Now. Shoot ‘em now!”

While I certainly know more about Peoples Temple, Jim Jones and Jonestown than I had when I started this documentary, I am by no means an expert. I feel comfortable presenting this information but not interpreting it. And with this, I pose more questions than answers.

Perhaps a discussion will provide those answers.

(H.D. Motyl was the producer of the recent National Geographic Channel documentary entitled The Final Report: Jonestown Tragedy. He can be reached at hdbfly@netscape.net. An article about the documentary itself appears here.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 6th, 2014.
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