The purpose of this paper is to allow the stories of Peoples Temple to speak for themselves and to provide faces to the bodies at Jonestown. Throughout the paper, there are three points of history and explanation. To understand Peoples Temple the reader first must understand Jim Jones and the life he led prior to the establishment of Jonestown. This includes the formation of Peoples Temple and his fight for racial equality. The second section is the interior of Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The primary purpose of this section is to emphasize key controversies leading up to and on November 18, 1978. Such examples are the concept of Revolutionary Suicide, Jones’ drug habit, White Nights, and the structure of the Peoples Temple family. The third and final segment of this paper is the importance of Jim Jones’ paranoia broken into three subsections.
I must make it clear that my intent for this paper is to shatter the perception that Peoples Temple was a cult. The word “cult” provides unjust connotations and allows the members to remain faceless. The nine hundred and eighteen bodies were actual people complete with unique and individual stories. It is my attempt to shatter the cult mold that Peoples Temple has undeservedly received. Notice throughout my paper, Peoples Temple is never referred to as a “cult.”
Looking at the jungles of Guyana, many see the possibility that life emerged in the bottomless pit of greenery. Others look at Guyana and see 918 bodies lying side by side, body upon body, in the pavilion of Jonestown. No one ever noticed the faces of those bodies who lay amongst each other. No one ever wonders about the stories of those individuals. Did they have children? Was this their “Promised Land”? As the years pass, the faces of Peoples Temple remain in a desolate jungle in Guyana. Perhaps everyone is to blame, perhaps no one is to blame, but the ones who lay scattered throughout the pavilion or on a jungle air strip, were actual people, each a story which deserves repeating.
If the story of Peoples Temple was concrete, researchers would not continue to study the movement twenty seven years after Jonestown. The truth is, there are few tangible answers, just puzzle pieces. Almost every word uttered out of the mouth of Jim Jones contained a measure of validity. Peoples Temple for the most part improved personal and economical conditions for the community they belonged to. Despite the investigation looming on Peoples Temple, the pilgrimage to Jonestown, at least for Peoples Temple, was to seek a utopia free of oppression. The events of November 18, 1978 are shrouded in secrecy and wrong connotations. The only way to know Jim Jones (the Father) and his children is to know their stories.
The “father” of Peoples Temple was born May 18, 1931 in Crete, Indiana to James and Lynetta Jones. Soon after his birth, the family of three moved to Lynn, Indiana to provide a degree of financial stability (Jones). According to Jim’s description of his father, James was an unemployed, debilitated World War One veteran, and member of the Ku Klux Klan (McGehee). Lynetta worked long hours at a canning factory to provide a meager income (Jones). The house of Jones consisted of disappointment, poverty, and lack of compassion. A neighbor, Myrtle Kennedy, introduced James to the Lynn Tabernacle which provided compassion and love, absent in the home (Jones). Jim Jones had found his spiritual niche.
Starting at age ten, Jim would host his own church services with his friends. Conducted in backyards and basements, Jim would preside over pet funerals and hold mock baptismal ceremonies (Jones). While in high school, he took an interest in politics. A new concept of governmental philosophy known as Socialism opposed capitalism and evoked in him thoughts of equality and justice. Jim continued to promote the Gospel, preaching and reciting Bible verses on street corners. Jim gained the attention and respect from the black public. Working as an orderly, Jim met Marceline Baldwin, a nurse four years his elder (Angelis 11). Jim worked her religious parents, convincing them of the irrelevance of age and the depth of their love for one another (Jones). After graduating high school a semester early, Jim wed Marceline in 1949.
The newlyweds suffered growing pains from the beginning of their marriage. Jim entered Indiana University in 1949 and dabbled in prospective majors. Their marital bliss ended quickly when he claimed “she was too religious” (Jones). After two years at Indiana University and constant contemplation, Jim decided to become a minister. In 1951, Jim started serving as a youth pastor for the local Sommerset Methodist Church. His commitment to socialism continued despite his calling to the ministry. This was the beginning of the never-ending battle Jim fought with bourgeois capitalism.
At age 23, Jim severed ties with the Methodist Church and created a church named Community Unity (Streissguth 101). This church offered him an outlet to preach his personalized eclectic, liberal interpretation of the Bible (Jones). Jones began performing healing services which attracted crowds and the opportunity to build a larger church (Hallahmi 278). Oppressed African Americans soon flocked to Community Unity to hear Jim Jones offer answers to their problems. Due to his popularity, additional services began at the Laurel Street Tabernacle. In a letter to her mother-in-law, Marceline shared her thoughts of their Jimmy. “Throughout all of our tests and hardships, I had faith that Jimmy would be something special. This, however is beyond our fondest dreams” (Stephenson 10).
By 1955, Jim had outgrown Community Unity and partnered with a devout and trusted follower, Jack Beam, to open Wings of Deliverance. Soon afterwards, Wings of Deliverance was renamed as Peoples Temple. The crowd continued to flock to hear Jim speak the rhetoric of the Bible. Jim mastered charisma along with tactful measures of persuasion and repetition (Jones).
About this time, Jim became a family man. The family circle was crucial to complete the Jones family, but it never patterned the typical nuclear family. In October 1958, the Jones family adopted Korean orphans Stephanie and Chioke (renamed Lew Eric). Tragedy struck on May 11, 1959 when Stephanie died in a vehicle accident along with five Peoples Temple members (Reiterman & Jacobs 63). Marceline recalled the funeral:
The cemeteries were segregated and our daughter was Korean. Blacks and others Third World people were buried in the lowlands, where water often stood, inches deep. Jim was told that he and I could have our child buried in the “white section.” He replied “I cannot bury our child anyplace where a member of my church cannot be buried”… Our five year old being lowered into a grave, half filled with water in a swamp land. It was a painful memory, but one which I would not erase nor do I regret it for one moment (Moore, Sympathetic History, 150).
Soon after Stephanie’s death, Marceline gave birth to their only biological son with Jim named Stephen Gandhi Jones (Boyle 34). Later in 1959, they adopted a third Korean child named Suzanne (Reiterman & Jacobs 64). Marceline and Jim adopted one additional child, a two-week-old African American boy, whom they named James Warren Jones Jr (Jones). Now Jones’ “Rainbow Family,” was complete, but Jim soon foresaw danger (Boyle 34).
At the turn of the decade, Jim feared for his family – and his church – in the event of a nuclear attack. After reading “The Nine Safe Places in the World” in the January 1962 issue of Esquire, Jones relocated his rainbow family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil (Bondi 449). The itinerary of Jones’ trip to South America is clear, but his activities remain hazy. Stories float around, are put to rest only to resurface later. Such stories include Jones sleeping with a woman to receive ten thousand dollars for an orphanage, and Jones working covertly for the CIA. The truth is as unclear as the lies (McGehee).
Jones resurfaced two years later back in Indianapolis with a vision of relocation to California (Boyle 34). Despite proclaiming a doomsday theory, Jim Jones was ordained in the Disciples of Christ in 1964 (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 133). In 1965, seventy families gathered their belongings and ventured across the country to Mendocino County in Northern California (Stephenson 163). Several Peoples Temple members found jobs in the neighboring city of Ukiah. As a founding member of Peoples Temple, Jack Beam cataloged the experiences of the members upon arriving in Ukiah:
At first, everyone went to work, anything- picking grapes, picking pears, whatever we could get. Work was hard and hard to get. We began by holding services in Jim’s garage… For the longest time Jim held two teaching jobs. There was a day teaching job in the high school at Booneville, and a night civics class at Ukiah High School (Stephenson 21).
The financial struggle continued but by 1969, the Temple had adequate funds became available to build a church in Redwood Valley. Temple member Hyacinth Thrash remembered that Jim picked Redwood Valley in Northern California “’cause it was supposed to be safe from nuclear attack. He said he had a secret cave off Highway 101…” (Stephenson 22). Despite budding challenges, Peoples Temple established itself in the small and conservative community. The congregation grew to over three hundred members (Stephenson 163). The Redwood Valley complex grew to include Jones’ home, Temple meeting place, swimming pool for baptism and recreation, senior citizen place, child care center, and ranch (Chidester 6). Jim soon found that Ukiah was too remote and rugged for his growing family of followers. In attempts to spread the message of Peoples Temple, “Father” expanded his church to Los Angeles which attracted middle class Californians who desired a purpose to their lives (Jones). Both Peoples Temple and Jim Jones strived for public acceptance (Johnson 17). The temple soon was known for social causes such as the public Peoples Temple soup kitchen as well as housing for the unfortunate. With the expansion into larger cities, the Temple attracted more people and consequently more problems.
By 1970, Peoples Temple claimed to have over three thousand members (Angelis 16). Jim had a way to connect directly to people’s fear, confusion, grief, and anger (Stephenson 32). He labored over his duties, undertaking personal, spiritual, and economic responsibilities. With the influx of followers, Jim groomed his fixation for power. Perhaps the extent of his power wasn’t obvious, but it provided the platform for further manipulation. Many members would sell their homes and move into housing owned by Peoples Temple. Annie Moore wrote home to her family after finding Peoples Temple “Matthew 19:21 states “Go sell all you have and give to the poor… ‘” (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 85). This verse served as the clarion call of Peoples Temple to further promote Socialism.
The manifesto of equality for everyone remained an utmost virtue with Peoples Temple, despite Jim’s narcissism. In a sermon in late 1974, Jim told his enthusiastic congregation, “I have tried to reduce myself as a person, but you cannot reduce the center and circumference of the universe” (Q 1053). The further he stroked his ego, the more his followers believed him.
Since the power of Jones was intact and permanent, he composed “The Letter Killeth,” providing Temple members “proof” that the Bible had inconsistencies along with the endorsement of slavery and murder. He states that his real intention is “to establish the great work of Jesus Christ on our troubled globe.” Furthermore, he insists that “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I (my personal ambitions), but Christ liveith in me” (Alternative Considerations to Jonestown). Peoples Temple took this as their Father was Christ. He also believed that he was the reincarnation of Vladimir Lenin (McGehee). Carolyn Layton (more discussion about her involvement and importance will follow) informed her family about her involvement in Peoples Temple, believing that she was the reincarnation of Lenin’s mistress (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 62). Carolyn was not alone in her reverence of Jim.
From Indiana to California, Jim Jones was seen as the miracle worker. His miraculous faith healing offered answers for the sick and reassurance of a holy legitimacy. Although Temple members believed the faith healing, family members often were skeptic. This statement shows Annie Moore’s assurance and devotion to Peoples Temple.
The reason that the Temple is great is not just because Jim Jones can make people cough up cancers, but there is the largest group of people I have ever seen who are concerned about the world and are fighting for truth and justice for the world (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 78).
Did Annie really see Jim cure people, or was Jim deceiving everyone? As a perpetual theme in the Peoples Temple story, no one will ever find complete truth because everyone has a different spin. A former Temple member, Grace Stoen remarked 25 years after Jonestown that “ninety percent of the healings were fake.” This statement offered a former member of Peoples Temple (who wishes to remain anonymous) to remark that “Grace just said that ten percent were true.” Throughout 27 years of investigation, researchers suspect that a combination of psychological persuasion and medical misinterpretation result in ten percent accuracy (McGehee).
Despite the Godly faith healings, Jim would question his followers religious convictions. He would often ask to his followers, “who is feeding and putting the clothes on your back? It is not God, but it is me! I am your safety and security” (McGehee). The socialistic message echoed through sermon after sermon, as Jim denounced the United States government and social policies (RYMUR 55). In a sermon from 1973, Jim argues against the principles of organized religion as well as capitalistic society. “If there is no rich, no poor, if everyone were equal, religion would soon disappear. People only develop religion when they’re unhappy with this world” (Stephenson 60). In an additional recorded sermon, he deplores the past oppression of his followers.
I am saying to the world, damn the torpedoes of capitalism, their newspapers. Damn the torpedoes of religious systems that will try to put our light out. Damn their jails. Damn their assassin bullets. Damn whatever torpedo they have. I say, full speed ahead (Q 1053).
Repetitiveness and shapelessness was a recurrent theme throughout Jim’s sermons. Regardless of the length of his sermons, an examination of the rhetoric of Jim Jones, reveals his truth. He compiled all truth, all fallacy, to create digestible sermons. The members of Peoples Temple weren’t inept, nor were they followers, they merely saw the truth that was always there. These people simply believed that the only way to end the suffering they had was to believe Jim Jones (McGehee). With gained confidence and trust of leadership, Jim Jones began pinpointing a location for his socialistic utopia.
Peoples Temple embarked on the construction on Jonestown in 1974 (Reiterman & Jacobs 246). They acquired thirty thousand acres of land from Guyana located two hundred miles away from Georgetown (Angelis 25). The construction of Jonestown was labor intensive, but the initial plan was progressive building and progressive integration of people (Carter). However, with controversy looming,(to be discussed later on), many of the 1000 members of the community arrived within a six-week period in the months of August and September of 1977. (McGehee) The group found an unequipped utopia which contributed to adjustment problems almost immediately. As migration increased, the resources of Jonestown decreased.
Throughout the existence of Jonestown, followers migrated from California to Jonestown on a regular basis (Carter). For many members of Peoples Temple, Jonestown was seen as the Promised Land. Jonestown was free of sexism, racism, and ageism (Jones). Once relocated to Jonestown, the people would get started on work immediately. The only individuals who didn’t work were children and maturing elders (Carter).
The workload in Jonestown mirrored the level of commitment to the cause which the Temple expected of all its members, and many people tired and left the group. “It wasn’t a big deal when people left, but when they came back and make a stink about it, that was when Jim Jones became angry” (McGehee). The people who made a “stink” about it – referred to as defectors – began to speak out in the summer of 1977. Grace and Tim Stoen along with Deborah Layton (all of which will be discussed in further detail later) became high profile leaders of the Concerned Relatives. Responding to critical articles in New West and The San Francisco Chronicle, California Congressman Leo Ryan began investigating suspicious activity in Jonestown (McGehee). In August 1978, he formally requested congressional approval for a fact-finding mission to Jonestown (Stephenson 107).
The truth regarding the conditions of Jonestown remains unclear at best. According to the defectors, people were given meager amounts of food and forced to work long hours (Layton 168). However, this does not correlate with accounts by Tim Carter and Laura Johnson Kohl. In a telephone interview, Tim explained the only people who were forced to work were adults. Furthermore, some elders wished to work and they were allowed to do so (Carter). In terms of food allowances, Laura Johnston Kohl, who was a procurer and in charge of buying the food from Georgetown, understands, but disputes the accusations:
Our food wasn’t the finest food from the finest restaurant. But, we ate lots of rice, beans, cheese rice, chicken served several times a week, and pork gravy over rice. We also had fresh green daily [which I picked]… A farm out here in the US, and elsewhere, doesn’t get dropped out of the sky and instantly produce enough to feed one thousand people three times a day. We had crops that were beginning to mature… I am a big eater. I never felt the food was inadequate… When I lived in Jonestown for a year, I never had complaints about the food either (Johnston Kohl).
These firsthand accounts of the conditions up until the very end show possible flaws within the case against Jonestown. Nevertheless, Leo Ryan still needed to see for himself.
On Friday, November 17, Ryan, along with one aide, four relatives, and an NBC news crew entered into Jonestown to investigate accounts of sexual and physical abuse (Krause 166). The following day while conducting interviews, several members slipped notes to cameramen stating “Get me out of Jonestown” (Krause 166). Once Ryan’s entourage was ready to leave Jonestown, several Jonestown residents asked to go with them. Also posing as a defector was Larry Layton, whose true allegiance was to Jim Jones. The congressional party arrived at Port Kaituma five miles away and began boarding two planes. While boarding, a flatbed trailer towed by tractor appeared at the end of the runway, and several men began shooting. Layton also fired a weapon multiple times before he was disarmed and taken into custody by Guyanese officers (Krause 166). Shortly after hearing the report from Port Kaituma that Leo Ryan was dead, Jones ordered a “white night” in Jonestown, Georgetown, and the chapter of Peoples Temple in San Francisco (Johnston Kohl). Vats of Flavor Aid laced with cyanide and tranquilizers were carried out into the pavilion for members to consume (Carter). This was no drill.
As the first round of suicides started, Jones told his followers, “Death is not a fearful thing, it is living that is treacherous.” In the last moments of their lives, their leader’s, their father’s voice coaxed them to the other side. “I’d never detach myself from any of your troubles” (Q 042). At the end of November 18, 1978 there were 918 bodies, including a family of four in Georgetown, five individuals at Port Kaituma, and 909 at Jonestown (McGehee). Jim Jones died from a gunshot to the head, but an autopsy reported that the wound was consistent both with suicide and with murder. The reason why and who shot Jim Jones is stilled masked in secrecy today. Many former members and researchers speculate that it was an act of love possibly by Annie Moore, the only other person to die from a gunshot, possibly by his mistress, Carolyn Layton. Jones was found in the pavilion and Annie was found in the cabin she shared with her sister Carolyn and Jim (McGehee). Marceline Jones, the Mother of the Revolution, died from cyanide poisoning (Carter). With an abrupt ending to such a complex movement, one question haunted the public, Why?
“When the corpses were discovered in Jonestown, the Rev. Jones was palmed off as an religious zealot” (Emmett 15). The history of Peoples Temple offers endless questions and few answers. No one has the answers and every survivor has their own personal truth (McGehee). Regardless, one image is etched in our memory only to flashback every time “Jonestown” is mumbled. It is the image is the sea of bodies scattered about a pavilion in a jungle. This was the final “White Night.”
But what is a white night? In the eyes of Jim, a White Night was a loyalty test to see if followers would trust him in life and in death (Jones). This definition is endless. Since these nights were only documented on audiotape, actions are hazy. One White Night was known by Peoples Temple as the Six Day Siege. This siege was ostensibly initiated by Grace and Tim Stoen attempting to get custody of their son, John Victor. Shots were fired and Temple members guarded their utopia night and day (Layton 160). Years later the infamous Six Day Siege and the battle which occurred turned out to be a hoax. Jonestown security was outside of the perimeter firing weapons to create effect and fright (McGehee). Jones named White Nights because “white men are trying to ruin our project here” (Layton 160). In some instances, Jones would broadcast directions to go to the pavilion located in the middle of Jonestown and drink an unknown concoction. In more political terms, Jones coined this act “Revolutionary Suicide” (McGehee).
Jim Jones appropriated the phrase “Revolutionary Suicide” from the Black Panther Party leader, Huey Newton (Moore, Pinn, Sawyer, 110). Unlike the Black Panthers, Jim Jones had numerous definitions for revolutionary suicide which counteracted the single vision of Huey Newton. Newton considered Revolutionary Suicide as the attempt to maintain human dignity and fight oppression even in death (Chidester 129). One definition which struck at the core of Peoples Temple was that committing suicide was the only humane means of dying. Jones explained that Temple members would be subject to torture and unspeakable conditions upon returning to the United States (Moore, Pinn, Sawyer, 112). That definition alone evoked paranoia and fear in the psyche of Peoples Temple. Regardless of Jim Jones’ elusive definition, the only perception history can gather is that Jones’ revolutionary suicide meant a fatal end to the Peoples Temple family (McGehee).
Throughout different texts about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, one of the few things that resonates is Jim Jones’ excessive prescription drug use. By all accounts, Jim was administered amphetamines and barbiturates under the supervisor of a nurse, likely Annie Moore, who was Jim’s personal nurse for the duration of his stay in Jonestown. His autopsy revealed toxic levels of amphetamines and barbiturates in his system (McGehee).The number of members who knew about Jones’ dependence is unknown, but others noticed “weird” behavior. Bryan Kravitz, who joined Peoples Temple in 1971, later observed Jim’s eccentric behaviors. “He never wanted to remove his sunglasses and that should have been a hint that he had something to hide. He gave a story about the energy being sapped by looking into his eyes” (Kravitz). Tim Carter explained when he first started noticing that Jones wasn’t in control. “I didn’t notice Jones’ drug habit until November 16, 1978… After Jonestown, I talked to a former member who saw Jones doing speedballs in San Francisco” (Carter). Jim Jones’s son, Jim Jones Jr., concludes he had a drug problem even though he never saw it (Jones). Through diverse but factual perspectives, it seems that Jim started taking pharmaceuticals for the purpose preserving his personal Superhuman mentality, but by the time he reached Jonestown, he was no longer able to maintain control of the community’s daily life (McGehee). Who took control as he became incapacitated? The authority to make day-to-day decisions shifted to the Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission (or PC) was Jim Jones’ personal advisory group, his closest associates and decision-makers (Moore, Pinn, Sawyer 69). Although 68 percent of the population of Peoples Temple were black, only six out of 37 members of the commission were black (Moore, Pinn, Sawyer 61, 69). This further delayed the eclectic paradise all followers wished to acquire. “PC had about forty to fifty members at the highest, so the numbers depended on what city we were in,” according to Laura Johnston Kohl, who added that the PC “kept the pulse on everyone” (Johnston Kohl). Tim Carter was thrown into PC due to his involvement with and knowledge of Grace Stoen. Carter recalls that once the bulk of people were in Jonestown, the PC disbanded (Carter). Nevertheless, due to Jim’s addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates, he was not in control of either his biological or his revolutionary family. Eventually, a group of committees led by a triumvirate governed the community (McGehee).
Census records of Jonestown before November 18, 1978 showed five percent of the population was related to Jim Jones either by marriage, adoption, or biology (Moore, Pinn, Sawyer, 68), thus emphasizing the control Jim Jones had over his family. Jim Jones Jr moved to Jonestown when he was sixteen (Jones). “We had family time and went on vacations until I was fifteen.” Later he said, “Many say to me “You are one of the best fathers I have ever met.’ And my examples of fatherhood were from Jim Jones Sr. Therefore, aren’t they complementing him in the same light?” (Jones) But he offers additional insight into the decline of his father. “There are two things that caused the downfall of Jim Jones. The first is his need for absolute power and the second is his drug use” (Jones). Regardless of the downfall of Jim Jones, he was a father to his children, all of this children within Peoples Temple.
The decline of “Father” remains key to the understanding of Peoples Temple and remains a highly discussed topic amongst survivors and researchers. Jim Jones was a sexual individual and used sex to become more powerful (Johnston Kohl). Despite Jim Jones’ request for abstinence for all of his followers, he could request sex from anyone, at any time, for any reason. As Laura wrote in “Sex in the City? Make That, The Commune,” sex played a major role in Peoples Temple.
Although he participated in sex with these members, he really discouraged the members from getting into relationships. To accomplish this, he had single men and women move into leadership roles where they were then told that all allegiance was owed to Jim.
Annie Moore wrote in her last words about the defectors’ sexual relationships with Jones, proving the importance of sex within Peoples Temple.
Teresa Buford, Debbie [Layton] Blakey–they both wanted sex from him which he was too ill to give. Why should they have to give them sex? —And Tim and Grace Stoen– also include them. I should know (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 285).
Jim Jones offered justification for his promiscuous activities saying, “I f***ed for the revolution” (McGehee). Regardless of the intentions of Jim Jones’ extramarital affairs, these episodes had two consequences.
Carolyn Moore Layton remained the mistress of Jim Jones for the last nine years of his life (Stephenson 38). Carolyn joined Peoples Temple in 1968 with husband Larry Layton, but they divorced in 1970. In her former sister-in-law’s exposé, Seductive Poison, Deborah Layton explains the manipulation of Jim Jones.
Carolyn and the minister became close working comrades, spending more and more time together on important church matters and with her mentor’s help, she divorced my twenty-two year old brother (33).
This affair was not concealed from his children or Marceline (McGehee). A 1970 letter to Jim from Marceline states, “If I have no future with you, I am grateful for today” (Stephenson 59). Additionally, in a holographic will written in 1974, Marceline states:
In the event of my death, I Marceline M. Jones, would like for Carolyn Layton to take over the motherly responsibilities of my children. I would in fact, hope she could move into the house and fill any void my absence might leave (Stephenson 60).
Carolyn had a son, Jim Jon “Kimo” Prokes on January 31, 1975. To conceal her pregnancy, Carolyn went on a trip to “Mexico,” and then a year later, she returned to California with her adopted son (McGehee). In reality, she was still in California living with her parents Barbara and John Moore. A month prior to the birth of Jim Jon, Carolyn married Michael Prokes (who was in Guyana at the time) to legitimize the baby (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 112). John Moore wrote his third daughter Rebecca about Jim’s visit to see her sister. Barbara raised the question of marriage and the answer was
Jim responded that he had tried to persuade Carolyn to do this. Carolyn almost always, as best as I recall, met the question with silence. Jim and Marcie’s relationship was always eulogized whenever I was in their meetings. I think Carolyn accepted that reality.
Unbeknownst to Marceline at the time this was written, Carolyn was the one Jim lived with in Jonestown.
The second incident which swims in controversy is the paternity of John Victor Stoen Grace Stoen gave birth to “John John” on January 25, 1972. Tim Stoen was a part of the legal council for Jim Jones prior to going to Jonestown. As a husband and father normally would, Timothy Stoen signed the birth certificate as father (Chidester 7). However, on February 6, 1972, Tim signed a document specifying that April of 1971, he gave permission for Jim to sire a child by his wife. In this document, countersigned by Marceline Jones, Tim Stoen stated: “I wanted my child to be fathered, if not by me, by the most compassionate, honest, and courageous human being the world contains” (Chidester 7). When Grace expressed her desire to leave, Jim Jones threatened Grace that “if she were to exit Peoples Temple, she would be killed upon exiting the Temple.” This “prophecy” resulted in her staying in Peoples Temple for an additional three years (McGehee). With Grace’s defection from Peoples Temple in 1976, and Tim’s in 1977, John Victor was left in the custody of Jim Jones. In 1976, John Victor was taken to Jonestown after multiple requests for visitation from Grace (Bondi 449). A year later California courts granted custody to Grace, but the order was unenforceable in Guyana. When Jim Jones received word of this, he felt threatened for himself and Peoples Temple. Therefore he called a White Night. Deborah Layton explains the threat in her affidavit. Her job was to
[d]eliver the threat that unless the government of Guyana took immediate steps to stall the Guyanese court action regarding John Stoen’s custody, the entire population of Jonestown would extinguish itself in a mass suicide by 3:30 PM that day (Alternative Considerations to Jonestown).
On November 18, 1978 the battle over John Victor Stoen ended when he, along with 275 children, died.
Does anyone know the truth? Tim Carter who joined Peoples Temple in 1973 concluded that Jim was the father of John John because Grace told him. Moreover, this is nothing secret because “Everybody knew it” (Carter). In addition, Jim Jones Jr. added that he has always and will continue to consider “John- John my little brother” (Jones). No official statement has ever been forthcoming on this subject, but this controversy further diminished Jones’ ability to focus on other problems of the Jonestown community.
Fielding McGehee refers to Jones’ paranoia as a Hydra with three heads: the Concerned Relatives, the government, and the media (McGehee). Each section works symbiotically with the other two sections to further deepen Jones’ suspicion of society. The Concerned Relatives or defectors are the most important part of Jones’ problems because they knew “the truth.” In May 1978, the Concerned Relatives filed lawsuits against Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. (Bondi 450) Additionally, the group circulated flyers to the media and the public stating the atrocities at Jonestown. A section from the flyer states some of the conditions.
All decisions in Jonestown are made by one man, Jim Jones. There is no democracy. There is no dissent permitted… All incoming and out coming mail is censored… The residents are told that if they try to leave the Peoples Temple organization, they will be killed and left in the jungle (Stephenson 92-93).
The second blow to Jonestown came with the defection of a trusted Temple member. Deborah Layton Blakey had entered the Temple at the age of eighteen in hopes to help others and bring structure within her life (Layton 53). According to an affidavit she wrote following her departure in late spring of 1978: “On the behalf of the population of Jonestown, I urge that the United States Government take adequate steps to safeguard their rights. I believe that their rights are in danger” (Alternative Considerations to Jonestown). Furthermore, her affidavit showed the severity of a “white night.”
[D]uring a “white night”, I watched Carolyn Layton, my former sister-in-law, give sleeping pills to two young children in her care, John Victor Stoen and Kimo Prokes, her own son. Carolyn said to me that Rev. Jones had told her that everyone was going to have to die that night. She said that she would probably have to shoot them and it would be easier for them if she did it when they were asleep (Layton 278).
With the damaging testimony of Deborah Layton Blakey and further allegations that Jim Jones had kidnapped a child, officials in the government felt they had no other options but to investigate Jonestown.
The second head of the Hydra centers around the government. The constant paranoia of Jones manifested through several different examples, one of which was the unique radio codes. In efforts to protect Jonestown and conduct business with Peoples Temple members in Georgetown, San Francisco, and Jonestown, code phrases would be issued (Alternative Considerations to Jonestown). Other ham radio operators complained to the Federal Communication Commission, stating the Temple was conducting business over the airwaves, in violation of their amateur radio license. Such codes as “amnesia” for “sexual abuse” and “always talking about lectures they have attended” as a means for saying “hang up sex with,” were designed to cloak these activities. Furthermore, members of the Temple had code names including Jim Jones who had nine aliases (Alternative Considerations to Jonestown). This subterfuge – and the federal government’s efforts to document it – is an example of the pressure escalating the tension between the US government and Peoples Temple.
Jim Jones was disillusioned not only with the US government but additional agencies as well. California Congressman Leo J. Ryan began investigating allegations of physical and sexual abuse in late 1977, but it wasn’t until August 1978 until he formally applied for a fact finding mission to Jonestown (Stephenson 107). In a letter to Jim, Ryan stated, “It goes without saying that I am most interested in a visit to Jonestown, and would appreciate whatever courtesies you could extend to our Congressional delegation” (Stephenson 107).
As he heard the news of possible investigations, Jim Jones attempted to protect his ailing utopia. Three months prior to Ryan’s visit, Jim Jones prepared notes in the event residents were interviewed by outsiders. Step number eleven states
DO NOT USE THE WORD FAMILY–because of the Mooney family, and the Manson family, it has a poor connotation to most U.S. people-the capitalists have done this to weaken the family structure (Stephenson 86).
Jim also told his followers “Do not refer to Guyana as the “the Promised Land.’– or freedom land… Say “I made up my own mind'” (Stephenson 87).
When Ryan came to Jonestown in November 1978, news reporters and camera crews accompanied him to seek the newsworthy “truth.” The media had earlier turned on Peoples Temple and offered evidence for suspicious activity at Jonestown. The first blow to Peoples Temple was in March 1977 when the Internal Revenue Service revoked the Temple’s tax exemption, a move which would result from loss in income (Lewis 164). In July 1977, New West wished to publish an investigative story on Peoples Temple, but the article was delayed by members of Peoples Temple and local politicians (Krause 164). Once Jones had left in the summer of 1977 for Jonestown, the press had a field day with the allegation of kidnapping (Lewis 166). A month later, in its August 1, 1977 edition, New West exposed damning accounts of lives in Jonestown (Krause 164). In June 1978, the testimony of Deborah Layton Blakey was printed in The San Francisco Chronicle and later Grace and Tim Stoen spoke out in the same newspaper. Once the plane touched down on Port Kaituma, Jones realized there was no turning back.
All heads of the “Hydra” appeared in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Aboard that plane were false accusations and the truth. In Jones’ doomsday theory, all the evils of the world would come to destroy his kingdom. Who arrived to Jonestown on November 18, 1978? The media, the government, and the Concerned Relatives (McGehee). In the tape of the last day, Jim Jones told his followers:
To sit here and wait for the catastrophe that’s going to happen on that Airplane [it’s gonna be a catastrophe]… Almost happenings here, almost happening, the congressmen was nearly killed here… If we can’t live in peace then we must die in peace… We’ve been so betrayed, we have been so terribly betrayed (Q 042).
With the suspicion of government and media attacks, the only option Jones felt he had was to tell his followers “lay down our lives in protest against what has been done. That we lay down our lives to protect what is being done” (tape Q 042). Regardless of who told them and why they did, all of them died prematurely and left nothing but unanswerable questions.
* * *
Throughout the process of researching, my viewpoint of Jonestown and Peoples Temple has changed in ways words can never provide justice. In my attempts to, let me explain the progression I have taken. I chose this topic because I wanted to know the inner workings of such a “bizarre” group of people. I started gathering information the first day and soon had a potpourri of books. I attempted to interview anyone who would talk to me and I came up dry fifteen times. One day as I researching on the internet, I lucked upon Alternative Considerations to Jonestown and Peoples Temple and found my oasis of information. I found Fielding M. McGehee’s e-mail address and contacted him about an interview and the renowned “Death Tape.” He contacted me within twenty-four hours.
As I began prodding him for any information he had, I soon realized the extent of information that was available. He was in contacts with several former Peoples Temple members, his wife Rebecca Moore’s sisters were Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, and he transcribes the tapes and researches as his primary career. Once Fielding had sent me the tapes, he sent me The Jonestown Report, an annual newsletter of ongoing research projects both by him and others. This newsletter also had the e-mail addresses for former Temple members including Tim Carter, Laura Johnston Kohl, Bryan Kravitz, and Jim Jones Jr. I ambitiously sought to conduct interviews from these four individuals so I would selfishly hold on to my title as “Overachiever.” The warm response I received from these survivors surprised me because, who am I?
I started to conduct my interviews and ended up talking over the phone to Fielding, Tim, Laura, and Jim for a total of eight hours. Later on, Bryan and I corresponded through e-mails. As the process unfolded, my viewpoint shifted. Instead of believing “these are weirdoes,” I saw the faces of Peoples Temple and I heard the stories. From that moment, I sought not to provide the answers of Peoples Temple, but to tell the forgotten stories. I gathered different stories from different people which created back stories to November 18, 1978. One such example is Bryan Kravitz and how he felt safe within Peoples Temple. Tim Carter wrote The Big Grey which explains the condition of information yesterday, today, and tomorrow will never hold the absolute truth. I never intended to become a researcher of Peoples Temple or anything for that matter. All I wanted to do was selfishly get an “A” on a project. I not only received an “A” on my research paper and project, I found history continuing today. As I listen to tapes, read books about Peoples Temple and talk to former Peoples Temple members, I am finding out pieces of the truth everyday. All I wish is, despite the conflicting truths, everyone will hear the stories, picture the faces, and never forget the forgotten souls.
What should the world learn from the events of Jonestown? The answers lies in a sign in the pavilion of Jonestown. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The world hasn’t learned anything from Jonestown because Peoples Temple has been long written off as religious zealots. Jonestown can and will happen again because no one respected their lifestyle. If the world was what Peoples Temple hoped it would become, events like this would have been a nightmare, not a testament to reality. Instead, sides were divided and war was declared against Jim Jones. The members were tragically caught in the crossfire. All they wanted was a society free of sexism, racism, and ageism. On November 18, 1978, their dream shattered tragically and for whatever reason, 918 people died. And why? In the final words of Annie Moore, “we died because you would not let us live in peace.” (Moore, Jonestown Letters, 285)
Angelis, Gina De. Jonestown Massacre: Tragic End of a Cult. Berkeley Heights: Enslow, 2002.
Bondi, Victor. (Ed) American Decades: 1970-1979. Farmington: Gale, 1995.
Boyle, James K. Killer Cults: Shocking True Stories of the Most Dangerous Cults in History. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.
Carter, Tim. Personal E-mail to Laura Woods, 9 Apr. 2005
—, Telephone Interview 26 Mar. 2005 & 27 Mar. 2005.
—, The Big Grey. On Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website
Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Bloomington: Indiana, 1988.
Emmett, Tyrrell, Jr. “Jonestown Revisited.” The American Spectator. Vol. 32 April 1999: 15
Hallahmi, Benjamin Beit. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions, Sects, and Cults. New York: Rosen Publishing, 1998
“Jim Jones: Journey into Madness.” Notorious. Biography Channel 15 Mar. 2005
Johnson, Joan. The Cult Movement. New York: Franklin Watt, 1984.
Jones, Jim Jr. Telephone Interview. 29 Mar. 2005
Kohl, Laura Johnston. Personal E-mail to Laura Woods, 10 Apr. 2005
—, Sex in the City: Make That, The Commune. On Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website.
—, Telephone Interview. 24 Mar. 2005
Krause, Charles A. Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account. New York: Washington Post, 1978
Kravitz, Bryan. E-Mail Interview. 5 April 2005
—, Personal E-mail to Laura Woods. 10 Apr. 2005
Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison. New York: Doubleday, 1998
Lewis, James R. (Ed.) Odd Gods: New Religion and the Cult Controversy. Amherst: Prometheus, 2001.
McGehee, Fielding M., III. Telephone Interview. 24 Mar. 2005 & 28 Mar. 2005
Moore, Rebecca. A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1985
—, The Jonestown Letters: Correspondence of the Moore Family 1970-1985. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1986.
Moore, Rebecca, Anthony B. Pinn, and Mary R. Sawyer. (Ed.) Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America. Bloomington: University of Indiana , 2004.
Q 042: The Final Hours of Jonestown. Audio Cassette. Recorded on 18 Nov. 1978.
Q1053: Sermon in San Francisco. Audio Cassette. Recorded in Oct. 1974.
Reiterman, Tim, and John Jacobs. Raven. New York: Dutton Inc., 1982.
RYMUR: Jonestown. FBI document accessed from http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/jonestown.htm on 25 Feb. 2005.
Stephenson, Denice. (Ed.) Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2005
Streissguth, Thomas. Charismatic Cult Leaders. Minneapolis: Oliver Press, 1995
As stated earlier, my perception of Jonestown has changed dramatically since the beginning of this project and the change came with conversations with the kind people who took the time to actually talk to and correspond with me. I would like to thank Fielding M. McGehee III (Mac) and Rebecca Moore for providing me with endless amounts of resources and assistances. In addition, you didn’t get annoyed when I would e-mail you four times in a crisis for more information. I would also like to extend a very special thank you to Jim Jones Jr., Tim Carter, Laura Johnston Kohl, and Bryan Kravitz. I never would have dreamed that all of you (or any of you for that matter) would give up your time to tell me your personal stories and struggles. My paper doesn’t serve each one of your stories justice. I would like to also thank the author of Dear People, Denice Stephenson, because her book gave me additional insight to the lives of Peoples Temple.
If it wasn’t for each one of you, my paper would have been lost in a stream of misinformation.
I said to all you at one time or another, “I am only a seventeen-year-old girl from Tucson, I can’t change the world’s perception of Peoples Temple.” But you talked to me anyway. It has been a great experience to talk with each one of you.
(Laura Woods may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)