The events that spiraled out of control in the then-obscure Latin American country of Guyana left the world stunned and still defy explanation to this day. The thoughts of a Satanic pied piper leading his flock into a desolate, overcrowded farm carved out of some of the most inhospitable jungle in northern South America both fascinated and appealed to the prurient interest of a mortified world. At the time, the deaths represented one of the largest peace-time tragedies in modern history, and the very mention of the place where they occurred – “Jonestown” – has become synonymous with death, waste, and evil.
The first reports out of the jungle reported a low body count, leaving survivors and families to hope that their loved ones had reconsidered participating in the death ritual and had fled into the jungle. This seemed to have been corroborated by early reports that large numbers of people were seen hiking towards the Venezuelan border.
Ultimately, the disheartening news within the week confirmed the unbelievable worst: virtually all persons in the settlement were dead by cyanide poisoning, and there were no more survivors to search for. Reports of mothers filling their children’s cups with poison and squirting the concoction down the throats of infants caused ordinary, reasonable people to recoil in horror. How could anyone kill their own children and then kill themselves? Why didn’t anyone run? Surely, if it had been a mass suicide, some persons would have objected. It would likely be statistically impossible to have a 100% participation rate for a mass suicide – a horrific act that these gentle seniors, children and generally underprivileged people had likely never heard of before being introduced to the concept by Jim Jones. Was it suicide or was it a mass murder?
The initial reports out of Jonestown seemed to confirm that this terrible obscenity was a mass suicide. The government had conducted initial interviews with survivors and learned about the plan for mass suicide for socialism if the community were ever threatened from without. There just didn’t seem to be a need to pursue any other avenue than to label the entire incident a mass suicide. All were dead, including the culprits who would have been sought for the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan (D-San Mateo), three members of the media from NBC and The San Francisco Examiner, and a defector – the popular Patricia Parks – whose entire family had left with the congressional party that afternoon.
Had the government not officially labeled the deaths a mass suicide, though – thus closing the books on further forensic studies and homicide investigation – then a much more sordid plan would have surfaced. In the history of the Peoples Temple, record-keeping was of top priority to Jim Jones. He wanted everything documented, whether it is his growing political/religious achievements or confessions of his parishioners, which he could then use to blackmail into staying in the church or at the least to keep quiet if they did leave. Part of Jim Jones’ vanity was to record many of the meetings over which he presided. Indeed, a treasure trove of recordings documenting the entire South American history of the Peoples Temple and various California and Indiana period was recovered.
Among the most notorious is the infamous “Death Tape,” or Q42 as identified by the FBI. This aural suicide note documents one of the most incomprehensible acts in modern history. But careful listening to this tape, along with eyewitness accounts from Tim Carter, Odell Rhodes, Stanley Clayton, Grover Davis and Hyacinth Thrash tell a different story. The May 1978 interview with Debbie Blakey and the post-Jonestown interviews with Terri Buford seem to indicate this to be a large plot for mass murder to fulfill the twisted desires of Jim Jones. This act was likely a planned mass murder where various individuals did actually “willingly” participate rather than be forced into the fatal act.
Certainly by listening to Q42, one hears that not all persons were willing participants, in particular Christine Miller, an African-American woman from Los Angeles. She stood her ground against Jim until he became flustered and, using his oft-demonstrated techniques of summoning tremendous peer pressure to keep people in line, had her shouted down. Certainly seniors were coerced to participate. Many were invalid, not able to move, likely injected with the foul substance. Certainly the children did not willingly participate in this act. Parents helped line them up and then laid their bodies at the bottom of a concave dip parallel to the pavilion. The participating adults may have been more inclined to die after seeing the younger generations die before them, and facing the agony of having participated in the murders of their children, the prospect of being invaded by the Guyanese Army, and armed guards threatening death with bullets if the potion was not taken. Paroxysms of a swirling, hypnotic frenzy carried through to a grisly completion.
Guyanese forensics on the scene made a determination that many, many individuals did not participate willingly and therefore were injected or forced to drink the concoction. This was indicated by abscesses on the upper arms of many victims, injection by the multitude of hypodermic needles found around the compound. Large amounts of weapons, and bows and arrows were found littered around the pavilion.
So how many of these deaths were suicide and how many were murder? Since only six autopsies were conducted – and only then by the result of the persistent lobbying by the families of Laurence Schacht and of Carolyn Layton and Ann Moore – the exact cause of death for each individual will never be known. But consider the following witnesses and warnings:
- Odell Rhodes was the first to leave Jonestown, after around 200 people had died. By his account, many may have initially participated thinking this White Night was simply another loyalty test. When babies and children began to wail, a general panic filled the pavilion. Only when Jim Jones took the microphone to soothe his audience would the frenzy become more controlled and organized.
- Stanley Clayton saw people being dragged by guards to the tub of Flavor Aid. He saw children who were forced to drink cups of the potion, who spat it out, and who were forced to drink again, this time with guards clamping their mouths shut, thus forcing the swallowing reflex to carry the lethal juice into their bodies. Further, Clayton heard a great series of at least three cheers of a great many people after a relatively quiet period in the pavilion. He presumed it was Jones’ guards and inner circle stepping over with dignity and joy as he espoused. This was followed by a series of gunshots.
- Grover Davis, a senior citizen with a hearing impairment, had not heard the initial call to the pavilion. When he wandered down to the pavilion and saw bodies on the ground and heard the cries of children, he turned and fled, hiding in a well until the next morning.
- Hyacinth Thrash, long disgruntled with Jim Jones, defied the call to the pavilion, telling her sister Zipporah Edwards that she was sick of Jim Jones and that she was going to bed. She awoke to hear gunfire outside her cottage and a guard yelling for Rheaviana Beam to come out of her cottage and join in the death ritual. Another indication of murder and not a willing suicide.
- Tim Carter, hoping to get his common law wife Gloria and their son Malcolm out of Jonestown, went to see Jim Jones in the medical tent. What he overheard stunned him. Dick Tropp, the intellectual professor, was arguing that they would go on, that nothing in the world was worth doing what Jim was planning, but Jim would have none of his views. At one point, Maria Katsaris came into the room and whispered into Jones’ ear. He replied, “Is there any way to make it taste less bitter? No? Well, do whatever you can.” Tim Carter said his wife Gloria had commented about changing the baby soon, something a mother would certainly not do if she was expecting to commit suicide shortly.
- In May 1978, Debbie Blakey detailed her escape from Jonestown and documented the first solid report that Jim Jones did indeed have a plan calling for the deaths of all of the residents, death to traitors, etc. In addition, she revealed that there was a plan to kill anyone who would not willingly participate in the act.
- Terri Buford revealed a plan calling for mass deaths of Peoples Temple members, traitors, and persons who had generally upset Jim Jones over the years. Called “Last Stand,” it anticipated that the deaths in Jonestown would be followed by a quiet period to take everyone off guard, and then there’d be a general assault on traitors and Jim Jones’ enemies list. Likely none of this was ever carried out beyond the deaths in Jonestown. When prominent Temple defectors and critics Jeannie and Al Mills were murdered along with their daughter in the Bay Area fifteen months later, in February 1980, it was initially believed that the hit men had begun their assault on the enemies list. The reports were soon discounted. Nevertheless, Tim Stoen – former Temple attorney turned “traitor” and next door neighbor to the Mills’ – went into hiding and did not publicly speak about Jonestown until 1988.
The secret “Last Stand” plan apparently was only known by a select few. The leadership knew that the general population of Jonestown would never participate in this act without severe influence. The inner core of leadership likely included Carolyn Layton, Ann Moore, Maria Katsaris, Judy Ijames, Lew Jones, Johnny Brown Jones, Jim McElvane (albeit in Jonestown only three days, he was Jones’ strongest supporter on the final day, coming to his defense against Miller and others, and intimidating and literally carrying people up to the vat) and others.
- A letter from Ann Moore to Jim Jones speaks of her desire to participate in the Revolutionary Suicide act that Jim had been formulating and perfecting over the previous year. She detours with a vow to fight and then returns to the virtues of suicide. More incriminating is her reference to putting something in the Jonestown food or drink to catch people off guard, since she does not seem to think that they will willingly participate. She speaks of murdering children with calm nonchalance. Thus was Jim Jones’ grip on the minds of once highly moral, law abiding middle-class families. (Letter archived in California Historical Society).
But perhaps the most incriminating piece of evidence to corroborate that the act was the fulfillment of a plan for murder plan is tape Q875. Labeled and archived as being located in the Jonestown settlement among the many hundreds of others, the tape is an incredible montage of radio news bulletins recorded on the Peoples Temple recording device. The listener had scanned the radio band for any Jonestown or Ryan news, recorded it, and then moved to the next station. Judging by the content of the news reports, the time would have been after midnight on November 19, 1978. The broadcast refers to “last evening’s” attack on the Ryan party and makes vague references to rumors of a suicide pact at the settlement.
Even more incredibly, voices of Peoples Temple members – possibly including those of Jim Jones and Maria Katsaris – can be heard as they calmly converse and shuffle papers in the background. A few might epithets can be heard when the listener disagrees with the assertions of the radio news programs. At one point during the recording, a distant voice is heard questioning someone and a female voice I tentatively identified as Maria’s answers. She has an allergy or cold as well, since sniffling and sneezing can be heard as well. There are various male voices, almost all unknown, and the opening and closing of a screen door can be heard. Screen doors were prevalent in Jonestown, so perhaps this was recorded in the Jonestown radio room or in Jim Jones’ cabin, which had radio equipment as well. At one point in the tape, a male voice with the familiar accent of Jim Jones asks someone a question referencing the city of Georgetown.
The tape would seem to contradict Stanley Clayton’s account – that all members were dead prior to 11 pm on November 18 – and give credence to the claims of Hyacinth Thrash that someone gave her some food the next morning and that she believed to have seen various people alive on Sunday morning.
More importantly, the entire calm presented and nervous laughter of the individuals on this tape show that this was not likely a spontaneous mass suicide brought on by an impending disaster, but rather a carefully planned act of murder. Jim Jones orchestrated the initiation of the act by ordering the murder of Leo Ryan and his party, thus insuring the arrival of police or the US government. He called the Peoples Temple members into the pavilion, left them sitting there for nearly one hour while his inner circle joined him in plotting the fruition of their plans over the next several hours.
The calm, calculating activities show order and planning, not a hysterical, random act brought on by an expected invasion. These voices don’t seem to show any concern over any invasion by the GDF or US forces. Indeed, nothing can be heard to indicate any concern at all. These people likely knew the limitations of the GDF and their own isolated location would pre-empt any Guyanese from entering until well after the act was completed. Jim Jones’s hysterical prediction that the GDF would torture anyone they found when they parachuted into Jonestown was theatrics to terrify members into compliance.
Why the government still holds onto documents found in Jonestown is a mystery which compounds the question of murder. What is in the documents and what plans do they detail?
The Jonestown Tragedy is a topic that will never cease to raise questions. As more answers are uncovered, twice the number of questions arise. But for the existence of various letters and recordings, the Tragedy might still be widely viewed as mass suicide and not a mass murder plan of one of history’s most insane criminal minds.