Imagination and History: Tape Q875 and the Day after the Jonestown Mass Murders/Suicides

by Catherine Wessinger

Audiotape Q875, apparently made in Jonestown on November 19, 1978, the day after the mass murders/suicides, is an archaeological artifact telling us that there is much more to the story than we thought. Unlike archaeological artifacts that don’t speak, Q875 speaks, but very unclearly.

Archaeologists use their imaginations to interpret artifacts and reconstruct the past. They hope that their knowledge base enables them to make reconstructions that are both informed and imaginative. However, there is always the danger of one’s biases and preconceptions coloring one’s interpretations too much. Also, one’s guesses may be just completely wrong. Archaeologist Janet Spector points out that interpretations can be made more accurately in relation to relatively recent artifacts of living peoples. In these instances, information gleaned from members of the culture can shed light on the meaning of an artifact, thus aiding the scholar to imagine more accurately the context, use, and significance of the object.[1]

The sounds captured on tape Q875 made no sense to me when I first listened to it in late November 2002. Recorded on November 19, 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, someone is taping the first radio reports of the murders of Congressman Leo Ryan and four members of his party at the Port Kaituma airstrip, the deaths of Sharon Amos and her three children in Georgetown, and the initial “unconfirmed” reports of a mass suicide in Jonestown on November 18. On side one, when a report about Jonestown on one channel ends, someone turns the recorder off and turns it back on when another report is located. A door repeatedly squeaks and slams, men talk, a woman sneezes a couple of times and sniffles, a woman cries out twice, a man’s voice says “Shut up” twice. But the voices of the people in the room cannot be heard clearly.

Then Fielding McGehee III forwarded to me an email message from a Jonestown survivor dated November 18, 2002. The survivor’s “first reaction” upon listening to tape Q875 was that the woman’s voice was that of Maria Katsaris, a young woman in Jim Jones’ inner circle who had taken over the care of John Victor Stoen. This six-year-old boy was at the center of a custody battle, with Grace and Tim Stoen on one side, and Jim Jones – who claimed that John was his biological son – on the other.

The survivor also identified the man speaking in the background as Jim McElvane, the head of security for Peoples Temple in California who had arrived in Jonestown on November 16. Most significantly, the survivor identified the man saying “Shut up” as Jim Jones.[2]

The survivor’s email message of November 18, 2002 stated that he knew that there were several cassette tape recorders in Jim Jones’ house, and that it would make sense that there would be radios there as well.

After receiving this information from a Jonestown insider about the possible identities of the voices and the likely location, I listened to the tape again.

I imagined Jim Jones in his house turning the dials of a radio listening for the initial reports of the deaths in Port Kaituma, Georgetown, and Jonestown. He records only reports relating to Jonestown. Why was he recording these? Did he care that much for the historical record? Was he narcissistic enough to be concerned about the initial news reports of the disaster? There is a lot of activity in the background. The door slamming sounds like a screen door on a spring that creaks when opened and then slams shut when released. Maria Katsaris is nearby apparently suffering from a cold or an allergy, but she is also listening to the radio reports. Maria utters “Oh boy” when Congressman Leo Ryan’s mother is broadcast as saying that she warned her son about the “emotionally unstable” people in Jonestown. As a man speaks in the background about Georgetown, Jim Jones mutters “Shut up.” Maria then calls out, “Ki-yids!” After a moment, she calls again, “Ki-yids!” Jim Jones mumbles something, then he says more clearly, “Shut up.” The people speaking in the room were interfering with his ability to hear the news reports.

It is hard to decipher Maria’s drawn-out cry, but I think she is calling, “Kids!” The first cry sounds more like “Ki-yids!” than the second one. If Maria is calling “Kids!” it suggests that the two children in Jones’ immediate household, John Victor Stoen, and Kimo Prokes, the three-year-old son of Carolyn Moore Layton and Jim Jones, were still alive on November 19. With the traffic in and out the door, were the little boys about to wander outside? Surely Maria did not want them to see what was outside.

Perhaps Jim Jones was both narcissistic and concerned with the historical record, and thus motivated to make this audiotape. As Fielding McGehee III points out, a total of 971 audiotapes were recovered from Jonestown documenting various aspects of the life and history of the community, including Q042, the “death tape” recorded in the pavilion on November 18. Tape Q042 shows signs of being edited.[3] If members of the inner circle were alive in Jonestown until November 19, there was ample time to edit the death tape, and cut out anything deemed undesirable for posterity to hear.

If this imaginative reconstruction of the sounds recorded on Q875 is correct, it raises even more questions about the social-psychological dynamics of the community than have been asked earlier. At the final gathering in the pavilion on November 18, didn’t the members of Peoples Temple notice that the young children identified as Jim Jones’ sons were not being killed with the other children? Would not have some residents wondered whether the members of the inner circle planned to die along with them? But in the end, they all did die in Jonestown.

Tape Q875 paints a sound portrait of an incredible scenario. It indicates that members of the inner circle around Jim Jones did not die until November 19 at the earliest. They remained alive long enough to carry out unknown final preparations and for Jim Jones to record the initial radio reports of the disaster. Perhaps they deliberately vandalized some of the buildings and destroyed certain records before the Guyanese and American military personnel arrived.

Tape Q875 is chilling because it reveals an intense level of premeditation concerning the deaths of the other Jonestown residents and determination to die with them. Thanks to information from a Jonestown insider, I can imagine a little of what happened in Jim Jones’ house while tape Q875 was being made. I am unable to imagine the feelings of the remaining residents of Jonestown as they prepared to kill the last two children and die. The comings and goings and conversations recorded in the background of tape Q875 are amazingly casual in tone.

On side two of tape Q875 no one turns the recorder off as soon as the news moves on from a profile of Congressman Ryan. There is a beep and someone turns the radio dial. The tape then captures a few miscellaneous news stories. Had Jim Jones left by this time to die surrounded by his people in the pavilion? People talk and a man can be heard saying, “He’s dead.” As conversations can be heard faintly in the background, a man makes loud and irreverent quacking sounds just before the recorder is turned off for the last time.

(Catherine Wessinger is the Rev. H. James Yamauchi, S.J. Professor of the History of Religions at Loyola University New Orleans. She is the author of How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate (2000), and the editor of Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (2000) and The Oxford Handbook on Millennialism (2011). She is co-general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. Her His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She may be contacted through e-mail at wessing@loyno.edu.)

Notes

[1] Janet D. Spector, “What This Awl Means: Towards a Feminist Archaeology,” inEngendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, ed. Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 397-401.

[2] After comparing the voices heard on tape Q042, the “death tape” recorded on November 18, 1978, with the voices on tape Q875, I have concluded that while it is possible that the man saying “Shut up” is Jim Jones, I do not hear Jim McElvane’s voice on Q875.

[3] Fielding McGehee III, “November 19 Tape Adds Perplexing Postscript: A Commentary,”<.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 13th, 2014.
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