A Search for the Real Jim Jones

I have been interested in the Jim Jones saga for some time. I was six when Jonestown happened, but my parents obviously diverted my attention for a while because I didn’t even hear about it for almost ten years, when my best friend in high school chose Jones for a report topic, and I gleaned a little information from him. Over the next ten years my curiosity was slowly piqued. I enjoy reading about strange happenings and weird people so it was inevitable that I would eventually devote some time to reading about Jones.

I had heard about the “death tape” of the final hours of Jonestown, but it sounded too morbid even for me. Then one night in 1999, a friend of mine who also collects weird records played me a record of Jim Jones. I believe it was put out by the band Psychic TV. What blew my mind was a brief snatch of Jones before the record went on to the suicide recording. It sounded like some weird radio signal sounds, but it was Jones himself. He whips his people into the proverbial frenzy with some Indian war cries and yells “make the night roar with it”. My friend said “sounds like Hitler could have taken a lesson from this guy.” I was amazed by the sounds of this recording, a time-capsule from one of the most infamous events of the last century.

Now I had the enthusiasm to read up on this Jones fellow. I devoured Raven, a 600-page book written in 1982 by Tim Reiterman. Raven further intrigued me with a similar reference as my friend’s, that Jim Jones was an American Hitler. The book quoted numerous tapes made by Peoples Temple and left in Jonestown, and I wanted to get my hands on them but figured they were off-limits to mere citizens. I thought you had to be in the CIA or FBI or something.

So, time marched on. I moved on to other things, but Jonestown was never too far from my thoughts. Eventually I started using the Internet and “googled” “Jim Jones recordings”. This brought me to the Jonestown Institute, and lo and behold I found the tape archives I had been hoping for.

I took my time reading through some of the transcriptions before ordering. I ordered pre-Guyana tapes because I was curious how Jim Jones sounded when he was still “respectable”. There’s plenty of fury in his voice along with a lot of the social justice talk that must have appealed to his followers. Raven talked about how he did seem to want to do good, and many if not most of his followers were motivated by positive aspects of his program. I could spend the rest of my life studying this man, and I doubt if I’ll be able to say if he was just an evil con man or truly believed he was doing good. There’s a similar argument among Hitler scholars: the con man vs. the psycho debate.

I am still digesting the tapes I ordered. They aren’t as exciting as the first Jones recording I ever heard but they are very interesting nonetheless. His populist charisma does come through. It is particularly incredible – especially in retrospect – to hear him occasionally drop hints about what is to come.

But the real source for my continued fascination is the personality and story of Jim Jones himself, the man who combined – yes – Hitler and Elvis, with a bit of Jimmy Swaggart thrown in. I have for years enjoyed listening to various radio preachers and was somehow not surprised when I read that Jones used to be broadcast on KFAX in San Francisco, the same station I used to hear R.W. Schambach on. In fact, if Jones were around today I could see him having his own radio show on college stations.

Jones is a monster and/or a sick joke to many people. I can find black humor in his story, but it is so much more intriguing and has so much more depth. He was a real product of his time and place. Still, I wonder if the irony of having the George Santayana quote in the Jonestown pavilion – “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – was a final black joke from Jones.

Many younger people do not know about Jones save for the “Don’t drink the Koolaid” slogan. You hear references to Koolaid all the time. There will probably always be cults and occasionally suicidal ones, but the Jonestown story will always stand out for me, perhaps because it was part of a “secret history” kept from me as a child. As a child I went through a phase in which I wondered if my parents were really monsters who would do me harm. Little did I know what would happen to children my age and younger in far off Guyana.

That is another obvious aspect of the appeal of this story, how Jones was so respected in San Francisco and how quickly his political star fell. This story has many angles and is truly stranger than fiction, but it was hearing the recorded voice of Jim Jones that really drew me in. I am very happy that this resource is available to the average amateur scholar, especially at such an affordable cost.

(Stephen Whitener can be reached at stephendarkener@hotmail.com.)