November 19 Tape Adds Perplexing Postscript:
A Commentary

by Fielding M. McGehee III

(Ed. Note: This tape was the subject of a forum in the jonestown report two years later, with analyses from seven different perspectives. Many of the questions in this article were addressed six years later in Q 875, The “No More Mystery” Tape, by Joel Thomas.)

Over the years, the Peoples Temple audiotape which has been the subject of greatest interest — from researchers, documentarians and curiosity-seekers — is the FBI-designated Q 042, better known as “the death tape.” While some casual listeners and conspiracists question elements of the tape’s authenticity, there is little debate about the voices on the recording and the circumstances under which it was made. Shattered by the departure of members of two of the oldest and most prominent Peoples Temple families earlier in the afternoon of November 18, Jim Jones reminds the people of Jonestown of what brought them to this place, and why they must leave now by committing “revolutionary suicide.”

Even so, the death tape is part of a whole, a period (perhaps an exclamation point would be a better description) to the life of Peoples Temple. Most of the other 971 tapes recovered from Jonestown document the history of the group; they give lessons, either instructional or institutional; they include loyalty oaths and statements that could be used against people who defected; they provide entertainment in the form of music or comedy. In that sense, the death tape is part of the continuum, a final message of resistance, defiance and political outrage directed to the world outside.

Much more mysterious — indeed, at this point, unexplained — is tape Q 875, found along with the hundreds of others at Jonestown. There was apparently nothing special about the location of the tape, or any differences in appearance to distinguish it from the others, or anything else. It was just there. As opposed to all the other tapes, though, this is the only tape made after the deaths.

Q 875 consists of four broadcast news stories recorded off the air on November 19, 1978, all concerning the deaths of Congressman Leo Ryan and members of his party “last night” at the Port Kaituma airstrip in Guyana. Two of the broadcasts are of Guyanese origin, and two are American, including an ABC broadcast. The first newscast includes “unconfirmed reports reaching Georgetown” of mass suicide at Jonestown. Later broadcasts said that Temple attorneys Charles Garry and Mark Lane are safe, although at the time there was still “nothing [confirmed] about reports of mass suicide in the commune.”

Throughout the broadcasts, there are unknown people moving about at the recording end. Doors open and close, chairs squeak, voices murmur, voices shush others, there is at least one electronic beep of some duration. More importantly, the stories coming out of Guyana’s Northwest District are the only items on the tape. As a new story begins, someone tunes the radio to another station — ostensibly looking for more coverage? — then turns the recording equipment off.

Almost as important, the voices are American. Even though most of the conversation is unintelligible, there are a couple of exceptions. When the ABC broadcast cuts to the interview with Autumn Ryan, the congressman’s mother, someone says quietly, “Oh boy.” During the third broadcast — which was the last on side one — someone says “Shit” following word that there will be autopsies done on the bodies at the airstrip. There is no way of knowing whether the speaker was referring to the decision to perform the autopsies, or was upset about something else unrelated.

There are many questions which the contents of tape raise but do not answer:

1) Who made the tape? Most of the people at Jonestown were dead. The few known surviving members of the Jonestown community had left considerably earlier — some before the deaths actually started — or were stunned by what surrounded them when they returned after escaping to the bush. Yet the people who made this tape were calm, competent and even methodical in the recording. On the other hand, there were no confirmed reports of the mass deaths when the recordings were made. That means it was much too early for the known Guyanese military or American State Department personnel to have arrived on the scene. Anyone representing a governmental agency on the ground at that time was there one or two days earlier than any acknowledged presence.

2) Where was the tape made? It seems to have been made in the Jonestown radio room. The space is small with the echoes of an interior setting, there are sounds of metallic and/or heavy objects being shifted, and there is an electronic pulse near the end of the last segment. Moreover, the tape is similar in tone to many of the other tapes made at that location. It could have been made in the Temple’s radio room in Georgetown — and if the recorded ABC broadcast was from a television instead of a radio, that might be more likely — but that adds an additional layer of questions about transporting the tape to the Jonestown settlement.

3) What were people doing as they made the tape? The Guyana military personnel who came into Jonestown on Monday found a contaminated crime scene. There had been some looting — attributed to Amerindians and Guyanese living in the area — and more looting followed. By the time American military personnel arrived to clean up the bodies, some buildings had been ransacked, and paper was strewn everywhere. Were the people who made the tape doing other things at the same time, cloaking it under the mess of simultaneous vandalism?

4) Why did anyone bother to make a tape? As opposed to the other Jonestown tapes, this serves no purpose for the Jonestown community. It is an obituary, written in first person, by the deceased, after death. The motivation for making the tape defies reasonable explanation.

5) And finally: Why did they leave the tape behind?

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 2nd, 2016.
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