With the passage of time, many primary source documents which the federal government once maintained on Peoples Temple have been expunged or lost. The editors of the jonestown report first learned of this several years ago, when we asked the Social Security Administration for any records the agency might have generated since our initial request in 1979. Not only could the agency not locate records responding to our request, but it reported that its original files had been destroyed. As a result, the only known copy in existence of the Social Security Administration’s payments to members of Peoples Temple is in the Moore Family Papers collection at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.
That is not the only agency to have lost or destroyed its documents. The congressional committee which investigated Congressman Ryan’s assassination reported in 1979 that the NBC television network turned over all of its video of Jonestown to the Justice Department. The tapes included the raw footage of Ryan’s visit to Jonestown, as well as the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Despite the historical (and, initially, evidentiary) value of the tapes, though, the Justice Department reported that it is no longer able to locate them.
In 2000, we filed a request with the State Department that asked for review of the secret records which the agency turned over to Congress in 1979, arguing that the passage of time should make them less sensitive to classification. As part of our request, we enclosed the table of contents of the congressional report, highlighting the notations of the records which were in the classified version.
Earlier this year, State informed us that it could not identify the documents we were after, based upon the information we had provided. The record systems from the period are antiquated and no longer in use, and there is no current record of what the State Department may have sent to Congress. Absent a listing of the documents or identification of them in some other way, all the papers the State Department sent to Congress are classified in perpetuity, secret, apparently, even to the State Department itself.
In addition, as new generations of FOIA caseworkers unfamiliar with their agencies’ records of Peoples Temple come along, and as the people with the institutional knowledge of older record-keeping systems retire, their offices are finding it increasingly difficult to identify government documents in response to FOIA requests for records from 1978.
The federal government is not alone in destroying old records. In an effort to learn federal tax identification numbers for the various corporate entities of Peoples Temple, we contacted the tax authorities for the states of Indiana and California. Indiana reported no record of any corporate entity listed as Peoples Temple, the Peoples Temple Apostolic Church, or the Wings of Deliverance, even though internal Temple records refer to itself by these corporate names. The Indiana Secretary of State did acknowledge the corporate identity of the Jim-Lu-Mar Corporation (named after Jim Jones, his mother Lynetta and his wife Marceline), but said the corporation was “administratively dissolved” on January 1, 1970. The files on the corporation have been purged, the office noted, and no hard copy of records exists.
The California Franchise Tax Board provided a set of incorporation tax records for one of the many corporate names under which the Temple was doing business. The remaining entities — including the additional listings of Valley Enterprises and the Apostolic Corporation — have left no records of their existence.