Jim Jones and the History of Peoples Temple

(Author’s note: I wrote this research paper in early 2007 as a senior at Waukesha West high school in Waukesha, Wisconsin. I chose to do my research on the Jonestown Massacre because of the many interesting facets the cult’s story has to offer. By researching the cult, I have been able to dive deep into what was really behind the face of what many refer to as the “Kool-Aid Cult.”   I gathered information from several different internet articles as well as from the affidavits of members who defected from Peoples Temple before the final suicides occurred in November 1978. The information included about Peoples Temple includes history, doctrine, membership information, government Involvement, brainwashing and abuse, political involvement, details on Jonestown and Guyana, conspiracies, a detailed account of the final suicides, and a final assessment of why such a tragedy might occur. The book Seductive Poison written by Deborah Layton, a top financial advisor and member, offered great insight into the inner workings of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and her eventual escape from Jonestown. I also conducted an interview through email with one of the only members still alive after the Jonestown Massacre, Laura Kohl. Her interview made the research much more personal because she shared her reactions to living in Jonestown, the final suicides, and most importantly the reason she did not end her life that day. My research also led me to the actual recording of the final 45 minutes of Peoples Temple and their suicide. This recording helped to clarify and validate the other research which I conducted.   As a whole this paper will answer almost any question one might have on Jonestown, Peoples Temple, or Jim Jones.)

Jim Jones was born in 1931 as James Warren Jones in Crete, Indiana. As a child, Jim was a good student and even graduated from high school with honors. Though he was quite studious academically, his interest and knowledge lay in his faith from an early age. As a child he “looked down upon the behavior of other boys his age” (Steel, 5) as they did not show as much of an interest in their faith. On one occasion Jim was so upset with one of his friends for going home rather than going out and witnessing, that he “grabbed his father’s gun and shot at the boys” (Steel, 5). Jones was brought up in a Pentecostal church that emphasized faith healing (Lewis, 100) and where he became active in many different ministries. His passion for the poor and underrepresented in society combined with his charismatic personality, led him to comfortably and successfully preach in both inner city black and white neighborhoods by the age of 16 (Steel, 5). Jones married the year after he graduated from high school to Marceline Baldwin, yet again showing his high maturity level for his age. During the next few years of his undergraduate work at Butler University and graduate work at Indiana University, Jones took on the position of student pastor at Somerset Methodist Church (Steel, 5); however, his “radical” beliefs on interracial worship and outreach caused many quarrels between him and church leadership, leaving him with no options but to resign from his position (McCormick Maaga, 2).

Jim did not let this get him down, and decided to form his own congregation, which he called Community Unity. He was so focused on succeeding in this endeavor that he began selling monkeys door-to-door in order to support the growing church’s mission. His first congregation was a mainstream Christian church, but he became confused with the world around him. He found it hard to believe in a loving God when he saw so much poverty and inequality around him, and, proclaiming that God did not exist, decided to move his congregation to larger premises, modify its doctrine, and change its name to Peoples Temple (Steel, 5-6). Jones modeled his new church after his inspiration, Father M.J. Divine, who founded the Peace Mission, a service and civil rights based theology for religion (Lewis, 100). Though Jones did not believe in God, he still believed that securing an affiliation with a mainstream denomination would help his church grow. He found that the Disciples of Christ church, though not ideal, was impressive because of its support for labor unions and opposition to unemployment. Jim secured an affiliation with the Disciples of Christ which greatly bolstered the congregation’s reputation (Lewis, 3). This new mainstream affiliation along with its tolerant philosophy and community outreach caused Peoples Temple to grow quickly. They cared for the elderly, ran a soup kitchen, and even maintained a social service center in Indiana (Lewis, 100). Because of his active role in the community, Jim was awarded with the head position of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, giving the Temple an even better reputation and more networking opportunities (Steel, 6).

Although all was going well in his new church, his family life was not ideal. His wife Marceline was taken back by his proclamation that he did not believe in God. She refused to accept this because she believed that God did exist and was loving. Jones was quite unhappy with this response, and his insecure and domineering personality showed when he threatened to commit suicide if she continued to pray (Steel, 5). Furthermore, their marriage suffered because of his jealous nature. He did not want Marceline to get attention for anyone but him (Steel, 5). When their son Stephan Jones was born, he believed life would get better, but his relationship with his son did not grow into an ideal one. Stephan had little respect for his father because of his drug use and many other hypocritical behaviors including adultery. As a teen, he even attempted to end his own life using Jim’s drugs (Steel, 7). On the surface, the Jones family was just that – “the Joneses” – but what seemed to be the archetype of a perfect family was really hurting more than anyone could ever know or imagine. Little did these downtrodden people known that their star preacher was no more than a drug addict – a blind man leading the blind.

Jim’s drug addiction caused the stresses concerning racial intolerance to escalate and Jones began preaching that he had a “vision” of a nuclear holocaust and the safest place for him and his followers was in California (Lewis,100). So, in 1964, he moved his congregation of about 140 members to Ukiah, California, a city Jones had read about inEsquire Magazine’s article on the safest cities to be in the event of a nuclear attack (Steel, 6). The Temple grew considerably after the move. Several different congregations formed and by the early 1970s, the Temple had grown to 2,500 and had spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles (Steel, 7). As the Temple grew, so did Jones’ influence over his congregation as well as his paranoia. Some of his early sermons ironically referred to biblical passages about followers selling their possessions. Many of his followers did just that, selling their homes and giving all their wages to the Temple. They respected and trusted Jones so much that even when he began claiming to be the reincarnation of his childhood heroes, Jesus, Buddha, Lenin, and Father Divine (Galanter, 121), they believed him and continued giving all they had to the cause. Furthermore, he sent complaints to newspapers claiming that he was being frequently harassed and threats were constantly being made on his life, but none of these claims were ever confirmed by police (Steel, 6). His charismatic speeches drew in people so much that they often disregarded any unusual behavior or doctrine he showed or spoke about. He drew large crowds with his healings and miracles (Steel, 6). Though obviously fake to us, he captivated his congregation as well as those from outside his congregation.

When people ask why people would join such a church, how they could be so blind, one need not look any further than Jim Jones. He is the first reason the church succeeded as well as it did. Jones knew how to appeal to the right demographics. Some would say he knew how to appeal to all demographics, as he was well liked outside of his congregation by political officials in some of California’s highest rankings. He was in some senses more of an advertiser than a preacher. He advertised his ideas in such an honest, thoughtful, and exciting manner that one could not help but believe him and in what he was saying.

The bottom line is that the members of Peoples Temple adored Jones. They regularly called him “Father” and respected his absolute authority. Without his power and control over them, the final suicides would not have occurred, nor would have the move to Jonestown. When life is hard, the weak will grasp at anything to find hope, which is what many believed they had found –Jim Jones.

Membership: Who joined, Recruitment, and Commitment

The membership of Peoples Temple was a key component in the final result of the group. Looking at who joined, how they were recruited, and the level of committed which was demanded of them, explains a lot. The majority of Jones’ early members were “African-American, the uneducated, and the poor” (Steel,7). This was no coincidence based on Jones’ community involvement and support of soup kitchens and social welfare offices. He “drew to himself outcasts of society, along with those who desired to help the downtrodden and serve those in need” (Steel,4). Stephan Jones, son of Jim Jones, noted that the followers were drawn to the church, not because of their “race, gender, or educational attainments” but because of “a sense of belonging” (McCormick Maaga, 12). When the church received their affiliation with the Disciples of Christ, it began drawing a more “mainstream crowd.” With the group’s move to California, these mainstream people became invaluable to the leadership of Peoples Temple and the promotion of it in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Jones used the more politically and vocationally influential members of the church, such as lawyers and doctors, to publicize the church throughout the political arena of California. Though the church had a great influence politically, it did not garnish important political figures as actual members but rather as pawns who advocated the work of the Temple and Jones as well.

Jones’ utilization of all of his members helped in recruitment. He used the more affluent members to gain media and political influence. Because of his political influence, Jones had the ability to publicize the Temple during frequent rallies and speeches on the weekends. On one occasion over 50,000 people came to hear him speak at a rally (Galanter, 121). His appeal to a younger, more radical crowd also increased his popularity among the poorer and socially frustrated members of society. In the summer and on their holiday breaks, the college and high school aged kids would take Peoples Temple buses across the United States, focusing their ministries on low-income areas (Layton, 59).

There were many who found Jones’ teachings and the church community supportive, but not everyone took the huge step of membership. Those who did, however, made great sacrifices for this status, and some former members have noted that the initiation into the Temple was quite severe (Steel, 4). They received “room, board, and a $2 a week allowance” in exchange for their membership (Steel, 7). The members “pooled their incomes and turned their property over to the Peoples Temple to be sold” as well as relinquished any affiliations they had with their biological family in exchange for their new family, the other members of the Temple (Steel, 7). Deborah Layton, a former Temple member and escapee from Jonestown said this about Jones’ increasing demand for commitment from the members: “As Father’s influence increased, the members became unwitting pawns in his quest for more and more personal power” (Layton, 65). The deeper one got into the “family,” the more was expected of their commitment. Although the things that these people did may seem unbelievable to us, their stories demonstrate the price humans are willing to pay for an “atmosphere of love, trust and social concern” (McCormick Maaga,10).

Doctrine: Basic, Committed, Startling

On the surface, the basic doctrine of Peoples Temple seems to fit most mainstream Christian denominations. At the surface, Peoples Temple was just this. A member of the Disciples of Christ, it was easily and often mistaken for merely a Pentecostal congregation with the social gospel of liberal denominations (Lewis, 100); however, it was everything but this. Peoples Temple’s basic doctrine was fairly simple: it was “not really a church, but a socialist organization” (Layton, 85). Jim Jones had founded the Temple on socialist ideals and his own power as a demagogue. His goal was to “wipe out racism and immorality throughout America” (Layton, 36) through any means possible –even mass suicide. Although Jones referred to biblical passages when encouraging members to sell their possessions for the Temple, he rejected the Bible, and taught that he was the reincarnation of many famous historical figures, including Lenin and Jesus (Steel, 6). He also preached that the end was near, of nuclear fallout and the CIA’s plans for a Nazi-like extermination of all blacks (Galanter, 122). Members were taught to put their faith in Jim Jones, never questioning his authority (Layton, 57).

Although these basic pieces of the doctrine may not seem unreasonable, especially given the time period (1960-1978), the more committed a member became, the more intense the doctrinal requirements became. Deborah Layton noted that “As [Jones’] power grew, we endured more and more threats and suffered tighter and tighter restrictions” (Layton, 65). Deborah and some of the younger members began training in guerrilla tactics, field navigation, and socialist readings such as Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx (Layton, 56). Many of the people in the Temple saw Jones as their savior (Steel, 3) and also saw themselves and the other members as a family that needed to stay together, no matter the cost (Moore, 3).

Considering this fact, it is a bit easier for us to understand their unquestioning acceptance of Jones’ more committed doctrine; however, there is a part of this doctrine which was very well kept within the congregation so as not to tarnish the Temple’s reputation. There are several points of interest that most people would find startling. Jones kept the members from not only their attachments to their nuclear families, but also their husbands, wives, and children. He did this by making them believe all men were homosexual except for him (Layton, 35). He had sex with “female followers to humiliate the men and to manipulate the women” (McCormick Maaga, 49). There are reports that women were frequently sexually abused by Jones and were forced to publicly complain about their husband’s lovemaking (Steel, 9). Another startling piece of doctrine is Jones’ claim to absolute sovereignty. Though he did not consider himself a Christian, he used many well-known Bible passages in his homilies such as “Thou shalt have no other God before me” (Layton, 5). Jones proclaimed his healing abilities and clairvoyance on a regular basis. In her book, Seductive Poison, Deborah Layton describes her first experience of seeing Jones perform a “miracle”:

“I feel the pain you have been experiencing in your stomach and lower back.” I looked around to see if anyone had stood up. “Oh, my brother, you have suffered so…” Jim breathed in deeply to help dissipate the pain. “Yes, God, I know…Sammy? Is there a Sammy Smith in the audience? Stand, my dear brother, you have suffered enough.”

An elderly gentleman raised his arms and cried out as Father, still standing behind the podium, reached his hand toward the man.

… “Yes, my brother, you have seen and experienced enough suffering in your life and I am here today to heal you of another…Marceline…” Jim called out to his wife. “Marcie, I need you to help my brother Sammy. I am going to relieve him of the painful stomach caner that has begun to grow inside of him.”

Marcie ran over and helped the man choke up a small growth no larger than a chicken liver and she marched around the audience with it as people screamed and sang to the glory of Father’s gift (66).

During his sermons, he would often make reference to a sick loved one or an illness, information his inner circle had “glean(ed)” so that he “could…fake clairvoyance” (Steel, 7). His followers were impressed by Jones’ miracles and believed he was omniscient, so when he forbade them to see doctors, they acquiesced, believing “It wasn’t necessary. Father would protect us” (Layton, 110). This belief, that Jones would protect them would lead the congregation to its final demise.

Inner Circle: Who They Were, Purpose, and Betrayal

The key to Jones’ personal wellbeing was his support system, known to those inside the Temple as the inner circle. The inner circle was made up of Jones’ closest confidants and most trusted advisors. Nearly all of the members were the “mainstream” members of the Temple. They had ties to the outside world and were important to the successful implementation of Jim’s doctrine. The group was made up of men and women equally, but men received a much different initiation into the exclusive group than the women. The women of the inner circle were “initiated” through sexual encounter with Jones; and even though, Jones had been suspected of homosexual behaviors, “there is no evidence as to whether or not these men had sex with Jones” (McCormick Maaga, 48). The inner circle had smaller sub-circles as part of it. These circles were known as the Planning Commission and the Diversions Committee. The Planning Commission was the tightest group of the inner circle that consisted of the top leadership and most trusted disciples (Layton, 60). The Diversions Committee was in charge of political influence. They would help the Temple gain political influence by mailing untraceable letters to Congress promoting the Temple as well as “reverse tactic” letters that deprecated the Temple using inappropriate racial slurs and phrases (Layton, 62). It is still disputed what their influence was on the final day of suicide in Jonestown, but many believe that it was the inner circle who forced the final suicides for fear that Jones would soon become too insane to function, causing his community of followers to disband. The Diversions Committee also was in charge of changing around numbers in the books to keep the Temple tax exempt.

Although the inner circle was a tightly knit group, they were by no means exempt from spying on each other or betrayal. Every time the group would meet, one member of the Diversions Committee would ensure that a tape-recorder was recording everything that was said during the meeting. Jones would begin the meeting by saying that someone did something wrong. He would rant until someone confessed to something. Some of these “people were told to sign affidavits saying that they had molested a child, contemplated killing the President, or been involved in a myriad of other illegal acts” (Layton,68), an invaluable blackmail tool if they ever tried to defect. After Deborah Layton forced confession to having sexual feelings towards her husband during one meeting, she recalls that “From 7 P.M. until the next morning” she was “yelled at, spit on, and humiliated” (Layton, 64). Jones’ use of humiliation served him well in his quest for control. The more one was humiliated, the closer they drew to his comfort and “loving” arms.

Master Plan: What They Were, Who Knew About Them, Rehearsal Suicides

Though Peoples Temple is well known for their mass suicide, the congregation’s initial plans did not include such an event. When Jones moved his congregation from the Midwest to California, he simply wanted to get away from racial tensions and find a safe place in the event of a nuclear war (Lewis, 100). He wanted to develop a socialist organization that helped the poor and lowly members of society (Steel, 4). Unfortunately, as it goes with many leaders who gain power very quickly, Jones became obsessed with gaining control over his congregation which spiraled out of control. His continuous struggles with alcohol and drug addiction made his reasoning even worse and Jones became paranoid about the CIA, prompting him to begin his search for the “Promised Land” where his congregation could created an egalitarian agricultural community.

Once in their utopia of Jonestown, it is suspected that he and his inner circle began to plan and may have even already planned the final suicide in detail. Evidence for this lies in their frequent suicide rehearsals called “White Nights” which laid the groundwork for the final mass suicide (Galanter, 122-3). It has been reported that these rehearsals occurred only once a month when the members first came to Jonestown, but as Jones’ paranoia grew, the White Nights increased to one every two weeks and would sometimes last for several days (Layton, 181). One member described what happened during a White Night (Galanter, 123).

They would “move from cabin to cabin and make certain that all members were responding. A mass meeting would ensue. Frequently during these crises, we would be told that the jungle was swarming with mercenaries and that death could be expected at any minute…we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison wasn’t real.”

Political Influence: California, Notable Political Advocates, Importance

Peoples Temple’s success in California depended heavily on endorsements from political forces. Jones strategically made friends with the elite politicians and civil rights leaders on both a local and national level. This support improved his organization’s reputation by helping to portray it as no more than a mainstream Christian congregation. Jones’ inner circle helped accomplish this goal through taking jobs in some of the leading newspapers working for political causes (Steel, 9). In Jones’ public appearances, he would support prominent political candidates (Galanter, 12). His ability to help deliver votes as well as his favors from within the church, such as providing a politician with the “company” of an attractive church member, gave him and his congregation an advantage over other faith-based groups (Layton, 62). Because of his popularity, Jones was around many influential people and given important community positions.

One of his notable honors was being selected chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission by San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Layton, 105). The Mayor was one of his greatest supporters, even sponsoring a Testimonial Dinner in the reverend’s honor (Layton, 105). On one occasion, Jones hosted a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr.’ s Birthday and shared the podium with Governor Brown and the Chief of President Carter’s Transition Team (Layton, 105). When Ronald Reagan was the governor of California, he sent the Temple a thank-you note to the Temple for all of their hard work in the community (Layton, 35). His most noteworthy advocates include President Carter’s wife, civil rights leader Angela Davis, Pastor Cecil Williams, and Indian rights activist Dennis Banks (Layton, 65). With such an entourage, it is easy to see why Jones had success Despite his outlandish doctrine and often erratic behavior.

Deborah Layton notes that “many California politicians were gradually entangled in our web by coming to our defense or responding to our gracious pleas for help” (Layton, 62). They were entangled because they did not want to sacrifice the nearly 20,000 voters from San Francisco and Los Angeles that Jones had won over (Layton, 111). Without the politicians’ support, the Temple would not have gotten away with their illegal and dangerous practices. They were saved time and time again from investigations because of their political influence.

Brainwashing and Abuse: Early On, Media Coverage, In Jonestown

Peoples Temple members did not experience abuse or brainwashing until its move to California. It was this move that changed Jones’ spirit from one of compassion to one of control. He was constantly increasing his power over his congregation. He accomplished his goal quite successfully. As his power grew, the members “endured more and more threats and suffered tighter and tighter restrictions” (Layton, 65). He isolated his members from their families, in essence keeping them from their support system, so when they were “paddled publicly” for laughing, “beaten with a rubber hose” or “beaten before the entire community for ‘crimes’ such as not conforming to prohibitions on smoking,” they had nowhere to turn (Layton,59). If the leadership learned that a member wanted to leave the church or when a member did leave the church, some were put on observation, but more frequently a death sentence was put on them. It was no secret within the congregation that if you left, you could pay the ultimate price. Members consoled themselves “by remembering these punishments were nothing compared to being captured by the enemy and tortured to death” (Layton, 177).

Jones’ brainwashing and abuse escalated to new levels as the members arrived in Jonestown. There is great evidence of mind control tactics, most notably sleep deprivation and exhaustion. The residents of Jonestown worked in the fields six days a week from 8AM until 6 PM (Layton, 169), and after their small dinners, participated in evening agricultural meetings that would sometimes last until 2 AM (Layton, 157). Though the residents were kept on this strict schedule, there were no calendars in Jonestown (Layton, 123). Jones’ voice would be booming over the loudspeakers without stopping, every day, all day (Knapp 2). “There was fatigue”; “everyone was defeated and tired” (McCormick Maaga, 126). Though the residents were exhausted and wanted to sleep, falling asleep during their all night agricultural meetings was not an option. Jones told them that sleeping “proved that your head was in the wrong place, which made you more susceptible to committing treason” (Layton, 175) and was reason to be punished. Jones followed through with his threats on a regular basis. On one occasion, an elderly man who fell asleep during a late night meeting was called out of in front of the entire group and had a python snake placed around his neck causing him to defecate on himself from fear (Layton, 176). Jim further intimidated the residents with the armed guards who were called the “Red Brigade” (Whittle and Thorpe, 19). The Red Brigade carried semiautomatic weapons and stood watch in the sugar cane fields, around the perimeter of the compound and other various locations. If a member did not respect the Red Brigade or expressed dissatisfaction, they would be “reeducated” or punished. Those who were reeducated were people who did not adapt to the new way of life immediately and were assigned to the Learning Committee, taking socialism classes and tests in addition to their daily work. If they “continued to voice unhappiness or dissatisfaction,” they would be severely beaten (Layton, 176) in front of the entire crowd while Jones watched with a smile (Galanter, 122). One woman was “accused of violating the rule of celibacy was forced to submit to intercourse with a man she disliked while the entire colony watched” (Galanter, 122). Though the public beatings were a regular occurrence, there were far worse consequences for those who continued to break the rules, run away, or those who Jones felt should be tortured into submission immediately.

There were three different torture “tools” that were used in Jonestown. The first was the Well, which is what it sounds like, a well. Those who were chosen to be tortured in this way were “hung upside down by a rope around their ankles and dunked into the water again and again while someone hidden inside the well grabbed at them to scare them” (Layton, 176). The Well was the most widely used punishment for children, who were taken their in the middle of the night for “misbehaving” (Knapp, 3). The most common reasons people were punished in the Well “included stealing food from the kitchen, expressing homesickness, failing a socialism exam, or even natural childish rebelliousness” (Layton, 176). The other regularly used method of punishment was the Box, a six-by-four foot underground enclosure that was scorching hot, dark, and claustrophobic (Knapp 2). One man was kept in the Box for over 10 days, a startling fact since those who were kept there were given only mush to eat and drink (Layton, 176). If all of these punishments did not silence a resident, they were taken to the medical unit (Layton, 176) where they would be “drugged to the point of incapacitation” (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 27). After the final suicides, an investigation of the compound found that “the quantity of psychoactive drugs at the settlement seemed to indicate the possibility of widespread behavioral control or modification” (Moore, 1).

Given this fact and the other evidence and testimonies of brainwashing and abuse, it is clear why over 900 people would acquiesce to their leaders command to kill themselves without question. According to Robert Todd Carroll, the author of The Skeptics Dictionary, a cult leader’s “goal is (to) make the recruits vulnerable, to get them to give up whatever control over their thoughts and actions they might have. The goal is to make the cult members feel like passengers on a rudderless ship on a stormy sea. The recruiter or cult leader has a rudder and only he can guide the ship to safety.” Jim Jones did just this.


When Jones was searching for a place to move his congregation, he was looking at several different countries, but finally chose Guyana. Guyana is a South American country that borders the Caribbean, with a socialist government. It had a small population made up of mostly East Indians, blacks, and a mixture of Chinese, Europeans, and indigenous Amerindians (Layton, 144). The United States Embassy was in Georgetown, the nation’s capitol and the main port. Port Kaituma was a small village populated with only a handful of people (Layton, 149). Everything in Guyana was old and rundown, the people lived in shacks and the poor emissions regulations allowed pollution to deface the skies. Despite this fact, Jones found potential in the country.

Guyana was a good choice for the Temple because it was not well known or monitored on the international scene. Guyana was ideal in many other ways for the Temple as well. Its ethnically diverse population and socialist government represented what Peoples Temple was all about (Lewis, 101). During the 1970s, Guyana’s national government was on the verge of bankruptcy and was without funding for its impoverished population, making it glad to have the revenue from the Temple (Layton, 144). Though Jonestown brought in a lot of revenue, its impact was much greater than financial.

The Guyanese police and local residents made numerous claims on the atrocities they believed were occurring in Jonestown. They told stories of beatings and described what they believed to be a “torture hole” in the compound (Steel, 2). When the Guyanese officials went to investigate, they were denied entry into the compound and told they “had no authority there” (Steel, 2). Instead of getting the American Embassy involved, the local law enforcement were told to leave the situation alone because of the Temple’s close connections to diplomats as well as the Prime Minister (Layton, 141). On the day of the final suicides, there was a group of Guyanese soldiers and civilians who were at the airstrip when Congressman Leo Ryan and others were shot and killed, but “none of them attempted to intervene, and none…came forward later to offer witness testimony” (Blanco). This fact shows how Jim Jones’ intimidation reached much farther than just in Jonestown; it impacted the government, law enforcement, and people of Guyana just the same. The morning after the suicides, the Guyanese Army Rescue Forces were the first official law enforcement to arrive in Jonestown, but were too late as everyone had already died (Steel, 3). Some have speculated that the Guyanese Army was aware that the suicides were going to occur and allowed the group enough time to go through with their plan without any intervention. Whatever the case, it is important to recognize the importance the country played in the success of Jones’ master plan. Without the right backdrop for his “Promised Land,” it would not succeed. Evidently Guyana was the correct selection.

Jonestown: Movement To, Statistics, Daily Life and Duties

Although Peoples Temple generally had a good reputation in the community and with politicians, rising pressures and the possibility of investigations prompted Jones to begin a search for a relocation of his congregation (McCormick Maaga, 56). His search included places in California and Brazil, but his final choice was the socialist, South American country of Guyana (McCormick Maaga, 100) to follow through with his vision of a self-sufficient community based on the ideals of socialism and communism (Steel, 4). Jones expressed his excitement for to his congregation saying, “We will live as free men and women, no longer chattel, in a country which has offered us a place of our own and to join in their Socialist endeavor” (Layton, 99). So began the establishment and movement to the “Promised Land,” although the exodus was slow at first. Between 1974, when Jones was first granted permission to build his colony, to early 1977, Jonestown’s population went from only 50 to 900 residents. This drastic population growth was a result of increasingly serious accusations and scandals in California. When New West Magazine announced its intention to publish an extremely incriminating story about Peoples Temple, Jones encouraged all of his followers to move immediately to Jonestown (Layton, 113). After their sudden immigration to Guyana, the government asked for a break to process all of the applications, but when Jones “promised to deposit a half-million dollars in the Bank of Guyana” the group was allowed to continue their mass migration (Layton, 109). The people who moved to Jonestown “believed that Guyana would be…a paradise” (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 21) and that “everyone would be equal and could live in peace” (Steel, 4). At first it was just this, but as more people moved in, so did tension and unrest.

The plot of land that Jones had leased was 3,000 acres of jungle land which had been developed into residential one-room cabins, a school, and sugar cane fields for the residents to farm (Layton, 137). The one-room cabins were by no means beautiful inside. A typical cabin had twelve bunk beds stacked closely together without any air circulation or bathrooms and those couples who wanted to live together had to have their case reviewed and approved (Layton, 151-52). Though the landscape was diverse, Jonestown’s population was not. One source estimates that the population was made up of 49% black women, 22% black men, 10% white men, 0-2% other/mulatto, while another source estimates a larger population (5-10%) of the “other/mulatto” category (McCormick Maaga,9). Nearly one third of the population were under nineteen years old and nearly 150 members of the population were over 65 years old (McCormick Maaga, 9). The climate of Guyana was very tropical, so Jonestown’s temperature usually reached over 100ºF (Layton, 170). This tropical climate coupled with a daily diet of rice soup and bread caused serious problems for the residents when high fevers and diarrhea struck over half the community in February 1978 (Knapp, 7). With dwindling supplies and increased sickness came increased dissent and paranoia for Jones.

Daily life in Jonestown was a huge change for most of the residents when they first arrived. It was unlike anything they had ever experienced, even in the worst ghettos of Los Angeles. Most of the adults spent their days working the fields while the children attended school. Those in leadership and those who impressed Jones were given better job assignments such as teaching socialism classes (McCormick Maaga, 157). Several times a week, there were communal meetings to discuss agriculture, socialism, and spiritual issues until late at night (Layton, 157). The living conditions and hygiene were disgusting as residents were allowed to shower for no more than two minutes after working in the field each day, were bitten by strange bugs, and often struggled to get enough to eat other than their daily diet of rice and water (Layton, 170). These low living standards are somewhat alarming considering over $65,00 in monthly welfare payments (Steel, 18) were being sent to Jones as well as the millions of dollars Jones’ followers had deposited in the name of Peoples Temple in bank accounts across Europe (Layton, 170). Despite this confusion, residents learned to keep their heads down and not to talk unless it was absolutely necessary (Layton, 151).

Children: Role, Abuse, Murder

Throughout Jones’ career, he advocated adoption of children (Steel, 6) and his passion for children. In this spirit, children were an important part of life in Jonestown. When the group moved to Guyana, all children were “surrendered to communal care” (McCormick Maaga, 113) and were “only allowed to see their real parents briefly at night” (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 30). All of the children addressed Jones as “Dad,” undoubtedly a somewhat upsetting experience for their parents to go through. While the adults were in the field, the children stayed at the compound at school. Though Jones valued children, he was not understanding and they were abused for childish behaviors. Most children were “dangled head-first into the well late at night,” and Jones “had terrified the children by making them believe there was a monster living at the bottom of the well” (Knapp 2-3). Children might even be sentenced to a stay in the Box for misbehaving (Layton, 176). In the end, the children were not spared from death. When one woman asked for the children to be spared, Jones simply said that nobody would care for their children once they were dead and that they would “take our babies and torture them” (Layton, 180). Because of the bitter taste of the juice, mothers and fathers sprayed the poison into their own children’s mouths with syringes, leaving over 200 babies and small children dead (Steel, 3).


Although most of the members of Peoples Temple stayed with the Temple until their deaths in November 1978, there were a number of people who defected. Unfortunately those who were brave enough to leave regularly turned up dead soon after. There were “veiled threats and innuendoes that some of the members who had questioned or tried to leave had been ‘taken care of’ “; such instances include one ex-member being mysteriously crushed between two railroad cars and another being killed driving her car (Layton, 61). These occurrences kept any members quiet who had dissenting viewpoints out of fear, assuring that the Temple’s secrecy would be kept. For those who could still recognize right from wrong and wanted to leave Jonestown, there was little chance. Furthermore, those “members who attempted to run away were drugged to the point of incapacitation” or killed (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 27). The only successful escape on record before the final suicides is that of Deborah Layton. Below is an excerpt from her sworn affidavit, written just four weeks after her escape from Jonestown.

35. In April, 1978, I was reassigned to Georgetown. I became determined to escape or die trying. I surreptitiously contacted my sister, who wired me a plane ticket. After I received the ticket, I sought the assistance of the United States Embassy in arranging to leave Guyana. Rev. Jones had instructed us that he had a spy working in the United States Embassy and that he would know if anyone went to the embassy for help. For this reason, I was very fearful.

Her affidavit was front page news across the country immediately. “She went to the U.S. consulate and later to newspapers with a warning. Jones was conducting drills for a mass-murder-suicide” (Knapp 2). This startling testimony confirmed any concerns that relatives had been expressing to Congressman Leo Ryan. These relatives, officially known as the Concerned Relatives, along with Deborah Layton’s affidavit pushed Congressman Ryan to hire “an attorney to interview former Peoples Temple members and relatives of members to determine whether there had been any violations of Federal and California State laws” (Steel, 1). The results of his interviews were undoubtedly startling as testimonies of “social security irregularities, human rights violations” and people “being held against their will” surfaced (Steel, 1). Based on his startling discoveries, Ryan decided that it was time to make a personal visit to Jonestown.

Families: The Concerned Relatives Group, Visit to Jonestown, Loses

One of the most important factors in the government’s decision to investigate Peoples Temple was the determination the families of members being held in Jonestown. These families formed a group known as the Concerned Relatives. Jones himself was uneasy about the families. He warned his leadership team that “the traitors have begun an organization called Concerned Relatives…They are trying to organize families concerned about their kids to join forces against us” and have “joined forces with the CIA” (Layton, 178-79). Jones believed that if they started contacting their congressmen, the Temple would be in huge trouble (Layton, 178). Despite his incorrect paranoia about CIA involvement, Jones was correct about one thing; the families did contact their congressmen and they had decided to make a visit to Jonestown in order to foil any of Jones’ plans for a mass suicide.

In November 1978, several members of the Concerned Relatives decided to make the trip to Jonestown with Congressman Ryan and his entourage of assistants and media members. Their trip was to last from November 12-18. Some of the family members included Anthony Katsaris, Jim Cobb, and Carolyn Houston Boyd (Whittle and Thorpe, 20). All of them had come to bring home a spouse, child, or other loved one; none of them would return with who they came for. Those who could not persuade their loved ones to leave left without hope as the mass suicide occurred the day they left Jonestown. The family losses varied in degree, from one loss to losses in the double-digits. Jynona Norwood lost her mother and 26 other family members, the largest recorded loss from any of the members’ relatives (Knapp 2). Another relative, Harold Cordell, lost 14 family members ranging from only two years old to 79 years old (Judge, 149). Though others like only lost a few family members, their loss and pain was still great. One such man, Sherwin Harris, a member of the Concerned Relatives lost his ex-wife and daughter on that fateful day in November (Steel, 3).

Government Involvement: Why, Visit to Jonestown, Violence

Many people were confused why the government was getting involved in the affairs of Peoples Temple; however, after the Deborah Layton’s affidavit was released to the press, there was little doubt left. Her story, along with “newspaper articles and from direct requests for assistance from concerned families whose relatives had disappeared,,”’ led Congressman Leo Ryan to take action (Steel, 1). Through his investigation, he determined that the people of Jonestown may be being held against their will and were in grave danger of death or serious bodily harm. After meetings with members of the State Department, Congressman Ryan was given permission to make a personal visit to Jonestown (Steel, 1).

Congressman Ryan contacted the legal representatives for Peoples Temple Charles Garry and Mark Lane to notify them that he would coming between Jonestown November 12-18 with a team of 18 people (Layton, 137). Initially his requests were denied as because Jones gave unreasonable stipulations for the visit. Finally Congressman Ryan notified Lane and Garry the he was leaving for Guyana November 14 th “regardless of Jones’ schedule or willingness” (Knapp, 3). The group’s arrival received less than a happy welcome in Georgetown, where they were told their accommodations were no longer available and they would need to find a new place to stay (Moore, 3). Congressman Ryan was, however, able to organize a meeting between Ambassador Burke and the Concerned Relatives (Steel, 1). When the group later arrived at the Peoples Temple headquarters in Georgetown, they were greeted by Laura Kohl and Sharon Amos. Sharon warned the group that their visit was unscheduled (Steel, 2). This did not matter to Ryan who made the decision to go forward with his visit to the compound. Finally, Jones consented to the representatives’ visit, and all were allowed to go to Jonestown except for one NBC reporter who had negatively reported on the Temple (Steel, 2).

When they arrived in Jonestown, the group was given tours by members Jones had carefully selected (Galanter, 122). According to one source, “Jones had run rehearsals in how to receive Ryan’s delegation, to convince them that everyone was happy” (Lewis, 103). The reaction to the group was wide-ranging, from those who felt their lives were being imposed on to those who were unaffected and went about with their daily routines (Galanter, 123). That night, the “delegation was served food and entertained by a music presentation”; however, Jones only allowed Congressman Ryan and five others to spend the night, including the legal team for the Temple (Steel, 2).

While the delegation had been talking to the members the day before, “many individuals told Ryan of their desire to leave” (Steel, 2). The first to contact the group was Vernon Gosney, who passed a note to an NBC reported reading “Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby. Please help us get out of Jonestown” (McCormick Maaga, 41). The next day when the reporters handed Jones the note, he was furious (Moore, 3) and his fury continued to build as over a dozen more members, including five members the Bogue family and six members of the Parks family, chose to leave with the group on November 18 th (Layton, 179). He publicly played the defections off by telling “them they would be welcome to come back at any time” (Judge, 149); however Jones was cringing inside. When interviewed later, the head of Jones’ legal team, Charles Garry said that, “When 14 of his people decided to go out with Ryan, Jones went mad. He thought it was a repudiation of his work. I tried to tell him that 14 out of 1200 was damn good. But Jones was desolate” (McCormick Maaga, 128). His reaction to such a small number of defectors shows how crazy Jones was to really think that they would end everything (McCormick Maaga, 128). Of the defectors, a majority were white, demonstrating the dire situation the black members of the Temple were in. They “did not have much to return to in urban California nor did they have the economic resources with which to make the transition once they had thrown in their lot with Jones and the Temple” (McCormick Maaga, 14).

Despite the apparent genuineness of these defectors, several loyal members actually faked defections in order to attack Ryan when he was least expecting it. Before the congressional delegation left Jonestown, Don Sly, a loyal member attacked Congressman Ryan with a knife, but was quickly stopped by onlooking Peoples Temple members (Hougan, 6). This demonstrated that Jones had given only a few of his followers to take “drastic action without any other loyalists knowing…resulting in…confusion” (Hougan, 7). Finally, as the teams loaded the planes at the Port Kaituma airstrip, however, a group of Peoples Temple members surrounded the group of defectors, media members, and delegates on the airstrip and began to open fire, killing “Congressman Ryan, news team members Brown, Robinson, and Harris, and 44 year-old Jonestown defector Patricia Parks” within less that a few minutes of shooting (Whittle and Thorpe, 8). Bob Brown captured several seconds of the shooting on camera even as he was being shot dead (Whittle and Thorpe, 9). While violence broke out on the airstrip, Larry Layton, a Temple member posing as a defector, opened fire inside one of the aircraft, wounding two before he was subdued. The “wounded and most of the survivors were airlifted from Port Kaituma before nightfall and transferred to US Air Force medical evacuation” (Steel, 3).

Final Suicide: Facilitation, Dissent, Process, Escapes, Death Toll

As the people gathered with anticipation in the pavilion for what they believed would be another White Night, they did not know of the violence that had broken out at the Port Kaituma airstrip, that the congressman was dead, or that this would be they were living their final moments on Earth. When the group finally congregated at the center pavilion, Jones told them that he had a vision that violence had broken out and that he knew someone would kill the congressman (Steel, 3) saying “You can’t take off with people’s children without expecting a violent reaction.” He warned that political forces (the CIA) would attack very soon, that the compound was “under siege” (Layton, 179). He told them that “To die in revolutionary suicide is to live forever” (Knapp, 1) and that “the time has come for us meet in another place” (Knapp 2). Jones and members of the inner circle raised reincarnation, a key part of the Temple’s doctrine, to calm people down (McCormick Maaga, 9). Jones’ paranoia had reached an all time high. He believed that he no longer would be able to control his congregation, so he decided he would only control them in death (Steel, 10).

Though many of the members agreed with Jones’ every word, several people did dissent, including Jones’ own wife, Marceline, who thought they could use an alternative strategy (Meiers, 325). Christine Miller can be heard vehemently dissenting to Jones’ plan in the final suicide recording. Though her thought process was obviously distorted, she bravely raised several points and concerns to the entire group. Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the recording.

Cultist Christine Miller: Is it too late for Russia? [The colony had considered fleeing to Russia if life became too difficult in Guyana.]

Jones: It’s too late. I can’t control these people. They’ve gone with the guns. And it’s too late.

Miller: Well, I say let’s make an airlift to Russia. I don’t think nothing is impossible, if you believe it.

Jones: How are we going to do that?

How are you going to airlift to Russia?

Miller: Well, I thought they said if we got in an emergency, they gave you a code to let them know.

Jones: No, they didn’t. [Apparently to pacify the woman, Jones said he would try to check with the Russians, but doubted it would help.] To me death is not a fearful thing. It’s living that’s cursed. It’s not worth living like this.

Miller: I think that there were too few who left for 1,200 people to give their lives for those people that left.

Jones: Do you know how many left?

Miller: Oh, 20-odd. That’s small compared to what’s here.

Jones: 20-odd. But what’s gonna happen when they don’t leave? When they get on the plane and the plane goes down? That plane’ll come out of the air There’s no way you fly a plane without a pilot. You think Russia’s gonna want us with all this stigma? We had some value, but now we don’t have any value.

Miller: Well, I don’t see it like that.

I mean, I feel like that as long as there’s life there’s hope.

Jones: Well, everybody dies. I haven’t seen anybody yet didn’t die. And I like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell. Tired of it. [Applause.]

Miller: But I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live.

Jones: But don’t they deserve much more? They deserve peace.

Miller: I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. And I have a right to choose mine, and everybody else has a right to choose theirs.

Jones: The best testimony we can make is to leave this goddam world. [After applause, more argument breaks out in the crowd. Jones’ voice, remarkably controlled, begins to rise.] Everybody hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Lay down your burdens. Down by the riverside. Shall we lay them down here by the side of Guyana? When they start parachuting out of the air, they’ll shoot some of our innocent babies. Can you let them take your child?

Voices: No! No! No!

(“Hurry, My Children, Hurry”, 1-4)

Jones pressed on, asking for some medicine, which had already been mixed into a vat of Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide and Valium, a formula calculated by Dr. Laurence Schacht, and distributed by Nurse Annie Moore, and others (Meiers, 324). The drink was brought to the pavilion and passed out. A woman then came over the loudspeakers and told the mothers to inject the poison into their children’s mouths using plastic syringes. Although, “loyalists with crossbows and firearms formed a circle around the area where the poison was being” passed out, the leadership still asked those who were at the beginning of the line were told to lie down, so that those in line would not reconsider (Steel, 19); however those adults, who had doubts about dying, did not hesitate once they saw their children die (Landau, 4). Because most complied with the orders, there was little violence; however, there is evidence that some people were forced to drink the cyanide-laced drink by security guards (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 1). Everyone who drank the poison most likely died within no more than five minutes (Steel, 18). While the rest of the congregation lay dead, Jim and his inner circle gathered for one last time. Jones was found by Guyanese officials with a gunshot through his head. It is still unknown whether he committed suicide or was shot by a member of the inner circle who did not believe he would go through with the death. Some sources have speculated that Jones was indeed murdered because he had millions of dollars in bank accounts waiting for him in Europe.

Though 98% of Peoples Temple died that day in Jonestown, several members escaped death for various reasons. Leslie Wilson was among those who had caught wind of Jones’ plan and she and eight others pretended to go on a picnic in order to escape (Knapp, 1). The Peoples Temple basketball team, including Jones’ sons Jim Jones Jr. and Stephan Jones, was playing a game away from Jonestown on the day of the suicides (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 2). Though some of the members who were at the Georgetown headquarters committed suicide, some did not. On record, only four Jonestown residents escaped without being shot by the guards. Two hid: 36-year-old Odell Rhodes, and 25-year-old Stanley Clayton (Knapp, 3). While Clayton and Rhodes struggled through the jungle that night, they reached Port Kaituma around 2 A.M. Sunday morning (Steel, 3). Hyacinth Thrash, a 76-year-old woman, slept through the event, and speculation is that any guards who entered her cabin must have thought she was already dead. The fourth escapee, 79-year-old Grover Davis was ironically saved as a result of his poor hearing. When Jones had made the announcements to begin the suicide, he did not hear them (Knapp, 3).

There is often confusion as to many of the more technical aspects of the Peoples Temple’s story; however, one of the most confusing parts of it was the death toll. Initial reports from the U.S. State Department were that “only 408 American citizens had committed suicide,” but this death toll soon increased to a final death toll of 913 (Steel, 1-3). Of these more than 900, the “Guyanese coroner showed that as many as 700 were murders, not suicides,” but this figure has never been confirmed by the United States government because they decided not to conduct autopsies on the victims (Steel, 12). The break down of this number gives a lot of insight into the makeup of the group. About 260 of those who died were children and an overwhelming majority were black (Galanter, 11).

Conspiracy Theories

Despite Jim Jones’ constantly paranoid belief that the CIA was after him and the Temple, numerous theories have been developed for and against any conspiracies concerning the group. The greatest evidence for any conspiracy is undoubtedly the ever changing death toll. The difference between 400 bodies and 900 is great, but the only explanation for such a disparity is that the bodies that were not initially counted were covering up the remaining bodies (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 4). Some have speculated that Jones was part of the CIA (Hougan, 2) and that the CIA used a body double, while he fled to Israel (Moore, 3). Some rumors circulated that “CIA agents were posing as members of the Peoples Temple cult to gather info; others suggest the agency was conducting a mind-control experiment” (Knapp, 2). Further evidence for CIA involvement includes the publishing of Richard Dwyer’s (Deputy Chief of Mission from the US Embassy at Georgetown, Guyana) name in Who’s Who in the CIA (Steel, 11).

Although there are several arguments for conspiracies, there have also been various groups that have brought up very valid arguments against such theories. The most notable group is the House Select Committee on Intelligence which released a statement explaining they had “determined that the CIA had no advance knowledge of the mass murder-suicide” (Knapp, 2). Furthermore, there is “no evidence…that mercenaries or Guyanese soldiers, or indeed anyone else, were present in the jungle” (Lewis, 101). Finally the questions surrounding how Jones died are also evidence; “if the whole thing was framed…why would ‘they’ be so sloppy about details: just shoot Jones and put the gun in his hand.” Though countless conspiracy theories and scenarios do exist, they are not very probable. Unfortunately because many documents have yet to be declassified, we may never be able to know exactly what happened (Meiers, 326).

Post-Suicide Analysis

When a tragedy such as the one that occurred on November 18, 1978, all people want to know is “Why?” Unfortunately, many have taken the tragedy of Jonestown at face value. Rebecca Moore, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, said this about the incident: “The real tragedy of Jonestown is not only that it occurred, but that so few chose to ask themselves why or how, so few sought to find out the facts behind the bizarre tale used to explain away the death of more than 900 people” (Judge,151-2). Her viewpoint is one rarely brought up, but important nonetheless. She asks us to delve deep into the tragedy rather than talk about it as if 900 crazy people killed themselves for no reason at all. Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 family members in Jonestown, explains that “The people of Jonestown went to Guyana to live, not to die” (Knapp, 1). Deborah Layton adds to this by explaining that “in America where we have so much, there is a loss of identity, a loneliness, and people are looking for community,” one reason why the members submitted to their leader’s final plans (“Jonestown survivors recall fateful day”, 2). The families and friends of those who were lost in Jonestown want us to “Remember the people of Jonestown, not for their horrible deaths, but for who they were –people in search of a better world” (Knapp, 3). Jynona Norwood believes that this is possible, that “We will build a better world” (Knapp, 1).


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