Tragedy Of 1978: Massacre At Jonestown

by Rachel Steele

“What started out as a peaceful religious movement came to a tragic ending.”

Imagine you are standing in a line. The night is humid, and there is a hum of confusion all around you. Do you wonder why you are standing in line? You are waiting to die. Your infant brother or sister has just been taken from your mother’s arms. Taken to go have poison injected into their mouth, taken away from you forever. And you know that death is just around the corner for you as well. You can see your friend ahead of you in the line, but they don’t seem to be as worried. He and his family almost look proud; so willing to have their lives taken away from them, all for Father Jones. But you don’t have that feeling. You are still young. You still have a life to live, and that life is slipping away from you like sand through your fingers. . .

The 70’s was a time for racial unrest in the USA. From the 60’s and 70’s the Civil Rights Movement was going on, which is a huge part of American history. Also during this time, there was the Women’s Liberation Movement, and women involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But this was a hard time for the blacks and other races in America. There were countless riots, murders, and it was just a very, very difficult time. This was also the time of Martin Luther King Jr.

It is very clear that the Jonestown massacre was a major tragedy in history. Over 900 innocent people died, because they fell into the hands of a man that many people would like to call psycho. But is it possible that through all that grief and sorrow, all that pain and suffering of Peoples Temple members, we can somehow catch a glimpse through their eyes? To know what it was like for them, either triumph or tragedy?

During this time of racial discrimination, Peoples Temple provided a home for many. It gave them something to belong to. It accepted all, no matter what gender or color. It renewed the hope of many who had given up. A black San Francisco news reporter, Tom Fleming, writes, “All these old people felt they had become somebody through joining the Temple. They weren’t neglected anymore” (Lewis 10). Many of the Temple members were older blacks that lived on the street or came from very poor living conditions, and Peoples Temple turned their lives around.

Yes, Peoples Temple did do a whole lot for the poor, and it did turn people’s lives around. But what good does turning someone’s life around do, if you take it from them? Jim Jones was responsible for the deaths of over 900 people. People who trusted him, who believed in him. The relatives of Peoples Temple members were devastated. Many had not liked the idea of their loved ones joining in the first place.

So is this event a triumph or a tragedy? You decide.

James Warren Jones was born to James Thurman Jones and Lynetta Jones on May 13, 1931 in Lynn, Indiana. When Jim was born, his father was in poor health due to exposure to poisonous gasses during World War One. Jim’s mother, Lynetta, was a factory worker. When Jim was a child, he was nicknamed “Dennis the Menace of Lynn, Indiana” (Kohl). He learned to walk fairly early, teaching himself. The child was somewhat neglected; his parents were not always there for him. As a toddler, young Jimmy would waddle around with a dirty face and bare bottom. “Jimmy’s nudity was perhaps his first attention-getting device” (Reiterman 13). Jim’s mother had taught him to love animals, and he did just that. Often, as a source of entertainment, he played with cats, dogs, and other animals. Many dogs even tagged along with him. Not long after the young boy grew out of his toddler stage, he realized the differences in his life from the other children’s. His mother rarely cared for him during the day, his father didn’t go to work, and his parents did not attend church. His father rarely had time to spend with him, because he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

His early religious guidance came from his neighbor, Myrtle Kennedy. She took care of him during his youth. Myrtle was a member of the Nazarene Church, and she often took the boy to services. But these services weren’t the only services Jim attended. A neighbor said that Jim could go to any church he wanted, and he went to all of them – especially, the Pentecostal services.

Jim was a good student, and around fourth grade he was able to read 7 th and 8 th grade books. This wasn’t just for show. Jim was very intelligent, and he enjoyed reading. However, he could sometimes be a discipline problem, always talking in class without permission. He was an unusual sort of loner who lacked confidence. He seemed to be outspoken in class, but he did not fit in with his peers. He was a noticeably handsome little boy, with a dark complexion, and dark hair. Unlike in his toddler days, cleanliness became an obsession of his. He preferred not to participate in any activities that would make him dirty or sweat. And he groomed himself well. Sometimes, in public when he was talking to people, he would even run a comb through his shiny black hair.

At school, Jim was the type of shy kid who would just sit around and observe the others playing. He was teased by some kids, who kept poking at him to get involved in a fight. But the young boy found conflict fascinating. You could always find him somewhere near the school fights. And he may have been a shy little bookworm at school, but outside of school “in his small circle of neighborhood friends, he was a roguish little natural leader” (Reiterman 15).

Jim Jones was an unusual sort of child. Even in his early years, he showed signs of major emotional instability, or signs of hunger for power or even just strange behavior. For instance, when Jim was a young boy, he and his friend Don liked to go over to the car garage that was near the Jones’ home for a can of soda. Jim never had any spare change for his soda pop, but he knew how to get it. The men at the garage would simply hold out nickels, then ask the little four-year-old to say some words for them. Little Jimmy would start spewing out a stream of cuss words that would give the men great amusement, and they’d give Jimmy the money. Apparently the workers found it quite hilarious to hear a young child saying those words. “Two or three times a week Jimmy Jones cussed for his soda, exhilarated at the power of his own voice” (Reiterman 14).

Jim often preached enthusiastically to his playmates. The Jones family had a loft in the back of their barn. He was frequently found preaching to the other children up there. The loft was his “domain”. It was like his church, and his classroom, it was where he was in control. He hated to be outdone in his own “territory.” “He usually ensured his superiority by claiming positions of authority or special powers in their make-believe games” (Reiterman 20). Sometimes Jim would have his buddies over for a slumber party in the loft. He would keep them awake through the night, talking. Sometimes he would put on frightening performances, where he would shine a flashlight under his chin, or wear a white sheet as he talked about mysterious powers, and laughed in a weird high pitched cackle. “He held ‘uncanny’ power over the other children and over animals” (Weightman 16).

When Jim was of junior high age, his father gave him a BB gun. He usually ignored his new toy. But one summer day, Jim and Don were up in the loft. Jim pointed the gun at Don’s stomach and shot him. Don, being shirtless at the time, pulled out the bronze BB, which was embedded in his skin, and held it in his hand. A sick smile came over Jim’s face.

Jim became an oddity around town. While most boys his age were greatly obsessed with basketball, he would pour over his Bible. He did not like to do what the other boys did. “He still longed for a family, brotherhood, a sense of inclusiveness” (Reiterman 22). During the time of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he read a lot about the war and the people involved, such as Joseph Stalin and Karl Marx, but his favorite was Adolf Hitler. “He studied each as one would study a model, or an idol” (Reiterman 24). The personality and the power of Hitler interested Jones. Even when attending church, the boy was mischievous.

In 1945 Jim’s parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Richmond, Indiana. He was embarrassed by his parents’ breakup. He attended Richmond High School. Jim was still a smart kid. His IQ was 115 to 118. He always was great at public speaking. He took elective courses like algebra, geometry, and physics.

In Richmond, Jim worked as an orderly in a hospital, where he met his future wife, Marceline Baldwin. They were married on June 12, 1949, and then moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. It was in Indianapolis where Jim developed his two main concerns, racial integration and socialism. In the year 1954 Jim Jones left his church, Laurel Street Tabernacle, where he was pastor, in a dispute over racial issues.

Then, in 1955 Jones founded the Wings of Deliverance, which was later changed to the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church.

Many wondered if Peoples Temple was a group or a religion. It started out with beliefs, like all religions have, but it was a little bit of both. It had the beliefs of a religion, the deeds of a group, but later on would be categorized as a cult.

Jones attracted many to the church through his power of “healing.” Jones claimed he could raise people from the dead, but it was his healing that people were attracted to. Even people who didn’t need to be healed joined for protection. The church associated quite a bit with the Disciples of Christ denomination while in Indianapolis. The congregation at the time was 20% black, one of the few interracial churches in the state.

Jim’s first son was named Stephan, but they adopted many other children from other races so they could have a “rainbow family”. Jim moved Peoples Temple to Redwood Valley, California, because the racism in Indiana was very strong.

In California, they built their first church building, and administrative buildings, and set up a care center for senior citizens and mentally challenged youth. The Temple expanded to San Francisco in 1972, and built another church in the heart of the Fillmore district, which was a very poor black community. This attracted thousands of African Americans to join. The church was most effective in San Francisco, because it was highly visible in political views. “People joined the Temple for one of two reasons, to give help or to receive it” (Sawyer 167).

In October of 1973, Jones decided to start a Peoples Temple mission in Guyana, a country in South America. It was the only English speaking country in South America, and it was also a cooperative socialist republic. By March of 1974, the first Peoples Temple members had arrived in Guyana. They called their new home Jonestown. In 1975, about 50 were stationed in Jonestown. In 1977 Jim Jones left the United States for the last time in his life. At this time nearly 1,000 had left for Guyana.

The people lived in closely identical white houses. All of them were lined up in rows. Ex-members would call Jonestown a prison camp. Jim Jones would keep the people up during the night with long speeches blasting over the speakers. Following those late nights were hard days of work in the scorching Guyana sun. Visitors, however, simply saw 900 happy people.

The residents of Jonestown believed they were creating a new society, a new home in which they would escape from racism, sexism, and elitism. It was when blacks and whites could live together in harmony “and would show the world that it was indeed possible to live without hatred” (Moore 211). The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project – Jonestown’s official name –produced lush produce for selling and consumption.

The overall outlook on Jonestown was split. In other words, for some it was the best time in their lives. They loved it there, and they loved Jim Jones. They saw him as a very great man, and many saw him as their god. But for others in Jonestown, life wasn’t so good. Many talk of beatings with heavy wooden boards for little things like forgetting to call him “Father”. And they speak of it like a prison camp. They talk of being treated unfairly. But most of the people enjoyed living in an interracial community, without any persecution. Many people left Peoples Temple when it began to drift away from Christianity.

Meanwhile, back in America, Congressman Leo Ryan had spoken with a long time friend, Robert Houston. Houston explained that his son, Sam Houston, had been found dead a day after he left Peoples Temple. This got the Congressman questioning about Jim Jones and his people, who had just gotten settled in the Guyanese jungle. Ryan spoke with unhappy relatives of the members, who said that their loved ones were being beaten and blackmailed, rather than practicing brotherly love. Ryan kept asking the U.S. State Department to check into the people being mistreated down there. The U.S. embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, sent several staff members to interview 75 Peoples Temple members, and not one of them said that they wanted to leave. But Ryan was still troubled. He decided to just take care of it himself.

Ryan wrote a letter to Jim Jones himself, requesting to visit Jonestown. He got a letter in return from Jones’ controversial attorney Mark Lane, who said that the Temple went to Guyana to escape religious persecution, and that they didn’t need any more of it. He said that Ryan was getting himself into a “witch hunt”. He threatened that the Temple would move to a country that was not U.S.-friendly, like Russia or Cuba, if they weren’t left alone. Then Lane asked if Leo Ryan could postpone the trip to a more convenient time when he could accompany him. Ryan refused. It was time to take matters into his own hands.

The congressman took eight newsmen, along with several relatives of Peoples Temple members, who hoped to persuade their loved ones into returning home with them. The group arrived at the Port Kaituma Airstrip. At Jonestown, all were greeted warmly by a smiling Jones. And the people of Jonestown put on a spectacular performance for their visitors. They had a night of entertainment in the Central Pavilion, and even the congressman was impressed. He stood up and said, “From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people here who think this is the best thing that has happened in their whole life” (Time magazine). Everyone who Ryan had interviewed seemed happy to be there. Jim Jones said, “People are happy now, for the first time in their life” (Time magazine). An NBC news reporter, Don Harris asked Jones about the reports of there being armed guards around the settlement. Jones got angry and declared it a lie. Then, someone pushed a note into Harris’s hand saying, “Four of us want to leave.” By that time, Congressman Ryan had also had a few requests to leave. When they asked Jim about it, he said that everyone was free to come and go as they pleased, but he wanted to give them a hug before they left. But then it happened, Jim Jones started to turn bitter. Some of his people were leaving his grasp.

When Leo Ryan was talking with Jim Jones, a man named Don Sly tried to kill Ryan with a knife. Jones simply stepped back and watched the attack. Two men had to wrestle the knife out of the attacker’s hands. The departing defectors were very worried.

The congressman and his party departed, and headed down the bumpy jungle road towards the Port Kaituma airstrip. As they pulled into the airstrip, Larry Layton, a defector boarded the smaller plane. One of the other defectors said he should be watched closely. As they prepared to leave, a tractor carrying big men pulled into the airstrip. The departing members were very alarmed, even though the men appeared to be unarmed. The tractor got closer, and as it did, the men pulled up firearms and began to shoot. Ron Javers of the San Francisco Chronicle was hit in the left shoulder, then dove behind the wheel of the plane. Larry Layton, the man who had said to be watched, open fired with a pistol in the smaller plane. Despite what had just happened, the smaller plane managed to quickly take off with five survivors. At least ten had been wounded, and Congressman Leo Ryan, and NBC newsmen Don Harris and Bob Brown lay dead on the airstrip along, with a photographer and one of the defectors. Javers, who had hidden behind the wheel and survived, dove into the swampy jungle with his wounded arm, in case the men came back.

Back in Jonestown, none of them were aware of the shooting yet. Little did they know, their last White Night was ahead of them. A “White Night” was when loud speakers would summon all Jonestown residents from their sleep. Jones would give long speeches about the beauty of dying over the speakers. Once the Temple members were summoned out of their bed, they would line up and drink what Jones had told them was a poisonous drink. They would drink it for their “loyalty test” to Jones. After they drank it, Jim informed them that it wasn’t poisonous, and that they passed.

It was November 18, 1978. Jim Jones gathered all of his people together, and told them of the shooting. Everyone was shocked. “They would have destroyed us! They always tell lies when they leave!” (Time magazine). He told them that revolutionary suicide was the answer. He told them it would “dramatize their dedication to their unique calling” (Time magazine). Many didn’t want to, they told him that they valued their lives, and wanted to keep them. He reassured them that they would be dying in dignity. The Jonestown staff mixed up a solution of grape Flavor Aid, which also had cyanide in it. Those who tried to run were chased down and injected with poison. The only way out of this was death. Some, however, got lucky and fled into the jungles to safety. But the others were not as fortunate. They had them line up. They took the children first; the infants had poison injected into their mouths. After they had taken the poison, they were told to go lie down with their families, so that those who didn’t know what was going on would stay calm, and not cause a panic. The poison was supposed to be quick, but it took about five minutes to drain the life out. Those five minutes in Jonestown were very chaotic. People were screaming in pain, vomiting and some were even bleeding. It did not last long. After a short period of time, Jonestown became a ghost town. Once everyone had died, Jim Jones and his staff committed suicide as well. Some were injected with poison, and one was shot. Jim Jones also died of a gunshot wound to his head. Whether he pulled the trigger himself, or had someone else do it, no one knows. And that’s exactly how they found the ghost town. Countless dead bodies lying face down on the ground, their arms linked around their loved ones. Jim Jones and his staff were also lying on the ground dead.

It is very clear that this event is terribly tragic. Many people died, for what they believed in, only to be deceived.

Most people wonder, how on earth this can be a triumph. It may not be a triumph in our eyes, the way we see it. But before Peoples Temple began to drift away from Christianity, it did many good things. It provided a new life for many. “In practical terms, Peoples Temple was a movement that offered sanctuary from racial discrimination, opportunity for education and employment, and the promise of lifelong economic security. In spiritual terms, it offered the experience of community, and the occasion to be a part of something larger than oneself. It did what religion does: it met people’s needs, it provided meaning and purpose. It addressed ultimate concerns” (Sawyer 167). Peoples Temple was the answer to many people’s prayers. According to Gordon K. Lewis, author of Gather with the Saints at the River, “No movement that conferred such a new sense of freedom upon those groups, who are truly the wretched of the materialist contemporary American society, can have been completely evil. When the future historian of Jonestown comes to write its final epitaph, balancing its debit and credit sides, he will surely have to place that achievement to its credit” (Lewis 10).

What started out as a peaceful religious movement came to a tragic ending. Close to 1,000 innocent human beings died that day. They died because of a man they called “Father”, whom they trusted and loved, and even worshipped, only to be deceived. This was the Tragedy of 1978.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 28th, 2014.
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