Who Could Have Stopped The Deaths In Jonestown?

It qualifies as a frequently asked question, both to me and to other survivors of the Jonestown tragedy: could the deaths have been stopped that day, and if so, who could have stopped them? There is no definitive answer, of course, and nothing we can present that isn’t speculative at best. But it’s an important question and deserves attention.

The factors that led up to the events of the final day range from the nebulous, ill-defined aspects of the organization, such as the Temple’s inner workings, to the specific, such as the occasions that members of the Planning Commission drank something that they were told afterwards was poisoned. They include long and winding chains of events: the controversy over the death of Bob Houston, leading to Bob’s father contacting his friend and congressman, leading to the decision of that congressman – Leo Ryan – to come to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission. They include the immediate repercussions of spontaneous decisions, such as Ryan’s acquiescence to media demands to return to Jonestown on the 18th, so that they could get some footage of the community during daylight hours.

Even acknowledging all these things – even after considering that the Jonestown leadership had made the fateful decision to die that day – could anyone have done anything to change the course of events of the last four hours, once Jim gathered all Jonestown residents into the Pavilion?

I have come to understand how thoroughly the plans had been made. Probably ten people or so in Jonestown knew of them – among them, Jim, his wife Marceline, Carolyn Moore Layton, Annie Moore, Maria Katsaris, Tish Leroy, Dr. Larry Schacht, Sharon Amos, Mike Prokes – as well as some in San Francisco and possibly Los Angeles who had been given a code that would inform them when it was time to take lives. Of these, with the notable exception of Marceline, I believe the rest of the group members rubber-stamped Jim’s intent.

And the plans were both thorough and complete. Carolyn had written at least one memo outlining the suicide option, and Annie wrote another note to Jim describing different options for death. The stockpile in cyanide in Jonestown had been laid in for at least six months. Larry Schacht had tested the poison on pigs to determine and fine-tune the necessary dosage to kill people. Although the decision to implement the plan likely didn’t crystallize until early November, when Jonestown learned of the congressman’s plans to come, the final details of the actual poisoning may have been worked out as late as the evening before, as the leadership delegated individual responsibilities for the next day.

Within Jonestown itself, the vast majority of residents believed in the community. Despite some grumblings of disenchantment, they still regarded Jim as the respected – and in many cases – worshipped leader who had proven himself over the years to be trusted implicitly. I was part of this group. The smaller group of leaders was directly involved with Jim on a daily basis and knew of his plans, even as they recognized his deteriorating health and functioning. Many of these people were infected by Jim’s insanity, which eclipsed their own intelligence, integrity, and even sanity. Unquestionably, we were all in denial of the crevices forming in our community structure in general, and in Jim’s personality in particular.

The only way that Jim could have been stopped would have been if one person in his inner group had just paused long enough to assess the situation, and realized that it was insane. Anyone who knows about Peoples Temple realizes that no one felt safe expressing any criticism, much less engaging others in negative conversations, so it would have been a difficult process. Whichever person in the leadership group who opposed the plan would have had to seek out allies who were respected members of the community, and explain the crisis at hand. Eventually, if those few went out and recruited others, until there was a cohesive and diverse group of eight or ten people, they might have been able to stop it.

The important thing is that no one person could have stopped it.  It would have to be a group of absolutely committed folks who wouldn’t back down, a group that would have to have been organized long before November 18. And even then, it would have had to organize and time things perfectly on that day. Everything would have to be done before any infants were given poison. Jim knew us well – we were there for our children – so he started with the youngest ones. No individual could act after that moment to stop it.

Jim had trained us to be his loyal followers. We were exhausted and crazed ourselves. He had made sure that any spur-of-the-moment argument would not be tolerated by mob rule that he had established. When Christine Miller argued against death, Jim stayed silent, letting other residents shout her down in his stead. Even at the end, he was brilliant. He was incoherent also, but no one was focused on him and his mental state. People solidified behind him, giving him support as if he were under attack from Christine. He brought us into Peoples Temple as our protector, and at the end, the crazed people of Jonestown unified to protect his wishes.

So who could have had the kind of influence to stem the tide of death before it began to flow? The only possible dissenters I see in the larger Jonestown leadership group are Annie, Prokes, Stephan Jones, Harriet Tropp, Kay Nelson, and Joyce Touchette. If any of them had joined with a handful from among a dozen people – Alice Ingram, John Cobb, Jimmy Jones, Tom Grubbs, Johnny Brown, Dick Tropp, Ava Brown, Marthea and Shirley Hicks, Dianna Wilkerson, Jim McElvane, Joyce Parks, Judy Ijames – maybe it could have been stopped. Perhaps there were some other strong voices in the community which would have joined the rebellion, once it got started.

But, as it happened, many of these people were out of Jonestown at that time. The basketball team – with Stephan, Jimmy, Johnny and others – was in Georgetown for a previously-scheduled tournament. Joyce Parks was in Venezuela buying medical supplies. Jim McElvane had only just arrived and was too fresh to the community for anyone to approach him. The others just … didn’t.

I also think Jim felt he had everything under control, once the congressional party left Jonestown for the Port Kaituma airstrip. He wasn’t afraid of anything anymore, and didn’t expect anyone to counter him. The decision to challenge the decision would have been as courageous as that of the young man who stood up in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Someone would have had to just stop it. It just didn’t happen.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)