Abraham used them hypothetically when pleading for the Lord to not destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Moses posed them to God when asking the Lord what he should say if people did not buy his burning bush story. Children drive their parents to distraction with questions such as, “What if an elephant fell on our car?” Disappointed sports fans eat their hearts out for decades shadow boxing with those words. And historians use them to ponder the possibilities of alternative history: What if Adolf Hitler had not ordered the irrational invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941? What if John Lennon never met Paul McCartney? What if the United States’ invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs had been a success? What if John F. Kennedy had opted not to visit Dallas in November 1963? And what if California Congressman Leo Ryan had not insisted on visiting the charismatic minister Jim Jones at his Jonestown compound in Guyana in November 1978?
Who is Jim Jones?
Most are familiar with the names “Hitler,” “Lennon & McCartney,” and “Kennedy” and have at least a rudimentary idea of those individuals’ places in history. For many, though, “Jim Jones,” “Jonestown,” and “Leo Ryan” may be names that are as obscure as the names of the valleys on the Moon. So, who was Jim Jones? What was Jonestown? Why did Leo Ryan feel the need to go there? And what difference did it make if he did?
Jim Jones was a twentieth century, Indiana-born, charismatic minister and committed Socialist, who, in 1961, at the age of thirty, became convinced that the Hoosier State was destined to be destroyed in a nuclear war. Reading in Esquire magazine that Ukiah in rural Mendocino County, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, would survive such an attack, Jones relocated his church, Peoples Temple, there in 1965.
With an unavoidable personal charisma and a social gospel rooted firmly in the teachings of Karl Marx, Jones quickly amassed a large and devoted following, which, at its height, numbered more than three thousand members. These followers would later be described during a May 1979 Congressional hearing as “highly altruistic and idealistically committed to worthy social goals.”
Alexander the Great is said to have confessed, “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep [but] I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Jim Jones knew most people, particularly politicians, feel the same way, and, with his own private army devoted to what Jim Jones termed “Apostolic Socialism,” he was a force to be reckoned with in the San Francisco of the 1970s, which appointed him Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission in 1975.
But city hall was not the only place where Jones brandished his power; he did so as well at Peoples Temple, where it would become clear by 1977 that not all was well. In that year, several defectors from the congregation overtly proclaimed Jim Jones had become a dictatorial megalomaniac who often abused his congregants (both physically and emotionally), treated them as little more than slaves, and misappropriated their property. That summer, a negative article, which all but demanded that Jones’ activity and behavior be investigated, ran in New West Magazine. In response to it, Jones fled to the jungles of Guyana, where, with one thousand of his followers, he erected Jonestown, which he insisted would be a Socialist asylum from the outside world. It was not to be.
In Jonestown, Jones – obsessed with death, rumored to be abusing prescription drugs, and consumed by declining physical health, paranoia, and thoughts of suicide – became a law unto his self, who publicly rebuked his followers for the slightest infraction and administered inconsistent punishments at his whim. As Charles A. Krause puts it, “Jones’ paranoia, power and manipulation fed on themselves. His delusions…had nothing to check them when he secluded his mission in the Guyana rain forest.”
Having by then made what could arguably be described as a mental break from reality, Jones fluctuated between manic periods in which he was by turn a slothful and self-pitying shut-in and then “the paranoid messiah of a terrorized but devoted congregation whose end he predicted nightly at the hands of dark, encircling forces: the CIA, the Ku Klux Klan, racism, fascism, nuclear holocaust.”
Jones’ dark prediction became a self-fulfilling prophecy in November 1978, when – responding to unrelenting allegations from relatives of Peoples Temples members that Jonestown was practically a gulag and Jones’ mistreatment of his flock had only intensified since his escape to the jungle – California Congressman Leo Ryan travelled to Guyana on a fact-finding mission to determine just what was going on inside Jonestown.
What Ryan found in Jonestown, alongside literally countless people who claimed that they had never been happier in their lives, were nearly one thousand overworked and severely undernourished people, many of whom were infected with “Jones’ contagious paranoia” and too fearful to express their honest feelings about Jim Jones and life in Jonestown.
A small contingent of defectors, though, eventually came forward and begged Congressman Ryan to take them with him when he left Jonestown. And that was more than Jones’ fragile ego could bear, as the departure of any of his followers was enough to make him believe he had failed completely.
Moreover, despite Leo Ryan’s announcement that he intended to file a largely favorable report regarding Jonestown, the return of any former Jonestown members to the United States signaled – particularly in Jones’ mind – the very real likelihood of more negative press about Jones. And, as Deborah Layton Blakey would later say of him, “[Jones] felt that as a consequence of having been ridiculed and maligned [by the media], he would be denied a place in history.” And Jones’ despondency – aggravated by his declining health (both mental and physical), alleged abuse of prescription drugs, despair over the death of his mother, anger at being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, fear of having a child which he claimed to have fathered forcibly removed from Jonestown, and various other frustrations – set into motion a reprehensible series of events which culminated in death.
Specifically, by days’ end on November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, three newsmen, and one Peoples Temple defector lay dead on the tarmac of a Guyanese airstrip where they had been shot by members of Jim Jones’ ever faithful security squad. Nine others including Congressman Ryan’s assistant were wounded. Also dead, inside Jonestown, was the death-obsessed Jim Jones, whose end had come via a possibly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. More tragic, though, were the more than 900 members of Peoples Temple who – at Jim Jones’ insistence – had died in Jonestown as a result of consuming cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.
Thus, Jim Jones’ dream of a sovereign utopia was over, along with the lives of more than 900 persons.
But what if…?
So, what if Congressman Leo Ryan had never gone to Jonestown or had been turned away at its gate? Had Ryan not visited Jonestown, would something else have triggered an identical outcome? If Ryan had delayed his visit to Guyana, would ill health have soon killed Jim Jones? Would there have been a revolt against Jim Jones, a “palace coup” if one will, in which he would have been toppled as Jonestown’s leader? And had the 1978 deaths not occurred would Peoples Temple still exist today?
What if Ryan had not visited Jonestown, would something else have triggered an outcome identical to the suicides of 1978?
This author’s speculative opinion is yes, as long as Jim Jones was alive and in Guyana, for the seclusion of the jungle provided the underpinning for the deaths. As Dr. J. Thomas Ungerleider stated in 1978:
This wouldn’t have happened if [Jonestown] hadn’t been so isolated…With no feedback from the outside world you can do incredible things with peer pressure. Paranoia becomes a useful tool. It’s a binding force. With it, you’ll engage in peer-pressure activities even more.
The reasoning would be echoed in the 1979 Congressional Hearing, when George Berdes offered, “[T]he remoteness of the jungle in which Jonestown was located…fed the very paranoia which Jim Jones played on and used so effectively.”
The isolation and remoteness empowered Jones and enabled him to foist elaborate lies on his followers, such as false claims that (non-existent) Guyanese soldiers patrolling the jungles surrounding Jonestown had standing orders to shoot anyone attempting to escape. Jones, particularly since he had confiscated everyone’s passport, also deceived his followers with bogus assertions that Guyana’s government would not allow fleeing Peoples Temple members to leave the country. Thus, at least in this author’s estimation, there is no question that Peoples Temple’s continued presence in the jungle would have continued to provide the psychological preconditioning required for a mass suicide.
Granted, nothing mandates that such isolation ends in suicide. And it is entirely possible that, had Congressman Ryan not travelled to Guyana, Jones (and in turn Peoples Temple) would never have gone off the proverbial rails. However, what cannot be overlooked is the reality that one of the other logically necessary ingredients for violence on such a grand scale – namely a group leader predisposed to such an undertaking – was readily at hand in Jonestown. In fact, not only was Jones utterly obsessed with death by November 1978 , one could argue that he was a suicide seeking a reason and place to happen.
Jim Jones, says Charles Krause, “made his first mass suicide threat in September 1977, threatening the deaths of all his followers in a mere dispute over a custody case involving one child.” And, in the fourteen intervening months, between the original threat of suicide and its actual execution, Jones insisted that Jonestown’s members engage in suicide drills at least twice. Moreover, in the months leading up to November 1978, he spoke of suicide with increasing frequency and was often obsessed with his own mortality. In fact, just days before the Ryan delegation made its trek to Jonestown – when Jones’ despondency over Congressman Ryan’s impending visit and the fallout he envisioned had reached its apex – Jones’ wife, Marceline, scolded him with the words, “Are you out of your mind…You want these people [members of Peoples Temple] to stay in Jonestown, and you’re talking about suicide right before this congressman comes in.” Marceline Jones’ admonition would go unheeded.
On the last day of his life, Jones vacillated between comments ranging from “I didn’t sweat to come over here and die in no f___in’ jungle” to “I don’t want to be one of those people in their golden years” and “Sometimes I feel like a dying man.” The most telling statement of any Jones made that day, though, was to a Peoples Temple member who unsuccessfully attempted to remind Jones that, “As long as there’s life, there’s hope.” Reacting to such simple and sincere hopefulness, Jones made the audacious claim, “Without me, life has no meaning.”
Jones, who could not fathom a world without himself in it, had been grieving his own demise (both physically and as the leader of Jonestown) for some time. Yet, in his final hours, Jones seemed to not only welcome death, but in fact wished to hasten it. This is apparent on the final Jonestown recording, in which Jones was perhaps more honest than he had ever been in his life, when he begged his followers to join him in death with the admonition, “For God’s sake, let’s get on with it…Let’s just be done with it. Let’s be done with the agony of it…no sorrow that it’s all over. I’m glad it’s over…No more pain now…I’m tired of it all.”
Jones’ ramblings evidence a long festering emotional anguish and suggest the possibility that Ryan’s visit to Jonestown was the anticipated vehicle via which Jones would force his final apocalyptic vision upon his followers, namely, he would surrender to death – which terrified him – but he would not die alone. Ryan’s visit may have been what Jones had long been seeking: an event large enough to justify his fantasy of becoming a martyr via what he believed would be an act of revolutionary suicide. In this regard, Jones’ son, Stephan, would insist in 1992, that, at the time of the 1978 suicides, “Jonestown was a powder keg ready to explode at any time.”
Accordingly, it is this author’s opinion that, regardless of whether Ryan had visited Guyana or not, via one means or another, Jones would have eventually encountered or created an incident justifying – at least in his own mind – a mass death. Of course, given a set of circumstances different than those that actually occurred (i.e., one that would have made it more difficult for Jones to convince his followers that officials were coming to torture them), the extent to which such would have succeeded remains debatable.
In any event, and as previously stated, it is this author’s opinion that, so long as Peoples Temple was sequestered in the jungles of Guyana, and as long as Jim Jones was at its helm, the threat of suicide and death would have been constants in Jonestown.
What is certain is that the mass deaths would not have happened at Jonestown had Jim Jones’ own death occurred prior to November 1978. And this leads us to our next question.
What if Ryan had delayed his visit to Guyana, would Jim Jones have soon been dead anyway because of ill health?
This question is debatable, but it is entirely possible that Jim Jones was in the process of dying at the time of Ryan’s visit. And, if so, this might help explain the eagerness with which he pressed for death. The autopsy on Jim Jones was performed post-embalming and the report proper does not reflect any evidence of abnormality within Jones’ body that would have been fatal in and of itself. That is not to say, however, that, at the time of his death, Jones was not dying.
In the days before Ryan’s visit to Jonestown, Jones notified his inner circle that he had become too sick to chair directors’ meetings, and Marceline Jones had recently informed her sister that Jones was “very sick.” The manner in which this news was relayed led Marceline Jones’ sister to presume her sister was telling her Jones was dying. And, by the time Ryan arrived in Jonestown, Jones was wearing a gauze mask, required assistance walking, his body was swollen by edema, with his hands “almost twice their normal size”, and he was “complaining that he had not urinated in four days.” Jones’ attorney, Mark Lane, would attribute at least this latter condition to Jones’ prostate problems. There was definitely something physically wrong with Jim Jones, something that, particularly if he was receiving medical attention solely from the infirmary at Jonestown, may very well have been on its way to proving fatal. But what was its cause?
Had Jim Jones contracted a disease in the Guyanese jungles that was quietly killing him? Or was his ill health the result of chronic behaviors that were finally catching up with him and taking their toll on him? Specifically, Jonestown’s infirmary, it has been reported, was well-stocked in the way of pharmaceuticals. In her final months, Marceline Jones would tell her family that Jim Jones’ drug usage was either causing or aggravating paranoia. An example of Jones’ dependence on drugs manifested itself at the time of Ryan’s visit, when Jones was overheard requesting that Marceline Jones provide him with “a pill,” which she refused him. And near toxic doses of prescription barbiturates were found in Jones’ system at the time of his autopsy.
Certainly, the extent of Jones’ drug usage may have become exaggerated in the thirty-four years since his death, and it may have just been Jones’ bad luck that Ryan arrived in Jonestown during a week in which Jones was sick. There is simply not enough documentary evidence to make an informed decision regarding the true state of Jim Jones’ health since medical records concerning his health and/or drug usage were not maintained during his final months in Guyana. However, where one finds smoke, one oftentimes finds fire. So, common sense dictates that the possibility that Jim Jones was dying in November 1978 cannot be discounted.
What if there had been a revolt brewing against Jim Jones at Jonestown?
Based upon the discussions which are known to have occurred at Jonestown regarding ousting Jones, a coup attempt against him was not likely imminent.
Of this time in the group’s history, defector Terri Buford would remark, “Jonestown would have been a nice place to be without [Jim] Jones.” But such succinctness, although true, diminishes the reality that, by November 1978, like a malevolent caricature of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Jim Jones was displaying signs of paranoia, behaving increasingly irrationally, and unable to function in his role as the leader of Jonestown.
This truth was not lost on the members of Jonestown, particularly those closest to him. During one exceptionally heated conversation during this period for instance, Marceline Jones would exclaim to her husband, “I’ve been keeping this place together [recently], not you.” And many dreamed of and spoke often of a Jonestown without Jim Jones at its helm. This included Jim Jones’ wife, Marceline, and at least two of Jones’ sons, Stephan and Tim. Tim Jones, in fact, would, in the group’s final months, declare more than once that his father deserved to be murdered because of recent behaviors his son deemed diabolical. Yet, seemingly no one, particularly the two people who would have been indispensable in making such a cause a reality – Marceline and Stephan Jones – were prepared to take the steps necessary to grab power away from Jones.
Stephan Jones, according to Tim Reiterman, viewed himself as the natural successor to Jim Jones insofar as a leadership position at Jonestown went. But Stephan had no intention of forcing the issue because he was convinced such an uprising was doomed to fail. For one thing, there were Jones’ security officers, and allegedly armed guards, within Jonestown whose services Jones would have enlisted had he felt threatened. As well, the teenage Stephan knew that, even if Jim Jones was physically removed from power at Jonestown, he would still have to contend with his father’s inner circle – sycophants who backed Jim Jones completely because doing so afforded them power and benefits – which would have been a bigger hurdle to overcome.
Then there were the members of Jonestown. Jim Jones’ attorney, Mark Lane told journalist Charles Krause on the day before the murder of Congressman Ryan, “I believe that 90 percent of the people there will fight to the death to remain.” That may very well have been true, but one must also remember that the group’s members were underfed, malnourished, too weak to engage in revolt, and fearful of being tortured by Jim Jones’ minions. In essence, Jones had found a way to hold nearly one thousand people hostage.
Finally, Marceline, Stephan and Tim Jones all suffered from what would prove to be, for lack of a better term, a fatal optimism. Case in point, during the last year of her life, whenever Marceline Jones would leave Jonestown, she would implore Stephan, “Don’t kill him [Jim Jones]. Something will work out.’”
Unfortunately, nothing worked out. Instead, those who wished to see Jim Jones removed from power convinced themselves that waiting for him to die naturally or become incapacitated (as they worked to “contain his madness”) was the simplest and most acceptable solution to the problem. By so doing, they arrived at a solution that was no solution, and which ultimately proved Edmund Burke’s adage that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
What if the 1978 suicides had not occurred, would Jonestown still exist today?
Provided Jim Jones was removed from the equation, yes, Peoples Temple might very well be around in 2012, although most likely in greatly diminished numbers.
One certainty is that the group would have been required to close up shop in Guyana or, at minimum, relocate large numbers of its group to the United States. There would have been multiple justifications for this shift. If nothing else, the economics and logistics of accomplishing simple things in Jonestown, like feeding members, were proving increasingly difficult. And, had the group not ceased to exist, shuttling members back to the States, where they could acquire jobs that would deliver wages that could go towards the upkeep of Peoples Temple, would have been mandated sooner or later. This would have been particularly true given the advanced age and declining health of many of the group’s older members whose Social Security checks underwrote a good deal of Peoples Temple’s day-to-day operations. Another valid reason for relocating to the United States would have been that with Jones no longer a factor, there would have been no need for the group – which had fled to Guyana in the first place because of Jones’ fear of the press and the law – to remain in Jonestown like a band of fugitives.
Of course, once the group was back in California, with Jones out of the way, it would have been necessary for the group to distance itself from Jones, focus on the name “Peoples Temple” or possibly change its name entirely. In turn, that would have, at least for a time, created additional problems. Numbers would have dropped following the loss of Jones, as they always do when charismatic figures are no longer part of the movement or entity with which they have become identified. In this regard, one must not forget that there is more than one photograph of a Peoples Temple member posing with signs reading, “I believe in Jim Jones.” Granted, to a degree, much of that was part of Jones’ elaborate and effective publicity machine. Still, although the percentage is unknown, there were definitely members of Peoples Temple who wholeheartedly embraced that sentiment.
Finally, the reason justifying the belief that Peoples Temple would still exist in 2012 is found in the language of the 1979 Congressional Hearing on the 1978 deaths in Guyana, where surviving Peoples Temple members were described as a collective of people who were “highly altruistic and idealistically committed to worthy social goals [and it was necessary] to distinguish…between what Jim Jones was and did, and what they believe People’s [Peoples] Temple stood for.” In this regard, it was also noted in 1979 that the remaining Peoples Temple members “still appear to embrace the principles and objectives which they believe People’s Temple sought to achieve.” But so damaged was the reputation of the group by the time that this hearing occurred that any real chance of reconstituting a Peoples Temple that could live up to the group’s original promise (at least under that name) was just one of the many things that died in Jonestown in November 1978. Yet, had the suicides of 1978 not occurred, it is by no means a stretch to suggest that Peoples Temple would still be around in 2012, although most likely in significantly smaller numbers.
Not “what if” but “why”: Closing thoughts
Unfortunately, the events of November 1978 are the reality with which we are left to contend, specifically, Congressman Ryan and nearly a thousand others did die in the heat of the Guyanese jungle because of Jim Jones’ misguided and paranoid vision.
So, what purpose is served by pondering for thousands of words what might have happened had Congressman Ryan not visited Jonestown, had he not been killed, and had Jim Jones not reacted to Ryan’s murder by living out his own death wish while commanding the murders/suicides of almost one thousand people? Ultimately, there is none because what happened thirty-four years ago cannot be undone.
However, untimely and premature death always leave the deceased’s survivors, and in this case, scholars too, to wrestle with the hypotheticals of the situation, to try and make sense of the senseless, and to find logic where there is none. In the end, it is all that is left. And those who remain explore the avenues left to them as a means of honoring those they have lost.
This is particularly true of Jonestown since one-quarter of those who died there were children. Particularly, given that most children not only do not think in terms of suicide but are incapable of committing such an act, their deaths – if not others – must be adjudged murders. And it is by examining the events that occurred at Jonestown that we honor those who needlessly died there and work to ensure that they are never repeated.
(Shawn Sutherland is a graduate of Abilene Christian University who lives and works in the Dallas, Texas area. He is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous articles include “My Name Is David E.V. Smith, and I’m a Violent Revolutionary” and Prophetic Charisma by Len Oakes – A Brief Overview. He may be reached at email@example.com.)
 Exodus 4:1.
 Krause, Charles A. Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account. Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1978, p. 29.
 For more information on Jim Jones as a charismatic prophet, see this author’s article Prophetic Charisma by Len Oakes – A Brief Overview.
 Reiterman, Tim with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982, p. 156.
 Krause, pp. 115-116, 399, and 493-494; and Reiterman, pp. 321, 426-427, 438, 454, 467-468,471, 474-475, 493, 497, 499, and 513.
 Krause, p. 115.
 Reiterman, p. 440.
 Krause, p. 25.
 Reiterman, pp. 393-394 and p. 464.
 Reiterman, p. 321.
 Reiterman, pp. 503 and 539.
 Reiterman, p. 463.
 Krause, p. 115.
 Reiterman, pp. 379, 395 and 399.
 Regarding the total death count, at minimum, the more than 300 children who died at Jonestown must be classified as homicides. Moreover, since Peoples Temple members can be heard on the so-called “Jonestown Death Tape” pleading with the resolute Jim Jones to recognize that suicide was not the only acceptable response to the death of Congressman Ryan, et al., one can only speculate as to the number of adults at Jonestown who were forcibly administered a dose of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid against their will. See Q042 FBI Transcription.
 The members of Ryan’s entourage, including Congressional aide Jackie Speier, as well as the journalists travelling with Ryan, anticipated that they would be refused entry into Jonestown. In fact, Ryan’s request for access was granted only after Jones’ attorney informed Jones that Ryan, in his capacity as a representative of the United States’ government, was likely to visit Jonestown “with or without permission” (Krause, p. 36; Reiterman, pp. 476, 484-485; and Congresswoman remembers day of horror).
 Krause, p. 115.
 Reiterman, p. 451.
 Reiterman, p. 499 and Krause, pp. 115-116.
 Krause, p. 115.
 Reiterman, p. 475.
 Reiterman, p. 469.
 Reiterman, pp. 469, 493, 497 and 515.
 In Search of Truth and Understanding about Jonestown, by John V Moore.
 Reiterman, pp. 426-427, 438, 467-468 and 471.
 Lane, p. 275.
 Reiterman, pp. 449-450, 467 and 513; What was Jim Jones’ mental and physical condition in November 1978?; and Autopsy of Jim Jones. Mark Lane has written, “He [Jim Jones] was sustained by a morphine substitute, injectable Valium, various barbiturates, and codeine” (Lane, p. 87).
 Lane, p. 87.
 Krause, p. 115; Reiterman, pp. 321, 427, 474-475 and 499.
 Reiterman, p. 475. Brackets inserted by Reiterman and Jacobs.
 Reiterman, pp. 456 and 523.
 Reiterman, p. 454.
 Reiterman, p. 403.
 Reiterman, p. 456.
 Reiterman, p. 403.
 Reiterman, p. 455.
 Reiterman, pp. 450-451 and 456.
 Krause, p. 37 and Lane, p. 126.
 Reiterman, pp. 393-394, 450-451 and 503; and Deborah Blakey Affidavit from Lane, p. 436.
 Reiterman, p. 456.
 Reiterman, pp. 403, 450-451, 456 and 522.
 There are numerous examples of this pattern outside of religious movements, such as the entertainment industry and the political spectrum, with countless film and television franchises, musical groups, stage shows, and political movements having suffered diminished audiences and interest following the loss of a magnetic central figure.