William “Bill” Traylor and Peoples Temple

For years as I was growing up, I had heard vague intimations from my father and his siblings that their father (my grandfather), William “Bill” Traylor, had known and served as a lawyer for the Rev. Jim Jones in some unexplained capacity during the 1950’s and 1960’s in Indianapolis, Indiana. On the surface, this assertion seemed somewhat implausible to me. As a child, I knew my grandfather as a formal, reserved and taciturn man. He tutored me in algebra, speaking in the clipped, formal cadences of the Army officer that he’d been during the Second World War. He rarely if ever spoke of his past, other than to wax nostalgic over his apparently distinguished time as a high school track runner.

Upon further thinking, however, the connection between my grandfather and Jones didn’t seem so far fetched. Although born and bred in rural Indiana at the time of the Ku Klux Klan’s apex of political and social influence in the state, my grandfather spent much of his life as an advocate for the disenfranchised. From serving as chairman of the Legal Services Society in Indianapolis in the 1960’s,  to suing the city of Philadelphia on behalf of Spanish-speaking voters of Puerto Rican descent in the 1970’s,  to lending support to protesting African-American law students at his academic home of Temple University in the 1980’s, he seemed incapable of remaining neutral when a juicy opportunity to fight for his values presented itself.

Recently, my curiosity piqued and more focused, I began to read more of the well-known sources on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. A long standing urban legend among residents of the dormitory where I resided at Indiana University held that Jones had roomed there during his tenure as a student in Bloomington. Reading Raven, Tim Reiterman’s excellent biography of Jim Jones, put this legend to rest: it appears that there was another student with the same name who did in fact live in my dorm during the early 50’s. Probing more deeply into the mysteries of the polarities of Jones’ Manichean mood swings, I read David Chidester’s Salvation and Suicide, there to discover that Jones and his followers were more politically involved and radically egalitarian, for better and for worse, than I had ever imagined.

Still, a nagging doubt lingered in my mind. If it was true that my grandfather really represented Jones and/or Peoples Temple, why then had his name not shown up in any of the books or primary source documents and recordings that I had encountered?

Initial requests to search for his name in the archives of the Jonestown Institute, the Indiana Historical Society, and the California Historical Society yielded nothing. Appeals to various former members of the Temple likewise failed to uncover any confirmation. On the verge of throwing in the towel and giving up, my father pitched me a suggestion that intrigued me. Instead of searching the archives under my grandfather’s name, what if we use the name of Johnson and Weaver, the renown Indianapolis law firm where he was a partner. Skeptically, but with some renewed hope, I proposed this query to archivist Marie Silva at the California Historical Society. Within a few days, Marie replied that she’d found what I’d only dreamed of unearthing: two letters that my grandfather wrote to Jim Jones, and a series of legal documents that pertained to his role as an administrator of Temple property in Indianapolis.

Even with the intellectual satisfaction of obtaining written proof of my grandfather’s relationship with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, certain vexing unanswered questions still remain. How did he feel about the events of November 18th, 1978? Did he make first contact to offer his services to the Temple, or was he approached by Jones or a Temple member for help? What, if any, contact or communication did he have with subsequent Temple lawyers such as Tim Stoen, Gene Chaikin, Charles Garry, or Mark Lane? Unless I find something in my grandfather’s papers – a discovery which I don’t expect to make – these questions will join myriads of others without answer. We can only hope for another juncture of serendipity which has brought us this far.

(Gabriel Traylor may be reached at gabriel.traylor@gmail.com.)