Why are there so many conspiracy theories about what happened in Jonestown?

In the weeks and months after Jonestown, a number of conspiracy theories about the true nature of the deaths and the government agencies behind them began to emerge. Among the scenarios which gained immediate traction and which linger 30 years later:

  • Jonestown was a giant Petri dish run in which a federal intelligence agency tested either drugs and/or psychological techniques to perfect its techniques for mind control, and either the agency’s cover was about to be blown or the experiment had outlived its usefulness;
  • Jim Jones was a rogue CIA agent whose increasingly erratic behavior meant that he had to be eliminated, and those responsible for his death didn’t care if 900 others had to perish with him;
  • The target of the hit was actually Rep. Leo Ryan, who had sponsored legislation to curb the CIA’s abuses over the previous decades, and – as with the previous scenario – those responsible for his death didn’t care if 900 others had to perish with him.

There are a number of reasons that the tragedy in Jonestown was such a fertile breeding ground for alternatives to the explanation offered by the press and government investigations. The first is the tenor of the times. In a period of political assassinations, the social upheavals of the civil rights and antiwar movements, and American manipulations of foreign governments, the existence of real and imagined conspiracies was part of the national conversation. Sinister forces were believed to be behind the deaths of Pres. John Kennedy and Martin Luther King – conspiracies which were outlined in part by Temple lawyer Mark Lane – and had been demonstrated to have played a part in the deaths of Black Panther leaders and the demise of several anti-government groups on both the right and left. As a result, everyone was skeptical of the official story, whatever it was.

The language of conspiracy found an especially fervent voice in Jonestown itself. Beyond the endorsement of the larger, more well-known conspiracies, the Temple leadership had another example of secret government interference: that against the Temple itself. In Jonestown’s public meetings – as shown in Tape Q 277, Tape Q 245, Tape Q 242, and Tape Q 051, among many others – Jones speaks of the “conspiracy against us.” In Annie Moore’s last letter to her family, written a few weeks before the deaths, she expresses relief that the conspiracy against them will be exposed before they’re all dead. The proof of the conspiracy’s existence seemed to have been the deaths themselves.

Even if one considered Jones’ speeches as hyperbole, fear-mongering, or evidence of paranoia, the claims of conspiracy against the Temple could not be completely discounted. While conclusive proof of manipulation or interference by the era’s bugaboos – the FBI and the CIA – has yet to be presented, the fact remains that several other federal agencies did take an interest in the Temple and did represent a threat to Jonestown’s existence. The Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Communications Commission, and the U.S. Customs Service all had the Temple on agency radar screens during the last year of its existence, and much of the governmental interest had been encouraged, if not initiated, by family members and Temple apostates, including those in the Concerned Relatives. For a number of people, the step from FCC monitoring of HAM radio transmissions from Jonestown to CIA monitoring of the same signals was a small one.

The events of November 18 itself – the enormity of the tragedy, the conflicting evidence found on the ground, and some of the initial findings in the aftermath – suggested the work of darker forces. The supposed presence of an American official with alleged CIA connections as the deaths took place (discussed here), the daily rise in the body count throughout the first week (discussed here), and even the positioning of the bodies, all gave initial credence to the theories that arose.

Perhaps most profoundly, however, were the unanswerable questions raised by the deaths themselves. How could a religious organization that offered such basic human services to its members and that worked for peace and social justice in the United States end in this manner? How could the carnage have taken almost everyone in Jonestown that day? Most incomprehensibly, how could they have killed the children? The end of Peoples Temple was so far outside of anything known to human experience, there had to be another explanation. And so, people looked for it, and found it in the comparatively comforting language of conspiracy.

A longer discussion of conspiracies appears here.