No one can answer this question definitively, since few medical records from Jonestown about the Temple leader have been uncovered, and he did not leave his jungle refuge during the last year of his life. There are several indications, however, that he was gravely ill during the final months of Jonestown and may have even been close to death.
First was his undeniable abuse of pharmaceutical drugs. With the active assistance of members of the Jonestown medical staff, Jim Jones put himself on a merry-go-round of stimulants like amphetamine to get himself going – and sometimes going deep into the night when everyone else was ready for bed – and barbiturates like pentobarbital to reduce stress and allow him to sleep. His autopsy founds “levels of pentobarbital … within the toxic range, and in some cases of drug overdose have been sufficient to cause death.” The fact that the use of pentobarbital had not led to his death resulted in part from a “tolerance [that] can be developed to barbiturates over a period of time.”
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the drug abuse had been ongoing for some time, with speculation arising that his constant use of sunglasses was a result of sensitivity to light cause by amphetamine use. There are also several tapes, including one from October 29, 1978, in which Jones speaks so slowly and in such a disjointed manner, with an inability to hold a thought from one moment to the next, that his drugged state is fairly apparent.
Nevertheless, Jones apparently also suffered from an undiagnosed illness which contributed to his overall decline. While his autopsy uncovered “no anatomic evidence of ante mortem disease,” the use of embalming fluid – also discussed in the autopsy – is well-known to have the ability to compromise definitive findings.
Jones noted in several tapes in the final months in Jonestown – including tapes from August 19, September 19, and October 16 – that he was fighting a high temperature. When his friend and longtime supporter Dr. Carlton Goodlett – a physician as well as a newspaper publisher – examined the Temple leader during a visit to Jonestown in August 1978, he expressed his concern about the persistent high fever and urged Jones to seek medical treatment in Georgetown or Caracas. Goodlett was quoted in the press following the deaths in Jonestown as saying that he did not have the knowledge of South American diseases to diagnose the illness, but that he believed Jones would not have lived longer than a few more weeks without medical attention.
In an essay published in The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown (Ed. Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III, Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989) and republished here, Goodlett described his visit this way:
We went into the doctor’s office and examined Jim Jones. He had a spiking temperature which fluctuated between 96 and 102.8 degrees. He also had a deep, nonproductive cough. Physical findings did not indicate any notable pathology. X-rays were normal, without any objective signs of pneumonia, TB, or cancer.
We tried to reassure Jones that he did not suffer from any disease. I did indicate, however, that he might be suffering from a fungus infection of the lung…
Jones’ condition may have deteriorated in the three months after I saw him. If the reports of an increasing dependence on drugs are true, it may have contributed to a severely weakened state by the time Congressman Ryan arrived. The drugs may also have left him with a feeling of helplessness, a condition which could only have been exacerbated by the presence of what the Jonestown residents considered an outside threat. To that degree, then, Jones’ physical health during the last few months of his life may have contributed as much as anything else to the terrible decision to destroy everything he and his followers had built.