Why did Peoples Temple make so many audiotapes?

Following the deaths in Jonestown, the FBI recovered more than 950 audiotapes. About 750 have some conversation recorded by members of Peoples Temple; the balance were music tapes, including purchased cassettes, bootlegs, and off-air recordings of classical music programming on San Francisco stations, as well as about 20 blank tapes. There were untold scores – if not hundreds – of other tapes in the Temple’s locations in the U.S., virtually all of which were destroyed within a month after November 18, 1978.

But why were there so many tapes? There are several answers to the question.

First, there were three separate Temple locations in California, all of which held Sunday services. Jim Jones could be at only one. While oftentimes there would be a stand-in for him – his wife Marceline or an associate pastor like David Wise or Hue Fortson – many people attended Temple services to hear Jim Jones, and Jim Jones wanted to be heard. The solution was to tape Jones’ address to one congregation and to play it before another the following week. Numerous descriptions of services in the Temple’s files include the notation, “Tape of J played.”

Second, the Temple recorded tapes to create its own documentary legacy. A number of tapes – Q 575, Q 627, and Q 671 among them – feature broadcast interviews with Jim Jones, most of which were recorded off air. Similarly, the Temple taped television and radio news stories about the Temple (Q 611, Q 680, Q 681), even when the stories were unfavorable.

The people of Jonestown also wanted to create records of their own press conferences both to ensure accuracy in reporting and to challenge the media accounts that were not. A press conference held over the ham radio with reporters in Charles Garry’s office is one example; a second press conference in Garry’s office from the same period, this one featuring relatives sympathetic to the Jonestown project, is another.

The best example of Jim Jones wanting to be sure that his words would become part of history is, of course, what has come to be known as the death tape.

The practice of getting people on the record extended to telephone conversations in which only the person making the tape knew about the recording. A custody battle underwritten by the Concerned Relatives organization to force the return of a child named Dana Truss from Jonestown to the States – a dispute which was just getting under way when Leo Ryan landed in Guyana – would have been complicated by the Temple’s recording of a phone conversation from March 1977 during which Dana’s mother says, “I gave her to [my mother].” In an effort to get private investigator Joe Mazor to say something about his client, the Concerned Relatives, and to disclose the methods he claims he used to bring children back from Jonestown, Temple member Carol McCoy called Mazor, posing as an “uptight” mother. If someone could hurt the Temple, the group would do its best to get that person on tape.

The tapes had a different purpose in Jonestown. Jim Jones recorded his daily reading of the news, and the radio room played the tapes over and over, to make sure it reached people who may have been working out of earshot – in the fields, in the jungle, in Port Kaituma – when the tape was made. The people of Jonestown were held responsible for knowing the contents of the news, sometimes being denied a meal, or at least having to return to the end of the line, if they couldn’t answer a question about the day’s news. “I demand that you study this tape,” Jones says on a tape from mid-August 1978; “Thus ends of the reading of the news. Now you can study it, then go into Russian [class] from there,” he says in a tape from November 7, 1978.

Moreover, taping the news allowed Jones to go back and edit out mistakes he made in his reading and to include additional commentary, as illustrated on Q 887.

Tapes also preserved Jones’ instructions to the community, both for reference and for more immediate reminders. “We want everything in apple pie order,” Jones says on Q 234 as Jonestown began its preparations for Ryan’s visit, “It can be coordinated by re-listening to this tape. It is taped. I have broadcast it for taping.” Other instructions to the community are found on tapes Q 227 (“All of you going to have to take notes on this,” Jones says as the tape opens), Q 212 and Q 326.

Finally, there was the use to which Jim Jones put some tapes on a regular basis, a practice which former Temple insider – and eventual apostate – Mike Cartmell refers to as “review, instruct, and police.” Members of Peoples Temple who met or talked on the phone with outsiders often recorded the conversations. These tapes would be turned over to Jones, who would listen to them over and over again to see how the Temple member conveyed the message, whether it hewed to the party line, what words the member chose and what intonations came through in the voice. What should have been said here? why did the person choose that word there? couldn’t they have remembered what we talked about yesterday? does this sentence suggest some disloyalty? – all of these were fair game for Jones’ analysis, according to Mike Cartmell.

Moreover, the tapes would be discussed in Planning Commission meetings, even at times during meetings of larger groups, including the entire Jonestown community.

No one was exempt from this rigorous and controlling examination, Cartmell says, including Jones’ top lieutenants and even his wife. Even the tapes that reflected poorly on the Temple movement – tapes which seem as though they should have been discarded without a single playback, much less retained for vigorous scrutiny – survived the death of the Jonestown community. Indeed, it is possibly the only explanation as to why the Temple kept Q 775 from November 1973, during which Marceline Jones and Sharon Amos unsuccessfully try to bring two high-level defectors back into the fold (and during which Sharon Amos defends Jim Jones’ sexual relations with an underage girl, and during which Marceline is obviously humiliated by the revelations); and the first half of Q 693 from October 1978, during which Marceline – again unsuccessfully, again humiliated – tries to entice her adopted daughter Suzanne back into the movement.

Whatever the motivations for recording the tapes, though, history is the beneficiary. We are fortunate the community did make audiotapes of meetings, sermons, rallies, healings, beatings, and other activities, for they give us profound insight into life in Peoples Temple.