Last Questions for Jonestown

by Catherine Wessinger

Autobiographies and interviews given by survivors indicate that a number of people in Jonestown were thinking critically about the unhealthy dynamics between Jim Jones and the residents. Even before the final events, beginning with the Eight Revolutionaries in 1973, people had defected from Peoples Temple and Jonestown if they could. Others wanted to leave.

Given these facts, I would like to know why on November 18, 1978, intelligent and loving people carried out murders and attempted murders of members of Congressman Leo Ryan’s party boarding planes at the Port Kaituma airstrip, and why intelligent and loving people back in Jonestown murdered the children and helpless, and then consumed the poison themselves.

If three of the sons of Jim Jones – Stephan Jones (19), Tim Jones (19), and Jimmy Jones (18) – who happened to be in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, had the critical distance to refrain from killing and committing suicide, even attempting to fly back to Jonestown to try to stop the murders and suicides, why did not older and presumably wiser adults make the effort to stop the steady decline into madness? The teenagers’ physical distance from Jonestown on November 18 was not the decisive factor since Sharon Amos (42), also in Georgetown, slit the throats of her three children, Martin Amos (10), Christa Amos (11), and Liane Harris (21), and then slit her own throat. In Jonestown, why did not people support Christine Miller (60) during the final White Night gathering when she spoke to oppose Jim Jones and to argue that the children deserved to live?

If the members, and especially the leaders, of Jonestown and Peoples Temple were committed to the well-being of all members, young and old, able-bodied and feeble, why did they not work together to counteract the paranoid manipulations by Jim Jones? Why could they not see that the survival and well-being of loved ones likely depended on the dismantling of Jonestown and sending people back to the United States? The fact that they were exhausted from Jones’ harangues and the work to try to keep the community viable does not seem to be a complete explanation. People who were also exhausted took the opportunity to leave if it arose.

I would like to know what prevented the guards and members of the inner circle from turning against Jim Jones, stopping the rehearsals for mass suicide, and preventing the distribution of the poison on the last night. The confessions that were signed by Peoples Temple members do not seem to have been a sufficient reason to prevent individuals from stopping the violence on November 18, 1978. Had they confessed to crimes for which they would be convicted if they returned to the United States? If they had committed crimes – confessed or unconfessed – was the avoidance of punishment worth the deaths of those they loved?

Members of the inner circle were aware of Jones’ drug addiction and mental illness. What did the secondary leaders and security guards fear that prevented them from implementing a coup to remove Jones from leadership, perhaps by hastening his demise through drugs, so they could carry out measures either to put Jonestown on an improved economic footing, or to dismantle Jonestown by returning residents to the United States? What were the factors that made it appear rational for them to plan and then carry out the deaths of their loved ones and then themselves?

Earlier in 1978 Carolyn Moore Layton (33) wrote a memo to Jones on “Analysis of Future Prospects,”[1] in which she proposed that people who wanted to leave be permitted to depart, and with a smaller population Jonestown might become economically viable. Why did not Carolyn and/or other leaders take steps to move Jones out of the way so this plan could be implemented?

It is apparent that Jonestown residents were afraid of those who implemented punishments. I would like to have an understanding of the hold that Jones had on the security guards and the leaders that made them willing to carry out extreme actions.

(Catherine Wessinger is the Rev. H. James Yamauchi, S.J. Professor of the History of Religions at Loyola University New Orleans. She is the author of How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate (2000); the editor of Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (2000); and the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (2011). She is co-general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. Her earlier articles for the jonestown report appear here. She may be reached at wessing@loyno.edu.)

Endnotes


[1] Carolyn Layton, “Analysis of Future Prospects,” Memo to Jim Jones, 1978, in Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, Selections from the Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society, ed. Denice Stephenson (San Francisco and Berkeley: California Historical Society Press and Heyday Books, 2005), 105-6. The memo also appears here.

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on April 30th, 2015.
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