Edith Cordell and the Cordell Family Legacy

Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

The first concern that my brother Gene and I had when we visited my Aunt Edith’s house in Indianapolis in the mid-1950s was about the two monkeys she had purchased from Jim Jones. They were crapping all over the house, and we wondered if the droppings were affecting my aunt’s health. Her house was a complete mess, too, and smelled, not only because of the monkeys, but also because of the loneliness she would have endured without them. As it turned out, it wasn’t the monkeys we should have worried about.

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My mother’s father was a Methodist minister, but the Cordell side of the family were members of Pentecostal churches. Since I was raised by my mother and stepfather, I was familiar with the more traditional Protestant services of the Methodist church. When I attended the Oak Hill Pentecostal Church with my Cordell grandparents and saw people drop to the floor and babbling, it was frightening and strange.So when I found my brother Gene and my aunt Edith involved with Jim Jones, I wondered if his preaching techniques were more Pentecostal related.

My brother had told me about the wonderful things Jim was doing for the Black people in his membership. In the context of my family’s history, that made a big difference. My family had been raised to be against slavery, from our Quaker heritage, so we were sympathetic to Jim’s helping the Black people in Indiana. Jonathan Huddleston, our third great-grandfather on our mother’s side, was a Quaker who came to Union County, Indiana in 1815, and was a member of the Salem/Silver Creek Monthly Meeting about three miles from Liberty, Indiana. Jonathan had a general store in Liberty, which was one of the stops for the Underground Railroad, and he hid slaves until the next wagon took them further north.

We are related to Levi Coffin, called the president and leader of the Underground Railroad, who hailed from Fountain City in Wayne County, Indiana, which is only a few miles from where Jim was born and started preaching as a child. More significantly, as I learned in doing genealogical research, we are related to Jim’s wife, Marceline Baldwin, through her Quaker ancestry.

All in all, then, our family was predisposed to see the best in Jim Jones. That is, until my brother witnessed something that made him quit Peoples Temple on the spot.

The Temple owned a rest home in Indianapolis of which Jim was quite proud, and it had a bus which was used for trips for various church and rest home-related purposes. One day in 1957, Gene had been working on the bus at the rest home, fixing the brakes, and when he went inside to wash his hands, he found one of the attendants beating up on an elderly man. Gene reported this to Jim, who responded that Gene’s job was to fix the bus, and that whatever else went on there was none of his business. Gene quit that day and never went back.

Gene’s disgust turned to anger when he discovered that our aunt Edith had turned over the family home at 2048 North Keystone Avenue in Indianapolis, and six what are known as Doubles – two-units-per-building homes – to Jones. The income from the rentals was to support our aunt the rest of her life, while she lived in the family home. My brother filed a lawsuit against Jim to recover the property for our aunt, four or five months before Jim uprooted the Temple in Indianapolis and moved to California. In our family’s view, it was this lawsuit – not the Esquire article – which was the entire reason for the move.

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Once in California, the Temple would hold services in Los Angeles every five weeks or so at a church off of Hoover just north of Pico Street. I lived in LA at the time, and once when Aunt Edith came down on one of the seven busloads, she invited me to attend Sunday services. It was the only way I could see her. She was forbidden to visit her relatives in their homes unless she brought a Black person with her.

I remember the service quite well. I didn’t even have to get inside before I felt like something was wrong. Every white person was shaken down for weapons before going into the church. The services lasted for eight hours – from 10 AM to 6 PM – and despite the obvious fellowship of the thousand people in the pews, there was an unnerving performance in the pulpit. At one moment, Jim is throwing the Bible on the floor, and the next, he’s telling the congregation “Believe in me, I’ll lead you to the future in peace.” During the healing portion of the service, he made a big deal of removing cancer from a woman who arose in health and walked away, when she’d been in agony only a few moments before. Now I’m not that dumb – and in fact at that time I was an employee of the USC Medical School and worked in the Los Angeles County Hospital – and to me, the phony cancer that was supposedly removed looked like a mass of beef liver.

At the end of services at 6 PM, Jim bragged how he was ready to feed everyone. What he didn’t say was that he was feeding them with the food that Temple members who lived in LA had brought to the church.

The other thing I remember from that service was white members telling me, if they couldn’t be free, they were ready to commit suicide and go to heaven in peace. So the idea of suicide – fashioned after Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” and shouted with as much fervor – had been planted in people’s minds early on. These were mostly very poor people that didn’t have much to look forward to. Jim had made a point of serving the poor, and but also of taking them. Between the cries of freedom and defiance, and the numerous fake suicide drills, people were conditioned for the final day, and were likely as shocked as the rest of the world would be when they realized, this time it was for real.

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My aunt Edith had come to the religiosity of Peoples Temple honestly. Her father – my grandfather Richard (Dick) Cordell – had been a traveling minister with a prayer wagon the carried the family and members to various sort of tent worships in the 1910-1920 era. In addition, one of her four brothers, my uncle Robert, had moved to Los Angeles and was a Methodist minister at a church one block north of Sunset on Alvarado Street.

Edith never married. After her only date, my grandma went ballistic over men and how bad they were.

My parents had three sons, which was too much for my mother – she wanted only girls – so when the third son was born, she offered to let Edith to raise my brother Gene when he was three years old. Edith formally adopted him eleven years later, when he was 14. She also adopted Carol Ann Johnson, which made that “distant relative” her daughter.

After Jim Jones took the Temple to California – and my aunt with him – she suddenly found herself in the position of having to work again, to pay for rent on a 16′ trailer on the church property. Even though Edith was 82 at that time – and even after she had already given him seven homes and her monthly Social Security checks – Jim told her he couldn’t support any freeloaders around there, that everyone had to pay their way. But Edith thought Jim Jones was God.

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There were other Cordells who joined Peoples Temple, all following the path Edith had taken. Her adopted daughter Carol Ann had remained with her through the years. Two of Edith’s grandnephews – Harold Cordell Jr., and Richard Cordell – had been among the guards at the LA services that I attended.

So when I got a letter from Edith telling me the Temple was moving to South America where they could be free from the tyranny of America, I knew a lot of Cordells were going with her.

Harold Cordell Jr. survived the deaths in Jonestown. He had left with Congressman Leo Ryan on the last day and was at the airstrip, already standing in the back of the plane, when the shots that killed the congressman rang out. Harold ran into the jungle and waited for rescue. His brother Richard had been in Georgetown for six months before returning to America, and he survived. Richard’s son, Mark Cordell, was on the basketball team and also survived by being in Georgetown. But Edith Cordell died, and so did Carol Ann, and so did her four children, and so did Harold’s wife Loretta and their children, and so did Richard’s wife Barbara and their children, and so many others.

The tragedy did not end in Jonestown. Richard eventually ended up in Puyallup, Washington, where he remarried, but he was so depressed that he had left his family to die in Jonestown, he committed suicide five years later, in December 1983.

Harold also ended up in the Pacific Northwest, returning from Guyana to Lewiston, Idaho where his dad Harold Sr. lived.

But it wasn’t all bad. Mark ended up in South San Francisco, where he married a Black girl, Diana Lynn Hill, in July 1982. That marriage didn’t last, from what I heard, but he has survived and done all right. And my brother Gene, who stayed in Indianapolis, had a long and happy marriage to his wife June, who died in August 2010.

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Our family’s involvement in Jonestown was especially frustrating to me, especially since I’ve studied religion since I was a young teenager, and have learned about all the scams. Here, in my own family, Jim Jones was running one of the best, and we were powerless to stop him. Trying to talk Edith out of the church was useless, she so believed in him. He did do some good things, but his divide and conquer technique worked. No family was allowed to live together even, in California, and more especially in Jonestown. That’s why Harold and Richard could not get their families together to leave.

I’ve analyzed why people need religion, because they fear the unknown. When we are children, we depend on our parents to protect us, when we are grown, we realize parents can’t do everything, but GOD can. So GOD lets little children suffer and die! We are told GOD is testing us. People fear that if they don’t behave, they will suffer forever in hell. And that’s how religious leaders, especially the Catholics, rule, is by fear, not by loving GOD.

There is a lot to being an adult, and wanting to be protected from all danger. We want our children to grow and be healthy, doesn’t always work. I’m 86 and I’m healthy, and I still study and search for answers. So far, the GOD in the sky as the source of religion hasn’t given them to me, and neither have the scam artists who profess to work in GOD’s name.