When I first became interested in Jonestown and Peoples Temple, part of what fascinated me were the families, including the large, extended families which joined the Temple. Some families, such as the Bogues, Parks, and Cordells, were with the Temple from its earliest days in Indiana. These families not only contributed numerous members to the organization, they fulfilled important roles within it. For a long while, the Cordell family intrigued me the most: 20-some family members – either blood-related or adopted – linked together in life within the Temple and death in Jonestown. It still seems an unfathomable loss.
Then I read of the Lewis/Norwood family, which reportedly lost 27 members, a number which would put them at the top of the unenviable category of “largest number of relatives lost.” I’ve come to think of this group as “The Norwood 27,” because a central member of this family was Fairy Lee Norwood: her daughter, Dr. Jynona Norwood, is a Los Angeles-area pastor who has held a memorial service at Evergreen Cemetery every November 18th since 1979; and her brother, Fred Lewis, lost his wife and children in Jonestown. Jynona and Fred were often featured together in news coverage of the memorial service, and invariably, the stories reported that the Norwood/Lewis family lost 27 members in the tragedy.
It’s a shocking number. Surely, I thought, the greater part of the extended family must have been decimated in the tragedy. But who were they? I found numerous articles where the Norwood 27 is mentioned, but no place in which all 27 individuals are named. The largest listing I could find was on the family tree section of this website. There, on the Fred Lewis tree, I saw that the family lost Doris Lewis (wife of Fred Lewis, aunt of Jynona Norwood), along with Fred and Doris Lewis’ seven children: Adrienne, Alecha, Barry, Casandra, Freddie Jr., Lisa, and Karen. Those names are also inscribed on a memorial plaque that Fred Lewis placed in Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery near the site of the mass grave of the unclaimed Jonestown victims. These were also the names that remained etched onto Fred’s heart in his later years, as he faded into illness and dementia. As we see in a news article twenty years after the deaths in Jonestown, he still evoked the number 27, but he was able to recall only the names of his immediate family.
But these lists account for only nine of the Norwood 27.
I found the name of the tenth relative on Dr. Norwood’s website, which claims that the youngest person who died at Jonestown was one of her cousins: Charles Garry Henderson, who was not yet three months old when he perished. His parents were Charles Douglas (“Chuckie”) Henderson and Delores Henderson (nee Bowman). If we include all of the extended relatives of this nuclear family, we can account for 12 additional lives lost. Adding these individuals to the Norwood/Lewis family brings the total to 21. But then I get stuck again. Who are the remaining six? And more fundamentally, what is the family connection between the Lewis/Norwood family and the Henderson family? Are they first cousins, second cousins, or more distantly related? Is the Henderson/Bowman group actually related through Jynona Norwood’s aunt Doris Lewis? I’ve been unable to uncover any information that makes the link. Some months ago, I sent an email to Dr. Norwood, requesting that she share some information with me about her family. However, I never received a response to my inquiry, so I remain in the dark on this issue.
Still speculating, I considered that some of the unknown links to the Henderson clan may actually be through the father of Jynona Norwood’s son Eddie. In a news article covering the 10-year anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, Eddie’s father is mentioned as a member of Peoples Temple, although the story does not indicate the man’s name or his fate. Thus, I do not know whether Eddie’s father died at Jonestown or whether he had family members who perished there. If so, those lives lost might be included in the Norwood 27. But without further information, I am at another brick wall.
I now suspect that the Norwood 27 is a bit of a misnomer. I do not question that 27 people who were loved by Fred Lewis and Jynona Norwood died in Jonestown. I merely think that they were not all blood relations. In reviewing Dr. Norwood’s own website, I believe I have found confirmation of this. In her invitation to her 2012 memorial service at Evergreen Cemetery, she writes:
Twenty-seven (27) of our relatives died in Jonestown… including my beloved mother, Fairy Lee Norwood, 17 cousins under the age of 18, with the youngest one aged 3-months old. With the remaining loved ones being an aunt, seniors, and a host of friends. What anguish for our family; my mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and almost 17 minor cousins are buried at Evergreen.
Dr. Norwood’s own suggestion here that the number includes “a host of friends” would mean the long-accepted description of “27 relatives” lost in Jonestown is an unfortunate misrepresentation.
Why is all of this important? I actually don’t think that it’s relevant to argue about numbers lost, per se. Is someone who lost 10 family members more entitled to grieve than someone who lost one or two relatives? In other words, is someone who lost 10 family members five times more depressed, upset, stressed, traumatized, or devastated than someone who lost only two? Is it that quantifiable? Does that also make the loss for people who lost friends but not actual blood relatives any less devastating? Most survivors could easily name more than 27 dearly-loved people whom they lost that day. Indeed, the members of the Temple saw themselves as a large extended family, and sometimes they raised one another’s children. Relationships – blood or not – were complicated. Speak to Jonestown survivors, and you will soon discover how much they miss and grieve for lost friends – friends who felt like family.
There’s no way to measure emotional grief in terms of numbers, or even of relationship. If we try, we risk diminishing and disrespecting everyone who survived. So maybe it’s time to stop talking about numbers and just talk about people.
But the Norwood 27 issue is also important from a research standpoint. For those interested in genealogy, knowing the family relationships among Temple members is partly of historical significance. From a psychological and sociological standpoint, however, I think that to really understand the greater organization of Peoples Temple, it is helpful to understand the individuals within the organization, along with their family relationships and background. Thus, even though my efforts have proven unsuccessful to date, I am still interested to know the identities of the Norwood 27, and also to know more about their individual stories. I’m writing this piece with the hope that someone who is able to fill-in at least a few of the blanks in the family record for the Norwood/Lewis relationship tree will do just that, so that those studying Jonestown and Peoples Temple may better understand members of the group, their inter-relationships, and their roles and identities within the community.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles are here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)