The Jonestown Massacre

(MacKenzie C. Hanson wrote this paper for Advanced Placement United States History and Honors American Literature at Rosemount High School in Rosemount, Minnesota).


“Jonestown did not begin and end on November 18th, 1978” (Fielding McGehee, personal communication, May 7, 2014). Jonestown is more commonly known for its massacre that occurred on November 18th, 1978 where there was a mixture of suicides and murders adding up to a grand total of 918 people ranging from innocent children to the frail elderly. The location of these deaths included three sites: Jonestown, Port Kaituma, and Georgetown (“Alternative Considerations of Jonestown Peoples Temple”, n.d.) Most people – either by choice or by force – drank a mixture of potassium cyanide and grape fruit punch similar to Kool-Aid. Thus the term “drinking the Kool-Aid” came into American slang, used to describe any situation where critics believe the members were fooled into blindly following a manipulative figure. That one day would define Jonestown for most people – one of the largest mass deaths in United States history. After reading headlines like “Mass Suicide of Almost 1,000 in Jonestown, Guyana,” it’s easy to write off the people of Jonestown as insane, rather than to believe they were good people searching for a better life.


Who was the founder of Jonestown?

To better understand Jonestown, it’s best to understand the man who started it. James Warren Jones (Jim Jones) was born on May 13, 1931 in Crete, Indiana and died on November 18, 1978 from a gunshot to his head. It’s unknown whether this wound was self-inflicted, or done by a trusted Jonestown member (Fielding McGehee, personal communication, May 7, 2014).

Jones was the son of James Thurman Jones, a disabled veteran of World War One, and Lynetta Jones, a woman who was consistently ridiculed for her skepticism of organized religion. Lynetta Jones was a strong believer in social justice and equality, and these beliefs would later supposedly be passed down to her son. Since his war veteran father was “emotionally absent” and his mother was constantly working, Jim Jones was quoted saying that he didn’t “know what the hell love was” (American Experience, n.d.). Jones recollects himself as being noble during his younger years. He said that he would rescue stray pets, fight off bullies, and bring home beggars from the streets (American Experience, n.d.). After Jim Jones graduated high school and took an interest in medicine, he met Marceline Baldwin, a nursing student in Richmond, Indiana, and married her in 1949.


What was Peoples Temple, and why did they create Jonestown?

Jones started his path of ministry at a Methodist Church in 1952. Discovering that the Methodist Church in Indiana would not allow black members, Jones defected. In 1954, Jim Jones rented some space and created the Community Unity Church in Indianapolis. On April 4, 1955, Jones bought his first church building and named it the Wings of Deliverance (World Religious and Spirituality Project VCU, n.d.), a religious group created to support social justice and equality regarding the inclusion of all races in church practices. About a year after Jim Jones and his wife, Marceline, incorporated the Wings of Deliverance, the church was renamed The Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel, which eventually became known as Peoples Temple. In 1959 the church voted to be associated with the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination, and in 1960, Peoples Temple officially established its ties with the Disciples (WTSP VCU, n.d.).

Peoples Temple did a lot in the sense of volunteer work and consistently organized assistance for the poor. However, it was harassed by outsiders, and Jim Jones’ love for the socialism didn’t help with the situation. Besides that, paint was sprayed on their buildings and bullets were shot into their walls (“Jim Jones and The People’s Temple”, n.d.). In 1962, Jones and his wife took a vacation to Guyana, South America in search of a place that Peoples Temple could escape harassment and to create a better environment for their younger members. They also spent two years in Brazil searching and simultaneously supporting orphanages.

In 1964, Jones found an area in California, and he and his followers migrated there by 1965. Due to some difficulties with situations such as recruitments, the doors of the church didn’t open in in Redwood Valley until 1969 (WTSP VCU, n.d.). By 1974, Jones’ second plans of a migration, this one to Guyana, were set into place as a group of members were sent out to South America for the beginning of the establishment named the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project (“ACJPT”, n.d.). Jones arrived there years after his members had already established a community (McGehee).

The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was based upon an agreement between the government of Guyana and Peoples Temple; the agreement included a 25 year lease for 3,852 acres, and Peoples Temple members were required to cultivate and beneficially occupy at least one-fifth of the area in two years’ time (WTSP VCU, n.d.). In an area they cleared dense jungle, Peoples Temple members survived by growing and harvesting pineapple, cassava, eddoes, and other tropical fruits and vegetables. Although the work was difficult, members commonly referred to the area as the “promised land” or “freedom land.” The Progress Report for the Summer of 1977 was the first official document that referred to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project as Jonestown (“ACJPT”, n.d.)

It’s puzzling to picture a life like the one painted for Jonestown going into a downward spiral that included rehearsed suicides, drug use by Jones, paranoia, and finally the death of hundreds.


Interviews Introduction

In the end of Jonestown, whether it was forcefully or by choice, a total of 918 people died on November 18th, 1978 in the Jonestown Massacre – one of the largest mass deaths in U.S. history (American Experience, n.d.). The story of Jonestown is a difficult one to explain. There are layers and buried facts that may never be found that really piece together the series of events that changed an accepting and life changing group into something that ended so coldly. It’s one thing to know the facts and statistics of the Jonestown massacre, but to understand what occurred in Jonestown to the highest capability, it’s important to speak with people who have actually experienced these situations, or to speak with someone who has ties to the people in Jonestown.


Fielding McGehee Interview

Fielding McGehee was not a survivor of Jonestown, but his sisters-in-law, Ann Moore and Carolyn Layton, both died there (“ACJPT”, n.d.). He has spent a huge portion of his time dedicated to uncovering, documenting, and organizing every last piece of information on Jonestown. He has spoken with survivors and is the Research Director of San Diego State University’s informational website: “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” (McGehee). Since he has ties to the survivors and the ones who died in Jonestown, he has significant information on the topic.


Who were Anne Moore and Carolyn Layton?

Anne Moore was one of the two people to die of gunshot wounds in Jonestown, and Carolyn Layton was most likely the “one closest to Jim Jones in the last ten years of his life,” says McGehee. Both women were high up in the “inner circle” of the structure. It’s now known that Jim Jones was under the influence of drugs during his time in Jonestown. Jones may have had his revolutionary suicide plans thought out for a long time prior to November 18th, but his drug habits created the necessity of someone to carry out those plans. His inner circle, including Anne Moore and Carolyn Layton, filled his shoes when he was incapable. Moore was suspected to be the last person to die at Jonestown (McGehee). After Moore assumed everyone else was already dead, she did what McGehee refers to as a “double death.” Moore drank the cyanide, and then shot herself. “She wanted to makes sure that she died,” McGehee stated, “rather than… surviving and not being able to finish the job because she was so weakened or paralyzed.” Ann Moore was one of the people in Jonestown who whole-heartedly believed in what she was doing and that the “mass suicide” or “revolutionary suicide” was exactly what was necessary for their beliefs socially and politically, along with protesting the U.S. and its government (McGehee).


Why did people go to Jonestown?

Even though Jonestown ended so violently with the death of Anne Moore, Fielding McGehee stresses that, in regards to Jonestown, “people didn’t go there to die.” People went to Guyana to escape racism and intolerance, and to create a utopian society free from the interference of the United States and its government. In fact, he doubts heavily that there was “any talk of death before Jim Jones arrived.” After all, Jim Jones didn’t arrive in Guyana until years after the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project had been started.


How were the children involved in the massacre?

When Jim Jones announced that November 18th was the day to commit an act people couldn’t ignore – a “revolutionary suicide” – first went the children. It’s said by researchers that this was a strategic move done by Jones. He knew how important the children were to everyone. If the children were gone, especially killed by the parents’ own hands, then there wasn’t much to live for, and this way the rest of the residents of Jonestown would follow Jones’ demand of “mass suicide” in a smoother fashion.


Laura Kohl Interview

Why did Laura Kohl join Peoples Temple?

In the group of survivors, unlike Fielding McGehee, lies Laura Kohl. Kohl grew up in Washington D.C. During her high school and college years, she lived through the deaths of her heroes such as John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and so on. She was tear-gassed while peacefully protesting the Vietnam war. These kinds of events are what led Laura Kohl to crave a different life setting where there was equality and peace. After joining her sister in California, Kohl found Peoples Temple (Jonestown Survivor, 2010).

Kohl was one of the survivors who absolutely loved living in Jonestown up until November 18th, 1978. Kohl describes that in the early years of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones found that many churches were filled with hypocrites. “When we started having an integrated church, a lot of white members of the church who said that they were Christian and believed in creating all men equally,” Kohl describes, “they left the church.” Jim Jones, according to Kohl, wanted people to believe what they talked about, or to practice what they preached.


Why did Peoples Temple leave to Guyana?

One distinct reason that Kohl believes Peoples Temple left for Guyana is to improve the lives of the younger members. She describes Peoples Temple as a caring organization who looked after children in need. “A lot of the programs we had were for the kids,” she explains. Kids would be brought from the inner cities to the more rural areas that Peoples Temple deemed safer and an over-all better environment for a growing individual. Kohl stated that there was a large amount of discrimination in the cities and the ghettos, and it was hard to get jobs. A lot of the kids that were in Peoples Temple lived with grandparents or other relatives, because their parents were drug addicts, in prison, or just plain not at home (Laura Kohl, personal communication, May 3, 2014). Kohl says Peoples Temple worked to help these kids grow in a healthy way, bringing them out of their harsher environments. The movement of kids from the inner cities to more rural areas began when one of their young members overdosed on heroin that they had purchased in the inner city. Ideas were tossed around, and eventually programs were made in an attempt to make sure none of their young members were pushed into a situation like that again. Eventually they began to look at the idea of Guyana as a safer alternative.


What were the lives like for children in Jonestown?

Kohl states that Jonestown, even though they slowed on their religious affiliations as seen in Peoples Temple, still cared deeply about their kids like Peoples Temple had in the U.S.A. Kohl recalls that when people traveled out to Guyana, they got married and began families. The youngest ones were loved and looked after in nurseries. Thinking of the community in Jonestown, Kohl states that “almost one-fourth were under 16, and a fourth of the people were over 60.” In Jonestown, the residents had their own doctors, nurses, and clinics to keep everyone healthy and to help with childbirth. There were also schools that ranged from elementary to high school. “One of the most important things was to keep the young people educated,” Kohl explains.

Not only were the children a main priority in Jonestown, Jim Jones was thought to have fathered about six kids of his own. People were so devoted to him that they would view him as a father and legally change their last names to “Jones.” This contributed to the confusion when people tried to create an accurate list of everyone who died in Jonestown (“ACJPT”, n.d.).


Did Jim Jones have a religion?

One of the things that Kohl struggles with is the question “was Jim Jones actually religious?” Some survivors believe that it’s possible Jones was looking for power rather than a spiritual message. “He wanted to acquire power, and ministers seemed to have a lot of power,” Kohl explains. To carry out his personal message, it was necessary to draw a large crowd. Jim Jones’ charismatic personality brought him a great distance, but Kohl believes his ties with the church and believers is what really sealed the deal on his vision for society and politics (Kohl).

Was religion strong in Guyana?

Though Jim Jones’ first organizations stemmed from churches and Christianity, religion was not strongly brought to Guyana. There are no official records of strong religious sermons given to the people of Jonestown (Kohl). If Jones referred to God, it was in the sense that if there is a God, then he will not help them; instead of looking to God for power, Jones insisted that people put their trust in him and let them be guided that way. According to Jones, God was not willing to affect people’s lives, but he was. Though Jones insisted on this, he was not looked at as a religious figure, but more of a father figure. Many times he was called Comrade, Dad, or just simply Jim by Jonestown residents (McGehee).


What was Kohl’s life like in Guyana?

Eventually Laura Kohl and many Temple members made the trip to Guyana. Her typical day included rising with the sun and picking greens to feed almost 1,000 people. Her and the other field workers would bring their lunch outside, because they wouldn’t be able to take the time and go inside for lunch. “Everybody worked until about 5:00 or 5:30pm every day,” Kohl describes. After her work in the field, Kohl would do a mixture of jobs including teaching Spanish to Jonestown members. At about 11:00 or 11:30 pm, she and other members would retire to bed “until the sun rose again.”

Besides her work in the fields and random jobs, Laura Kohl was one of the select few people that Jim Jones trusted enough to go to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city, every now and again. Kohl continues to believe that she was chosen because Jones was under the impression that she wouldn’t make any waves in Georgetown that would call attention back to Jonestown, and that she would commit suicide willingly when the time was right (Kohl).


What were White Nights like for Kohl?

Jonestown participated on numerous occasions in events called “White Nights.” White Nights were most commonly, but not always, rehearsals for the mass suicide that Jim Jones had been planning. People would sometimes stand up in front of a crowd of people and speak into a microphone, declaring that they would be willing to die that night for their cause and to support Jim Jones and the residents of Jonestown. Other survivors have described how the residents of Jonestown would all stay up for sometimes days at a time in preparation for a supposed attack. They may not have had many guns or ammunition, but residents would gather up gardening tools as weapons of defense from anyone threatening their way of life (“ACJPT”, n.d.). In the end, White Nights brought forth one single idea throughout Jonestown: “are you willing to die?”

When recalling more these events, Kohl says that she had “never heard anyone in Jonestown us the term ‘White Night.’” She recall, however, the experiences she had with what the media called White Nights. About four or five times during the existence of Jonestown, excluding the practiced suicides, White Nights consisted of Jim Jones telling everyone that their land was under attack from people on the outside. Since ammunition and weapons were little to none in Jonestown, people would circle around the “downtown” area and hold objects like gardening tools for their defense. “When we came back, there was a time that Jim did have someone go out into the woods and fire a gun… so it looked like we were under attack.” Kohl describes that Jim Jones made it feel like it was them against the world, and that no one was on their side. “In a way, it was his paranoia [about the outside world] that he was passing on to us.”


How did Jonestown get outside information?

For information outside of Jonestown, Laura Kohl reveals that the only way to receive information was from Jim Jones himself. Since there were no cell phones, landlines, or contact in general, Jones used a radio to talk to people on the outside. Jones’ paranoia would filter the information given to him, and when he relayed it back to the people of Jonestown, it would be warped and distorted.


How did Kohl survive the massacre?

Laura Kohl was sent with others to Georgetown to get supplies around two weeks before the mass deaths. Because of this, she was not in Jonestown at the time when Jones announced that it was the day to follow up on what they had been preparing for and commit a mass suicide in protest of the United States and its government.

When Kohl was in Georgetown, she and the other members who made the trips for supplies were given the notice to commit suicide. Kohl was convinced to not commit suicide by one of the other members in Georgetown. “Jim’s son, Stephan Jones who was nineteen, said ‘absolutely not. We’re not doing that. It’s all over. We’re not following that instruction.’ …he wanted to go out to Jonestown to stop everything,” she remembers, “but it would have been too late.” She describes that later that night – after returning from a political rally – she and Stephan Jones found Sharon Amos after she committed suicide and killed her children Liane Harris, Christa Amos and Martin Amos. They were in body bags. The news reports of Jonestown started rolling in around the same time.

After her life in Jonestown had ended, Kohl says that “all my insights really came afterwards. It was obvious afterwards that Jim wasn’t letting people leave.” She attended a group therapy society for a while after she felt her life was a miserable mess. Kohl says that she came to this conclusion: “The thing is, in Jonestown, everything was a lie.”


Vernon Gosney Interview

Vernon Gosney was a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre. Gosney was born on March 19, 1953 in San Francisco, California. He was married to Cheryl Wilson until her death in 1974. Gosney lost his four-year-old son, Mark, to the Jonestown Massacre in November 1978.


Why did Gosney leave the United States?

Vernon Gosney and his wife, Cheryl, benefited from Peoples Temple’s view on society greatly. They had a relationship that was frowned upon in the 1960s, 70s, and so forth; they were an inter-racial couple. Interracial couples were not accepted in many societies during Vernon and Cheryl’s marriage. In fact, some states, such marriages weren’t recognized. Around the 1960’s, roughly 41 states had anti-miscegenation statutes (The battle over inter-racial marriage in the U.S., n.d.). In Peoples Temple and Jonestown, however, Vernon and Cheryl found acceptance (Vernon Gosney, personal communication, May 19, 2014).

Gosney describes the dream, or the vision, for Jonestown as something morally right. He states that Jonestown was not a place only for people of one, or any, religion. It was a place filled with diverse people who wanted to see a change in the world, but could not bring the United States into the vision that they wanted. So, instead of continuing with the criticism that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple suffered through during their early years, they decided they “were going to build a city outside the United States that was free of sexism, homophobia, ageism, and where everyone got provided for – not only the rich, just everyone.”

As soon as Gosney arrived in Guyana, he realized his mistake. He describes how when he first arrived in South America, they were greeted with guns. “That’s when I knew,” he recalls.


Why did Gosney dislike Jonestown?

Vernon Gosney says that he was a regular member of Jonestown. He wasn’t high up in the inner circle, so he didn’t have connections to exactly what Jim Jones was thinking and planning, and he also was not sure of what medications Jones was taking during his time in Jonestown. Gosney was a regular member who woke up at the crack of dawn, worked all day in the jungle heat until nighttime came, or a meeting was organized by Jim Jones. He participated in practiced suicides (White Nights) just like everyone else did, because he feared what would happen if he ever spoke out with a differing opinion in comparison to Jim Jones or the other Jonestown members.

During the time Gosney was in Jonestown, he viewed the place as a prison. People who tried to leave Jonestown were publicly punished, and these punishments sometimes included physical violence against the offender (Gosney).

Gosney watched as Jim Jones transformed. “I thought he was crazy. I didn’t always think that.” He wanted desperately to hold onto the original plan and vision for Jonestown that originally drew him into the society. He wanted fairness, equality, and safety from people who had extreme differing views that lead to violence. Never did he imagine that Jonestown would become a place where any differing viewpoints were frowned upon and stomped out like a small, stray spark from a fire pit, and Jones’ growing paranoia would change almost 1,000 lives forever.


How did Gosney escape Jonestown?

On November 1, 1978, Leo Ryan, a Democratic representative from California, responded to the widespread reports of Jonestown that claimed human rights were being severely violated. Ryan announced that he would visit Jonestown as part of a government investigation (“ACJPT”, n.d.). The complaints snowballed from concerned relatives who had either been cut off from contacting their loved ones, or believed that their family members couldn’t possibly be happy in that setting, and the only explanation was either brainwashing or that they were being held against their will.

Congressmen Leo Ryan’s arrival in Guyana was announced to the Jonestown residents in warped ways. While citizens inside the United States described the trip as a “rescue mission,” Gosney stated they were told by Jim Jones that Ryan’s goal was to “disrupt socialism and the stuff that we were trying to accomplish.” If there’s one thing that the people of Jonestown were really afraid of, it was the rumors spread by Jim Jones that the congressman and his men “were evil, trying to kidnap all the children” (McGehee). The members of Jonestown had shown consistently that they cared deeply for their children. Losing them in vain would be devastating.

Leo Ryan finally arrived in Jonestown and was greeted with a calm, caring, and free environment. Jim Jones reassured him that everyone was able to leave if they wanted to, and Ryan is found in some recordings complementing the environment, and questioning why anyone would ever want to leave Guyana and Jonestown. Reflecting, Gosney says “people are free to leave? I was shot trying to leave.” Later during Ryan’s governmental investigation, one of his men was slipped a note from a Jonestown resident, begging to leave Jonestown. “A lot of people were being held there against their will,” Gosney states.

On November 18, 1978, Ryan made preparations to leave and offered to the people of Jonestown an escape if they wanted it. To his surprise, sixteen people actually took up his offer to leave Jonestown. He had assumed that no one would leave the area in Guyana and did not have any open seats or another plane to transport those who wanted to leave. This caused a delay in the movement of people out of Jonestown. To even further concerns, as Ryan attempted to leave Jonestown, Don Sly, who happened to be one of the relatives of a concerned family member, attacked Ryan with a knife. He survived the knife attack, but never made it back to the United States (McGehee).

When Ryan asked if anyone would like to leave Jonestown, Vernon Gosney was one of the sixteen members to step forward. His son, Mark, was left behind in Jonestown, Guyana. “I found an opportunity that would probably never repeat itself,” he reflects. “I don’t know where I got the courage, but I know all strength and courage comes from God and from spirit.” He reveals that his faith kept him going through tough times.

As Leo Ryan and the defecting members of Jonestown tried to board the plane back to the United States, Jones’ loyalists started shooting. Five people died at the Port Kaituma airstrip shooting: Leo Ryan, Greg Robinson, Bob Brown, Don Harris, and Patricia Parks. Gosney was shot three times, and after nineteen hours was airlifted to Georgetown by the military. After arriving in Georgetown, he was then airlifted to Puerto Rico and put in a military hospital (Gosney).

Larry Layton, one of the shooters, survived the encounter and served eighteen years in prison for attempted murder. He was released two years early from prison in 2002 through pleading letters from survivors (“ACJPT”, n.d.) . The most significant support that issued his release was the testimony of Vernon Gosney, one of the survivors of the Port Kaituma airstrip shooting.

After Jim Jones got word that Leo Ryan was successfully killed at Port Kaituma, he put his plan of a “revolutionary suicide” into action.


How was Gosney told about the massacre in Jonestown?

When Gosney was released from intensive care, he was introduced to a military psychiatrist. The psychiatrist showed him a horrifying and mind-scarring pictures – rows of dead bodies. “That’s how they told me. They wanted to know what my son was wearing so they could identify his body,” he explained.

Gosney’s healing process throughout the years has been slow and intense. He was damaged “emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.” For many years, his coping mechanism included drinking and using other drugs as the news stations boomed about a mass “suicide” in Jonestown, Guyana. “Little children don’t kill themselves, do they?” he questioned. “Little ten year olds don’t kill themselves. That’s murder.”

In a scenario where Gosney happened to be in Jonestown, he believes he would have unwillingly died, because “those people who didn’t cooperate were injected forcefully.”

Addressing those who doubt that so many people could possibly be deceived in Jonestown to the point of death, Gosney says to remember that “Jonestown is an extremely remote area. Cellphones don’t exist. Phones don’t exist… No means of communications exist except a ham radio in a very huge, huge, area. There’s no cars to give you a ride. No nothing. You’re in a jungle nineteen hours away from civilization…. People can be deceived.”


What does Gosney do with his story?

Vernon Gosney, now a retired police officer in Hawai’i, has spoken in many high schools, colleges, and other events, warning kids and young adults about organizations they join, and to always keep one eye open. He wants people to look at their surroundings. He says to look and see if a member is cut off from their friends or family by the leader, if the leader is having sexual relationships with the members, if it’s the norm for a member to give up all of their money and means of transportation and contact to the outside world, and lastly, “are people free to leave if they want to? Are you able to disagree with what everyone else thinks and still be a member of the group?”

It’s important to Gosney that people remember that the people who joined Jonestown “were beautiful human beings, and they were trying to make a better world…they were deceived.” Jim Jones was successful in blurring the lines of morality when isolating the majority of Jonestown’s members. It didn’t happen instantaneously; it was a slow process that could happen to anybody, not just the weak-minded. Soon enough the lines of morality are blurred and “you’re in a place you’d never think you’d be.” As a last statement, Vernon Gosney emphasizes to “not give away your power… or your contact to the outside world” – look for the red flags.

It’s clear that there is more to Jonestown than a “mass suicide” that has been sensationalized by the media for decades. Jonestown didn’t begin and end on November 18th, 1978. It still lives on through the scars in the hearts and longing thoughts in the minds of many today.



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