(Author’s note: I first came upon Jonestown before the 35th anniversary. I had heard about Jonestown but hadn’t really looked into it. When I did, and I was horrified. It was unbelievable that such a thing could happen. In researching an essay about it for a project for my history class, I decided to interview two Jonestown survivors, as well as write the history of Jonestown. I was able to get in touch with only one, though. Thom Bogue left with his family in the company of Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978. Doing research was a bit easier, as I found when I went online and to the public library to find more information about Jonestown. My interviews with Mr. Bogue lasted over the course of two weeks. It was an emotional and also a new experience, as I had never talked to someone who had gone through such a horrific event in history. This is a project I’m happy about and hope you all enjoy the finished product as well. May all the innocent people who died on November 18th 1978 rest in peace.)
The 1970s had some horrific events happen; The Kent State shootings, the serial killings caused by Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz “Son Of Sam” and The Jonestown Massacre.
The Jonestown Massacre occurred on November 18th, 1978 in the jungles of Guyana. A total of 918 died. Jonestown was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project formed by Peoples Temple, an American religious organization under the leadership of Jim Jones. The horrific event was covered by every newspaper, magazines, and on television. The victims drank grape Flavor-Aid with a combination of Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan. Five other victims were killed six miles away from Jonestown in Port Kaituma and four more at the Peoples Temple headquarters in Georgetown. The massacre was a huge loss of American lives until the September 11th attacks and caused a huge shock throughout America and the world. George Gallup stated “98% of Americans polled said that they had heard of the tragedy. Few events, in fact, in the entire history of the Gallup Poll have been known to such a high percentage of the U.S. public.”
In 1974, a small group of Jones’ followers had gone to Guyana to establish what was called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. In 1977, Jones and more than 1,000 Temple members moved to Guyana. Jonestown was meant to be a utopia. However, it became a total opposite. Temple members worked long days in the fields and were subjected to harsh punishments if they questioned Jones’ authority. Their passports and medications were confiscated; armed guards patrolled the jungle compound. Members were encouraged to inform on one another and were forced to attend lengthy, late-night meetings. Their letters and phone calls were censored. Jones, who by then was in declining mental health and addicted to drugs, was convinced that the government, the media and others were out to destroy him. He also required Peoples Temple members to participate in mock suicide drills in the middle of the night, as he was planning this “revolutionary suicide” for quite some time. Although some members did love living in Jonestown, others wanted out and since Jonestown was surrounded by miles and miles of jungle and encircled by armed guards, members needed Jones’ permission to leave and Jones didn’t want anyone to leave.
Things got worse when Congressman Leo Ryan decided to check out Jonestown as many followers stated that Jones was about to break. On November 14, Congressman Leo Ryan came to Georgetown to investigate the allegations many of the former followers of Peoples Temple and family members have said. Ryan brought a group of eighteen people to the trip which included Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of the US embassy to Guyana, Tim Reiterman and Greg Robinson of the San Francisco Examiner, Don Harris, a reporter for NBC news, NBC video operator Bob Brown, NBC audio technician Steve Sung, NBC producer Bob Flick, Washington Post reporter Charles Krause, Robert Javers, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ryan’s legal adviser Jackie Speier, Guyana’s Ministry of Information Neville Annibourne and Concerned Relatives which included Tim and Grace Stoen, Steve and Anthony Katsaris, Beverly Oliver, Jim Cobb, Sherwin Harris, and Carolyn Houston Boyd. On the 17th, Jones was informed the Ryan and his group would be coming to Jonestown. They took a plane from Georgetown and landed at Port Kaituma some hours later. Due to the size of the plane, only four members of the Concerned Relatives were able to go. Congressman Ryan and three others were allowed in and the rest of the group weren’t allowed in until sunset. The night when Ryan came, the followers held a reception for Ryan. Stanley Clayton a survivor of Jonestown said about that night “Everything up to that point was good, everybody was thrilled and Ryan was thrilled, he just kind of praised us”, and Congressman Ryan made a speech to the members of People Temple and had a standing ovation. After the ovation, Temple member Vernon Gosney passed a note to Don Harris (who he thought was Ryan) that read “Dear Congressman, Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby. Please help us get out of Jonestown.” Vernon said in an interview “When Congressman Ryan came, I wanted to pass him a note that said help us get out of Jonestown. When one the reporters was walking around the edge of the pavilion, I stuck the note in the fold of his arm and it fell to the ground, and so I picked up the note and gave it back to him and said ‘You dropped something’ and this little boy about nine years old started saying ‘He passed a note! He passed a note!’” Jackie Speier then said Harris came up to her and Ryan and gave them two notes saying that people wanted to leave. She then states “So at that point, we knew that something was very, very wrong.” Ryan, Speier and Annibourne were allowed to stay overnight at Jonestown while the others stayed over in a café in over in Port Kaituma. On the 18th at 11:30 am, Edith Parks went to Speier saying that she was being held prisoner in Jonestown and wants to head out. Speier stated “When word got out that people were leaving, all hell broke out.” Edith’s family as well as the Bogue family along with Vernon and Bagby were given permission to leave by Jones as he was being interviewed by Harris. Most were beginning to head out on a large dump truck to the airstrip in Port Kaituma. Ryan and Richard Dwyer stayed behind to process any more people wanting to leave. Larry Layton (a man very loyal to the People’s Temple) demanded to join though a couple of the people leaving had suspicions about Layton because of his loyalty. After that a Temple member with a knife tried to kill Ryan but with no luck as members held him down. Ryan wasn’t harmed and Dwyer told Ryan to leave as he will fill out a report on the man who tried to kill him whose name was Don Sly. The people leaving Jonestown were originally to be aboard a nineteen passenger plane called the Twin Otter but because of the more people wanting to leave, a second plane was heading to Port Kaituma called the Cessna. While passengers were boarding to the big Otter plane, a tractor with a trailer came up. As the Cessna was heading out, Layton pulled out a gun and shot both Gosney and Bagby. He tried to shoot Dale Parks but was then disarmed. Then the tractor which was about 30 feet near the Twin Otter, the moment it stopped, there was shooting right away. Steve Sung said, “Everybody ran towards the plane, hid under the wheels. All you can hear was the gun popping constantly, and we’re lying flat, and then I heard the cameraman, my partner say ‘Oh s*it, I got shot.’ He was sitting up.” The cameraman who was shot was Bob Brown who got the shooting captured on his video camera until he was shot again. Brown was killed along with Don Harris, Greg Robinson, Patricia Parks (a member of Peoples Temple) and Leo Ryan. Speier, Sung, Tim Reiterman and Anthony Katsaris got injured during the shooting.
Back in Jonestown, Jones ordered everyone to assemble at the pavilion. Once everyone was assembled, Jones spoke to his members. He was in a panic and seemed agitated. He was upset that some of his members had left. He acted like things had to happen in a hurry.
He told the congregation that there was to be an attack on Ryan’s group. He also told them that because of the attack, Jonestown wasn’t safe. Jones was sure that the U.S. government would react strongly to the attack on Ryan’s group. When it was announced that Ryan was dead, Jones became more urgent and more heated. Jones urged members to commit suicide by saying, “If these people land out here, they’ll torture some of our children here. They’ll torture our people, they’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this.” Jones told everyone to hurry. Large kettles filled with grape flavored Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid), cyanide, and Valium were placed in the open-sided pavilion. Babies and children were brought up first. Syringes were used to pour the poisoned juice into their mouths. Mothers then drank some of the poisoned punch. Next went other members. Some members were already dead before others got their drinks. If anyone wasn’t cooperative, there were guards with guns and crossbows to encourage them. It took approximately five minutes for each person to die. Jones was shot in the head; he was lying next to two bodies. The bodies ranged from the medical unit to outside and inside the pavilion, the planted crops and ditch and over near the antenna.
There was also a killing at the Temple’s headquarters. Four were found dead. There were only four people who survived the poisoning. Odell Rhodes and Stanley Clayton both ran out while the suicides were taking place, Grover Davis missed the announcement to assemble on the loudspeaker, laid down in a ditch, and pretended to be dead, Hyacinth Thrash realized what was happening and crawled under her bed. She walked out after the suicides were completed.
On November 19th, the first contingent of Guyanese Army rescue forces arrived in Port Kaituma. More soldiers arrived within the hour. Their arrival later in the morning at Jonestown confirmed earlier reports of the mass suicide. The first Guyanese rescue aircraft landed at Port Kaituma, without medical supplies or personnel. All of the wounded and most of the survivors were airlifted from Port Kaituma before nightfall and transferred to US Air Force medical evacuation aircraft in Georgetown. The US military then came to Georgetown where they discovered the bodies in Jonestown about two days later. Soldiers had to wear special surgerical masks and body bags had a smell of peppermint because many officials felt that the bodies’ smell could cause a health crisis (which medical examiners stated that it wouldn’t after).
It was covered a heavily by the media for months. It was shocking and horrifying to many Americans and people across the globe. Originally the total of bodies found was 401 but rapidly went up to 900 within days. Though viewed as a mass suicide; many sources and survivors regard this as a mass murder. Thirty-six years have passed since the tragedy; many still wonder how this horrific event it came about. For many, the possibility that one man could manipulate so many people to such a great extent is incomprehensible. Whether Jonestown was the result of some heinous experiment in mind control or not, cannot be fully determined with or without stronger evidence. A former follower Eugene Smith stated; “We were people that — we wanted to make a change. It’s a shame it didn’t happen. It might not ever happen. But one thing I can say, at least we tried and we didn’t sit back and wait on the laurels for somebody else to try it. Yes, we tried it. Yes, it was a failure. Yes, it was very tragic. But at least we tried.” Jonestown could’ve been utopia but turned into an apocalypse.
Reflections From A Survivor
Thom “Tommy” Bogue was one of the Temple members who survived the Port Kaituma shootings. He was born in 1962 and his family was part of Peoples Temple since he was 5. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and asked him a couple of questions. He told me about what he remembers when he first discovered Peoples Temple:
Yes, it is actually one of my most vivid memories as a child! I was 5 years of age and the location was The Golden Rule Church just outside of Willits, California.
I had been staying home with one of my parents until this age as we had an elderly care-home; one of my parents always had to be there.
I recall the feeling of missing out as my other parent and siblings left to go to church, not knowing what fun they may be having. I decided I wanted to go (What a mistake that was). The meeting was long especially for a 5 year old; I crawled under the seats and went to sleep. I never wanted to go again but it was too late, apparently I was old enough now!”
Around the time he was 13, he started running away as he hated Peoples Temple. He was living in the church when he met his roommate named Brian Davis. Thom wrote an article about Brian in which he states:
We hit it off right from the beginning. We both enjoyed the TV series Night Gallery and Twilight Zone (our favorites), and we both played musical instruments.”We were both to start the ninth grade in the fall at Presidio High. Since we lived out of district for Presidio, we had to be dropped off at this old lady’s house across the street from the school – we learned to make lye soap there – and we were told, if anyone asked, to say that this was where we lived. Behind the school was a steep hill. After school, while we waited for our ride to show up, we would ride our skateboards down this hill. Could Brian ride a skateboard! His skateboard was a Bonzai, top of the line board, and he showed no fear! A lot of the tricks you see today, he was doing back then. Eventually our ride would show up and back to the church we went.
After the two became friends, the two started to run away from the church together.
During the year Brian and I lived at the church, we formed a very strong bond. For a place to try and get two people to conform to their mentality, they could not have put two more strong-minded, non-conformist people together than the two of us. Before long, we were sneaking out of the church through a side door and a hole in the fence we found by sneaking out. Avoiding security became a new game for us. The freedom we felt once outside the fence was exhilarating. We just enjoyed it like nothing else. We would explore all over San Francisco, ride the buses by sneaking in the back exit door, rarely would a bus driver spot us. We spent a lot of time down at the beach called The China Bath Houses exploring a cave. All that was left of the bath houses was cement foundations. After several hours we would have to face the fact we had to go back to the church, and this was the tricky part. We would have to sneak back in, go find an out-of-the-way spot to hide in – but not so hidden that we couldn’t be found – and wait. Sooner or later someone would find us, all pissed, off asking where had we been? “Right here,” we would tell them, “we didn’t know anyone was looking for us!” This was a lot of fun for us. We fooled the adults and we were free for awhile. One time while we were out we tried smoking weed for the first time. We didn’t like the effect it had, and wouldn’t you know it, we were caught sneaking back in!!”
Thom also help Brian try to escape California to go back to his mother in Washington. Unfortunately the plan foiled once Thom’s mother came with two Temple members. The two didn’t see each other until both were in Jonestown in 1977.
Brian arrived somewhere between a year to 18 months after I was sent to Jonestown. He went through the typical new arrival procedure, directed to the big tent to give up all but a few belongings and received his assignment for housing and job placement. He was assigned to the kitchen and school. I was already working in the massive garden area and recently assigned to school.
After we greeted each other, I immediately told him all the things to watch out for. It had been awhile since we had last seen each other, and I was surprised at his arrival. However within an hour, it was as though we had never been separated.
Both lived what was called in Jonestown cottages, Thom told me about the cottages.
Eight people per cottage unless you were married, then 10 people. I helped construct the cottages. Materials used were tongue and groove flooring, lap wood siding and corrugated metal roofing. Cottages were fairly small in size but adequate enough to accommodate the number of people within. The bed lay-out was: 1 bunk bed per side, one bunk bed in the middle, 2 lofts with one person per side. If a couples cottage; similar lay-out, but bunk beds replaced with twin size bed to accommodate 2 people and 2 people per loft.
Dorms were also constructed which could accommodate multiple bunk beds and multiple people, I forget how many per dorm. Lighting was provided with kerosene lamps made of jars with a lid with a hole poked in it, which a wick could be pushed through and lit. No fires to my knowledge ever occurred. Many of the inhabitants planted floral around their cottages’ and dorms’ to spruce them up.
Thom was actually caught sneaking into a warehouse and was humiliated by Jones in front of the members. It was decided by Temple members that as punishment he would work in the Jonestown kitchen, with Brian as his supervisor. The two then decided to go and run away from Jonestown by going to Brazil (since Brazil was closer). The two almost got away until they were caught by members. Thom walked back to Jonestown with a gun to the back of his head. Jones publicly humiliated the two, and as punishment they were shackled together and were to work 16 hours. On the third day of the punishment, the two went to the infirmary as Thom hit Brian’s hand with a sledgehammer (only broke the skin). The shackles also infected their legs and were taken off. After this their punishment was over. Thom and his family were planning to leave Jonestown in November of 1978 when Congressman Ryan and his group came to Jonestown. As Thom and his family were leaving, Thom saw Brian in what would be the last time the two saw each other.
I was walking down the exit path, and saw him looking at me. I told him to come on and go with me. He stared back with almost a blank look in his face, and said “I can’t.
Brian was aboard the nineteen seat plane Twin Otter when the shootings occurred. He tried to shut the door but the getaway gaps were too heavy. His sister helped and both were shot; he was shot in the leg. After the shooting, they ran into the jungle along with the Parks family. They were found three days later in which Thom said it was one of two times he saw his father cry.
Thom told me what it was like after leaving Jonestown:
I was just past 17 years of age when leaving Jonestown, Guyana. I spent one month in the Guyanese Hospital and another at UCSF Medical hospital due to the gun-shot wound to my leg. Maggots had to be removed and multiple skin grafts attempted. Skin grafts failed to take due to malnutrition. After leaving Georgetown Guyana and upon arriving in New York, my family and I underwent extensive questioning by the FBI, after which we proceeded to San Francisco to begin our new lives. We all had a level of paranoia from Jim Jones always stating if anything happened to Peoples Temple, any survivors and officials elected with the help of Peoples Temple would be hunted down and killed. This we firmly believed to be true! The news of Mike Prokes supposedly walking into a motel bathroom and killing himself only confirmed our belief, and then George Moscone being killed by Harvey Milk really heightened the paranoia to max levels. Ok we were pretty freaked out at this point. We continually looked over our shoulder, locked doors, windows and suspected anyone walking down the street we were not familiar with in our neighborhood. We suspected anyone and everyone. If this wasn’t enough then the Mills family was murdered in their home. We moved. Then there are reports there are those who wanted to continue Peoples Temple. As far as I was concerned they were flat out “NUTS.” They invited us to attend, but as far as I was concerned, well I don’t have words to describe what I thought. Then all of the other crazies in our society have came out of the wood-works wanting us to join this group, that group and wanting us to be part of this and part of that. They were like freaking salesman; God is coming on a flying saucer, join our commune, join against the Government and my favorite “The End is Near” people. I locked my doors; these people scared me more than the potential assassination by a survivor of Jonestown. Can you imagine being 17 to18 years of age being approached like this. After all of this settled down I could actually start finding my way in a society I had never been part of. It was an experience to be sure. People in general were not the same as I had grown up with; Gangs, violence, scammers, drugs, gays, the enlightened by the Occult, the politically minded, those who were just angry, no real order to things. People responded in a bizarre fashion when I attempted to interact with them. This was truly a strange new world to maneuver in. In response I did a lot of travel to the country side to escape the weirdness of it all. Slowly I learned and adjusted.
Thom told me what it was like with the FBI.
After arriving in New York from Georgetown, Guyana we were met at the Airport by FBI Agents and taken to a Hotel to wait. I forget how long we waited but I don’t recall it being a long time, maybe a few hours.
It seems we were then taken to a warehouse with some trailers within (seemed very covert); each of us went to a different trailer independent of each other. I do recall asking why all the secrecy? I was informed they (FBI) were as concerned for our safety as we were, I actually remember feeling comforted by that; but still apprehensive of being put within a closed area with no avenue of escape.
The questions were of the nature of the infrastructure, who was who in the hierarchy and what roles they played, instances of torture, the Black Box (deprivation box) and detailed questions of Larry Layton (recently released from prison).
One irony I rapidly discovered and acknowledged: the FBI’s concern of our safety was nothing more than a farce (fakery) to gain our trust for their questioning. Immediately after the interrogations were completed, the security disappeared, we were dropped off at the hotel, and we were left to fend for ourselves.
We didn’t have any further contact with law enforcement until Larry Layton was scheduled for trial a couple of years later and suddenly they were our buddies again.
As for the many interviews and authors that he helped:
As I didn’t have any experience with “normal” society I really didn’t know what to think at first, a little confused over the attention; but being a good sport I figured ok! The first interview I was asked to appear for was the TV program In Search Of starring Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek as narrator. I was promised I would meet him, so I definitely agreed (I grew up watching this series). Turned into another lie. I never met him. But I learned: from that point on I would dictate conditions of the interviews and if at any point they weren’t met I would end the interview and leave. I never had a problem after that was established
He was also offered to appear on Oprah Winfrey and The Geraldo Show but turned them down. In another interview we did, he also stated:
Several book writers which I was suspicious of and they never did publish a book. The only book writer I have respect for and appreciate is Julia Scheeres for her book A Thousand Lives, very well done. As a side note she compelled me to assist with her book Jesus Land. This is a story based upon her life growing up and the similarities to my life and very close to the same time frame is remarkable – a must read.
And as well we talked about the various conspiracies that went around after the horrific event:
CIA? I don’t go there, theories are just that! Much like the theory of who was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Theories are fun mind benders, just enough info to make it plausible, but not enough to make it true.
Shop is now doing well, two of my sons work with me. Lost my bid for re-election earlier this month, definitely OK with that, no more late night meetings or no sleep due to concerns of upcoming decisions I will have to make, and I can now focus on my business which sorely needed my attention. People really don’t understand how consuming being an elected official is; especially when you care about the impact of your decisions will have on the public you represent. I personally believe I wasn’t re-elected because the voters were cleaning house. Since most don’t follow their elected officials to determine who is good for them and who isn’t, they conclude get rid of all current elected officials and if I was caught up in that, I am ok with it. I have found most current elected officials are only looking out for themselves and their buddies anyway – so clean house!
And I asked him lastly, what would his message be to those people who are in a something like Peoples Temple wanting to get out.
It may appear all is lost and there is no means of escape, not true! Society is now educated enough in knowing a person who comes to them under these circumstances is in desperate need of assistance.
While you may be indoctrinated in the belief Law Enforcement Agencies around the group which you belong to work in unison or in support of your group, don’t believe it (Otherwise they would also be attending members). They will help you! But they can only help you if you trust them to. If the officer appears a little unconcerned or oblivious, just mention Jonestown. That should do it.
If you are under the age of adulthood, gather proof of what you will claim, otherwise it will be difficult at best to override your parent or guardian. Law enforcement has to have proof of what you claim in order to remove you and put you under child protection in a different living environment.
A day-to-day hand written log of Who (not just you, who else involved and other victims), Where, What and When is considered evidence. Get pictures and other documents when and if you can to support your story. When you are a minor supporting evidence is critical. This isn’t just for minors who find themselves in a cult; this is for any minor who finds themselves in any abusive living environment..!”
As with many survivors from Jonestown, Thom has moved on with his life, he is a successful businessman, has nine kids and seems to be very happy with his life.
I chose to do my project on Jonestown after reading an article about it online and reading various reflections from survivors it really got a hold on me. It was an amazing experience talking Mr. Bogue, someone who had survived a horrific experience could open up and talk such an experience, and I will always thank and respect him for giving his time to help answer these questions for this project and for being a nice and generous man. He is someone who survived a horrific event, been shot and humiliated by Jim Jones and has become a successful business man and part of a city council, and is an example of an inspirational man.
Thirty-six years since, the Jonestown Massacre has left a huge mark in American history. Since the event, there have been many documentaries, books and articles about it. The site where Jonestown was is now deserted; the site was first tended by the Guyanese government. As for the Temple, its location on Geary Boulevard was hounded by the news media and angry family members who lost their loved ones in Guyana; it was destroyed by the Loma Prieta Earthquake eleven years after the massacre. In 2011, a memorial of names who died in Jonestown was made and was erected at Evergreen cemetery, Evergreen was the only cemetery in California that would allow the victims be buried as many other cemetery sites refused do to being afraid of being associated with the murders. About 400 victims are buried in a mass grave in Evergreen due to the fact most family members did not have money for funeral arrangements and was all arranged by the U.S. Government.
Jonestown is an example of some of the horrific things that can happen to people, many people believed that Jim Jones was the new messiah, a God, but in reality, he was just a con-man who created a church and brainwashed people into believing that he was there leader and killed them. When finishing this project, I read a comment on this topic in which the person stated “If there is a hell, Jim Jones is probably there.”
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres
And information thanks to Thom Bogue.
(Ethan James wrote this paper for a class in Modern American History at Borough of Manhattan Community College.)