The Death of Robert H. Houston, Jr

by Kenneth A. Odell

Bob Houston was born October 13, 1943, and died in San Francisco on October 5, 1976. Though his death was legally ruled an accident, there is reason for substantial doubt about this conclusion.

Bobby had several part-time jobs during his life in order to support his family and make substantial contributions to Peoples Temple. One of those jobs was as a night maintenance worker in the Southern Pacific train yard adjacent to the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. On the night in question, Bobby’s body was discovered after it had been run over by a train, apparently resulting in his instant death. Given the few night workers in a large train yard, there were no eyewitnesses as to what had actually happened.

Although his death was ruled an accident, there were several pieces of evidence which did not corroborate such a finding. For one thing, his body was discovered in a part of the train yard which his duties would not normally take him to. In addition, his protective work gloves were found folded up separate from his body, and apparently unused that night.

Since I was one of Bobby’s best friends during our four years together at Capuchino High School in San Bruno (1957-1961), I think I knew him very well. Bobby always had an upbeat and energetic personality. He was a hard worker, an excellent musician, and an Eagle Scout. He did very well academically and socially. Both of us were on the “nerd” end of the spectrum, in that we didn’t play organized sports, and we were both interested in science. Bobby was never a quitter, and worked hard and diligently in his many roles – husband, father, Temple member, railroad worker, teacher – until the day he died.

As Tim Reiterman pointed out in his book Raven, Jim Jones took an active role in criticizing Bobby, holding him up to ridicule by the entire community, and even literally making Bobby his punching bag in the “boxing matches” which Jones staged for his enjoyment, during which a victim was forced to fight a much more physically imposing opponent.

What could cause Jones’ enmity? In my view, one reason was that Bobby was clearly more intelligent than Jones, and could make him look like a fool in any kind of intellectual debate. My friend was not shy about interrupting any speaker’s argument when he found a logical flaw, and I am sure that Jones felt that his authority, and his very validity as a leader, was being attacked and potentially destroyed by Bobby’s persistent questions.

There is no question that Bobby was smart. I myself have a B.A., a J.D., and an M.B.A. from some very prestigious universities, and Bobby was just as smart as I am. Bobby also loved to argue and debate, and early in his life he got the nickname of “The Little Professor” because of his intelligence, which – to be honest – had a bit of intellectual superiority to it. Bobby was always questioning our teachers – including a series of debates with a very capable teacher of Euclidean geometry – and was quite adept at picking up the other person’s logical errors and inconsistencies. Nor was he shy about such confrontations.

In addition, he was not in any way disadvantaged, unlike many members of the Temple. He came from a stable and supportive middle class family, lived in a nice house, and wore nice clothes. He was educated, too, having received his degree in music from the University of California at Berkeley, with advanced academic work at San Francisco State University. In terms of intelligence, education, and background, then, he had it all over Jim Jones. Combined with his combativeness, Bobby represented a threat to Jones’ authority.

We know that Jim Jones had the capacity to kill several hundred people, many of whom he didn’t even know or harbor any resentments against. How much more likely would it be that, unable to prevail logically or rhetorically over Bobby’s questions and criticisms, Jones simply took the easy step – at least for him – of eliminating Bobby entirely.

(Kenneth A. Odell is a retired attorney. His other two stories in this edition of the jonestown report are A Glimpse into the Life of Phyllis Tuttle Houston and Memories of My Best Friend, Robert Houston, Jr.. He may be reached at kodell1729@yahoo.com.)

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