Digital Jonestown:
Annotating an American Tragedy

by Brad Crowell

(Dr. Brad Crowell is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University. Versions of this paper were presented at the University of Alabama Digital Humanities Conference in March 2017 and the Upper Midwest meeting of the American Academy of Religion in April 2017. The syllabus for the digital humanities project is hereHis other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Edith Roller Goes to College. He may be reached at brad.crowell@drake.edu.)

The story of the tragedy of more than 900 men, women, and children dying at the jungle commune of Jonestown in November 1978 is fairly well-known.  Although the event has been minimized to an assassination and a phrase about drinking Kool-Aid, the story of a group of idealists working together to build an example of what they saw as true socialist cooperation and devotion to a better life of racial, economic, and gender equality remains a compelling narrative in the 21st century. The group, who called themselves Peoples Temple, followed the teachings of the charismatic and transgressive minister Jim Jones, whose attraction to the most radical political theories circulating during the 1960s and 70s in the San Francisco Bay area led him to develop a highly syncretistic form of liberation Christianity that eventually gave way to his home-spun style of socialism that demanded a radical revision of American capitalism and American Christianity that he saw as complicit in the degradation of racial minorities, the economic underclass, and sexual outsiders. The leadership of Peoples Temple eventually held little hope that the American way of life would ever change in accordance with their ideals and began to plan for a utopian agricultural commune in Guyana, South America.

In November of 1978, responding to pleas from his constituents whose family members fled to the Jonestown compound with Jim Jones, Congressman Leo Ryan visited to ensure the safety and well-being of the people who lived there. After a day of touring the facilities and interacting with the people of Jonestown, Ryan gathered his party – which by then included a few defectors – and prepared to leave. Fearful of additional defections and further investigations, Jones was appalled that some of those accompanying Ryan to return to the horrors of America had been his most avid followers. The tense atmosphere became explosive: a follower attempted to stab the congressman, women wept as family members took their children away from them. As Ryan and his party were waiting at the local airstrip to board their planes, a group of young men from Jonestown attacked, killing the congressman and four others, and wounding several more. Back at Jonestown, Jones led the people in a final White Night, a name given to the ritualized practice of committing suicide as a revolutionary statement against the inhumanity of the living conditions of capitalism.  The next morning, Guyanese military entered Jonestown to find hundreds of bodies surrounding the central pavilion. In the ensuing months, the FBI recovered thousands of documents from Jonestown: receipts, letters, logs of HAM radio conversations, medical records, diaries, and educational material. Combined with the volumes of FBI interviews and congressional investigation, Peoples Temple and Jonestown are one of the most well documented New Religious Movements in history.

Digital Jonestown (digitaljonestown.library.drake.edu) is a digital humanities project that fulfills two purposes. First, it is a pedagogical tool to engage students in the complex history of Peoples Temple, a group of individuals who struggled to collectively engage a culture that they saw as economically and racially oppressive. Students investigate documents, their background and actors, obscure historical references, and difficult theological imaginings, as they debate how to annotate the texts in meaningful ways that will appropriately communicate with a larger audience which does not know much about this event and its major players.

Digital Jonestown is also a project that aims to assist the general public in engaging this often misunderstood and maligned group of socialist visionaries. This group intrigues many students, either because of their decision to end their lives in what they called “revolutionary suicide,” or because of their still-controversial leader whose vision of a peaceful and equitable society conflicted with his desire to control the group and transgress typical social norms within the utopian movement. Many who are not familiar with the history of the group, the period in which they flourished, or Jones’ extraordinary theological interpretations will benefit from the annotations of this projects.

Currently the digital humanities aspect of Digital Jonestown focuses on transcribing texts from tape recordings, newspaper clippings, and FBI documents and annotating those texts with historical context, theological interpretations, and biographical information about key players in the drama of Peoples Temple, their move to Guyana and their tragic encounter with a California congressman.  This project in being accomplished in cooperation with the Jonestown Institute and the Special Collections Department at San Diego State University Library, which maintains an archive of transcribed and digitized texts, pictures, and audio files.

Like many working on projects like this, I have had to rely on the technical support at my university to develop a platform for Digital Jonestown. The project is housed on university servers and supported by the digital projects staff in the library. This isn’t officially a “digital project,” which are limited to digitization projects of archives; most of these documents have already been transcribed and digitized (though not all of them). The platform is the standard WordPress framework used across the university, which means there was significant available tech support. The annotation mechanism, however, is a tweaked and customized version of “hypothes.is,” a robust yet open project developed for annotation. Students are familiar with WordPress, and the learning curve for working with the annotation tool is almost nonexistent. The major problem with this set up is that, like almost every annotation tool on the web, if any change is made to the structure of the page, the annotation becomes disconnected (or unmoored) from the original annotation location. Solutions for this issue are beyond our current technical capability, although a new open source tool called “Cemmento” seems promising.

The pedagogical aspect of this project revolves around a course taught at Drake University in the Honors Curriculum that fulfills the university’s “information literacy” area of inquiry, a category that every student must take at some point in their time at Drake. As such, this is not what many would consider digital pedagogy (see the debates on what constitutes “digital pedagogy” in the MLA’s “Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities” at digitalpedagogy.mla.hcommons.org), it is more of a hybrid course that involves extensive reading and discussion of various aspects of the Peoples Temple movement.

The projects the students engage in, however, is largely within the digital Jonestown environment. Initially students are placed in groups tasked with transcribing and annotating a short, fairly straightforward document: A journal entry, a newspaper article, a testimony, a fairly simple FBI communication. This project introduces students to the practice of annotation and to working with primary documents, an opportunity many students haven’t had a chance to experience. Student experiences have ranged from excitement to move to another larger project, to frustration with not knowing what to make annotations about and struggling with the kind of supporting material they are able to locate.

Annotation is, of course, one of the world’s oldest collaborative learning techniques. From cuneiform tablets meant to explore and explain their literary traditions, to medieval manuscripts of the Bible where scribes commented on each others techniques and mistakes, the practice of commenting on the work of another has preserved the many voices that form contra punctual dialogues on any number of humanistic inquiries.

And annotation has a number of important pedagogical functions that engage the contemporary student in ways that are both familiar to them and very challenging. Today’s digital savvy learners have grown up commenting on the literary productions of others. From Facebook to twitter and Instagram (and whatever social media is currently in use), social media is built on the idea of annotation. Someone makes a status update, friends view it and “like” it or make a comment. It is an immediate, very natural reaction for students to engage, have a reaction, and verbalize it to their peers.

But this process becomes very challenging when they are asked to engage, react to, and explain in annotation form a collection of documents from another era (yes, the 70s in the Bay Area is like a foreign world to many students) that were produced by a group that came from a different socioeconomic status and had a very different set of life experiences and joined a religious organization that used language many are familiar with but often meant very different things. Students begin to struggle with figuring out who individuals were, why events mentioned were important, and what the thought processes of Jim Jones were during his sometimes very lengthy and meandering sermons.

Without getting too much into the weeds of pedagogy, through conversations with students, the series of annotation projects were effective pedagogical tools for several reasons. First, the potential audience for assignment was much broader than a paper written for a professor or an assignment that would be subjected to peer review.

Second, the assignments spurred a sense of discovery in a world that was fascinating but difficult to penetrate. Not only are some students transcribing documents for the first time, but they are entering a culture and world that is unfamiliar to them. In the process they make some exciting discoveries. For instance, while tracking down an individual who was mentioned in a document, one student discovered that this member of Peoples Temple was also one of the primary people involved in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The third point of feedback from students leads into the second major goal of this digital project: students believed they were doing something important by explaining these documents and this movement to a larger, public audience. Students understood that they were providing a format for a larger, more diverse audience to engage with the documents of a movement that could remain rather relevant. The annotation of these documents does not only provide a framework for students to investigate obscure genres and Bay Area events from the 70s: rather students were keenly aware that others who are searching for information on Jonestown or Peoples Temple might be directed to our site where a highly diverse, inquisitive, and perhaps hostile audience would engage with their notations on the primary texts. This led to several discussions in class about how to write clear but objective annotations that would not lead readers to identify a particular bias within the explanatory notations. This wasn’t always an easy task. It involved some intense peer review, and at times class-wide discussions about how to clearly explain rather obscure and at times inflammatory issues.

Along with the recognition that annotation was a public service, another related issue arose, one that I had noticed but did not think would become a major point of conversation within our class and for the digital project. Students began to notice that the same political and social issues that Peoples Temple struggled to address in the culture of the radical 70s have continued to plague American society: racial divisions, economic inequality, uneven access to education and social services, and the disenfranchisement of minority populations. My students are particularly sensitive to the political nature of these issues because our involvement in the run-up to the Iowa presidential caucuses every four years, many students are involved in volunteering or interning for campaigns or political action groups. They would often connect the issues in the political campaigns to issues that Peoples Temple was attempting to rectify. Students recognized that the chosen avenues of change that Peoples Temple employed – protesting and letter writing campaigns – remain important mechanisms for change. But the most radical approach pioneered by Jim Jones – an experimental form of socialism that resulted in communal living – was one that few twenty-first century Americans embrace. Still, the similarities of the social problems struck students as an indictment of the same American form of capitalism that Jones and Peoples Temple attacked nearly 40 years ago, a social-economic construct that has developed new ways to talk about these issues but that requires protest movements like Black Lives Matter to still bring attention to the same kinds of racial violence and injustice that were prevalent in the 60s and 70s. These were the same issues that Peoples Temple refused to tolerate but ultimately resigned in its attempt to bring about positive change and fled to an isolated compound in Guyana to build their paradise on earth.

Thus as a classroom, community students debate, decide on, and ultimately design their final projects. Throughout the semester, I take a gradually decreasing role in designing the smaller projects intended to instruct in the process of annotation and use of the tools to research the notes. By the final project, students are developing their own projects, identifying the key documents, transcribing and digitizing them if necessary, and making the appropriate annotations and introductions. Some of the most popular and interesting annotation projects have been:

  1. Edith Roller’s Diaries – Most of the material from Jonestown was released by the FBI through FOIA requests within a few years after the suicides. One of the most important sources was the collection of the journals of a woman – ostensibly for a book about the movement – who died at Jonestown in her 60s. Edith recorded most of her daily activities somewhat compulsively, from what she ate and when she slept, what was happening that day at Jonestown, what was in Jones’ speeches, etc. She also recorded some of the more negative things about the Temple: the beatings to keep people from straying outside the accepted behavior boundaries; the people who wanted to leave but couldn’t; the sexual escapades of others; and elaborate details of her reactions to the White Night suicide drills. Students enjoy engaging with these journals because they provide a mundane, usually uneventful glimpse into a “regular” person and her daily activities in the Temple and in 1970s San Francisco.
  2. A Collection of “Dear Dad” letters – Another set of sources that students find interesting and worthy of annotation is the “Dear Dad letters,” a collection of missives written to Jones from the settlers at Jonestown. These were a little different because many of them have never been transcribed, so students felt as if they were performing a service for the first time. They also needed to be categorized: some were written to Jones to turn in another member for some perceived misbehavior; others were vicious explanations of what they would do to Temple enemies if they ever caught them; still others are declarations of loyalty and willingness to commit suicide should the need arise. Student have worked with only a handful, leaving hundreds of additional letters for future researchers.
  3. Paula Adams Diaries – Similar to the “Dear Dad” letters, another untranscribed source is the diary of a Jonestown spy. Paula Adams was tasked with living in the capital of Guyana, Georgetown, and seducing a government official to both acquire information and provide material for possible future blackmail. Her affair with Bonny Mann, the Guyanese ambassador to the U.S., turned into a long term relationship. She recorded more pertinent information that Edith Roller did and sent the journal pages back to Jonestown as a record of her progress toward her task. These entries are messier than Edith Rollers, they are harder to read – Paula used shorthand at times – and referenced individuals with initials or codes rather than names, making it very difficult to figure out who people are and what their role is. Still the big picture of her task, using Soviet-style espionage techniques, is a fascinating insight into the intentions and attitudes of Jones and the agricultural commune in their new homeland.
  4. Newspaper articles about particular events – Jones loved to get good publicity. He would do interviews in San Francisco, became very politically active, and would have the congregation engage in high profile activities like protesting and volunteering for political and social events. Publicity was a double-edged sword, though. When reporters picked up on negative stories about the somewhat-secretive Temple, the reports were explosive and the media investigations is ultimately what led Jones to flee from California to Guyana. There are hundreds of articles to be located, transcribed and annotated.
  5. Sermons by Jim Jones – perhaps the most difficult resource to understand is the numerous sermons and speeches of Jim Jones. These sermons were recorded, and many have been transcribed, but they include Jones’ somewhat confusing theology and his intentional inversion of social discourse – he freely used the N-word in a socio-economic sense rather than a racial one which confuses and disturbs many students. Jones evolved, theologically, from a Pentecostal preacher to a self-declared Communist, ejecting his belief in God and adopting a mocking tone about an error-riddled Bible that led to faith in a slavery promoting but powerless Skygod.

Future Prospects

As a Soviet-style agricultural commune, the leaders of Peoples Temple and the community at Jonestown maintained an elaborate and dense bureaucracy, one that required various leaders responsible for the many tasks necessary to operate a commune for about 1000 people. It should be noted that while the goal was to be self-sustaining, they needed to purchase and transport large amounts of food to maintain the community’s needs. In this bureaucracy, the reports that were mandated at each stage of the hierarchy, give us insight into mistakes that were made, problems the community encountered, and issues with running the commune. While many of these documents are of little or no public interest, select documents could add to our understanding of the administration and running of the commune, especially how problems were dealt with by the leadership outside of the urgency imputed to situations by Jim Jones.

FBI Interviews – As the FBI began to investigate the assassination of Congressman Ryan, they began to compile their communications, often heavily redacted, that would continue on a daily basis for the next 6 months. As the immediate urgency of dealing with nearly 1000 bodies exposed to the elements in a jungle environment began to abate, the agency’s attention shifted to lengthy interviews with survivors and individuals connected to the movement particularly in San Francisco and Indiana. While these are heavily redacted to protect identities, the content of the interviews – most of which have never been transcribed – provides first-hand accounts of the last days of the community and of life inside Peoples Temple.

Peoples Forum – Like other radical groups in the 70s, Peoples Temple published a weekly newspaper giving their perspective on local politics and national issues. The Peoples Forum is an essential resource to understand how the Peoples Temple understood itself and its role in American society. Unfortunately, only a couple of issues have been digitized; years’ worth of the newspaper remain in the archives of the California Historical Society.

Affidavits – Shortly after the exodus to Guyana in the summer of 1977, one of the daily projects of the new arrivals was to write up affidavits, witnessed and notarized by other members, detailing the various miracles Jones performed for them and reasons they joined the movement. These are of enormous value in understanding the rationale of members and their beliefs, manipulated or not, about Jim Jones and his role in the community. To my knowledge, none of these several hundred affidavits have been digitized.

Sermons and Speeches – Most people who encounter Jonestown become more fascinated with the sermons and ideology of Jim Jones. These were recorded and many have been transcribed, but references and theological constructs are innovative and syncretistic leading to confusion among most who encounter these sermons. We have annotated a couple of the major sermons, but many remain to be understood, studied, and annotated.

Originally posted on October 25th, 2017.

Last modified on November 15th, 2017.
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