(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Indiana Historical Society’s quarterly popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. It is reprinted with permission.)
The world came to know Reverend Jim Jones as the mad maestro of a real-life horror show that left 918 people, many of them children, dead in a South American jungle. On that weekend in November 1978, the raven-haired demagogue in aviator glasses who made his followers call him Father—and God—became father to the household expression “drink the Kool-Aid.” (Never mind that the cyanide-laced lethal concoction may have been mostly Flavor-Aid; accuracy and consistency never have been hallmarks of the story of Jones, beginning with his own version.)
In Indiana, where the now-infamous Peoples Temple had its roots, the Reverend James Warren Jones Jr. was known as a phenomenon far more complex than the Heart of Darkness caricature of those final headlines. Complex and contradictory. He was, and is, remembered fondly, derisively, admiringly, and dismissively as a charismatic preacher, an arrogant blasphemer, a healer, a theatrical phony, a selfless shepherd, a pathological control freak, a fearless and persecuted reformer, a glutton for headlines, a tireless servant of the poor, and a con artist out to raid their savings. Without question, his decade and a half of ministry and social activism in the Hoosier State left its mark. Religious and government leaders found him in their circle, as their counterparts in California did after Jones moved his flock there in 1965. The newspapers noted, and often extolled, his exploits. He once served as executive director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. Racial and church history in Indianapolis, where he made his name, unquestionably felt his impact. It is a significant legacy. And decidedly mixed. And as elusive as the mercurial character who carved it.
In the immediate wake of Jonestown, the late eminent Rabbi Maurice Davis related that he had worked on Indianapolis housing issues with Jones. “There was no indication that this thing was going to turn into a cult and that he was going to get flaked out with power,” Davis said. “He was an earnest, idealistic, rather intense young man.” Four decades later, in a 2017 interview with this author, retired Bishop A. James Armstrong recalled his dealings with Jones while a United Methodist Church leader here in the 1960s: “At that stage of the game he appeared to be an idealistic humanitarian. That was many years before he showed what he truly was. I kept my distance.”
As the fortieth anniversary of the holocaust in Guyana approaches, journalistic and scholarly interest in the Peoples Temple phenomenon retains an intensity that has never flagged. Previous anniversaries of the tragedy have been greeted with ample news articles. Films have been produced, most notably Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson. Stacks of books have been written. The newest major one emerged in 2017 from Jeff Guinn, noted chronicler of another infamous Hoosier, Charles Manson. Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, presents itself, as many other books and articles have, as a cautionary tale about false messiahs both religious and secular who arise regularly from an American landscape ripe with resentment, paranoia, and hunger for belief. “I hope I’ve made clear in the book and in my interviews about it that Jones is a near-classic demagogue, and studying him is useful in evaluating our current political situation,” Guinn told me. “What I learned writing this book scares the hell out of me in terms of the present.”
Rebecca Moore, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University who lost three family members at Jonestown, points to the neighborly, practical, inner-city origins of Peoples Temple as a deviation from the cult stereotype. Her book, Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple, noted that the predominantly black flock, made up mostly of senior citizens and children, established itself as anything but a utopian commune before its leader spirited it away from its roots. “Far from dropping out,” she wrote, “Peoples Temple members were engaged in the world, and tried to make concrete differences in individuals’ lives and in society as a whole.”
Without doubt, their pastor embodied that compassionate presence as well as the simple religious faith undergirding it, until he came to denounce the Bible, pronounce himself the divine source of truth, and exhort the congregation to find a remote hiding place from a host of enemies and from imminent nuclear war.
As one more testament to the prodigious appeal of Jones as an object of study, there is an encyclopedic and constantly updated website sponsored by the San Diego State religious studies department and captained by Moore and her husband, veteran journalist Fielding McGehee. Officially titled “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” the site (http://jonestown.sdsu.edu) hosts a potpourri of articles and links ranging from academic research to reflections by survivors. While the California and Guyana periods understandably dominate the inventory, McGehee finds the Indiana years uniquely telling. “I have felt for a long time,” he told me, “that some of the most interesting people to track were those who joined in Indianapolis when it was a religion—before it became a political and social welfare organization and then a megalomaniacal roller coaster with no brakes.”
Jones did not arrive in a believing family at his birth on May 13, 1931, in tiny Crete in eastern Indiana. His father, James Thurman Jones, was a heavy drinker, chronically unemployed, and burdened by an injury he suffered in World War I. Jimmy’s mother, Lynetta Putnam Jones, was a tough-talking loner who encouraged her son to grab for life’s brass ring and eventually managed some of the controversial and ultimately state-discredited Peoples Temple business ventures in Indianapolis. The family never attended church, but a neighbor, Myrtle Kennedy, got Jimmy interested in religion and became a lifelong grandmother figure to him. Early on, he exhibited two passions: for ecstatic preaching in the Holy Roller style and for the plight of African Americans in a segregated time and place. There were virtually no blacks in Crete and few in nearby Lynn, to which the family moved soon after Jimmy’s birth; but their lives were much a part of the city of Richmond, where Jones graduated from high school.
As a child in Lynn, Jones had few friends and was given to crying fits, swearing, and sex talk that got him tagged as weird. “There’s a little town in Indiana. The moment I think of it, there is pain,” he said in the 2006 Nelson documentary. “As a child, I was undoubtedly one of the poorer in the community, never accepted, born as it were on the wrong side of the tracks.” Yet he organized a traveling baseball league at one time and regularly practiced his preaching, both in front of friends and over dead animals he chose for last rites. He earned good grades and moved on to Indiana University, where he studied sporadically and kept to himself, interrupting his attendance in 1952 to take work as a pastoral intern at Somerset Methodist Church on the south side of Indianapolis. He finally earned a bachelor’s degree from Butler University in Indianapolis in 1961, a step the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ denomination, demanded before it would grant his request for ordination.
While working at a hospital in Richmond in 1948, Jones met Marceline Baldwin, a nurse and daughter of a prominent Richmond resident and former city councilman. Walter Baldwin did not particularly care for the coarse, brash young man, and his daughter was not much taken with him either at first. He wore them down. Taking a cue from his mother, who was nothing if not creative about her own biography, Jones falsely assured Marceline he shared her family’s Quaker faith. Flashing his humanitarian credentials, he also conveyed his oft-told tale of having walked out of a barbershop with his hair half cut because the place refused service to a black person. Their marriage from nearly the beginning would be a continual clash over religion; along with his lengthy absences, rampant sexual infidelities, and paranoid outbursts. Yet she remained at his side till the end, even if she was compelled to share confidante status, and his affections, with other females. It was she, in fact, who pushed for the couple to adopt four children of color in addition to the eleven-year-old white girl who was their first adoptee. The household also included one biological child, Stephan. If defenders of Jones, or those who call for fair play at any rate, wish to cite bona fides, they would find none stronger than those three Korean-American kids (Stephanie, Suzanne, and Lew), the Indiana orphan named Agnes and the boy the Joneses claimed as the first African American to be adopted by a white family in Indiana, James Warren Jones Jr. The family paid a steep price in social antagonism for their magnanimity.
Often described as the nation’s southernmost Northern city and northernmost Southern city, Indianapolis at midcentury was a bastion of respectable, mostly de facto, racial segregation. Public parks and private businesses were understood to be “for” African Americans or off limits to them, generally, but not always, depending on whether the amenities were on the near-north and near-west side, where most blacks resided. Crispus Attucks High School on Northwestern Avenue (a street since renamed for Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.) was established in 1927 explicitly for blacks and kept that designation until federal court-ordered desegregation began in the early 1970s—two decades after state law banned school racial segregation. The privately-owned and immensely popular Riverside Amusement Park, a couple miles north on West Thirtieth Street, was whites-only except for once-a-year “milk cap days,” when the attraction was opened to African Americans who presented bottle tops as part of a local dairy promotion.
Indianapolis’ black community was not silent about any of these slights; segregation ended at Riverside, for example, in 1964, a year after protests by the emergent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council. Yet it is true that a racial “sense of place” pervaded black Indianapolis and its leadership, as well as the white liberal contingent, before the arrival of Jones in the early 1950s. Indeed, it was well after his departure in 1965 that adversarial action in the courts and streets took hold. A key factor behind the get-along atmosphere may have been economics: While Indianapolis blacks bore a heavy portion of poverty and most were ghettoized in sorely-deprived neighborhoods to the immediate north and west of downtown, many had access to a remarkable array of decent white- and blue-collar jobs, thanks largely to a heavy federal presence reflected in such institutions as the U.S. Army Finance Center at Fort Benjamin Harrison and the U.S. Postal Service. When the archconservative Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News railed against troublemakers such as Doctor King and his marchers, they could count on at least some assent from trouble-averse black readers, even if the papers excluded black weddings from the society pages.
Social change, as much as charity and self-aggrandizement, drove the ministry of Jones; but in pursuing the former, he exercised diplomacy and salesmanship suited to the environment (with notable lapses into bombast on occasion). When he took his first pastoral job, he had been attending services at various churches with Marceline and settled on Somerset Methodist largely because he had been impressed with Methodism’s stated commitment to social justice and economic equality. He was also drawn to communism—a volatile pursuit in a state that gave birth to the John Birch Society, even if Jones took his inspiration not from totalitarian governments but rather from a long-standing Christian critique of capitalism as an inherent perpetrator of poverty. “It was communism not in the Russian sense but in the Book of Acts sense,” recalled Ron Haldeman, a longtime Quaker minister who was a social justice activist in Indianapolis well before and long after Jones. “The idea of having everyone put in money and all live together—he wasn’t doing it but he was talking it.”
What he was doing when he met Haldeman, while short of communist agitation, was taking up the cause of the city’s poor with a definite socialist bent. Jones was let go by Somerset in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear, but he was never comfortable with the strait-laced climate there and claimed, characteristically if dubiously, that his undoing owed to his efforts to recruit blacks to the pews. He moved on to start a church called Community Unity in a small rented building at Hoyt Avenue and Randolph Street on the predominantly white near-southeast side, and doubled as an associate pastor at nearby Laurel Street Tabernacle. But he kept his sights aimed at the black community, and one day in 1954 stopped in at a north-side outreach center for the needy that Haldeman operated for the Quakers. Having laid the groundwork for Community Unity through neighborhood canvassing with Marceline, Jones suggested a partnership. Haldeman was happy to have the help, and as Jones poured his considerable energies into the resulting storefront church, the outlays of food and clothing grew. So did the attendance.
By 1956 Jones had moved Community Unity to a north-side location at Fifteenth and New Jersey Streets and, a year later, to a larger structure less than a mile away at Tenth and Delaware Streets. Both gave proximity to black believers, but Jones and his wife still had to actively recruit them; the pews mostly held followers from the two south-side churches. Tireless soliciting on the streets and through purchased radio programming made progress, but the ball really got rolling after Jones staged a massive religious convention in 1956 with a nationally known evangelist as top draw and the impresario himself as bright new star. In addition to winning widespread attention, the performance piqued the interest of a devout member of the audience named Archie Ijames, who became Jones’ most important African American associate.
(How Peoples Temple became Peoples Temple seems to boil down to pedestrian accident. In Haldeman’s recounting, the home chosen for Community Unity at Tenth and Delaware happened to be a former synagogue. Inasmuch as “TEMPLE” was carved into stone on the facade, the name was chiseled into Jones’ pastorate, into his movement, and into American history.)
As Community Unity/Peoples Temple sank in and spread its north-side roots, Haldeman and his wife, Jane, became friends with the Joneses, who lived near them. They often dined together, along with the Joneses’ “rainbow family” of biological and adopted children. Jane, who died in 2009, was a hospital dietitian who had Jones as a client, if not a very compliant one. Ron occasionally substituted for Jones in the pulpit when the latter was away on his frequent excursions to various states, often on the revival circuit to which he had been drawn since his student ministry days.
Haldeman’s own Quaker denomination spurned Jones’ petition for official recognition, and so did the United Methodists. Keen to secure a badge of establishment legitimacy for his ministry, Jones applied to the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, whose world headquarters were and are in Indianapolis. Citing its nondoctrinaire, decentralized philosophy, Disciples leadership granted membership to Peoples Temple. Subsequent events, from freewheeling services in the local church to the catastrophe in Guyana, fomented sharp debate within the governing body. Pointing out that on November 18, 1978, Peoples Temple and its pastor were in good standing with the denomination, prominent Disciples minister Karen Stroup warned in an essay that the denomination’s posture of “non-creedal” flexibility and deference to local wishes, unquestionably well meant, kept open the possibility of more Jonestowns.
Dramatic preaching that could persist for hours marked Jones’ pastorate, and he did not stop with saving souls. The young zealot soon moved beyond charity to orchestration of small-scale appeals and protests to the powerful. Haldeman recounted that Jones would ask a gathering, “What’s wrong with the city?” and be answered by someone with, perhaps, a complaint about a utility bill. With Marceline’s help, a letter or petition would be drawn up, and as the story goes, the recipient would respond favorably.
Charismatic evangelization, social action, and healing—scholars of religion who have examined the Jones phenomenon note that all three major strains of the African American ecclesiastic tradition, not always found together, got their due in Community Unity and its successor, Peoples Temple. The last of these features has the least legitimacy from the testimony of witnesses, who told and tell of chicken livers being passed off as miraculously excised cancers, “cures” for conditions that did not actually exist, and sheer determination to believe on the part of the gathering. The paranormal theatrics extended to demonstrations of clairvoyance by the fiery pastor, who was known to eavesdrop on conversations prior to services and then stun the participants with “revelations” of private information he had gleaned.
Mike Cartmell was there. He joined Peoples Temple as a teenager along with his mother, Patty, who became a loyal lieutenant of Jones after their encounter with him at a revival near their home near Columbus, Ohio. Cartmell went on to marry Jones’ adopted daughter, Suzanne, a union blessed at first by the preacher but sundered by Cartmell’s eventual disillusionment with his father-in-law’s church. They married in 1973 and divorced four years later. Cartmell recalled the early Jones as a mentor to him and, with his mix of evangelization and political progressivism, an inspiration to his mother. Cartmell, now a banker in California, also made no fundamental distinction between the Jim Jones of Indiana, California, and South America. He noted:
The paranormal stuff had to be seen to be believed. It was all a charade, but it didn’t look like a charade at the time. You’d believe. Plus he was serious about life. Ideals, action. There were the marches, financial aid to people in jail, help for the homeless. It was all very sincere to people in the pews. But it was just power. He was a con man. He was genuinely somewhat disturbed about segregation. But he was not this idealistic young man who for reasons we don’t understand became a maniac. I just don’t believe that. All of it was for the purposes of his authority. He was not someone unaware of his political surroundings. He did some good work, I suppose. But he made sure it got in the papers.
Good press was indeed Jones’ portion, in the three Indianapolis dailies (the Star, News, and Times) and especially in the Indianapolis Recorder, the newspaper serving the black community. Innocuous to laudatory articles covered developments ranging from his Human Rights Commission appointment to his door-to-door selling of imported monkeys to raise funds. It was not until after the church moved to California that the Star, in conjunction with the San Francisco Chronicle, took an investigative tack toward Peoples Temple and published grave allegations of financial mischief, beatings, sexual abuse, and fake healings from the Indianapolis days. Two church-related enterprises, the stories noted, lost their Indiana corporate charters for failure to meet state requirements—Jim-Lu-Mar Corporation and Wings of Deliverance, both skippered by Lynetta Putnam Jones.
The Recorder by and large championed Jones as a victim of persecution, and there was warrant to that. The question is, how much? No doubt, hate mail and nasty phone calls, some carrying death threats, came from both blacks and whites who were upset with Jones’ reform agenda, or at least its pace and tactics. He claimed he was inundated with such abuse. Marceline’s account of being spat upon at a bus stop while holding her nonwhite child was not publicly disputed, but skeptics of her husband’s report of shots fired at his house pointed out that ballistics showed the bullets came from inside.
When it came to press, Jones, ever the salesman, made plenty of his own, purchasing frequent ads, mainly in the Recorder, that make for quaint reading to today’s detached eye but got across the salient points for his target audience. He also secured television coverage for his worship services and hosted a radio program, which got canceled, reportedly because of controversy. Advertisements and fliers distributed around the community touted rummage and bake sales and promised free bicycles to kids who brought the most friends to a service (youth, Jones believed, were the key to long-term numerical growth for his congregation).
Vibrant, soulful music also was part of the package as Jones strove to make Peoples Temple an attraction, not only a sanctuary. Indianapolis Baptist minister and activist Thomas Brown, son of the late civil rights-pioneering pastor Andrew J. Brown, said Jones impressed his father with charisma and civil rights zeal but was short on sincerity and long on schmaltz. “It was an interesting thing, this city,” Brown said. “There was a preacher on every corner. Competition.”
Hyacinth Thrash and her sister, Zipporah, bought the pitch. Black natives of the Deep South, confined to menial work in consensually-stratified Indianapolis, they were ready for the heady mix of racial equality and charismatic old-time religion. A lifelong believer in the laying on of hands to heal, Hyacinth became convinced the handsome young minister cured her of breast cancer. Yet she came to distrust him over his fixations on power, money, and sex. She followed him all the way to Jonestown, but only, she said, because she could not bring herself to abandon her sister. Zipporah kept the faith and died in the jungle.
Seventeen years later, Hyacinth became the author, with help from Indianapolis freelance writer Marian Towne, of The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana, a memoir that tells of her surviving the massacre by hiding under her bed when the call came out for everyone to report to the pavilion. She also may have simply fallen asleep and gotten overlooked. In any case, she became a distinctive witness among the many Peoples Temple veterans who have shared their stories via mass media. She may not have been “the onliest one alive” from Peoples Temple when rescuers arrived at the compound the day after the tragedy, but she was the only soul on the premises to walk among hundreds of bodies when dawn first broke over the aftermath. “I remember those babies marching past our place with little paper hats on, wearing sandals, sun suits and matching shorts and tops,” she wrote. “It’s enough to make you scream your lungs out, thinking of those babies dead.” Her epitaph for the Peoples Temple experience: “We were brainwashed! Programmed, like with dope.”
Hyacinth died in an Indianapolis nursing home at the age of ninety-three in 1995, shortly after her book was published. It was self-published, rushed into print by Towne, who was determined to make sure Thrash lived to see the final product and who said she could not interest any publishers in “a book by a black, elderly woman,” symbolic, in her mind, of the societal inattention that made a Jonestown possible.
Indianapolis historian and journalist Eunice Trotter, who grew up in the era and in the vicinity of the local Peoples Temple, remembered the preacher and his monkeys. Even after Jonestown, the African American observer maintains, unstated prejudice prevailed. “It was never given its significance because black people died,” she said.
Scant living memory can be found of Jones in the Richmond area, from which he moved away in 1949. Neither the Wayne County Historical Society, Indiana University East, nor Earlham College (where his wife Marceline was graduated and is buried) lists active scholars on the subject, with the exception of Wazir Mohamed of IU East, a Guyana native and assistant professor of sociology who has made Jonestown his focus and has not delved into the leader’s Indiana roots. In a twentieth-anniversary retrospective on the Jonestown tragedy published in the Richmond Palladium-Item in 1998, older residents of the community offered varying recollections.
“He indeed had found his calling at that young age,” said Louis Thomas, a neighbor in the late 1930s in Lynn, where Jones’ family had moved in his early childhood. “I recall he could frequently be heard from the pulpit. It made no difference that he had no audience present.” One day, when Thomas declined to act as that audience, Jones “violently threw a rock, hitting me in the right temple . . . ending his attempt at conversion.”
About a decade later in Richmond, Lester Wise became a playmate and Sunday school companion. He remembered Jones as “a quiet, innocent boy in the company of Mrs. Kennedy, his surrogate mother, but a somewhat mischievous boy out of her sight.”
A witness who is still living, Eugene Cordell of Indianapolis, heard many stories about a “strange kid” who performed funeral ceremonies for dead animals. But Cordell’s own memories are more fraught. He became Jones’ congregant and personal auto mechanic after his wife, June, who died in 2010, became enthralled with the intense young preacher at Laurel Street Church in 1954. She thought he cured her arthritis. The couple followed Jones north and helped form the substantial white minority of his Indianapolis churches. They became disillusioned and left Peoples Temple in 1957. Two decades later, in spite of their pleas, twenty Cordell relatives made the journey to Guyana and their deaths. Five of those victims were Gene’s adoptive sister, Carol Ann Cordell McCoy, and her four children. “I tried to talk Carol Ann out of it, but Jimmy was her God,” Cordell said.“He told ’em they didn’t need to read the Bible. He tried to change the word of God. He said ‘I’m your God.’ Oh yeah, I went through all that.”
Like many other witnesses and chroniclers, Cordell traced a dramatic acceleration of Jones’ messianic bent to his meeting in suburban Philadelphia in 1957 with Reverend M. J. Divine, the controversial African American preacher-entrepreneur and eventual convict better known as Father Divine. Attracting followers with service, raising the specter of outside enemies, and elevating the “Father” to Godlike status were key tenets of the Divine approach Jones bought into. “Jimmy was a changed man in 1957 after he went to see Father Divine,” Cordell said. “They [Divine’s people] rolled out the red carpet for him. He got a big head; took a different viewpoint to his preaching.”
Much further from consensus are views of the influence of physical health, and drugs, on Jones’ evolution to extremes of control and paranoia. While it is widely believed that drug abuse was a feature of his self-indulgent hypocrisy, along with sexual exploitation of the female faithful, there is an authoritative school of thought that the compulsion to control his environment drove Jones to medicate himself for sleep resistance rather than recreation. His personal physician, Carlton Goodlett, also a prominent African American newspaper publisher, warned him near the end that a high fever, dehydration, and other maladies threatened his life.
Illness, often linked to overwork, dates well back from Guyana. In fact, or at least in what has been widely reported as fact, illness led to one of Jones’ signature victories as a fighter for racial equality. As the story goes, he was mistakenly assigned to a black ward when he was admitted to Methodist Hospital for treatment one day in 1961. The error occurred because he had a black physician. When informed he would be moved to a white section, Jones refused, and, voila!—the hospital was integrated.
At that time, Jones was executive director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, an appointment bestowed that year by Mayor Charles Boswell. Jones was the only applicant for the $7,000-a-year post. The expectation was that he would continue the sort of efforts he had already made on behalf of fair treatment of citizens across racial lines in public accommodations, and that he would do so in quiet, conciliatory ways compatible with the conservative climate of the city. By Boswell’s account, rendered twenty-seven years later in the wake of Jonestown, the young employee took exactly that easygoing approach. By other depictions, such as Tim Reiterman’s in his formidable 1982 book Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Jones was very much the agitator at times, haranguing the local NAACP for being too patient, and was admonished by the city brass to tone down his rhetoric.
Haldeman, assessing from close up, splits the difference. He said Jones operated on a long leash and made the most of it, as far as local government was concerned. It was the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, Haldeman said, that was most disturbed by the preacher’s intrusion upon business prerogatives. He tells of Jones’ use of city funds to buy 350 tickets to a movie theater for blacks in an integration gambit, and getting away with silence from his bosses. The late Mayor Boswell called that story, previously circulated, false.
In an interview with the Times upon his appointment, Jones waxed alternately urgent, moderate, emotional, and grandiose about the mission. “There’s something big at stake here,” he was quoted as saying. “Our racial problems have caused us to lose face in the whole world. I took this job to help my community.” He added that adoption of an African American son had made being “a friend of the Negro” more personal. And he gave assurance that while his church had “made our Negro brothers welcome,” he drew the line at mixed marriage: “The Negro wants to be our brother in privilege, not our brother-in-law.”
There is no dispute that Jones was high-profile and given to direct action, and that he caught some grief from the public. He also experienced the worst kind of grief: loss of a young daughter, Stephanie, in the crash of another church member’s car on the way home from a weekend outing in Cincinnati. As told by Guinn in Road to Jonestown, no Indianapolis cemetery would allow the child, a Korean-American, to be buried alongside whites; only a black mortician would prepare the body, and she was interred in a weedy section set aside for African Americans in Floral Park Cemetery in Indianapolis.
For Jones to declare that he forsook such a city to escape persecution can hardly be dismissed as histrionics, but he also made it clear that Indianapolis was both too small for his ego and too large to be missed by the global nuclear exchange he long prophesied. Guyana was only the last of several out-of-the-way places around the world that he scouted for an exodus, including the enclave of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where he took his family and ministered for two years while on a self-assigned sabbatical from Peoples Temple. Ironically, the Brazil interlude may have added practical incentive for moving the church from Indianapolis; the congregation shrank during Jones’ absence, and long-running friction between him and his coterie of lieutenants—Russell Winberg, Ross Case, Jack Beam, and Ijames—intensified. While all were marked by reluctance to give voice to their mounting worry about the leader’s disturbing behavior, only Beam stayed with him all the way to Jonestown, paying for his loyalty with his life.
Haldeman, the quintessential Quaker pacifist known far and wide for temperament and aspirations antithetical to those of Jones, was empathetic, prophetic, and resigned in summation of a man he knew as a friend and the world reviles as a monster: “In Indianapolis, there was too much persecution; too many attacking him; he was upsetting the Chamber of Commerce. When he left Indianapolis, one of the questions was, ‘What would be next.’ He said to me, ‘Some time, I may have to go further.’ I interpreted that right then that he was talking about suicide.”
Suicide, as it would turn out that was, to a staggering degree, murder—forced ingestion and injection of poison, augmented by shootings. The suicide-cult leader himself, after overseeing the deaths of virtually all of his followers, died from a gunshot wound to the head. As he had for more than three decades, he stood among those who did not drink the punch.
For Further Reading
Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, The Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. | Guinn, Jeff. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017. | Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. | Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009. | Reiterman, Tim. With John Jacobs. The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones and His People. New York: J. P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. | Scheeres, Julia. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown. New York: Free Press, 2011.
(Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis freelance writer and former Indianapolis Star columnist. He’s the author of two books of poetry and two of Indiana journalism, including Indiana Out Loud: Dan Carpenter on the Heartland Beat, published by the Indiana Historical Society Press in 2013.)