(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on March 18, 2019, and is reprinted with permission.)
Those who dive into the true crime genre often know that feeling when a particular story gets to you. We are actually a compassionate bunch generally speaking, but not every case has the same gut-twisting effect as those particular ones. When I first heard of Jonestown, I was up for hours doing research, both sickened and utterly fascinated. Again, true crime people will know that feeling well.
What would ultimately become Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ was formed in 1954 by Jim Jones in Indiana. By 1965, they had set up shop in Redwood, California, then expanding to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Jones was the proponent of his own blend of Christianity and communism, that which he dubbed “apostolic socialism.” *Note: In all of my research on Jonestown, socialism and communism seem to be brought up almost interchangeably. I don’t know why this is, but I’m going by what the source says; I know that they are, in fact, not the same thing. His message was egalitarian, with an emphasis on the rights of African Americans, women, the poor, and the elderly. He studied charismatic speakers and preachers, perfecting his own craft. He performed faith healing services, which were staged (members would often pose as sick or injured people and pretend to be healed). He and his wife adopted several children of different races, referring to themselves as a “rainbow family.”
Behind the scenes, insiders knew that all of this was a conscious effort on his part to promote his communist beliefs. His adopted son, Jim Jones Jr., seems to have been often used as a prop to demonstrate how committed he was to racial equality. One 1972 news article describes a church service where,
Mrs. Jones, a trim blonde, sang a song entitled “My Black Baby,” with the Jones’ adopted black son, a handsome boy of 14, standing at his mother’s feet at stage edge while the audience loudly applauded. (The boy had been extensively featured in last week’s sermon by his father in Redwood Valley, as well.)
Jones Jr. himself spoke of how his father often would remind him that he was the first African American child adopted by white parents in Indiana.
“And he’d always remind me of that. ‘My adopted black son.’ Not ‘my black son.’ Not ‘my son.’ ‘My adopted black son.’”
Truth and Lies: Jonestown, Paradise Lost
In an audio recording of one of his talks, Jones admits:
If anybody gets me up and asks me any questions about, what did you do with your healing ministry? Were you using the church to lead people into socialism? I’ll say sure!
Transcript Q 1024
He felt that a religious veneer was an effective way to make others see his way of thinking in the decidedly anti-communist United States. He was not incorrect.
He’d effectively insulated himself with equally zealous individuals whose main aims aligned with his. He was the charismatic figure at the head, but there were several others in leadership positions who facilitated everything that would occur. Although the bulk of the congregation of the temple were black and working-class (about 70 percent), most of this inner-circle were white and college educated (Rolling Stone). They were extremely passionate about communism.
In the beginning, the church did many positive things in service of the poor and beleaguered, such as assistance with food, rent, and home utilities. They made a good deal of money fundraising and performing staged healing services across the country. The church owned and operated a home for the elderly, a foster home, and a home for the disabled. They were active advocates for racial justice and women’s rights.
Jones was making a name for himself as a champion for social justice; he had been a member of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, and later (1975) was appointed Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. He had made several friends in high places, including politicians such as George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and journalists who would publish positive articles on the church. Jones even had the ear of Rosalynn Carter, the first lady at the time.
Throughout the years, Jones would gradually reduce the religious facets of his message while increasing the political message, eventually admitting to his inner circle that he was, in fact, an atheist. An “us vs. them” mentality was deeply instilled in members. Even today, socialist ideas, far left-leaning politics, and especially communism, are somewhat taboo. Back then, they were extremely subversive, so the idea that outsiders were against them was not a hard sell. Also, members were largely disenfranchised and let down by mainstream society (people of color, the poor, the elderly); the ground was fertile for planting “revolutionary” ideals.
Tests of loyalty, secrecy, and bullying were the norm long before the group ever founded Jonestown; this type of behavior was justified by calling it a “communal” way of living, with members being “accountable” to one another. Defectors were threatened and searched for. Members would be asked to sign blank pieces of paper, so that their signature could be used in any myriad of ways in the future should they one day defect. Family members were turned against one another. Those who stepped out of line were publicly called out and punished, sometimes physically, in front of the entire congregation. In audio recordings, Jones shouts and berates the subjects of these beatings, where he implores congregants to hold them down while others beat him/her. His giggles in the background are truly sickening (Truth and Lies: Jonestown, Paradise Lost).
Jones was also alleged to have sexually abused members, claiming that he deigns to do what he must (coming onto people, male or female, who don’t really have the power to refuse him) to “further the cause,” spreading the good word of socialism (Rolling Stone, Truth and Lies: Jonestown, Paradise Lost).
“I told you there, I’ve had to crawl in bed with men, and put up with (expletive) for this cause, I’ve had to lay with women I hated ’til my skin crawled.”
Truth and Lies: Jonestown, Paradise Lost
With such a large, prominent church, red flags were eventually apparent to the media. In particular, Lester Kinsolving, who wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, was critical of the church, writing
“…an eight-part series of articles that documented allegations of physical abuse, financial misdeeds, and suspect theology within Peoples Temple. It was the most extensive – and most critical – coverage of the Temple to that date”
Lester Kinsolving Series on Peoples Temple
The media scrutiny served to emphasized the “us vs. them” message that Jones was pushing. Toward the late 70’s, the group would purchase a piece of land and settle in the middle of a forest in Guyana. Jonestown’s official name was the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. The plan was to escape the oppression of the United States and the media, and create their own communist utopian society. By 1978, there were more than 900 members there.
Life at Jonestown was apparently not what most members had hoped it would be. Social control was much tighter than it had been before, and days were monopolized with physical labor.
Jones himself was increasingly erratic in his behavior, as he was abusing stimulants. Criticism of any aspect of this way of life was taboo.
It was a two-day river journey from the capital of Georgetown to Port Kaituma, the closest village to Jonestown. No roads connected the capital to the hinterlands — still the case today. Jones confiscated everyone’s passports and money and told them that if they didn’t like it, they could ‘swim home.’ Despite promising families that they would live together in private homes, he separated husbands and wives, parents and children. Despite boasts of bumper crops, the thin jungle soil couldn’t produce enough food to feed the increasingly hungry residents.
Julie Scheeres, Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2018
Meanwhile, relatives of several Jonestown residents had written to their Congressmen expressing concerns that their loved ones were being held against their will. Due to these concerns, Congressman Leo Ryan and a small group of journalists flew out to Jonestown to see for themselves.
The members were advised to look and act appropriately happy, and they did; footage shows lovely, dancing people who do not appear to be under duress.
However, on November 18, 1978, a note was slipped to a journalist revealing that several members would like to return to the U.S. with them. When confronted with this, Jones, visibly upset, agreed that the group may leave if they so choose. However, once the group left for the airstrip to head home, Jones sent a truck full of gunmen after them with orders. They opened fire on the airstrip, killing Ryan and four others.
Once the group of shooters returned and informed Jones that they were done, Jones called a gathering at the pavilion (the typical gathering place for any group activities). He informed them that the Congressman had been killed; now it would only be a matter of time before the U.S. comes for their revenge. They must commit “revolutionary suicide.”
Jones had been acclimating group members to this term and idea throughout their time at Jonestown; even back in the U.S. when it came to his closer confidants. He would rhapsodize about how they would never be allowed to live in the idyllic communal utopian society that they believed in, and that it would be a revolutionary act to kill themselves in protest, to make a statement against the capitalist consumer society they so loathed.
He would literally gather everyone to the pavilion (a covered area with picnic tables in the middle of the encampment) and essentially pester them with the idea until they agreed that they could do such a thing if the need arose.
They’d be asked to drink what they were told was poison, but was really harmless flavor-aid. If they couldn’t go through with it, they had to endure the mark of one who wasn’t committed enough to revolution, and not committed enough to Jones.
The sick brilliance of it was that their conditioning served seemingly contradictory, dual purposes: 1.) It made them think that this time might be just another “test” where no one would actually go through with it. I’d be willing to bet that many of those people did not think it would be real until the last moments. 2.) It opened them up to the idea of it, getting them used to the notion of suicide, romanticizing it, allowing them to envision it. No one present was feeling shocked at Jones’ words.
I want to pause my narrative here to explain to you why this story, of all the sad things I fill my mind with on a daily basis, put a knot in my stomach for weeks on end. There are audio recordings of what occurred that evening. I’m not going to share them here, but they are easy to find on the internet, including on this site. I listened to them. I was aghast at what I heard. I was angry, sad, and frankly, I was freaked the hell out. In casual reports of what happened, they don’t linger on the darker details, but when you listen to those recordings, they are brought to life in your head.
After some discussion with the group, Jones continued to insist that they had no other choice but to kill themselves. Most of Jones’ statements were met with applause. A few stood up to voice protest, essentially stating that choosing to live would always be the preferred way, but were contradicted. Others stood up to state that they were ready to take part in this revolutionary act in the name of socialism/ communism.
Jones stopped and started the recording more than 30 times, editing out protestations. His final sentence is a grotesque lie: ‘We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.’ The screams in the background tell the real story.
Julie Scheeres, Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2018
Eventually, Jones implored them to bring the children first. Then, the screaming and wailing began. Jones spoke over this into a microphone, urging people to stop wailing and fighting it, to die with dignity. The same continued for some time, until the screaming eventually died down, and all that could be heard was church-like organ music, reminiscent of an altar-call at a revival meeting.
The method used was to drink grape flavor-aid mixed with cyanide. Hence the colloquial references to “drinking the kool-aid.” There were also syringes strewn about. Some were likely used to squirt it into children’s mouths, while some were also used to forcibly inject (murder) the reluctant. In total, 918 people died, 276 of them children.
An unsigned letter found at Jonestown, suspected (by some surviving members) to have been authored by Temple member Richard Tropp, reads like the community’s own obituary:
To Whomever Finds This Note
Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions. Words fail. We have pledged our lives to this great cause. [Two words crossed out] We are proud to have something to die for. We do not fear death. We hope that the world will someday realize [cross-out] the ideals of brotherhood, justice and equality that Jim Jones has lived and died for. We have all chosen to die for this cause. We know there is no way that we can avoid misinterpretation. But [cross-out] Jim Jones and this movement were born too soon. The world was not ready to let us live.
Again… the audio tapes tell a very different story. The physical evidence tells a different story. The science of death by cyanide poisoning, a horrific and painful experience, tells a different story. The survivors who managed to escape tell a different story.
Richard Tropp had apparently been “arguing long and passionately with Jim Jones on the morning of November 18th before the meeting was called in the pavilion” (according to his partner Kathy Barbour). Perhaps the fiction in this letter was a desperate attempt at coming to grips with the horror occurring all around him.
Linda Sharon Amos, one of Jones’ inner circle who was at the Georgetown headquarters at the time the horror at Jonestown was unfolding, was apparently informed of what was about to happen via radio communication. Charles Beikman and 9 year old Stephanie Morgan were also present. There’s a bit of mystery as to the exact details of what happened next. According to Beikman, Amos gathered everyone up, including her own children: Martin, 8 years old; Christa, 10, and Leanne, 22. She brought them into the bathroom and slit their throats before slitting her own. Beikman would later be charged with their murders, eventually receiving a deal of five years for pleading guilty to the attempted murder of Amos. (New York Times, December 5, 1978; Rolling Stone). I have not been able to figure out what became of Stephanie other than the fact that she survived injuries to her neck; I do not know who is alleged to have inflicted them, as she is, to my knowledge, not mentioned in Beikman’s charges.
Michael Prokes, another of Jones’ inner circle, was given a briefcase filled with money which he was ordered to deliver to the Soviet embassy in Guyana. He was on his way to do this while everyone else was dying. Months later, back in the states, he called a press conference in his hotel room. He gave a statement, locked himself in the bathroom, and shot himself. He left a suicide note, but I do not want to share it because, frankly, the high level of delusion makes me angry.
I am ceaselessly annoyed when this incident is termed a “mass suicide.”
These are the facts:
- All of the children and babies were murdered.
- There is physical evidence, such as needle marks on bodies, that some of the adults were murdered.
- Pressuring someone to drink a cup of poison, even if they give in, is murder.
- Pressuring an elderly and infirm person (as many victims were), who could never defend themselves or run away, into drinking a cup of poison is murder.
- Being literally in the middle of the jungle, under armed guard by individuals who had hours ago assassinated a U.S. Congressmen, is an inherently coercive situation, and coercing someone to drink a cup of poison is murder.
- Conducting numerous gatherings previously that mimic this same night, NOT culminating in going through with suicide? That is leading people to believe that this would not be real. That is tricking people into drinking cups of poison, which is murder.
I know that several members committed what I would define as suicide, meaning they knowingly and intentionally took their own lives. The “inner circle” who helped to facilitate all of this from the start. Jones and his nurse, Annie Moore, were shot; only they were spared the ugly death of cyanide poisoning. Perhaps he had her do it so he wouldn’t have to; who knows?
Jones and his co-conspirators were the ones who committed suicide that day. It is not accurate and frankly offensive to call this a mass suicide. It was a mass murder, with a handful of people who killed themselves after. The semantics matter in this case. Most of the dead were probably not bad people. They wanted good things like equality, but lost themselves in something truly insidious.
The scale of death and suffering here is difficult to come to grips with; doing so makes me literally ill. That is why this is one of THOSE cases for me; one that puts a knot in your gut and keeps you up at night.
Emily Alford, “On the 40th Anniversary of Jonestown, Survivors Remember the Horror of the Massacre and the Alienation of the Fallout,” Jezebel, November 18, 2018.
Tom Kinsolving, Jonestown Apologists Alert Article Archive
Erika Mailman, “What Happened After Jonestown?”, Rolling Stone, November 16, 1978
Joseph B. Treaster, “A Cult Mother Led Children To Death,” New York Times December 5, 1978.
Julia Scheeres, “Jonestown victims drew public scorn, but now we know the story of their betrayal,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2018
Truth and Lies: Jonestown, Paradise Lost, ABC TV, September 28, 2018.