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Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple
On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of Peoples Temple died in the largest mass suicide/murder in history. What drew so many people across racial and class lines to the Peoples Temple? How could a diverse group of 900 people be convinced to commit suicide? What was a California congregation doing in the jungles of Guyana? And who was Jim Jones to command such loyalty that parents would murder their own children? Using never before seen archival footage and survivor interviews, "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" tells the story of the people who followed Jim Jones from Indiana, to California, and finally to the remote jungles of Guyana, South America, in a misbegotten quest to build an ideal society and rid the world of injustice.
Jonestown was the communal settlement made in northwestern Guyana by the Peoples Temple, a cult from California. It was founded in the mid-1970s by Jim Jones, the cult leader and its namesake, but was occupied only for a few years. It stood amidst jungle, about seven miles (11 km) from Port Kaituma (7°44′N 59°53′W).
Jonestown gained lasting international notoriety in 1978, when nearly its whole population of roughly a thousand people died in a mass murder-and-suicide ordered by Jones, who was among the nine-hundred-and-some slain.
The place was thereupon abandoned by the collapsing remnant of the Peoples Temple. Afterward, it was at first tended by the Guyanese government, which allowed its re-occupation by Hmong refugees from Laos for a few years in the early 1980s, but it has since been altogether deserted.
The beginning of Jonestown
The Peoples Temple was formed in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the mid-1950s. Beginning in 1965, Jones and about 140 followers moved to Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, California, where they believed that they would be safe from fallout if there were a nuclear attack on the United States.
In the late 1960s, Jones' congregation had dwindled to fewer than a hundred members and was on the verge of collapse. Jones managed to secure an affiliation with the Disciples of Christ. This new association bolstered Temple's reputation, increased the membership of the Peoples Temple, and spread Jones' influence in the West Coast area. Jones then moved his congregation to San Francisco in 1971 and opened another church in Los Angeles.
While in San Francisco, Jones was active in get-out-the-vote campaigns for candidates, was appointed to city commissions and made grants to local newspapers with the stated goal of supporting the First Amendment.
After several scandals and investigations in San Francisco, Jones decided that by creating a utopian community in Guyana, he could further cement his absolute power over his members far away from the intervention of US authorities or members' worried relatives, who had formed a group called the Concerned Relatives. In 1974, he leased over 3000 acres (12.1 km²) of jungle land from the Guyanese government. Soon, members of the People's Temple began the construction of Jonestown under the supervision of senior members who were assigned by Jones to oversee the operation. Jones then went back to California before he encouraged all of his followers to move to Jonestown in 1977. Jonestown's population increased greatly from 50 members in 1977 to over 900 at its peak in 1978. It was the sudden and overwhelming population increase at Jonestown that caused most of the settlement's general loss of morale, which Jones attempted to boost by holding "white nights," which in the end turned out to be practice runs for mass suicide.
Many of the Peoples Temple members believed that Guyana would be, as Jones promised, a paradise. Instead, all of Jonestown's residents, including children, ended up raising food and animals for the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project." The work was performed six days a week, from seven in the morning to six in the evening, with temperatures that often reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), given Guyana's close proximity to the equator.
According to some, meals for the members consisted of nothing more than rice and beans while Jones ate meat and other refrigerated foods separated from the others. However, other former members of the Peoples Temple reportedly dispute that members received inferior or different food from Jones.  Medical problems (such as severe diarrhea and high fevers) struck half the community in February 1978.
Various forms of punishment were used against members considered to be serious disciplinary problems. Methods included imprisonment in a 6 by 4 by 3 foot (1.8 by 1.2 by 0.9 m) plywood box and forcing children to spend a night at the bottom of a well. Members who attempted to run away were drugged to the point of incapacitation. Armed guards patrolled the compound day and night to ensure that Jones's orders were followed.
Children, surrendered to communal care, addressed Jones as "Dad" and were only allowed to see their real parents briefly at night. Jones was called "Father" or "Dad" by the adults as well.
Local Guyanese, including a police official, related horror stories about harsh beatings and a "torture hole," a well into which Jones had "misbehaving" children thrown in the middle of the night. Jones had terrified the children by making them believe that there was a monster living at the bottom of the well, which was in fact Jones's henchmen who pulled and tugged the children's legs as they descended into the well.
The mass suicides that were to make Jonestown notorious were rehearsed during so called "white nights." In an affidavit, Peoples Temple defector Deborah Layton wrote that during one of these white nights, people were told that they would die, and were forced to drink unsweetened Flavor Aid that they were told contained poison. The few who were hesitant to drink were engaged in a debate and quickly complied. Only after everyone drank the concoction were they informed that there was no poison, and that it was all just a test of loyalty and faith in Jones. This is where the phrase, "drinking the kool-aid" comes from.
On Tuesday November 14, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat from San Francisco, flew to Jonestown, Guyana, along with a team of 18 people, consisting of officials, media representatives and members of the group "Concerned Relatives of Peoples Temple Members." The group included Ryan, his legal advisor Jackie Speier, Neville Annibourne (the representative from Guyana's Ministry of Information), Richard Dwyer (Deputy Chief of Mission from the US Embassy at Georgetown and allegedly a CIA agent), reporters Tim Reiterman, Don Harris, Greg Robinson, Steve Sung, Bob Flick, Charles Krause, Ron Javers, Bob Brown, and Concerned Citizens representatives Anthony Katsaris, Jim Cobb and Carolyn Houston Boyd.
Ryan and the others intended to investigate allegations that human rights were being violated daily at the Peoples Temple, that individuals were being held against their free will, that individuals had their money and passports confiscated, and that mass suicide rehersals were being conducted.
From the time Ryan and the others arrived at midnight in Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana, before Wednesday the 15th, there were signs that things would not run smoothly. Previously booked hotel rooms were occupied and most of the people in Ryan's group had to sleep in the hotel's lobby. In the days that followed Mark Lane and Charles Garry (Jones' lawyers in Georgetown) refused to allow Ryan's party access to Jonestown. Finally, by late Friday morning Ryan advised Lane and Garry that he was leaving for Jonestown at 2:30 p.m., regardless of Jones's willingness to grant him access. They left (including Lane and Garry) for Jonestown at approximately that time, Friday, November 17, Guyana time (12:30 p.m., EST, Washington, D.C.) and came to Port Kaituma airstrip, 10 km from Jonestown, some hours later. Only Ryan and three others were initially accepted into Jonestown. After sunset on the 17th, all the members of Ryan's group were admitted into Jonestown.
It was later reported (and verified by audiotapes recovered by investigators) that Jones had run rehearsals in how to receive Ryan's delegation, to convince them that everyone was happy and in good spirits.
On the night before Ryan's arrival, there was a reception and concert held for the Ryan delegation. Temple members were carefully selected by Jones to accompany individual visitors around the compound. Some were angry and saw the Congressman's visit as trouble brought in from outside, while many went on with their usual routines. Two Peoples Temple members (Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby) made the first move for defection that night, and Gosney passed a note to an NBC journalist, reading "Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby. Please help us get out of Jonestown."
That night the Ryan delegation stayed in Jonestown. The entire press corps and the members of Concerned Relatives were told that they had to find other accommodations, and so they went to Port Kaituma and stayed at a small cafe.
In the early morning of November 18, more than a dozen Temple members sensed danger enough to walk out of the colony toward Matthew's Ridge, which is in the opposite direction from the airstrip at Port Kaituma. These defectors included the wife of Jonestown's head of security. Later, when the reporters and Concerned Relatives had arrived, Marceline Jones, wife of Jim Jones, gave a tour of the settlement for the visiting reporters. There was a dispute outside a small dormitory building, where elderly Temple members (African American women) were living. The windows and doors were all shut, and Jones loyalists accused the press of being racist for trying to invade the privacy of the elderly women. The journalists replied that they wanted to know about the living conditions.
Jim Jones woke late on the morning of November 18, and the NBC crew handed him Vernon Gosney's note. Jones was angry and believed that those who wanted to leave the community would "lie" and destroy Jonestown. Jones and many other members of the Peoples Temple saw themselves as a family that had the right and the duty to stay together. Then two families stepped forward and asked to be escorted out of Jonestown by the Ryan delegation. They were the Parks and the Bogue families, along with Christopher O'Neal and Harold Cordell, who were partners of women in the two families.
Jones was angry, even though other members and visitors told him it was actually a compliment that out of over 1,000 people only a few dozen wished to leave. Jones then gave them permission to leave, with some money and their passports. Jones also told them they would be welcome to come back at any time. There was a very long negotiation under a pavilion during the afternoon. During that time Jones was told about the large group that had defected on foot before he had awoken. He was very upset by this news.
While negotiations proceeded under the pavilion, some new emotional scenes developed between family members. Al Simon, an Amerindian Peoples Temple member, walked toward Ryan with two of his small children in his arms and asked to go back with them to the US, but his wife Bonnie was summoned on the loudspeakers by Jones' staff and she loudly denounced her husband. This developed into a never-resolved dispute, with Ryan and Dwyer doing careful diplomacy. Another famous scene took place on camera between Maria Katsaris (Jones' staff member) and her brother Anthony. He pleaded with her to return to the US and consult with their family, but she bitterly rejected his proposals. Maria pulled off her gold necklace, threw it at her brother and cursed him as the visitors and defectors were about to leave.
Because more people were leaving than was expected, and due to the limited seating available on the small Cessna aircraft Ryan had chartered back to Georgetown, Ryan planned on sending a group there, and staying behind with the rest until another flight could be scheduled.
Don Sly (nicknamed "Ujara"), a member of the Temple, acting directly under Jones's orders, attacked Ryan with a knife. This was one of a series of orders Jones gave that day which had one or very few of his loyalists taking drastic action without any other loyalists knowing of Jones's instructions, resulting in much confusion between Temple members: in fact, when Sly attacked Ryan, other loyal Peoples Temple members helped stop the attack.
Although the congressman wasn't seriously hurt in the attack, Ryan and Dwyer realized that the visiting party and the defectors were in danger. Ryan's party and 16 ex-Temple members left Jonestown and reached the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip at 4:30pm, where they planned to use two planes (a six-passenger Cessna and a slightly larger twin-engine Otter) to fly to Georgetown.
Shortly before the scheduled departure, Jones loyalist Larry Layton demanded to join the group. Several other defectors voiced their suspicions about his motive for joining the group, but Ryan and Speier insisted that anyone who wanted to go would go. Before the Cessna took off, Layton produced a gun he'd hidden under his poncho, and started shooting at the passengers. He wounded Monica Bagby and Vernon Gosney, and he tried to kill Dale Parks, who disarmed Layton.
At about this time, a tractor appeared at the airstrip, driven by members of Jones's armed guards (the "Red Brigade"). The tractor got within about 30 feet of the Otter, and proceeded to open fire while circling the plane on foot and apparently in military-style formation (a few seconds of the shooting was captured on camera by NBC cameraman Bob Brown, whose camera kept rolling even as he was shot dead). Congressman Ryan, news team members Brown, Robinson, and Harris, and 44-year-old Jonestown defector Patricia Parks were killed in the few minutes of shooting. Jackie Speier was injured by five bullets. Steve Sung and Anthony Katsaris were also badly wounded. The Cessna was able to take off and fly to Georgetown, leaving behind the gunfire-damaged Otter (the pilot and copilot of the Otter also flew out in the Cessna). The Cessna carried one dead, 18 year old Monica Bagby.
Journalist Tim Reiterman, who had stayed at the airstrip, took photographs of the aftermath of the violence. Richard Dwyer assumed leadership at the scene, and at his recommendation, Larry Layton was arrested by Guyanese state police. Dwyer was hit by one bullet in his buttock at the airstrip.
It took several hours before the other among the 10 wounded and others in their party gathered themselves together and spend the night in a café, with the more seriously wounded in a small tent on the airfield. A Guyananese government plane came to evacuate the wounded the following morning.
Five teenage members of the Parks and Bogue families, with one boyfriend, were told by defector Gerald Parks after the shooting to hide in the adjacent jungle until help arrived and their safety was assured. They went into the jungle but got lost for three days, nearly dying, until found by Guyanese soldiers.
Many Guyanese soldiers and civilians were looking on from alongside the airstrip as the shooting transpired. None of them attempted to intervene, and none of them came forward later to offer witness testimony. To date none of them have even been identified.
About 45 minutes after the Port Kaituma shootings (which is how long it took to travel the very rough 6-mile road from Kaituma in the community's tractor; they kept no cars at the compound), the airstrip shooters arrived back in Jonestown, and one eyewitness (Tim Carter, a Vietnam war veteran) recalled them having the “thousand-yard stare”. The shooters numbered about nine, and their identities are not certainly known in all cases, but most sources agree that Joe Wilson (Jones’ head of security) and Albert Touchette were among them.
Jim Jones called a meeting under the pavilion as night fell. It was another “white night,” which had been rehearsed before, but this time, Doctor Laurence Schacht, Nurse Annie Moore, and others mixed cyanide and Valium into a metal vat full of grape “Flavor Aid,” a Kool-Aid knock-off. It was extremely effective, causing death within about five minutes. No one who drank the poison that evening survived. Before the murder-suicide got underway, Jones argued with two Temple members who actively resisted his decision for the whole congregation to die. One was 60-year old Christine Miller, who repeatedly suggested alternative strategies, such as bringing all the children to Cuba along with Jones himself. Another was almost certainly Jones’ own wife, Marceline.
Reverend Jones assured his followers that CIA-sponsored mercenary soldiers or Guyanese military soldiers would soon emerge from the jungle and slaughter all of them anyway. Loyalists made a circle around the area where the poison was being injected into young mouths with plastic syringes and handed out in paper cups, holding crossbows and firearms. When families each assembled and arrived at the head of the line, the children were prioritized for the poison. This is often believed to be the reason why so many adults continued toward their own deaths with little or no resistance. It would be impossible to continue living after seeing so many children die, Stephan Jones (Rev. Jones’ surviving son) asserted afterward. According to eyewitness Stanley Clayton, the families were then escorted away from where the poison vat was located, and told to lie down together along walkways and areas out of the close vision of the people who were still being dosed. The effect was that whoever on the scene believed that this was just another rehearsal did not see people convulsing and dying from the poison.
Four people, who were intended to be poisoned, decided not to cooperate and also survived the scene. They were 76-year old Hyacinth Thrash, who hid under her bed when nurses were going through her dormitory with cups of poison; 36-year old Odell Rhodes, a Jonestown teacher and craftsman who pretended an errand but hid himself instead; 25-year old Stanley Clayton, who also pretended an errand and hid himself, and 79-year old Grover Davis, who was hard of hearing and missing the announcement on the loudspeaker to assemble, laid himself down in a ditch and pretended to be dead. Thrash and Davis were recovered by Guyanese soldiers on Sunday morning. Rhodes and Clayton left for Port Kaituma.
Five people were given assignments by Jones or his staff that did not call them to their deaths. His two lawyers, Charles Garry and Mark Lane (who were not Temple members), were escorted to “the East House,” which was used to accommodate visitors, far away from the pavilion. Tim Carter (30), Mike Carter (20), and Mike Prokes (31) were given luggage containing money and documents, which they were told to deliver to Guyana’s Soviet Embassy.
Lawyers Garry and Lane walked through the jungle during the night and eventually made it to Port Kaituma. In the jungle near the settlement, they heard people cheering, with gunshots following. This concurs with the testimony of Stanley Clayton, who heard the same sounds as he was sneaking back into Jonestown to retrieve his passport and to snatch a bottle of Jim Jones’ cold beer. Clayton and Odell Rhodes (who were not aware of each other’s movements) both looked for the home of one Guyanese family they knew, which was located near Jonestown on the way to Port Kaituma. Only Clayton found the house in the dark, while Rhodes continued on to Port Kaituma. Stanley Clayton told the Guyanese family what had just happened, but he was not taken seriously. Clayton then suggested that the people of Jonestown no longer needed their tools and equipment. The father of the Guyanese family then went to Jonestown as Clayton slept. He returned in the morning with a badly disturbed look on his face, according to Clayton.
Evidently, the people who had organized and supervised the “white night,” which was Jim Jones and his immediate staff, came together and killed themselves and each other with handguns, after giving a final cheer. However, the only two people who were killed by gunfire were Jones and Annie Moore; it is unknown whether Jones shot himself or was shot by someone else, and Moore left a suicide note before shooting herself inside Jones' cabin. Recovery workers entering Jones' cabin found the door blocked by her body. Other non-suicides appeared to have had the poisonous brew injected into them between the shoulder blades by unknown persons. Moore was one of only 7 people (out of 913 total) to have an autopsy performed on her corpse, at the insistence of her family. Her sister Rebecca Moore, who was not a Peoples Temple member, has since 1999 hosted an expansive and volumnous website about the disaster.
Moore's note in part stated: “I am at a point right now so embittered against the world that I don't know why I am writing this. Someone who finds it will believe I am crazy or believe in the barbed wire that does NOT exist in Jonestown.” Another last note was left, unsigned, either by Richard Tropp or by Marceline Jones.
The Carter brothers and Mike Prokes were put into protective custody in Port Kaituma, but released in Georgetown. Rhodes, Clayton, and the two lawyers were also brought to Georgetown. Larry Layton, who had opened fire aboard the Cessna, was extradited to the USA and put in prison; he is the only person ever to have been held responsible for the events at Jonestown. He was freed on parole in 2004.
There is no evidence whatsoever indicating that mercenary or Guyanese soldiers, or indeed anyone else, were present in the Jungle surrounding Jonestown on the evening of the mass suicide/murders, as Jim Jones told his followers.
Jonestown itself became a "ghost town" after 1978 and was mostly destroyed by a fire in the mid-1980s, after which the ruins were left to decay. Today there remains little to mark the site where one of the most notorious known mass suicides in history occurred. The buildings and grounds were not taken over by local Guyanese people because of the social stigma associated with the murders and suicides.
The Jonestown deaths were among several incidents from about 1978 to 1982 that greatly undermined cults or "new religious movements" in the United States.
Various conspiracy theories exist that offer alternative explanations of what happened at Jonestown.
* Among the wounded at Jonestown was U.S. embassy official Richard Dwyer, who was also allegedly an agent of the CIA. At one point on the taped audio recording made during the mass suicide, Jones's own voice commands, "Take Dwyer on down to the east house" and a short time later, "Get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him."
* One popular theory suggests that Jones himself was a CIA agent and that Jonestown was a mind control experiment gone wrong. Drugs found at the premises, such as Quaaludes, Valium, morphine, Demerol, and chloral hydrate, have been offered as evidence for this theory, as well as the revelation that many of the reposed suicide victims were actually killed by gunfire and lethal injection. 30 firearms were also found.
* Another conspiracy theory suggests that the CIA used this opportunity to assassinate Leo Ryan—he was a harsh critic of what he saw as CIA abuses, having co-authored the Hughes-Ryan Act, which, if passed, would have required the CIA to report its planned covert missions to Congress for approval. Under this theory, the murder of the Jonestown members was to cover up the real reason for Leo Ryan's murder. Another proposed scenario is that Ryan was on the verge of exposing the CIA presence at Jonestown, prompting his murder and that of the Jonestown inhabitants.
* In 1987, The Jonestown Carnage: A CIA Crime (1978) by S.F. Alinin, B.G. Antonov and A.N. Itskov was published in the USSR. The book says Jones' group was not religious but rather socialist, opposing imperialism and the US government. Alinin and the other authors argued the inhabitants of Jonestown decided to emigrate to the USSR and sent an official request to the Soviet embassy in Guyana. Then the members of the cult were assassinated by CIA agents and mercenaries to prevent further political emigration from the USA and to repress the opposition to the US regime. The Soviet embassy head in Guyana, Feodor Timofeyev, visited Jonestown earlier in 1978, praising it for being a socialist haven, wagging its collective finger in the face of the US government.
* According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, Jim Jones's neighbors in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (where he lived before moving to Rio De Janeiro), remembered his claim to be a retired Navy man who "received a monthly payment from the U.S. government." They also remembered that Jones "lived like a rich man." "Some people here believed he was an agent for the American CIA," one neighbor reported.
* Despite these assertions of CIA involvement, in 1980 the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the Jonestown mass suicide and announced that there was no evidence of CIA involvement at Jonestown. But the fact that most government documents relating to Jonestown remain classified has helped keep conspiracy theories and rumours about Jonestown alive