Jim Jones and Jonestown

James Warren Jones or Jim Jones as he is more commonly known, was born on May 13, 1931. He was an American cult leader, political activist, preacher and faith healer who led the Peoples Temple, a new religious organization which existed between 1955 and 1978.

As a child, Jones was a voracious reader who studied Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler. He also developed an intense interest in religion. One writer suggests this was primarily because he found it difficult to make friends. Childhood acquaintances recalled Jones as a “really weird kid” who was obsessed with religion and death, alleging that he frequently held funerals for small animals on his parents’ property and that he had stabbed a cat to death. One childhood acquaintance noted that, after German prisoners-of-war arrived in Lynn, the city he lived in, during World War II, one patted young Jones on the back of the head, to which he responded by giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Hitler!”

Jones and a childhood friend both claimed that his father was associated with the KKK, which had become very popular in Depression-era Indiana.  Jones recounted how he and his father argued on the issue of race, and how he did not speak with his father for “many, many years” after he refused to allow one of Jones’s black friends into his house. Jones’s parents separated, and Jones relocated with his mother to Richmond, Indiana.

To support himself, Jones worked as an orderly at Richmond’s Reid Hospital and was well-regarded by the senior management. However, staff members later recalled Jones exhibiting disturbing behavior; one former co-worker of Jones, with whom he had been childhood friends, recalled an incident where Jones manhandled a patient in traction while dry shaving him, resulting in the patient’s injury with a straight razor, and then gave a menacing look at the co-worker. It was at Reid Hospital where Jones met nurse Marceline Baldwin, whom he married in 1949. 

Jones and his wife adopted several non-white children, referring to the household as his “rainbow family”, and stating: “Integration is a more personal thing with me now. It’s a question of my son’s future.” He also portrayed the Temple as a “rainbow family”.

He was ordained as a minister in 1957 by the Independent Assemblies of God.J ones would later claim to be a return of Elijah the Prophet and to be the voice of God, and promote the belief that the end of the world was imminent.  Jones was elected as President of the Worldwide Pentecostal Convention Board in 1957, helping Jones secure connections throughout the Pentecostal movement. In 1964, Jones was ordained by the Disciples of Christ.

The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, commonly referred to as the Peoples Temple, was a religious organization which existed between 1954 and 1978. Originally founded in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jones distinguished himself with his civil rights activism, founding the Temple as a fully integrated congregation.  The Peoples Temple spread a message that combined elements of Christianity with communist and socialist ideology, with an emphasis on racial equality. In 1965, he moved the Temple to California, the Temple forged ties with many left-wing political figures and boasted 20,000 members (though 3,000–5,000 is more likely).

Although some descriptions of the Peoples Temple emphasize Jones’s autocratic control over its operations, in reality, the Temple possessed a complex leadership structure with decision-making power unevenly dispersed among its members. Within that structure, Temple members were unwittingly and gradually subjected to sophisticated mind control and behavior modification techniques borrowed from post-revolutionary China and North Korea.  The Temple tightly defined psychological boundaries that “enemies”, such as “traitors” to the Temple, crossed at their own peril. So if you try and leave or even disagree you were putting yourself at risk. While the secrecy and caution Jones demanded in recruiting led to decreased overall membership, they also helped him foster hero-worship of himself as the “ultimate socialist”.

In the 1970s, the Temple established a more formal hierarchy for its socialistic model. At the top were the Temple’s staff, a select group of predominantly college-educated white women that undertook the Temple’s most sensitive missions. They necessarily acclimated themselves to an “ends justify the means” philosophy. The earliest member was Sandy Bradshaw, a socialist from Syracuse, New York. Others included Carolyn Layton, a communist since the age of 15 who had a child with Jones; Sharon Amos, who worked for the social services department; Patty Cartmell, Jones’s secretary; and Teri Buford, a Navy brat turned pacifist. The group was often scorned as elitist within the  Temple organization and viewed as secret police.

Within five years of moving to California, the Temple experienced a period of exponential growth and opened branches in cities including San Fernando, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. By the early 1970s, Jones began shifting his focus to major cities across California. He eventually moved the Temple’s headquarters to San Francisco, which was a major center for radical protest movements. Jones and the Temple soon became influential in city politics, culminating in the Temple’s instrumental role in George Moscone’s election as mayor in 1975. Moscone subsequently appointed Jones as the chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.

Jones was able to gain contact with prominent politicians at the local and national level. For example, he and Moscone met privately with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane days before the 1976 election, leading Mondale to publicly praise the Temple. First Lady Rosalynn Carter also met with Jones on multiple occasions, corresponded with him about Cuba, and spoke with him at the grand opening of the San Francisco headquarters—where he received louder applause than she did.

Jones also forged alliances with key journalists and others at the San Francisco Chronicle and other press outlets, although the move to San Francisco also brought increasing media scrutiny. Encountering resistance by his editors to publishing an investigative piece about the Temple, Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff brought his story to New West magazine.  ust before publication of the New West piece, editor Rosalie Wright telephoned Jones to read him the article. Wright explained that she was only doing so before publication because of “all the support letters we received on your behalf, from the Governor of California [Jerry Brown]” and others. While still on the phone listening to the allegations contained in the article, Jones wrote a note to Temple members in the room with him that said, “We leave tonight. Notify Georgetown (Guyana).” After Jones left for Guyana, he encouraged Temple members to follow him there. The population grew to over 900 people by late 1978.Those who moved there were promised a tropical paradise free from the supposed wickedness of the outside world.

In the summer of 1977, Jones and several hundred followers abruptly decided to move to the Temple’s communal settlement in Guyana – officially called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, but informally known as “Jonestown” – after they learned the contents of Kilduff’s article, which included allegations by Temple defectors of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Jones had started building Jonestown several years before the New West article was published. It was promoted as a means to create both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from the media scrutiny in San Francisco. Jones purported to establish it as a model communist community, adding that the Temple comprised “the purest communists there are”. Jones did not permit members to leave the settlement.

Jones began to propagate his belief in what he termed “Translation” once his followers settled in Jonestown, claiming that he and his followers would all die together, move to another planet, and live blissfully.

In the autumn of 1977, Timothy Stoen and other Temple defectors formed a “Concerned Relatives” group because they had family members remaining in Jonestown. Stoen traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1978 to visit with State Department officials and members of Congress, and wrote a white paper “A white paper is a report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.” detailing his grievances against Jones and the Temple. His efforts aroused the curiosity of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who wrote a letter on Stoen’s behalf to Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. 

In November 1978, Congressman Ryan led a fact-finding mission to Jonestown to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses. He brought along relatives of Temple members, an NBC camera crew, and reporters for various newspapers. The group arrived in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown on November 15.  Two days later, Jones hosted a reception for the group that evening at the central pavilion in Jonestown, during which Temple member Vernon Gosney passed a note meant for Ryan to NBC reporter Don Harris, requesting assistance for himself and another Temple member, Monica Bagby, in leaving the settlement.

Ryan’s delegation left hurriedly the afternoon of November 18, after Temple member Don Sly attacked the congressman with a knife, though the attack was thwarted.[90] Ryan and his delegation managed to take along fifteen Temple members who had expressed a wish to leave, and Jones made no attempt to prevent their departure at that time.

As members of Ryan’s delegation boarded two planes at the airstrip, Jones’s armed guards, called the “Red Brigade” arrived on a tractor and trailer and began shooting at them. At the same time, one of the supposed defectors, Larry Layton, drew a weapon and began firing on members of the party inside the other plane, a Cessna, NBC cameraman Bob Brown was able to capture footage of the first few seconds of the shooting just before he himself was killed by the gunmen.

The five killed at the airstrip were Ryan; Harris; Brown; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; and Temple member Patricia Parks.  Surviving the attack were future Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Ryan staff member; Richard Dwyer, Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown; Bob Flick, an NBC producer; Steve Sung, an NBC sound engineer; Tim Reiterman, an Examiner reporter; Ron Javers, a Chronicle reporter; Charles Krause, a Washington Post reporter; and several defecting Temple members.

Later that same day, November 18, 1978, 909 inhabitants of Jonestown, 304 of them children, died of apparent cyanide poisoning, mostly in and around the central pavilion. This resulted in the greatest single loss of American civilian life (murder and suicide, though not on American soil) in a deliberate act until September 11, 2001. The FBI later recovered a 45-minute audio recording of the mass poisoning in progress.

On that tape, Jones tells Temple members that the Soviet Union, with whom the Temple had been negotiating a potential exodus for months, would not give them passage after the airstrip shooting. The reason given by Jones to commit suicide was consistent with his previously stated conspiracy theories of intelligence organizations allegedly conspiring against the Temple, that men would “parachute in here on us”. “shoot some of our innocent babies,” and “they’ll torture our children, they’ll torture some of our people here, they’ll torture our seniors.” Jones’s prior statements that hostile forces would convert captured children to fascism would lead many members, who strongly believed in the Temple’s leftist ideology, to view the supposed suicide as valid.

With that reasoning, Jones and several members argued that the group should commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced grape-flavored Flavor Aid. Later-released Temple films show Jones opening a storage container full of Kool-Aid in large quantities. However, empty packets of grape Flavor Aid found on the scene show that this is what was used to mix the solution, along with a sedative. Jones had taken large shipments of cyanide into Jonestown for several years prior to November 1978, having obtained a jeweler’s license that would allow him to purchase the compound in bulk to purportedly clean gold. 

When members apparently cried, Jones counseled, “Stop these hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity.” Jones can be heard saying, “Don’t be afraid to die;” that death is “just stepping over into another plane” and that it’s “a friend”. Jones’s wife Marceline apparently protested killing the children; she was forcibly restrained and then joined the other adults in poisoning herself. At the end of the tape, Jones concludes: “We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

According to Temple members Odell Rhodes and Stanley Clayton, who escaped the mass poisoning, children were given the Flavor Aid first by their own parents; families were told to lie down together. Mass suicide had been previously discussed in simulated events called “White Nights” on a regular basis.  During at least one such prior White Night, members drank liquid that Jones falsely told them was poison.

Following the mass murder-suicide, Jones was found dead at the stage of the central pavilion; he was resting on a pillow near his deck chair, with a gunshot wound to his head which the coroner said was consistent with suicide. Jones’s body was later moved outside the pavilion for examination and embalming. The official autopsy conducted in December 1978 also confirms Jones’s death as a suicide. His son Stephan believes his father may have directed someone else to shoot him, but this is speculation.The autopsy also showed levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital in Jones’s body, which may have been lethal to humans who had not developed physiological tolerance. 

3 of Jones’ sons: Stephan, Jim Jr., and Tim Jones survived the events of November 18, 1978, because, being members of the Peoples Temple’s basketball team, they were playing an away game in Georgetown at the time of the mass poisoning.  Stephan and Tim were both 19, and Jim Jones Jr. was 18.

At the end of 1978, the Temple declared bankruptcy, and its assets went into receivership. In light of lawsuits, on December 4, 1978, Charles Garry, the corporation’s attorney, petitioned to dissolve the Temple. The petition was granted in San Francisco Superior Court in January 1979. A few Temple members remained in Guyana through May 1979 in order to wrap up the movement’s affairs, then they returned to the United States 

The Temple’s buildings in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Redwood Valley are all intact, as is the Temple’s former Georgetown headquarters. Some former Temple buildings, such as the Los Angeles facility, are presently used by church congregations. The Temple’s former San Francisco headquarters, located at 1859 Geary Boulevard, was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake and the site is now occupied by a Post Office branch.

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