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The Jonestown massacre, 40 years on: an isolated tragedy?

The corpses of members of the Peoples Temple cult after 900 died at Jonestown in the largest mass suicide in modern history. Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images. - Credit: Getty Images

The Jonestown massacre, 40 years ago this week, ranks as one of humanity’s darkest chapters. Is it best understood as an isolated tragedy, or as 
part of the pattern of the grisly history of the 20th century? IAN WALKER reports

The voice of Jim Jones could be heard almost constantly over the Jonestown compound he had established in the Guyana jungle for his 1,000 or so followers. He would make tape recordings for the camp which would be played back, almost 24/7, over the public address system.

One particularly familiar message was the ‘White Night’ warning. On these occasions, the loudspeakers would suddenly call out, ‘White Night! White Night! Get to the to the pavilion! Run! Your lives are in danger!’

Everyone would rush to the pavilion in middle of the encampment, where Jones would tell them that they were in imminent danger from the forces of the US intelligence agencies and ‘capitalist pigs’ who were on their way to kill and torture them.

Discussions were sometimes held about what their options were: flee to the USSR, stay and fight, head into the jungle, or kill themselves.

On some White Nights, the final option was even rehearsed: Everyone, including the camp’s children, formed a queue and were given a small glass of red liquid each. They were told it contained poison and they would be dead in 45 minutes. Afterwards, Jones would start laughing and clapping his hands, telling his followers it had been a loyalty test and the poison was not real.

When the camp’s critical moment did finally arrive, on the evening of November 18, 1978, it was different. The dramatic events of the previous 24 hours meant that most of those present – perhaps not the youngest children – knew that this was no rehearsal. Jones and his inner circle announced the plan: the children and the elderly were to be injected with cyanide then the adults were to drink a punch laced with the same poison. A few members of the congregation asked if there were any other options. Could they not get to Russia, as had previously been suggested? The answer from Jones was no. Instead, the group heard a self-pitying sermon from their leader, then they queued up to murder their children and to drink their own lethal punch.

Cyanide kills you by robbing the body’s cells of oxygen. Not long after taking the poison the victim soon begins to painfully convulse, vomit and froth at the mouth as the oxygen-starved body begins to suffocate.

There is some relief from the desperation and pain before death. As their organs start to shut down the victim will slip into a coma. It is as if the body relaxes just before it ceases to function.

This can sometimes give the impression to anyone who finds the corpse that death for the victim came as a gentle release (or in the case of the Jonestown Massacre, those that found the corpses). And that was how, in November 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones had described the taking of cyanide to his Peoples Temple (sic) followers.

He convinced the cult that death would be a release from the bondage of this world. He had often spoke of mass suicide at the fortress at Masada in 73 CE, where besieged Jewish defenders supposedly committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman invaders. For Jones, this was death as freedom; it was the refusal to accept subjugation. Death was, for Jones, the ultimate revolutionary act. And Jones had always seen himself as a revolutionary.

During the Second World War, in Jones’ hometown of Lynn, Indiana, the boys would play at being soldiers, pretending to be GIs fighting the Nazis. They would avidly follow the news to see how the Americans were doing in the Pacific and in Europe. But Jones was a different sort of boy. He fixated on Hitler. Jones was never a Nazi or a Nazi sympathiser. His politics were the polar opposite to fascism, but he was fascinated by the idea of Hitler as a charismatic revolutionary who seemed to have some higher claim on the truth and who seemed to be in control not only of himself but also of his followers.

And it wasn’t just Hitler. Jones would also become fascinated by Stalin and Lenin. He saw in revolutionary leaders (and he included Jesus in that list) that combination of control and charisma. He saw these men as people who knew more than anyone else, as superior figures who could lead the people out of the darkness. For Jones, these self-styled men of destiny, these narcissists (almost all revolutionaries are narcissists), these leaders, had exactly what Jones wanted. They appealed to him.

It’s not that difficult to work out what the appeal was. Psychologically, they filled a gap that was created by the way that Jones was raised. He was an odd kid raised by odd parents. His father, James Thurman Jones, was gassed in France during the First World War. His lungs were ruined so when he returned to Indiana he found sustained work difficult.

People were forgiving, he was a war veteran, but Jones Sr became a remote figure, spending his days sitting on his porch or hanging around the pool hall. Jones Jr would later claim that his father was an alcoholic who beat him – others refute this – but father and son were certainly strangers to one another.

Jones’ mother was stranger still. An ambitious woman with a huge sense of her own self-importance, Lynetta Jones thought she was better than anyone else. She was dismissive of small-town Indiana, never went to church and did not involve herself in the community.

This self-importance she passed on to her son, making him believe he was better than the others, but then leaving him to get on with it. She was not a hands-on mother and had a rule that Jim could not be in the house if she wasn’t. As she worked for a living, this meant, from a tender age, Jones was left to wander the streets, fields and woods of Lynn.

This child, who was simultaneously ignored and told he was better than everyone else, spent hours making up his days as he wanted, trying to fill in the gaps the best he could. He soon crossed paths with Myrtle Kennedy, a childless neighbour, who was a Nazarene.

The Nazarenes were members of one of the most extreme of Lynn’s many churches, and Kennedy – 6ft 2in, whip-thin, austere – was one of its most extreme adherents. Hoping to create a life-long convert, she took young Jones to the Nazarene Church. What he found there, in the figure of the preacher, thrilled him: he loved the idea that someone was possessed with higher knowledge which could generate devotion and loyalty among a congregation. Here was power, control and emotional intensity. Here was somewhere the young Jones could start to fill in the gaps that existed within him.

But if Myrtle Kennedy thought she had discovered a life-long Nazarene she was wrong. Jones visited all the churches in Lynn. Each had a different appeal, but the biggest influence came from the Pentecostal Church, with its holy roller preachers, those charismatic showmen who could put on a performance.

Later he would be drawn to the revivalists who preached in tents and fields on the edge of town. These were men who didn’t have a physical church to rely on. Their congregation came purely as a result of their charisma.

As a boy, Jones played at being a preacher. He would preach to children his own age and when they soon grew tired of this odd game he preached to those who were younger. They too would sneak away at the first opportunity. People remember seeing Jones in the woods standing on a tree stump preaching to an imaginary congregation. Towards the end of his time at high school, Jones took to wearing smart plain clothes and would walk about clutching a bible to his chest.

The most peculiar thing about this is that it may well be the case that Jones was never a Christian. He said as much in 1977 (though this was said at a point in his life when everything was unravelling). The appeal of a church to Jones was great, but it was no different to the appeal of those revolutionaries he had fixated on. It had very little to do with faith – the appeal was to Jones’s ego. Religion provided him with a route-map for becoming an important man, possessed of a higher truth, offering leadership.

If Jones was not necessarily a Christian, he was certainly a socialist, perhaps even a communist, and a civil rights activist. As early as 1951, at the height of McCarthyism, he began attending meetings of the American Community Party. By now he was living in Indianapolis and was married to Marceline Baldwin. He was committed to the idea of social justice and was becoming involved in civil rights politics. And then, in 1952, he became a student pastor at the Somerset Southside Methodist Church. His plan, he later claimed, was that he would use the church as a tool in his fight against injustice and racism. Yet he found it too orthodox for this struggle. So he set off on his own and began to follow the lead of the revival preachers he had seen in his childhood, who built around them informal and often multiracial congregations through their charisma.

He was a shameless charlatan. One of his tricks was to walk through the crowd (or to get a loyal follower to do it) before he preached. He would pick up snippets of conversation which he would then drop into his sermon, thus giving the impression that he could see into people’s lives; that he could sense their fears and concerns.

A more macabre trick was employed to suggest he could heal cancer. Jones would ask his congregation if anyone was sick, at which point a ringer would say they had cancer. Jones would invoke the love of Christ to remove the tumour from the body, and the ringer would then hack up a lump of grizzled chicken flesh, covered in fake blood, which they had hidden in their mouth. These tricks worked. Jones’s church – which he named the Peoples Temple – quickly grew in numbers.

Yet behind this trickery and deceit, the organisation did have a worthy ambition, as its motto explained: ‘Divine principles. Total equality. A society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, where there are no races.’

Jones actively fought racism. One tactic was to approach restaurants that did not serve African American customers, and ask them to change their policy. Most would say no, but Jones would keep on at them.

In the background there was always the threat of a protest being held outside the restaurant – the Peoples Temple now had a congregation of a few hundred (mostly elderly African Americans and idealistic young white activists) – although this was never stated. Instead, Jones would appeal to the restaurant owner’s sense of commercial enterprise.

If African Americans ate in the restaurant, a few – though not all – whites may stop eating there. However, an entirely new customer base would be opened up which would compensate.

Jones’ argument did not always prove persuasive but it worked enough times to raise his profile. In Indianapolis, he began to be taken seriously. He was seen as an important political figure engaged with the politics of the day, and someone who was making the world a better place. As a result, his church kept growing. Some followers were taken in by the grizzled chicken ruse, but many more, especially idealistic activists and elderly African Americans – who could remember the Klan’s burning crosses and lynchings – joined his church because Jones got things done.

But Indianapolis was not a big enough stage for Jones. He wanted to move the Temple to California, so in 1963 he announced to his followers that he had a vision that there would be a nuclear war in the summer of 1967 and that the safest place for them would be near the city of Ukiah, about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

Once the church was established there it began to set up branches in the major West Coast cities. And it was in San Francisco – then the centre of radical American politics – where the Peoples Temple really took off.

Jones now began moving in some important left-wing, counter-culture and civil-rights circles. By the 1970s he could share the stage with the California assemblyman Willie Brown, and meet Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s wife Rosalynn and the Californian governor Jerry Brown. The Peoples Temple played a crucial role in George Moscone’s election as mayor of San Francisco in November 1975, by getting the vote out in crucial districts. As way of a thank you, Moscone appointed Jones as chairman of the San Francisco Housing Commission.

So what happened? How did Jones and the Peoples Temple go from this position of being influential players in the radical, progressive world of California politics in 1975, to the horror of the mass murder/suicide in a dusty South American settlement just three years later.

The answer lies in Jones himself. Most revolutionaries become despots. Men obsessed with control tend to unravel dramatically – sometimes violently – when that control slips away. And throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s Jones had been unravelling.

His two biggest vices were his sexual appetite and his drug taking. Jones would have sex with almost anyone. He slept with many women in his congregation, including those who were married to other congregation members. He would also sleep with men, though he would always deny he was bisexual – he explained the relationships as a sort of blessing he was bestowing. He also slept with underage girls.

He was not a hypocrite about it. He never preached fidelity and he would always question congregation members about their sex lives. Moreover, he was hardly out of turn with the prevailing spirit of 1960s/1970s California.

But others did resent his conduct. Marriages were damaged. Resentment and jealousy grew, and outsiders to the Temple began to worry what was happening to their daughters and sons. Stories began to find their way into the press.

And once the San Francisco press began to investigate, they did not let go. As well as the sexual impropriety, all sorts of other issues surrounding the Peoples Temple came to light, including stories about the rigged faith-healing, Jones’ bullying behaviour and allegations that the Temple was not even a Christian church. (This was important, since, as a religious institution, the Temple was tax-exempt).

By the early 1970s, Jones was a paranoid tyrant and his chronic addiction to amphetamine fuelled that paranoia. And the more paranoid he got, the more things spiralled out of control, which gave the press more to write about, which made him more paranoid. It was a deadly cycle.

In 1973, a series of hostile newspaper articles prompted Jones to begin to look to move the Temple out of the US. The following year he leased an area of some of the densest jungle in the world from the Guyanese government. Five hundred Temple members went there to begin the formidable task of trying to build a socialist paradise in this fetid wilderness. The work was difficult; the soil was not very fertile, there was no river nearby and the jungle kept growing back. But somehow, Jonestown was built.

Back in San Francisco, press attacks on the Temple were increasing. In 1977 a story by Marshall Kilduff in New West magazine exposed physical, emotional and sexual abuse within the Temple. And now there was a group – the Concerned Relatives – who were campaigning to free their sons, daughters and loved ones from the cult. So Jones fled, taking his remaining followers to Jonestown.

Leo Ryan was a Democratic congressman from California. He had a reputation for direct action (or for being a self-publicist, depending on how you look at it). Once, while campaigning for prison reform, he had himself incarcerated for 10 days. On another occasion, when protesting against the hunting of seals in Newfoundland, he lay on the ice between the hunters and their prey.

Ryan became involved with the Concerned Relatives and, in his usual direct way, announced on November 1, 1978, that he would be flying to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission and would bring back any cult members who wanted to leave.

For Jones, in his jungle redoubt, this was all his fears coming to attack him. He argued that the trip – rather than being the consequence of a free press, an expression of the powers of democratically-elected politicians and the wishes of distraught families – showed how the quasi-fascist American state was pursuing him and trying to destroy the Peoples Temple.

Initially, the meeting in Jonestown on November 17 with Ryan (who arrived with a number of aides and journalists) seemed to go quite well. A musical reception had been laid on, concerns were expressed and reassurances made. (It later emerged that Jones had run rehearsals on how to convince the delegation everyone was in good spirits). Most of the Peoples Temple members expressed a desire to Ryan just to be left alone, although 15 didn’t. They wanted to return to the USA.

From that point, though, things quickly unravelled. Amid ratcheting tensions, the following afternoon, Temple member Don Sly attacked Leo Ryan with a knife. The attack was thwarted, but Ryan’s delegation, and those that wanted to leave the Temple, all headed back to the landing strip at Port Kaituma, six miles from Jonestown, from where they were due to fly out.

Because of the number of people who had opted to return to the US, a second aircraft had been chartered. One had just taxied to the far end of the airstrip and was about to take off when a Temple member on board – a Jones loyalist apparently operating as a ringer (a throwback to Jones’ early preaching days) – began shooting passengers. At around the same moment, a tractor and trailer arrived on the airstrip, bringing more Temple loyalists, who began shooting at those boarding the second aircraft.

Ryan and four others were murdered in the ambush.

Back at Jonestown, final preparations were under way for what was to be America’s biggest single loss of civilian life until 9/11. The Temple had been receiving monthly half-pound shipments of cyanide since 1976, apparently after Jones obtained a jewellers licence to buy the chemical, which can be used to clean gold. Aides mixed the stock with grape-flavoured Flavor Aid (not rival brand Kool-Aid, as is usually reported) in a large metal tub, and the final meeting was called.

Parts of what followed were recorded on a tape. It does show some resistance at the gathering, with one follower in particular arguing for an escape to Russia. But after Jones broke the news of the killings at the airstrip, there was no more dissent. The gunmen had, by now, returned to the camp. As on White Night rehearsals, the camp’s perimeter was secured by armed men.

The murders began with mothers poisoning their babies and their children, squirting the poison into their mouths – 304 children died in total – before the adults all queued up to drink their own poisoned Flavor Aid.

Jones and some of his most zealous followers preached for the group to hold their nerve. In particular, Jones implored his distraught wife Marceline, to stay resolute.

Those still preaching had to do so over the screams and cries of the dying children. Most of the followers did hold their nerve. Candace Cordell, a teenage girl, was calm enough to write on her arm, while queuing to take her poison: ‘Why couldn’t you leave us alone.’ In the end, 909 inhabitants of Jonestown died. And the slaughter did not end there. The Temple had a headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. That night, member Sharon Amos received a radio communication from the jungle instructing followers to take revenge on the Temple’s enemies and then commit revolutionary suicide. She killed herself and her children.

A few escaped. Tim Carter – whose son was murdered in the first wave of poisonings – his brother and Mike Prokes, just walked out of the camp. In the confusion, no-one stopped them. The last thing they heard was Jones shouting ‘Mother, Mother, Mother’ over the public address system. At some point during all this Jones shot himself.

The last moments of such a scene of carnage are understandably confused. A lot of the adult victims were later found to have been injected with poison, suggesting that, in the final reckoning, some of the more fanatical followers murdered others who did not plan to die.

As one survivor later put it, had you asked the Temple members, at that moment,”Do you want to die right now for Jim Jones?’ I guaran-fuckin-tee you wouldn’t have had 918 dead.’

The photos of the bodies at Jonestown – scattered or laying in rows around the compound almost as if they are sleeping – sit, chillingly, among all the other photos of the well-documented horrors of the last century. But can the Jonestown massacre be placed in the historical context of the rest of the 20th century’s carnage? Wasn’t it more the act of a madman and his deranged followers rather than something to do with politics and the awful historical sweep of the last century? Is this story, which follows a weird dysfunctional kid from the woods of Indiana to the jungles of Guyana, just too idiosyncratic to be anything other than an isolated tragic event?

Perhaps? But the Jonestown massacre does feel like the last chapter in a bigger story. Nine days after the deaths, the San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk and the San Francisco mayor George Moscone (who Jones had helped get elected) were assassinated. These two events can be seen as the final acts in what was a 15-year period, starting with the Kennedy assassination in 1963, where the USA seemed to be falling apart. Political assassinations, race riots, the Vietnam War, My Lai, the Manson killings, Altamont, Kent State, Watergate and finally Jonestown and Harvey Milk can be all seen as the psychotic unravelling of a country at odds with itself.

Almost a year to the day after the massacre, Ronald Reagan, a man who – as governor of California – had experience dealing with the counter-culture, announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for the 1980 election. His slogan ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ appealed to a country worn out after two decades of conservatism vs counter-culture. And when Reagan took office in 1980, his appeal was that he would draw a line under that 15-year period of American psychological derangement. By 1984, he could campaign under the slogan ‘It’s morning again in America’. For many, he symbolised a country reborn and renewed, a country that was distancing itself from the terrible events of Jonestown and all the rest of those awful events that dogged the USA throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The events at Jonestown were the tragic consequences of weak-willed people following an evil, psychotic man, but it did also feel like the end of the counter-culture and the sixties dream. It felt like something that had failed was now finally done with.

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