The first disturbing reports of the deaths of Congressmen Leo J. Ryan and four other members of his party, did not reveal the whole shocking story when news broke out about shootings taking place as the victims attempted to board a plane at Port Kaituma airstrip in Guyana. Within hours, it was revealed that 408 American citizens had committed suicide at a communal village they had built in the jungle in Northwest Guyana.
The community, known as The People’s Temple’ was led by an influential religious guru, the Reverend Jim Jones. 913 of the 1100 people believed to have lived in the village called “Jonestown” had died in a mass suicide pact. Jim Jones as a youth was enraptured by his experiences at a Pentecostal congregation known as the Gospel Tabernacle. Its members were nicknamed the “holy-rollers” and by the time Jones was 16 he also believed he had spiritual powers. In 1947 he was preaching on street corners in mixed race neighbourhoods proselytising egalitarian values, views that were quite radical for Midwest America. For Jones believed in breaking down racial divides as well as helping the poor and outcast of society, principles no doubt that would later attract hundreds of malcontents to his cult church in the 70s.
Despite his seeming compassion for others, Jones had a pathological belief in his own superiority. He become extremely annoyed at being criticised and once, when a young friend disobeyed him and left church early, Jones shot at him with his father’s gun. As a young man he even tried to impose his will on a twelve-year-old male relative that both he and his wife wanted to adopt. But the boy refused, despite having been told by Jones that his mother didn’t love him. Jones’ growing interest in politics and social issues was somewhat undermined by an obsession with tyrannical figures like Hitler and Joseph Stalin. His great sense of insecurity was indicative of a paranoiac personality. He suffered from a fear of being abandoned by those he loved and would often become jealous of his wife, Marceline, when she showed attention to anyone else but him. Unexpectedly Jones disavowed ‘God’ for allowing poverty and injustice to exist. He even threatened to commit suicide if his wife prayed. But after Marceline introduced him to the Methodist Church, he was encouraged by its views on emancipation for repressed minorities.
Eventually he became a preacher for them. Within a couple of years Jones was successfully preaching at Pentecostal meetings at other churches. This led him to begin his own church in 1956 calling it the “People’s Temple.” Jones’ church established a soup kitchen and gave shelter to the needy. He and his wife also adopted a black child and a Korean orphan, while having a son of their own. It is difficult to equate such kindly, altruistic principles with a man who had a pathological bent for imposing his will on others which would later lead hundreds to commit suicide on his command. During the Cold War and America’s fear of Communism, Jones decided that ‘Communalism’ was the best weapon against the Reds. It was due to his ‘vision’ of an imminent nuclear attack that Jones decided to search for safe locations around the world. He had travelled to Guyana before and was impressed by the socialist ethos of its government.
In 1965, fearing a nuclear attack, he moved 140 of his followers to Ukiah in Mendocino County in California after reading that it was one of the safest places to be. Contrasting Jones’ increasing sense of power and domineering personality was the fact that his own family was falling apart. His wife Marceline no longer tolerated his extramarital affairs and son Stephen had little respect for a father who appeared to be a hypocrite. In 1968, with his congregation having fallen to a paltry few, Jones applied for affiliation with a corporate religious organisation, the Disciples of Christ. Its 1.5 million members gave Jones the support he needed to create a maverick branch of the church that preached socialism.
By 1973, his congregation had grown to two and a half thousand and had spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The following year he obtained permission from the government of Guyana to begin building a commune on a 300-acre allotment, 140 miles from Georgetown. He named it "Jonestown". Members of the local Catholic church were horrified by the nature of Jones’ preaching, which involved fake healings and miracles. Jones would often use employees to sift through members’ garbage bags so that he could deliver psychic readings and impress the congregation with his intimate knowledge of them.
Recruiting for Jonestown Jones also set up a screening process where anyone who appeared too conservative would be rejected. Preference was for those who attended Pentecostal services, resulting in the majority of recruits being African-Americans, the poor and uneducated. Members turned their property over to the People’s Temple and in return received bed and board and a weekly two-dollar allowance. Sexuality Jones’ views and laws regarding sex were often contradictory. He advocated marriage yet believed in sexual liberation, but would also preach celibacy. Any spouse who reacted with jealousy over their husband’s extramarital relations, would be admonished publicly.
Members were made to reveal their sexual fantasies and sexual orientation openly. Jones himself maintained that he was strictly heterosexual, yet he sodomised a male member on the grounds that he was ‘proving’ the man’s homosexuality. Interestingly Jones was actually arrested for importuning in a known gay cruising ground, although he managed to keep the offence under wraps. Sinister It was Jones’ increasing links to influential political people and his sinister ‘Big Brother’ style tactics to eliminate critical reports in the press that indicated that he was becoming a control freak. To go as far as planting Temple members in newspaper offices so that they could report any planned articles that would criticise the Temple organisation, was the kind of behaviour that attracted concern from the likes of Congressmen Leo J. Ryan. The latter, like many others, including concerned families of Temple members, created a great deal of public attention regarding Jones’ spiritual empire.
The authorities and media now wanted to investigate the powerful, rich, megalomaniac, who saw himself not only as a revolutionary, but also as Christ incarnate. But as more defectors got word to the media - despite risking grave repercussions - and revealed disturbing stories of beatings and violence against Temple members, Jones decided that an imminent move to ‘Jonestown’ in the Guyana jungle was the only way he would have complete control over his flock.
13/5/1931: Jim Jones born, Lyn, Indiana 1956: Jones starts People’s Temple 1968: Jones affiliates with Disciples of Christ Church 1973: Building of ‘Jonestown’ commences 17/11/78: Leo Ryan and delegates enter Jonestown 18/11/1978: Ryan and delegates killed. Mass suicide takes place
Conspiracy TheoriesThere are many theories still in circulation as to the supposed real events that led to the alleged mass suicide at Jonestown. Most of these conspiracy views involve CIA figures.It has also been noted that a number of deaths occurred after the tragedy, namely the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, just nine days after the event. Both men had received financial support from Jones while he was in San Francisco and were involved in an ongoing investigation into their involvement in the disappearance of People’s Temple funds.Conspiracy advocators also focus on the fact that no autopsies were carried out on any of the bodies by the American authorities, except pathology examinations conducted by Guyanese coroner Leslie Mootoo. His own belief was that as many as 700 of the victims were murders, not suicides.Mootoo’s assistants examined the bodies of 137 victims on site, all of which were said to have been injected with cyanide in areas of their bodies, which could not have been reached by their own hand, such as between the shoulder blades.Other victims had been shot and it is alleged that as many as 500 members may have originally escaped into the jungle only to be hunted down, killed and dragged back to the Temple.The assassins at the Port Kaituma airport were never identified and links between Larry Layton, one of the victims in Leo Ryan’s ambushed party, had not only a father who had been chief of the army’s Chemical Warfare Division during the 50s, but also had a brother-in-law who had negotiated with the Guyana government, on behalf of Jones, for the establishment of “Jonestown.”The main jewel in the conspiracy theory crown is that Congressman Leo Ryan, was a harsh critic of the CIA and author of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment. If passed, the ruling would have required the CIA to report to Congress on all of its covert operations before they commenced. Soon after Ryan’s murder, the Hughes-Ryan Amendment was quashed in Congress. The Temple mass suicide, conspiracy theorists argue, was simply a ‘smokescreen’ to distract attention from his assassination.
On Friday, 17 November, Congressman Leo Ryan, concerned by the activities of Reverend Jones at his People’s Temple in ‘Jonestown’, entered the complex in the Guyana jungle along with a delegation of media people and 18 representatives from a delegation of ‘Concerned Relatives’. The official party consisted of Ryan, James Schollaert and Jackie Speier, who was Ryan’s personal assistant.The arrangements for such a visit had been fraught with red tape, U-turns and a lack of cooperation from Jones’ office, which viewed any outside coverage of their existence as a ‘witch hunt’.Upon their arrival at Jonestown, the delegation was served dinner and entertained. Reporters later interviewed Jones himself while Ryan and Speier talked to Temple members whose names had been provided by concerned relatives in the U.S. During the night, several ‘Jonestown’ members made it clear to the party that they wished to leave the Temple.At 11:00 pm, the media and family representatives were returned to Port Kaituma. Jones refused to allow them to spend the night on the compound. Only Ryan, Speier and other official party members stayed the night at Jonestown.By 3:00 pm the next day, and after a tense altercation with a knife wielding Temple member, some 15 People’s Temple members climbed into the trucks with the delegation to drive to Port Kaituma airport.They arrived at Port Kaituma airport at 4:30 pm and waited for their flights which were delayed because of a request to the US Embassy for a second plane to carry the extra fifteen passengers. Later, when a six-passenger Cessna plane was loaded and began to taxi to the far end of the airstrip, one of the Jonestown defectors on board produced a gun and started shooting inside.At the same time, as Ryan’s party were boarding the other plane, occupants of a tractor owned by the People’s Temple, opened fire. Ryan, three members of the media and one of the defectors were killed. His assistant Speier and five others were seriously wounded.According to the official report, the mass suicide began at about 5:00pm at the same time as shooting at the airport. Word of the deaths at Jonestown reached Port Kaituma on Sunday morning when a few survivors arrived there.On Sunday, 19 November, the first contingent of Guyanese Army rescue forces arrived in Port Kaituma. They confirmed reports of the mass suicide where around 913 of 1100 members, including 408 American citizens had killed themselves with poison.It transpired that as Ryan’s delegation was boarding the aircraft, Jim Jones explained to the Temple members that he had a premonition that someone on the plane was going to kill Ryan. The consequences would be that the Temple’s enemies would stop at nothing to destroy Jonestown.The members had heard about such outside threats before and Jones had prepared them for what he termed “revolutionary suicide”.A tape-recording of the mass-suicide reveals that there was little argument over the decision to die. Despite a few protestations, that the children should be allowed to live, dissenters were soon convinced by the argument that, without suicide the children would suffer a worse fate.Poison-laced drink was brought to the hall and first given to 200 babies and small children by being poured into their mouths through syringes. Parents watched them die before taking it themselves. Some members resisted, but were shot and killed by armed guards who surrounded the room. These guards have never been accounted for.Jones himself was shot, whether by himself or by another member is not known.The Visionary It beggars belief how one man could have such a powerful hold over so many minds. But perhaps Jones’ secret was that he pretended to give so many discontented people what they really wanted out of life?He presented himself as a demagogue who could heal the sick and foretell the future with accuracy. His performances included appearing to cure members of cancer and other diseases, while members themselves described how Jones had saved them from illness or depression. No doubt the multi-racial, egalitarian aspect of his church appealed to many who felt that they were outcasts from society themselves.Unlike other religious institutions, the People’s Temple appeared altruistic, warm and embracing of everyone, irrespective of one’s background, race or creed. These were strong incentives to many young people who felt shunned by a cold, corporate minded world that was full of prejudices. To some, the People’s Temple was more than just meeting likeminded people, it was also offering salvation.Followers had moved to “Jonestown” with the vision to create a completely self-sufficient community based on the ideals of socialism and communalism. Each person would work for the common good, providing food, shelter, clothing, health care and education for themselves. In this community everyone would be equal and could live in peace. It was a noble ideal and one, as Jones would constantly remind them, which was worth dying for.Brainwashed It wasn’t too difficult for Jones to convince his followers that outside sources, the capitalist world, would want to destroy Jonestown for what it represented. Therefore it was easy to convey the feeling that Jonestown was the only safe place members of The People’s Temple could remain in.Even punishments became accepted as Jones’ insidious level of indoctrination made members feel that they had a duty to punish each other, often publicly for transgressions. Parents would beat their children and spouses admonish or physically punish each other. The effect was to make members accept an increasing level of brutality and accept it as the norm.His trick was that with fewer choices to make, the members would feel less stressed, and less frustrated in their lives, as the only choices that were there were made by Jones himself. For many, to suddenly find themselves unburdened by the usual and normal complexities of every day life must have been a relief and convinced them that this way of living was superior and right.As everyone was encouraged to report negative feelings to Jones, a ‘Big Brother’ style environment was cultivated as members were made to feel compelled to ‘grass’ on each another. The idea of being publicly humiliated was another reason to repress any feelings of dissent or criticism of Jones and his Temple.As the Temple was isolated in the jungle it was difficult for anyone to leave without having to encounter major obstacles, such as lack of money, passports, even clothes. But most of all the threat of armed guards stationed along the main road back to civilisation was the greatest incentive to stay put.Leaving was not an option as it would mean risking alienation from their friends and community, even being despised. The fact that members had given up all their worldly possessions to the Temple meant they would be homeless and penniless if they left. There were very few incentives to want to leave.
The Key Figures
Reverend Jim Jones (committed suicide) Congressman Leo Ryan (killed) Larry Layton: delegate (killed) Jackie Speier: Ryan’s assistant (wounded)913 Temple Members deaths by suicide