Jonestown was the informal name for the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project“, an intentional community in northwestern Guyana formed by the Peoples Temple, an American cult led by charismatic leader Jim Jones. It became internationally notorious when, on November 18, 1978, 918 people died in the settlement when cult leader Jim Jones commanded they drink poison.
909 Temple members died in Jonestown, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in an event termed “revolutionary suicide” by Jones and some members on an audio tape of the event and in prior discussions. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. The victims included Congressman Leo Ryan, the first and only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in the history of the United States. Four other Temple members died in Georgetown at Jones’ command.
To the extent the actions in Jonestown were viewed as a mass suicide, it is the largest such event in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001.
Origins of the Peoples Temple
The Peoples Temple was formed in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the mid-1950s. It purported to practice what it called “apostolic socialism”. In doing so, the Temple preached to established members that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment — socialism.”
After Jones received considerable criticism in Indiana for his integrationist views, the Temple moved to Redwood Valley, California in 1965.
In the early 1970s the Peoples Temple opened other branches in California, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the mid-1970s, the Temple moved its headquarters to San Francisco. After the Temple’s move to San Francisco, it became more politically active. After Peoples Temple participation proved instrumental in the mayoral election victory of George Moscone in 1975, Moscone appointed Jones as the Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Unlike other figures recognized as cult leaders, Jones enjoyed public support and contact with some of the highest level politicians in the United States. For example, Jones met with Vice Presidential Candidate Walter Mondale and Rosalynn Carter several times. Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and Assemblyman Willie Brown, among others, attended a large testimonial dinner in honor of Jones in September 1976.
Jonestown is established
In the fall of 1973, after critical newspaper articles by Lester Kinsolving and the defection of eight Temple members (the “Gang of Eight”), Jones and Temple member Timothy Stoen prepared an “immediate action” contingency plan for responding to a police or media crackdown. The plan listed various options, including fleeing to Canada or to a “Caribbean missionary post”, such as Barbados or Trinidad. For its “Caribbean missionary post”, the Temple quickly chose Guyana. The Temple then researched Guyana’s economy and extradition treaties with the United States. In October 1973, the directors of the Peoples Temple passed a resolution to establish an agricultural mission there.
The Temple chose Guyana, in part, because of its socialist politics, which were also moving further to the left during the selection process. Former Temple member Tim Carter stated that the reason for choosing Guyana was the Temple’s view of creeping fascism, the perception of the dominance of multinational corporations on the government, and perceived racism in the U.S. government. Carter said the Temple concluded that Guyana, a predominantly black, English-speaking socialist country, would afford black members of the Temple a peaceful place to live. Later, Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham stated that what may have attracted Jones was that “he wanted to use cooperatives as the basis for the establishment of socialism, and maybe his idea of setting up a commune meshed with that.” Jones also thought it was important that Guyana’s leadership consisted of several black leaders and that the country was small and poor enough for Jones to easily obtain influence and official protection.
In 1974, after Jones and Temple members traveled to an area of Northwest Guyana with Guyanese officials, the Temple and Guyanese officials negotiated a lease of over 3,800 acres (15.4 km²) of jungle land from the Guyanese government. The site was isolated, with soil of poor fertility, even by Guyanese standards. The nearest body of water was seven miles (11 km) away by muddy roads.
Jonestown before mass migration
A small group of Peoples Temple members began the construction of Jonestown. The Temple encouraged some of its members to move to Jonestown, which was formally named the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”. Jones saw Jonestown as both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from media scrutiny. In 1976, Guyana finally approved the lease it had negotiated (retroactive to April 1974) with the Temple for the over 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land in Northwest Guyana on which Jonestown was located.
In 1974, Guyanese government officials granted the Temple permission to import certain items “duty free.” Later payoffs to Guyanese customs officials helped safeguard shipments of firearms and drugs through Guyanese customs. The relatively large number of immigrants to Guyana overwhelmed the Guyanese government’s small but stringent immigration infrastructure in a country where most people wanted to leave. Jones reached an agreement to guarantee that Guyana would permit Temple members’ mass migration. To do so, he stated that Temple members were “skilled and progressive”, showed off an envelope he claimed had $500,000 and stated that he would invest most of the church’s assets in Guyana. Guyanese immigration procedures were also compromised to inhibit the departure of Temple defectors and curtail the visas of Temple opponents.
Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham Jones purported to establish Jonestown as a benevolent communist community, stating: “I believe we’re the purest communists there are.” Marceline Jones described Jonestown as “dedicated to live for socialism, total economic and racial and social equality. We are here living communally.” Jones wanted to construct a model community and claimed that Prime Minister Burnham “couldn’t rave enough about us, uh, the wonderful things we do, the project, the model of socialism.” In that regard, like the restrictive emigration policies of the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea and other communist republics, Jones did not permit members to leave Jonestown.
The Temple established offices in Georgetown and conducted numerous meetings with Burnham and other Guyanese officials. In 1976, Temple member Michael Prokes requested that Guyana’s Prime Minister Forbes Burnham receive Jones as a foreign dignitary along with other “high ranking U.S. officials.” Jones traveled to Guyana with California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally to meet with Burnham and Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Willis. In that meeting, Dymally agreed to pass on the message to the U.S. State Department that socialist Guyana wanted to keep an open door to cooperation with the United States. Dymally followed up that meeting with a letter to Burnham stating that Jones was “one of the finest human beings” and that Dymally was “tremendously impressed” by his visit to Jonestown.
Temple members took pains to stress their loyalty to Burnham’s Peoples National Congress Party. One Temple member, Paula Adams, was involved in a romantic relationship with Guyana’s Ambassador to the United States, Laurence “Bonny” Mann. Jones bragged about other Temple members he referred to as “public relations women” giving all for the cause in Georgetown. Viola Burnham, the Guyanese Prime Minister’s wife, was also a strong advocate of the Temple.
Later, Burnham stated that Guyana allowed the Temple to operate in the manner it did on the references of Mondale, Rosalyn Carter and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Burnham also said that, when Deputy Minister Ptolemy Reid traveled to Washington in September 1977 to sign the Panama Canal Treaties, Mondale asked him “How’s Jim?”, which indicated to Reid that Mondale had a personal interest in Jones’ well being.
Investigation and mass migration
In the summer of 1977, Jones and several hundred Temple members moved to Jonestown to escape building pressure from San Francisco media investigations. Jones left the same night that an editor at New West magazine read Jones an article to be published by Marshall Kilduff detailing allegations by former Temple members. Jonestown’s population increased from 50 members in early 1977 to just under 1000 at its peak in 1978.
Jonestown life after mass migration
Many members of the Peoples Temple believed that Guyana would be, as Jones promised, a paradise, or a utopia. After the mass migration, Jonestown became overcrowded.
After Jones arrived, Jonestown life significantly changed. Entertaining movies from Georgetown that the pioneers had watched were eliminated in favor of propaganda shorts on Soviet life provided by the Soviet embassy and documentaries on problems such as elderly life in the U.S. and returning Vietnam veterans’ adjustment to civilian life. Bureaucratic requirements after Jones’ arrival sapped labor resources for other needs. Buildings fell into disrepair and weeds encroached on fields. School study and night time lectures for adults turned to Jones; discussions about revolution and enemies, with lessons focusing on Soviet alliances, Jones’ crises and the purported “mercenaries” of Timothy Stoen.
For the first several months, Temple members worked six days a week, from approximately 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with an hour for lunch. In mid-1978, after Jim Jones’ health deteriorated and Marcy Jones began managing more of Jonestown’s operations, the work week was reduced to eight hours a day for five days a week.
After the day’s work ended, Temple members would attend several hours of activities in a pavilion structure, including classes in socialism. Jones described this study as like that of the North Korean system of eight hours of daily work followed by eight hours of study. This also compared with the Temple’s practice of gradually subjecting its followers to sophisticated mind control and behavior-modification techniques borrowed from post-revolutionary China and North Korea. Jones would often read news and commentary, including some from Radio Havana.
Moscow and Radio Havana
“Discussion” around the topics raised often took the form of Jones interrogating individual followers about the implications and subtexts of a given item, or delivering lengthy and often confused monologues on how his people should ‘read’ the events. In addition to Soviet documentaries, conspiracy theory movies such as Executive Action, written by Temple attorneys Mark Lane and Donald Freed, and The Parallax View (incorrectly attributed by Jones to Lane and Freed) were screened and minutely dissected by Jones as primers on the ‘true nature’ of the Temple’s capitalist enemies.
Jones’ recorded readings of the news were part of the constant broadcasts over Jonestown’s tower speakers, such that all members could hear them throughout the day and night. Jones’ news readings usually portrayed the United States as a “capitalist” and “imperialist” villain, while casting “socialist” leaders, such as former North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung (“great leader of the revolution, is in the vanguard of the Korean working class”), Robert Mugabe (“long known for his communist inspiration to the people of Zimbabwe… one of the revolutionary heroes”) and Joseph Stalin, in a positive light.
Jonestown’s primary means of communication with the outside world was a shortwave radio. All voice communications with San Francisco and Georgetown were transmitted using this radio, from mundane supply orders to confidential Temple business. The FCC cited the Temple for technical violations and for using amateur frequencies for commercial purposes. Because shortwave radio was Jonestown’s only effective means of non-postal communication, the Temple felt that the FCC’s threats to revoke its operators’ licenses threatened Jonestown’s existence.
Jonestown, being on poor soil, was not self-sufficient and had to import large quantities of commodities such as wheat. Temple members lived in small communal houses, some with walls woven from Troolie palm, and ate meals which reportedly consisted of nothing more on some days than rice, beans, greens and sometimes meat sauce and eggs (more on others). Despite theoretically having access to millions of dollars in Temple funds, Jones also lived in a tiny communal house, though fewer people lived there than in other communal houses. His house reportedly held a small refrigerator, containing, at times, eggs, meat, fruit, salads and soft drinks. Medical problems, such as severe diarrhea and high fevers, struck half the community in February 1978.
Although Jonestown contained no dedicated prison and no form of capital punishment, various forms of punishment were used against members considered to be serious disciplinary problems. Methods included imprisonment in a 6 x 4 x 3-foot (1.8 x 1.2 x 0.9m) plywood box and forcing children to spend a night at the bottom of a well, sometimes upside-down. For some members who attempted to escape, drugs such as Thorazine, sodium pentathol, chloral hydrate, Demerol and Valium were administered in an “extended care unit.” Armed guards patrolled the area day and night to enforce Jonestown’s rules. Some local Guyanese, including a police official, related stories about harsh beatings and a “torture hole”, the well into which the children were placed when they were perceived to have misbehaved.
Children, generally surrendered to communal care, addressed Jones as “Dad” and some at times were only allowed to see their real parents briefly at night. Jones was called “Father” or “Dad” by the adults as well. The community had a nursery at which 33 infants were born.
Up to $65,000 in monthly welfare payments from government organizations in the United States to Jonestown residents were signed over to the Temple. In 1978, officials from the United States Embassy in Guyana interviewed Social Security recipients on multiple occasions to make sure they were not being held against their will. None of the 75 people interviewed by the Embassy stated that they were being held against their will, were forced to sign over welfare checks or wanted to leave Jonestown. The Temple’s wealth was estimated in late 1978 to be approximately $26 million.
Events in Jonestown prior to Ryan visit
Jones made frequent addresses to Temple members regarding Jonestown’s safety, including statements that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were conspiring with “capitalist pigs” to destroy Jonestown and harm its members. After work, when purported emergencies arose, the Temple sometimes conducted what Jones referred to as “White Nights”. During such events, Jones would sometimes give the Jonestown members four choices: (1) attempt to flee to the Soviet Union; (2) commit “revolutionary suicide”; (3) stay in Jonestown and fight the purported attackers or (4) flee into the jungle.
On at least two occasions during White Nights, after a “revolutionary suicide” vote was reached, a simulated mass suicide was rehearsed. Peoples Temple defector Deborah Layton described the event in an affidavit:
“Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes. We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands.”
The Temple had received monthly half-pound shipments of cyanide since 1976 after Jones obtained a jeweler’s license to buy the chemical to purportedly clean gold.
Stoen custody dispute
In September 1977, former Temple members Timothy and Grace Stoen battled in a Georgetown court to produce an order for the Temple to show cause why a final order should not be issued returning their son, John, to his mother Grace. A few days later, a second order was issued for the arrest of John by authorities.
The fear of being held in contempt of the orders caused Jones to set up a false sniper attack upon himself and begin his first series of White Nights, called the “Six Day Siege”, where Jones spoke to Temple members about attacks from outsiders and had them surround Jonestown with guns and machetes. The fiery rallies took an almost surreal tone as Angela Davis and Huey Newton communicated via radio-telephone to the Jonestown crowd, urging them to hold strong against the “conspiracy.” Jones made radio broadcasts stating “we will die unless we are granted freedom from harassment and asylum.” Guyana Deputy Minister Ptolemy Reid finally assured Jones’ wife Marceline that Guyanese Defense Forces would not invade Jonestown.
Exploring another potential exodus
After the Six Day Siege, Jones no longer believed the Guyanese could be trusted. Jones directed Temple members to write to over a dozen foreign governments inquiring about immigration policies relevant to another exodus by the Temple. He also wrote the U.S. State department inquiring about North Korea and Stalinist Albania.
In Georgetown, the Peoples Temple conducted frequent meetings with the embassies of the Soviet Union, North Korea, Yugoslavia and Cuba. Their negotiations with the Soviet Union included extensive discussions of possible resettlement there and the Temple produced memorandums discussing potential places within the Soviet Union in which they might settle. Sharon Amos, Michael Prokes and other Temple members took active roles in the “Guyana-Korea Friendship Society“, which sponsored two seminars on revolutionary concepts of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
On October 2, 1978, Feodor Timofeyev from the Soviet Union embassy in Guyana visited Jonestown for two days and gave a speech. Jones stated before the speech that “For many years, we have let our sympathies be quite publicly known, that the United States government was not our mother, but that the Soviet Union was our spiritual motherland,” which was followed by extended cheers and applause from the Jonestown crowd. Timofeyev opened the speech stating that the USSR would like to send “our deepest and the most sincere greetings to the people of this first socialist and communist community of the United States of America, in Guyana and in the world,” followed by cheers and applause from the crowd. Timofeyev also stated “I’d like to wish you, dear comrades, all the successes to your great, to your very big work you’re doing here.”
By October 1978, Temple members met almost weekly with Timofeyev discussing a potential exodus to the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, in late 1977 and early 1978, Tim and Grace Stoen participated in meetings with other relatives of Jonestown residents at the home of Jeannie Mills, and they collectively called themselves the “Concerned Relatives.” Tim Stoen engaged in letter writing campaigns to the Secretary of State and the government of Guyana, and traveled to Washington to attempt to begin an investigation. In January 1978, Stoen wrote a “white paper” to Congress detailing the problems and requesting that Representatives write Forbes Burnham. 91 Congressmen wrote such letters, including Congressman Leo Ryan.
Feeling pressure from the United States, on February 17, Jones submitted to an interview with San Francisco Examiner journalist Tim Reiterman. Reiterman wrote a story the next day in the San Francisco Examiner about Stoen’s attempts to gain custody of his son that prompted the immediate threat of a lawsuit by the Temple. The repercussions were devastating for the Temple’s reputation, and made most former supporters even more suspicious of the Temple’s claims that it was being subjected to a “rightist vendetta.”
One day later, on Sunday February 19, 1978, Harvey Milk wrote a letter of support for the Peoples Temple to President Jimmy Carter. Milk wrote that Jones was known “as a man of the highest character”. Regarding defecting Temple members pressing for an investigation of the Peoples Temple, Milk wrote “they are attempting to damage Rev. Jones’ reputation” with “apparent bold-faced lies”.
On April 11, 1978, the Concerned Relatives distributed a packet of documents, including letters and affidavits, that they titled an “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones” to the Peoples Temple, members of the press and members of Congress. In June 1978, Peoples Temple defector Deborah Layton provided the group with a further affidavit detailing alleged crimes by the Peoples Temple and substandard living conditions in Jonestown.
Tim Stoen represented three members of the Concerned Relatives in lawsuits filed in May and June 1978 against Jim Jones and other Temple members seeking in excess of $56 million in damages. The Temple, represented by Charles R. Garry, filed a suit against Tim Stoen on July 10, 1978 seeking $150 million in damages.
During the summer of 1978, Jones hired JFK assassination conspiracy theorists Mark Lane and Donald Freed to help make the case of a “grand conspiracy” by intelligence agencies against the Peoples Temple. Jones told Lane he wanted to “pull an Eldridge Cleaver”, referring to a fugitive Black Panther who was able to return to the United States after repairing his reputation. In September 1978, Lane spoke to the residents of Jonestown, providing support for Jones’ theories and drawing parallels between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Jones. Lane then held press conferences stating that “none of the charges” against the Temple “are accurate or true” and that there was a “massive conspiracy” against the Temple by “intelligence organizations,” naming the CIA, FBI, FCC and even the U.S. Post Office. Though Lane represented himself as disinterested, Jones was actually paying him $6,000 per month to generate such theories.
Jones’ health significantly declined in Jonestown, and a doctor who examined Jones in 1978 told him that he might have a lung infection. Jones was said to be abusing injectable Valium, Quaaludes, stimulants, and barbiturates. His once sharp voice later sounded slurred, words ran together and Jones would not finish sentences even when reading.
Journalist Tim Reiterman was surprised by the severe deterioration of Jones’ health when Reiterman first saw Jones in Jonestown on November 17, 1978. After covering Jones for 18 months for the San Francisco Examiner, Reiterman thought it was “shocking to see his glazed eyes and festering paranoia face to face, to realize that nearly a thousand lives, ours included, were in his hands.”
Ryan delegation’s initial investigation in Georgetown
On November 1, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, who represented a district in Northern California, announced that he would visit Jonestown. Ryan was friends with the father of Bob Houston, whose mutilated body was found near train tracks on October 5, 1976, three days after a taped telephone conversation with Houston’s ex-wife in which leaving the Temple was discussed. Over the following months Ryan’s interest was further aroused by the complaints of the Concerned Relatives represented by Timothy Stoen and the allegations following the defection of Deborah Layton.
On November 14, 1978, Ryan flew to Georgetown, Guyana (150 miles from Jonestown), along with a team of 18 people consisting of government officials, media representatives and some members of the Concerned Relatives. The group included Ryan, his legal advisor Jackie Speier (now a Congresswoman), Neville Annibourne (representing Guyana’s Ministry of Information) Richard Dwyer (Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy to Guyana), Tim Reiterman (San Francisco Examiner reporter), Don Harris (NBC reporter), Greg Robinson (San Francisco Examiner photographer), Steve Sung (NBC sound man), Bob Flick (NBC producer), Charles Krause (Washington Post reporter), Ron Javers (San Francisco Chronicle reporter), Bob Brown (NBC camera man), and Concerned Relatives representatives, including Tim and Grace Stoen, Steve and Anthony Katsaris, Beverly Oliver, Jim Cobb, Sherwin Harris, and Carolyn Houston Boyd.
Ryan delegation visits Jonestown
By late morning on Friday, November 17, Lane and Garry informed Jones that Ryan would likely leave for Jonestown at 2:30 pm, regardless of Jones’ schedule or willingness. Ryan’s party did so at roughly that time, accompanied by Lane and Garry, and came to Port Kaituma airstrip, 6 miles (10 km) from Jonestown, some hours later. Because of aircraft seating limitations, only four of the Concerned Relatives were allowed to accompany the Ryan delegation on its flight into Jonestown. Only Ryan and three others were initially accepted into Jonestown, but the rest of Ryan’s group was allowed in after sunset. It was later reported (and verified by audiotapes recovered by investigators) that Jones had run rehearsals on how to convince Ryan’s delegation that everyone was happy and in good spirits.
That night, the Ryan delegation attended a reception in the pavilion. While the party received a friendly reception, Jones said he felt like a dying man and ranted about government conspiracies and martyrdom as he decried attacks by the press and his enemies. Two Peoples Temple members, Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby, made the first move for defection that night. In the pavilion, Gosney passed a note to Don Harris (mistaking him for Ryan). It read:
“Dear Congressman, Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby. Please help us get out of Jonestown.”
That night Ryan, Speier, Dwyer, and Annibourne stayed in Jonestown. Other members of the Ryan delegation, including the press corps and 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 café.
In the early morning of November 18, eleven Temple members sensed danger enough to walk out of the colony toward train tracks to take a train to Matthew’s Ridge, which is located in the opposite direction from the airstrip at Port Kaituma. Those defectors included members of the Evans family and the Wilson family (the family of Jonestown’s head of security, Joe Wilson). When reporters and Concerned Relatives arrived in Jonestown later that day, Jim Jones’ wife Marceline gave them a tour of the settlement.
That afternoon, 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. When Jones’ adopted son Johnny attempted to talk Jerry Parks out of leaving, Parks told him “No way, it’s nothing but a communist prison camp.”
Jones gave the two families, along with Gosney and Bagby, permission to leave. Under the Pavilion, Don Harris of NBC handed Jones the note written by Vernon Gosney while other reporters huddled around Jones. Jones told those reporters that, like others who left the community, the defectors would “lie” and destroy Jonestown.
After a sudden violent rainstorm started, some emotional scenes developed between family members. Al Simon, an American Indian member of the Peoples Temple, attempted to take two of his children to Ryan to process the requisite paperwork for transfer back to the United States. Al’s wife, Bonnie, summoned on the loudspeakers by Temple staff, loudly denounced her husband. Al pleaded in vain with Bonnie to return to the U.S., but Bonnie rejected his suggestion.
The Port Kaituma airstrip shootings
While most of the Ryan delegation began to depart on a large dump truck to the Port Kaituma airstrip, Congressman Ryan and Dwyer stayed behind in Jonestown to process any additional defectors. Shortly before the dump truck departed for the airstrip, Temple loyalist Larry Layton, the brother of Deborah Layton, demanded to join the group. Several defectors voiced their suspicions about his motives.
Shortly after the dump truck initially departed, Temple member Don Sly (nicknamed “Ujara”) grabbed Ryan while wielding a knife. While Congressman Ryan was unhurt after others wrestled Sly to the ground, Dwyer strongly suggested that Ryan leave Jonestown while Dwyer filed a criminal complaint against Sly. Ryan did so, promising to return later to address the dispute. The truck departing to the airstrip had stopped after the passengers heard of the attack on Ryan. Ryan then boarded the truck and reached the airstrip later that afternoon.
Because of the defectors, a second aircraft (a Cessna) was required to carry all of those departing Jonestown. Accordingly, the entourage planned to use two planes, the six-passenger Cessna and a 19 seat Twin Otter, to fly to Georgetown. The planes were not ready for departure when the group arrived; the group had to wait at the airstrip until approximately 5:10 p.m.
Larry Layton was a passenger on the Cessna, the first aircraft to set up for takeoff. After the Cessna had taxied to the far end of the airstrip, Layton produced a gun and started shooting at the passengers. He wounded Monica Bagby and Vernon Gosney, and tried to kill Dale Parks, who disarmed him.
At this time, some passengers had boarded the larger Twin Otter. A tractor with a trailer attached driven by members of the Temple’s Red Brigade security squad approached the Otter. When the tractor neared within approximately 30 feet (9.1 m) of the Otter, roughly concurrent with the shootings on the Cessna, the Red Brigade opened fire on the aircraft while at least two Red Brigade members circled the plane on foot. There were perhaps nine shooters whose identities are not all certainly known, but most sources agree that Joe Wilson, Jones’ head of security, Thomas Kice Sr., and Ronnie Dennis were among them.
A few seconds of the shooting were captured on film by NBC cameraman Bob Brown. Congressman Ryan, Bob Brown, photographer Greg Robinson, NBC reporter Don Harris and Temple defector Patricia Parks were killed in the few minutes of shooting. Jackie Speier, Steve Sung, Richard Dwyer, Tim Reiterman and Anthony Katsaris were among the nine injured in and around the Twin Otter. After the shootings, the Cessna’s pilot, along with the pilot and copilot of the Otter, fled in the Cessna to Georgetown, leaving behind the gunfire-damaged Otter and the injured Ryan delegation members. The murder of Congressman Ryan was the first and only murder of a Congressman in the line of duty in the history of the United States.
Deaths in Jonestown
Before leaving Jonestown for the airstrip, Congressman Ryan had told Temple attorney Charles Garry that he would issue a report that would describe Jonestown “in basically good terms.” Ryan stated that none of the sixty relatives Ryan had targeted for interviews wanted to leave, the 14 defectors constituted a very small portion of Jonestown’s residents, that any sense of imprisonment the defectors had was likely because of peer pressure and a lack of physical transportation, and even if 200 of the 900+ wanted to leave “I’d still say you have a beautiful place here.” Similarly, Washington Post reporter Charles Krause stated that, on the way back to the airstrip, he was unconvinced that Jonestown was as bad as defectors had claimed because there were no signs of malnutrition or physical abuse, while many members appeared to enjoy Jonestown and only a small number of the over 900 residents elected to leave.
Despite Garry’s report, Jones told him “I have failed.” Garry reiterated that Ryan would be making a positive report, but Jones maintained that “All is lost.” A 44-minute cassette tape (the “death tape”), recorded at least part of a meeting Jones called under the pavilion in the early evening. Before the meeting, aides prepared a metal vat with Flavor Aid, poisoned with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan.
When the assembly gathered, referring to the Ryan delegation’s air travel back to Georgetown, Jones told the gathering:
“One of the people on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot, I know that. I didn’t plan it but I know it’s going to happen. They’re gonna shoot that pilot and down comes the plane into the jungle and we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over, because they’ll parachute in here on us.”
Parroting Jones’ prior statements that hostile forces would convert captured children to Fascism, one temple member states: “The ones that they take captured, they’re gonna just let them grow up and be dummies.”
On the death tape, Jones urged Temple members to commit “revolutionary suicide”. Such “revolutionary suicide” had been planned by the Temple before and, according to Jonestown defectors, its theory was “you can go down in history, saying you chose your own way to go, and it is your commitment to refuse capitalism and in support of socialism.”
Temple member Christine Miller argued that the Temple should alternatively attempt an airlift to Russia. Jim McElvane, a former therapist who had arrived in Jonestown only two days earlier, assisted Jones by arguing against Miller’s resistance to suicide, stating “Let’s make it a beautiful day” (followed by applause from Temple members) and later citing possible reincarnation. After several exchanges in which Jones argued that a Soviet exodus would not be possible, along with reactions by other temple members hostile to Miller, Miller backed down. However, Miller may have ceased dissenting when Jones confirmed at one point that “the Congressman is dead” after members of his “Red Brigade” squad returned from the airstrip after shooting Ryan.
After the airstrip shooters arrived back in Jonestown, Tim Carter, a Vietnam war veteran, recalled the shooters having the “thousand-yard stare” of weary soldiers.
After Jones announced that “the congressman is dead” no dissent occurs on the death tape. Directly after this, referring to his Red Brigade security squad that shot Ryan, Jones stated “But the Red Brigade’s the only one that made any sense anyway” and “Red Brigade showed them justice.” In response to reactions of seeing the poison take effect on others, Jones commanded “Stop this 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.” In addition to Jim McElvane, several other temple members gave speeches praising Jones and his decision for the community to commit suicide, even after Jones stopped appreciating this praise and begged for the process to go faster.
According to escaped Temple member Odell Rhodes, first to take the poison were Ruletta Paul and her one-year-old infant. A needle-less syringe was used to squirt poison into the infant’s mouth and then Paul squirted another syringe into her own mouth. Stanley Clayton also saw mothers with their babies first approach the table containing the poison. Clayton said that Jones approached people to encourage them to drink the poison and that, after adults saw the poison begin to take effect, “they showed a reluctance to die.”
The poison caused death within around five minutes. After consuming the poison, according to Rhodes, people were then escorted away down a wooden walkway leading outside the Pavilion. It is not clear if some initially thought the exercise was another “White Night” rehearsal. Rhodes reported being in close contact with dying children.
Jones made reference to the cries and screams:
“I don’t care how many screams you hear, I don’t care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”
However, survivor Odell Rhodes stated that while the poison was squirted in some children’s mouths, there was no panic or emotional outburst and people looked like they were “in a trance”.
Jones was found dead in a deck chair with a gunshot wound to his head that Guyanese coroner Cyrill Mootoo stated was consistent with a self-inflicted gun wound.
The events at Jonestown constituted the greatest single losses of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the incidents of September 11, 2001.
Three high ranking Temple member survivors claim they were given an assignment and thereby escaped death. Brothers Tim and Mike Carter, 30 years old and 20 years old respectively, and Mike Prokes, 31, were given luggage containing $550,000 US currency, $130,000 in Guyanese currency and an envelope, which they were told to deliver to Guyana’s Soviet Embassy, in Georgetown. The envelope contained two passports and three instructional letters, the first of which was to Feodor Timofeyev of the Embassy of the Soviet Union in Guyana, stating:
The letters included listed accounts with balances totaling in excess of $7.3 million to be transferred to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Carters and Prokes soon ditched most of the money and were apprehended heading for the Temple boat (Cudjo) at Kaituma. It is unknown how they were supposed to reach Georgetown, 150 miles (240 km) away, since the boat had been sent away by Temple leadership earlier that day.
Just before the start of the final meeting in the pavilion, lawyers Charles Garry and Mark Lane were told that the people were angry at them. The lawyers were escorted to a house used to accommodate visitors. According to the lawyers, they talked their way past armed guards and made it to the jungle, before eventually arriving in Port Kaituma. While in the jungle near the settlement, they heard gunshots. This observation concurs with the testimony of Clayton, who heard the same sounds as he was sneaking back into Jonestown to retrieve his passport.
Four more people who were intended to be poisoned managed to survive. Grover Davis, 79, who was hearing impaired, missed the announcement to assemble on the loudspeaker, lay down in a ditch and pretended to be dead. Hyacinth Thrash, 76, slept through the suicide drills and awoke to find her sister and friends dead. Odell Rhodes, 36, a Jonestown teacher and craftsman, volunteered to fetch a stethoscope and hid under a building. Stanley Clayton, 25, a kitchenworker and cousin of Huey Newton, tricked security guards and ran into the jungle.
The only medical doctor to initially examine the scene at Jonestown was Guyanese Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Leslie Mootoo. Mootoo visually examined over 200 bodies and later told a Guyanese coroner’s jury that he saw needle marks on at least 70. However, no determination was made as to whether those injections initiated the introduction of poison or whether they were so-called “relief” injections to quicken death and reduce suffering from convulsions from those who had previously taken poison orally. Mootoo and American pathologist Dr. Lynn Crook determined that cyanide was present in some of the bodies, while analysis of the contents of the vat revealed tranquilizers and two poisons: potassium cyanide and potassium chloride.
Plastic cups, Flavor Aid packets and syringes, some with needles and some without, littered the area where the bodies were found. Mootoo concluded that the gunshot wound to Annie Moore could not have been self-inflicted, though Moore had also ingested a lethal dose of cyanide.
Guyanese authorities waived their requirement for autopsies in the case of unnatural death. Doctors in the United States performed autopsies on only seven bodies, including those of Jim Jones, Dr. Lawrence Schact, Annie Moore and Carolyn Layton. Annie Moore and Carolyn Layton were selected among those autopsied, in part, because of the urging of the Moore family, including the two victims’ sister, Rebecca Moore, who was not a Temple member herself.
Notes from non-surviving residents
Found near Marceline Jones’ body was a typewritten note, dated November 18, 1978, signed by Marceline Jones and witnessed by Annie Moore and Maria Katsaris, stating:
“I, Marceline Jones, leave all bank accounts in my name to the Communist Party of the USSR. The bank accounts are located in the Bank of Nova Scotia, Nassau, Bahamas. Please be sure that these assets do get to the USSR. I especially request that none of these are allowed to get into the hands of my adopted daughter, Suzanne Jones Cartmell. For anyone who finds this letter, please honor this request as it is most important to myself and my husband James W. Jones.”
Annie Moore left a note, which 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.” The last line (“We died because you would not let us live in peace.”) is written in different color ink. No other specific reference is made to the events of the day. Moore also wrote, “JONESTOWN—the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed.” In addition she stated,”JIM JONES—the one who made this paradise possible—much to the contrary of the lies stated about Jim Jones being a power-hungry sadistic, mean person who thought he was God—of all things.” And “His hatred of racism, sexism, elitism, and mainly classism, is what prompted him to make a new world for the people—a paradise in the jungle. The children loved it. So did everyone else.”
Another note, found 25 years later, was buried among reams of unrelated paperwork. The document, titled “Last Words”, unsigned, was attributed most likely to Richard Tropp. The note contained references to the events of the last day:
“We did not want it this way. All was going well as Ryan completed [his] first day here. Then a man tried to attack him, unsuccessfully at some time, several set out into jungle wanting to overtake Ryan, aide, and others who left with him. They did, and several killed. When we heard this, we had no choice. We would be taken. We have to go as one, we want to live as Peoples Temple, or end it. We have chosen. It is finished.”
A note likely written by Tish Leroy stated:
“Dad I see no way out – I agree with your decision – I fear only that without you the world may not make it to communism – Tish For my part – I am more than tired of this wretched, merciless planet & the hell it holds for the masses of so many beautiful people – thank you for the only life I’ve known.”
Found near Maria Katsaris’ body was a handwritten note signed by Katsaris, dated November 18, 1978, witnessed by Jim McElvane and Marilee Bogue, stating, “I Maria Katsaris leave all of the money in the Banco Union de Venezuela in Caracas to the Communist Party Soviet Union.”
Found near Carolyn Layton’s body was a handwritten note signed by Carolyn Layton, witnessed by Maria Katsaris and Annie Moore, dated November 18, 1978, stating, “This is my last will and testament. I hereby leave all assets in any bank account to which I am a signatory to the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.”
Deaths in Georgetown
In the early evening of November 18, at the Temple’s headquarters in Georgetown, Temple member Sharon Amos received a radio communication from Jonestown instructing the members at the headquarters to take revenge on the Temple’s enemies and then commit revolutionary suicide. Later, after police arrived at the Temple headquarters, Sharon Amos escorted her children, Liane (21), Christa (11) and Martin (10), into a bathroom. Wielding a kitchen knife, Sharon first killed Christa and then Martin. Then Liane assisted Sharon to kill herself with the knife, followed by Liane killing herself with the knife.
At the airstrip, journalist Tim Reiterman photographed the aftermath of the violence. Dwyer assumed leadership at the scene and, at his recommendation, Layton was arrested by Guyanese state police. Dwyer was grazed by one bullet in his buttock during the airstrip shootings. It took several hours before the ten wounded and others in their party gathered themselves together. Most of them spent the night in a café. The more seriously wounded slept in a small tent on the airfield. A Guyanese government plane arrived the following morning to evacuate the wounded. Five teenage members of the Parks and Bogue families, with one boyfriend, followed the instructions of defector Gerald Parks to hide in the adjacent jungle until help arrived and their safety was assured. Thereafter those members were lost for three days in the jungle and nearly died. Guyanese soldiers eventually found them.
After escaping Jonestown, Odell Rhodes arrived in Port Kaituma on the night of November 18, 1978. That night Stanley Clayton stayed with a local Guyanese family and travelled to Port Kaituma the next morning. The Carter brothers and Michael Prokes were put into protective custody in Port Kaituma. They were later released in Georgetown. Rhodes, Clayton and the two lawyers (Garry and Lane) were also brought to Georgetown. Michael Prokes committed suicide in March 1979, four months after the Jonestown incident.
Larry Layton, who had fired a gun at several people aboard the Cessna, was originally found not guilty of attempted murder in a Guyanese court, employing the defense that he was “brainwashed”. Layton could not be tried in the United States for the attempted murders of Vern Gosney, Monica Bagby, the Cessna pilot and Dale Parks on Guyanese soil and was, instead, tried under a federal statute against assassinating members of Congress and internationally protected people (Ryan and Dwyer). He was convicted of conspiracy and of aiding and abetting the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan and of the attempted murder of Richard Dwyer. Paroled in 2002, he is the only person ever to have been held criminally responsible for the events at Jonestown.
The event was one of the stories most heavily covered by the media and photographs pertaining to it adorned newspaper and magazine covers for months after its occurrence, including being labeled “cult of death” by Time and Newsweek magazines. In February 1979, 98% of Americans polled said that they had heard of the tragedy. George Gallup stated that “few events, in fact, in the entire history of the Gallup Poll have been known to such a high percentage of the U.S. public.”
After the tragedy, both the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the State Department itself criticized the State Department’s handling of the Temple. Political opposition to Guyanese Prime Minister Burnham seized the opportunity to embarrass Burnham by establishing an inquest which concluded that Burnham was responsible for the deaths at Jonestown.
The sheer scale of the event, as well as Jones’ socialist leanings, purported inconsistencies in the reported number of deaths, allegedly poor explanation of events related to deaths at Jonestown, and existence of classified documents led some to suggest CIA involvement,. though the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the Jonestown mass suicide and announced that there was no evidence of CIA involvement at Jonestown.
Now deserted, the compound at Jonestown was first tended by the Guyanese government following the deaths. The government then allowed its re-occupation by Hmong refugees from Laos for a few years in the early 1980s. The buildings and grounds were looted by local Guyanese people, but were not taken over because of their association with the mass killing. The buildings were mostly destroyed by a fire in the mid-1980s, after which the ruins were left to decay and be reclaimed by the jungle.
During a visit in 1998 to film a segment for the ABC news show 20/20, Jim Jones, Jr. discovered the rusting remains of an oil drum near the former entrance to the Pavilion. Jones recognized the drum, originally adapted for use during meal times, as the drum used for drink mixtures used during the “white night” exercises, and which he believed was used to hold the poison and Flavor Aid liquid used on November 18, 1978.
There is now little left apart from an old oil tank turned on its side, and very little indication at all of the former settlement, other than aging fruit trees that were part of the Jonestown orchard, and an abandoned truck that was presumably owned by Peoples Temple. The former pilot then led the host of the show to where the Pavilion once was and they found daisies growing where the bodies had once lain. While they were out in the jungle earlier in the show they had found a desk drawer while searching around.