Jim Jones
Jones in 1977
James Warren Jones

(1931-05-13)May 13, 1931
DiedNovember 18, 1978(1978-11-18) (aged 47)
Jonestown, Guyana
Cause of deathSuicide by gunshot
Known forLeader of Peoples Temple
Marceline Baldwin
(m. 1949)

James Warren Jones (May 13, 1931 – November 18, 1978) 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. In what he described as "revolutionary suicide", Jones and his inner circle orchestrated a mass murder–suicide in his remote jungle commune at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978.

As a youth, Jones developed an affinity for pentecostalism and a desire to be a preacher. He was ordained as a Christian minister in the Independent Assemblies of God and attracted his first followers while participating in the Pentecostal Latter Rain movement and the Healing Revival during the 1950s. Jones' initial popularity arose from his joint campaign appearances and endorsement by the movements' prominent leaders, William Branham and Joseph Mattsson-Boze. With their support, Jones took a leadership role in multiple international conventions where he recruited many new members for his church. Jones founded the organization that would become the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1955. Jones distinguished himself through civil rights activism, founding the Temple as a fully integrated congregation, and promoting Christian socialism. In 1964, Jones joined and was ordained a minister by the Disciples of Christ; his attraction to the Disciples was largely due to the autonomy and tolerance they granted to differing views within their denomination.

In 1965, Jones moved the Temple to California, where the group established its headquarters in San Francisco and became heavily involved in political and charitable activity throughout the 1970s. Jones developed connections with prominent California politicians and was appointed as chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission in 1975. Beginning in the late 1960s, Jones became increasingly vocal in his rejection of traditional Christianity and began promoting his teachings as "Apostolic Socialism" and making claims of his own divinity. Jones became progressively more controlling of the members of Peoples Temple, which at its peak had over 3,000 members. Jones's followers engaged in a communal lifestyle in which they turned over all their income and property to Jones and Peoples Temple who directed all aspects of community life.

Following a period of negative media publicity and reports of abuse at Peoples Temple, Jones ordered the construction a commune called Jonestown in Guyana in 1974, and convinced or compelled many of his followers to live there with him. Jones claimed that he was constructing a socialist paradise free from the oppression of the United States government. By 1978, media reports had surfaced of human rights abuses and accusations that people were being held in Jonestown against their will. U.S. Representative Leo Ryan led a delegation to the commune in November of that year to investigate these reports. While boarding a return flight with some former Temple members who had wished to leave, Ryan and four others were murdered by gunmen from Jonestown. Jones then ordered a mass murder-suicide that claimed the lives of 909 commune members, 304 of them children; almost all of the members died by drinking Flavor Aid laced with cyanide.

Early life

James Warren Jones was born on May 13, 1931, in the rural community of Crete, Indiana, to James Thurman Jones and Lynetta Putnam.[1][2][3][4] Jones went by the nickname Jimmy during his youth. Jones was of Irish and Welsh descent;[5] he and his mother both claimed partial Cherokee ancestry, but there is no evidence of such ancestry.[5][6] Jones's father was a disabled World War I veteran who suffered from severe breathing difficulties from a chemical weapons attack. The military pension he received for his injuries was not sufficient to support his family, and he attempted to supplement his income by periodically working on local road repair projects.[7]

Childhood poverty

The financial difficulties caused by his father's illness led to marital problems between Jones's parents.[7] In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Jones family was evicted from their home for failure to make mortgage payments. Their relatives purchased a shack for them to live in at the nearby town of Lynn. The new home, where Jones grew up, lacked plumbing and electricity.[8][9][10] In Lynn, the family attempted to earn an income through farming, but again met with failure when Jones's father's health further deteriorated. The family often lacked adequate food and relied on financial support from their extended family. They sometimes had to resort to foraging in the nearby forest and fields to supplement their diet.[11][10]

According to multiple Jones biographers, his mother had "no natural maternal instincts" and frequently neglected her son.[12] Her pregnancy had been unwanted, and she expressed disappointment at becoming a mother and was often bitter and unhappy about their family's financial and social position. When Jones began attending school, his extended family threatened to cut off their financial assistance unless his mother took a job, forcing her to work outside the home. Meanwhile, Jones's father was hospitalized multiple times due to his illness.[13] As a result, Jones's parents were frequently absent during his childhood.[10]

His aunts and uncles who lived nearby provided some supervision, but Jones often wandered the streets of the town (sometimes naked[14]) with no one caring for him.[15] Many women in Lynn felt sorry for Jones, and he was frequently invited into the homes of his neighbors who provided him with meals, clothing, and other gifts.[16]

Early religious and political influences

Myrtle Kennedy, the wife of the pastor of the local Nazarene Church, developed a special attachment to Jones.[16] Jones often stayed overnight in the Kennedys' home to be cared for by them. Kennedy, known in the community for her religious zeal, took Jones to church multiple times a week. She gave Jones a Bible and encouraged him to study it and taught him to follow the holiness code of the Nazarene Church. Jones was able to quote Bible passages from an early age.[17][18]

As Jones grew older, he attended services at most of the churches in Lynn, often going to multiple churches each week,[19] and he was also baptized in several of them. Jones began to develop a desire to become a preacher as a youth and started to practice preaching in private.[20] His mother claimed that she was disturbed when she caught him imitating the pastor of the local Apostolic Pentecostal Church and she unsuccessfully attempted to prevent him from attending the church's services.[21][22] In his early teenage years, Jones spent several months evangelizing in his community on behalf of the local Pentecostal church.[23]

Although they had sympathy for Jones because of his poor circumstances, his neighbors reported that he was an unusual child who was obsessed with religion and death.[24] He regularly visited a casket manufacturer in Lynn and held mock funerals for roadkill that he had collected.[25] When he could not get any children to attend his funerals, he would perform the services alone.[20][26] Jones claimed that he had been given special powers, including the ability to fly. To prove his powers to the other children, he once jumped from the roof of a building and fell, breaking his arm. Despite the fall, he continued to claim that he had special powers.[25] One Jones biographer suggested that he developed his unusual interests because he found it difficult to make friends.[5]

Although his strange religious practices stood out the most to his neighbors, they also reported that he misbehaved in more serious ways. He frequently stole candy from merchants in the town; his mother was required to pay for his thefts.[27] Jones regularly used offensive profanity, commonly greeting his friends and neighbors by saying, "Good morning, you son of a bitch" or, "Hello, you dirty bastard".[28][29] At different times, he would put other children into life-threatening situations and tell them he was guided by the Angel of Death.[25] In later years, Jones claimed that he had performed numerous sacrilegious pranks at the churches he attended as a child. He claimed that he stole the Pentecostal pastor's bible and put cow manure on Acts 2:38. He also claimed that at a Catholic church, he replaced the holy water with a cup of his own urine.[29] Jones's mother beat him with a leather belt in order to punish his misbehavior.[27]

When World War II broke out, Jones became enamored with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. He was intrigued by their pageantry, their unity, and the absolute power wielded by Hitler. The people in his community found his idolization of Nazi Germany disturbing.[30] Jones played dictator with the other children, forcing them to goosestep in unison and hitting the children who failed to obey his orders.[30] One childhood acquaintance recalled that Jones gave the Nazi salute and shouted "Heil Hitler!" when he met German prisoners of war passing through their community en route to a detention facility.[24]

Jones developed an intense interest in religion and social doctrines. He became a voracious reader who studied Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi.[31] He spent hours in the community library, and he brought books home so he could read them in the evenings.[28] Although he studied different political systems, Jones did not espouse any radical political views in his youth.[31]

Commenting on his childhood, Jones stated, "I was ready to kill by the end of the third grade. I mean, I was so aggressive and hostile, I was ready to kill. Nobody gave me love, any understanding. In those days a parent was supposed to go with a child to school functions. There was some kind of school performance, and everybody's parent was there but mine. I'm standing there, alone. Always was alone."[32] Tom Reiterman, a biographer of Jones, wrote that Jones's attraction to religion was strongly influenced by his desire for a family.[33]

In 1942, the Kennedy family moved to Richmond, Indiana, for the summer and Jones visited them. They attended a summer religious convention at a nearby Pentecostal church, participating in services four times a week.[20] When Jones returned to Lynn in the autumn, he offended his community by giving explicit explanations of sexual reproduction to young children. Many people in Lynn demanded that Jones' mother curtail his behavior, but she refused. The situation caused many of the other parents to keep their children away from him. By the time he entered high school, he had become an outcast among his peers and was increasingly disliked by the members of his community.[34]

Education and marriage

In high school, Jones continued to stand out from his peers. He enjoyed debating his teachers, and he was also a good student. He developed a habit of refusing to answer anyone who spoke to him first, he only spoke to people when he initiated conversations with them. Jones was known to wear his Sunday church attire every day of the week, while his peers dressed more casually.[35] He almost always carried his bible with him.[36] His religious views alienated many of his peers. He frequently confronted them for drinking beer, smoking, and dancing. At times, he would interrupt other young people's events and insist that they read the bible with him.[37]

Jones disliked playing sports because he hated losing, so he served as coach on sports teams he organized with younger children. In 1945, Jones organized an entire league of teams for a summer baseball tournament.[38] While he was attending a baseball game in Richmond, Jones was bothered by the treatment of African Americans who attended the game.[36] The events at the ball game brought discrimination against African Americans to Jones's attention and influenced his strong aversion to racism. Jones's father was associated with the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which had become very popular in Depression-era Indiana. Jones recounted how he and his father argued about the issue of race, and he also stated that he did not speak to his father for "many, many years" after he refused to allow one of Jones's black friends to enter his house.[9]

The unhappy marriage of Jones's parents came to an end when the couple finally separated in 1945 and eventually divorced.[39] Jones relocated to Richmond with his mother, where he continued his high school education.[40][41] Jones and his mother lost the financial support of their relatives following the divorce.[42] To support himself, Jones began working as an orderly at Richmond's Reid Hospital in 1946. Jones was well-regarded by the senior management, but staff members later recalled that Jones exhibited disturbing behavior towards some patients and coworkers.[43] Jones began dating a nurse-in-training named Marceline Baldwin while he was working at Reid Hospital.[24][44]

In December 1948, Jones graduated from Richmond High School early with honors.[45] He relocated to Bloomington, Indiana in November 1948, where he attended Indiana University Bloomington with the intention of becoming a doctor, but changed his mind shortly thereafter.[46] During his time at University, Jones was impressed by a speech which Eleanor Roosevelt delivered about the plight of African-Americans, and he began to espouse support for communism and other radical political views for the first time.[47][24]

Jones and Marceline Baldwin continued their relationship while he attended college, and the couple married on June 12, 1949. Their first home was in Bloomington, where Marceline worked in a nearby hospital while Jones attended college.[48] Marceline was Methodist, and she and Jones immediately fell into arguments about church. Jones insisted on attending Bloomington's Full Gospel Tabernacle, but eventually compromised and began attending a local Methodist church on most Sunday mornings while attending Pentecostal churches Sunday evenings and weekdays.[49]

Jones's strong opposition to the Methodist church's racial segregationist practices continued the strain their marriage.[50][51] Through the years, their relationship was affected by Jones's insecurity. He often felt the need to test Marceline's love and loyalty, and at times he used sadistic methods to do so.[52] In 1950, the couple unofficially adopted Marceline's nephew Ronnie, who they cared for over a four year period.[52]

After attending Indiana University for two years, the couple relocated to Indianapolis in 1951. Jones took night classes at Butler University to continue his education, finally earning a degree in secondary education in 1961—ten years after enrolling.[53] In 1951, the 20-year-old Jones began attending gatherings of the Communist Party USA in Indianapolis.[54]

During the McCarthy hearings, Jones and his family faced harassment from government authorities. In one event, Jones's mother was harassed by FBI agents in front of her co-workers because she had attended an event with her son.[55] Jones also became frustrated with the persecution of open and accused communists in the U.S., especially during the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.[56] Reflecting back on his participation in the Communist Party, Jones said that he asked himself, "How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church."[54][55]

Peoples Temple

Main article: Peoples Temple

Beginnings in Indianapolis

Jones's first church in Indianapolis, Indiana
Jones's first church in Indianapolis, Indiana

In early 1952, Jones heard a sermon preached in the Methodist church that emphasized loving members of all races. Jones announced to his wife and her family that he would become a Methodist minister since he believed the church was ready to "put real socialism into practice."[57] Jones was surprised when a Methodist district superintendent helped him get a start in the church, even though he knew Jones to be a communist.[56][58]

In the summer of 1952, Jones was hired as student pastor to the children at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church.[49] Jones launched a project to create a playground that would be open to children of all races.[59][60] Jones continued to visit and speak at Pentecostal churches while serving as Methodist student pastor. In early 1954 Jones was dismissed from his position in the Methodist Church,[61] ostensibly for stealing church funds,[61] though he later claimed he left the church because its leaders forbade him from integrating blacks into his congregation.[54]

Around this time in 1953, Jones visited a Pentecostal Latter Rain convention in Columbus, Indiana where a woman at the convention prophesied that Jones was a prophet with a great ministry.[58] Jones was surprised by the prophecy, but gladly accepted the call to preach and rose to the podium to deliver a message to the convention.[62] Pentecostalism was in the midst of the Healing Revival and Latter Rain movements during the 1950s.[59][63]

Jones began to press his wife to leave the Methodist church, believing that the Latter Rain movement, which was growing in size and racially integrated, offered him a greater opportunity to become a preacher. He convinced his wife by arguing that the Pentecostal churches were more accommodating to his views on racial integration.[59][63] In 1953, Jones began attending and preaching at the Laurel Street Tabernacle in Indianapolis, a Pentecostal Assemblies of God church. The pastor of the church allowed Jones to hold healing revivals until 1955. Jones began to travel and speak and other churches in the Latter Rain movement, and was invited to speak at a Latter Rain convention in Detroit in 1953.[62]

The Assemblies of God was strongly opposed to the Latter Rain movement. In 1955, they assigned a new pastor to the Laurel Street Tabernacle who enforced their denominational ban on healing revivals. This led Jones to leave the church and establish Wings of Healing, a charitable organization to promote his own ministry that would later be renamed Peoples Temple. Jones's new church only attracted twenty members who had come with him from the Laurel Street Tabernacle and was not able to financially support his vision. Jones saw a need for publicity, and began seeking a way to popularize his ministry and recruit members.[64][65][63][66]

Latter Rain movement

Jones began closely associating with the Independent Assemblies of God (IAoG), an international group of churches that had embraced the Latter Rain movement. The IAoG had few requirements for ordaining ministers and were accepting of divine healing practices. In June 1955, Jones held his first joint meetings with William Branham, a healing evangelist and Pentecostal leader in the global Healing Revival.[67]

In 1956, Jones was ordained as an IAoG minister by Joseph Mattsson-Boze, a leader in the Latter Rain movement and the IAoG. Jones quickly rose to prominence in the group. Working with the IAoG, Jones organized and hosted a healing convention to take place June 11–15, 1956, in Indianapolis's Cadle Tabernacle. Needing a well-known figure to draw crowds, he arranged to share the pulpit again with Reverend Branham.[68]

William Branham helped launch and popularize Jim Jones's ministry in 1956.
William Branham helped launch and popularize Jim Jones's ministry in 1956.

Branham was known to tell supplicants their name, address, and why they came for prayer, before pronouncing them healed.[4] Jones was intrigued by Branham's methods and began performing the same feats. Jones and Branham's meetings were very successful and attracted an audience of 11,000 at their first joint campaign. At the convention, Branham issued a prophetic endorsement of Jones and his ministry, saying that God had used the convention to send forth a new great ministry.[69]

Many attendees in the campaign believed Jones's performance indicated that he had a supernatural gift, and coupled with Branham's endorsement, it led to rapid growth of People's Temple. Jones was particularly effective at recruitment among the African American attendees at the conventions.[70][71] According to a newspaper report, regular attendance at Peoples Temple swelled to 1,000 thanks to the publicity Branham provided to Jones and Peoples Temple.[72]

Following the convention, Jones renamed his church the "Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel" to associate it with Full Gospel Pentecostalism; the name was later shortened to the Peoples Temple.[64] Jones participated in a series of multi-state revival campaigns with Branham and Mattsson-Boze in the second half of the 1950s, making multiple joint appearances with them. Jones claimed to be a follower and promoter of Branham's "Message" during the period.[73] Peoples Temple hosted a second international Pentecostal convention in 1957 which was again headlined by Branham. With the support of Branham and Mattsson-Boze, Jones was elected as President of the Pentecostal Convention Board in 1957, helping Jones secure connections throughout the movement.[74]

During his time in the Latter Rain movement, Jones adopted one of their key doctrines which he would continue to promote for the rest of his life: the Manifested Sons of God, also known as the Joel's Army Prophecy.[75] William Branham and the Latter Rain movement promoted the belief that God would be manifested in lives of humans by giving them supernatural gifts and superhuman abilities. They believed that such a manifestation was a sign of the end of the world, and that the people endowed with these special gifts would usher in a millennial age of heaven on earth.[75] Jones was fascinated with the idea, and adapted it to promote his own utopian ideas and eventually the idea that he was himself a manifestation of God.[76] By the late 1960s, Jones came to teach he was a manifestation of the "Christ the Revolution".[77]

Branham was a major influence on Jones, and Jones subsequently adopted much of Branham's methods, doctrine, and style. Like Branham, Jones would later claim to be a return of Elijah the Prophet, the voice of God, and a manifestation of Christ, and promote the belief that the end of the world was imminent.[75][64][78] Jones learned some of his most successful recruitment tactics from Branham.[79] Jones eventually separated from the Latter Rain movement following a bitter disagreement with Branham in which Jones prophesied Branham's death. Their disagreement was possibly related to Branham's racial teachings or Branham's increasingly vocal opposition to communism.[80]

Disciples of Christ

Father Divine was a major influence on Jones' ministry.
Father Divine was a major influence on Jones' ministry.

Through the Latter Rain movement, Jones became aware of Father Divine, an African American spiritual leader who was often derided by Latter Rain for his claims to divinity. In 1956, Jones made his first visit to investigate Father Divine's Peace Mission in Philadelphia.[81] Jones was careful to explain that his visit the Peace Mission was so he could "give an authentic, unbiased, and objected statement" about its activities to his fellow ministers.[82]

Divine served as another important influence on the development of Jones's ministry, particularly in how he structured the Peoples Temple leadership and organized mission work. After returning to Indianapolis, while publicly disavowing many of Father Divine's teachings, Jones began to implement many of the outreach practices he witnessed at the Peace Mission, including setting up a soup kitchen and providing free groceries and clothing to people in need.[83]

At a second visit to Father Divine in 1958, Jones spent time learning how to manipulate members of the Peoples Temple. Divine told Jones to "find an enemy" and "to make sure they know who the enemy is" as it would unify those in the group and make them subservient.[84]

Jones bragged to his congregation that he would like to be the successor of Father Divine and made many comparisons between their two ministries, primarily focusing on their community outreach programs. Jones also began progressively implementing the communal lifestyle and disciplinary practices he learned from Father Divine which increasingly took control over the lives of members of Peoples Temple.[81][82]

As Jones gradually separated from Pentecostalism and the Latter Rain movement, he began seeking an organization that would be open to all of his beliefs. In 1960, Peoples Temple joined the Disciples of Christ denomination, whose headquarters was nearby in Indianapolis.[85] In 1964, Archie Ijames, who had assured Jones that the organization would tolerate his political beliefs,[86] participated in the ceremony to ordain Jones a Disciples of Christ minister.

Jones was ordained as a Disciples minister at a time when the requirements for ordination varied greatly and Disciples membership was open to any church. In both 1974 and 1977 the Disciples leadership received allegations of abuse at Peoples Temple. They conducted investigations at the time, but they found no evidence of wrongdoing, and Jones and Peoples Temple remained part of the Disciples until the Jonestown massacre. Disciples of Christ found Peoples Temple to be "an exemplary Christian ministry overcoming human differences and dedicated to human services."[86] Peoples Temple contributed $1.1 million ($4,697,803 in 2020 dollars) to the denomination between 1966 and 1977.[86]

Racial integrationist

Jones receives a Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977
Jones receives a Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977

The New York Times reported that, in 1953:[87]

[D]eclaring that he was outraged at what he perceived as racial discrimination in his white congregation, Mr. Jones established his own church and pointedly opened it to all ethnic groups. To raise money, he imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.

In 1960, Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones director of the local human rights commission.[88] Jones ignored Boswell's advice to keep a low profile, however, finding new outlets for his views on local radio and television programs.[88] The mayor and other commissioners asked him to curtail his public actions, but he resisted. Jones was wildly cheered at a meeting of the NAACP and Urban League when he yelled for his audience to be more militant, capping his speech with, "Let my people go!".[89]

During this time, Jones also helped to racially integrate churches, restaurants, the telephone company, the Indianapolis Police Department, a theater, an amusement park, and the Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital.[90] When swastikas were painted on the homes of two black families, Jones walked through the neighborhood comforting the local black community and counseling white families not to move.[91]

He also set up sting operations to catch restaurants refusing to serve black customers[91] and wrote to American Nazi Party leaders, passing their responses to the media.[92] Jones was accidentally placed in the black ward of a hospital after a collapse in 1961, but refused to be moved; he began to make the beds and empty the bedpans of black patients. Political pressures resulting from Jones's actions caused hospital officials to desegregate the wards.[93]

Jones received considerable criticism in Indiana for his integrationist views.[90][91] Peoples Temple became a target of white supremacists. Among several incidents, a swastika was placed on the Temple, a stick of dynamite was left in a Temple coal pile, and a dead cat was thrown at Jones's house after a threatening phone call.[92] Nevertheless, the publicity generated by Jones's activity helped attract a larger congregation. By the end of 1961, Indianapolis was a far more racially integrated city, and "Jim Jones was almost entirely responsible."[94]

"Rainbow Family"

Jones and his wife adopted several non-white children, referring to the household as his "rainbow family",[95] and stating: "Integration is a more personal thing with me now. It's a question of my son's future."[24] He also portrayed the Temple as a "rainbow family". In 1954 the Joneses adopted Agnes, who was part Native American.[24][96][97]

In 1959, they adopted three Korean-American children named Lew, Stephanie, and Suzanne, the latter of whom was adopted at age six,[97] and encouraged Temple members to adopt orphans from war-ravaged Korea.[98] Jones was critical of U.S. opposition to North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, calling the Korean War a "war of liberation" and stating that South Korea "is a living example of all that socialism in the north has overcome."[99]

In June 1959, Jones and his wife had their only biological child, naming him Stephan Gandhi.[100] In 1961, they became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child, naming him Jim Jones Jr. (or James Warren Jones Jr.).[101] They also adopted a white son, originally named Timothy Glen Tupper (shortened to Tim), whose birth mother was a member of the Temple.[24] Jones also fathered Jim Jon (Kimo) with Temple member Carolyn Layton.[102][100]

Relocating Peoples Temple

Belo Horizonte
Belo Horizonte
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Jones's Brazilian locations

In 1961, Jones began to warn his congregation that he had received visions of a nuclear attack that would devastate Indianapolis.[93] Jones's wife confided to her friends that he was becoming increasingly paranoid and fearful.[103] Like other followers of William Branham who moved to South America during the 1960s, Jones may have been influenced by Branham's 1961 prophecy concerning the destruction of the United States in a nuclear war.[104] Jones had begun to look for a way to escape the destruction he believed was imminent. In January 1962 he read an Esquire magazine article that purported South America to be the safest place to reside to escape any impending nuclear war, leading Jones to travel to South America to scout for a potential site to relocate the Peoples Temple.[105]

Jones traveled with his family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with the idea of setting up a new Peoples Temple location.[106] On his way to Brazil, Jones made his first trip to Guyana, which at the time was still a British colony.[107] Jones's family rented a modest three-bedroom home in town.[108] Jones studied the local economy and receptiveness of racial minorities to his message, although language remained a barrier.[109]

He also explored local Brazilian syncretistic religions.[110] Careful not to portray himself as a communist in a foreign territory, he spoke of an apostolic communal lifestyle rather than of Castro or Marx.[111] Ultimately, the lack of resources in Belo Horizonte led the family to move to Rio de Janeiro in mid-1963,[112] where they worked with the poor in the favelas.[112] While scouting the region, Jones stopped briefly in Georgetown, Guyana where he held revival meetings.[107]

Unable to find a location he deemed suitable for People's Temple, Jones became plagued by guilt for effectively abandoning the civil rights struggle in Indiana and possibly losing what he had tried to build there.[112] During the year of his absence, Peoples Temple attendance declined from 400 to less than 100.[113] Jones had demanded the Peoples Temple sent all its revenue to him in South America to support his efforts.[114] The church went into debt to continue to support his mission until Archie Ijames sent word that the Temple was about to collapse without him, and threatened to resign if Jones did not soon return. Jones reluctantly returned to Indiana.[115]

Los Angeles
Los Angeles
San Francisco
San Francisco
Santa Rosa
Santa Rosa
Some of the Peoples Temple's California locations

Jones returned from Brazil in December 1963 to find Peoples Temple bitterly divided. Financial issues and much smaller congregation forced Jones to sell the Peoples Temple church building and relocate to a smaller church nearby.[116] To raise money, Jones briefly returned to the revival circuit, traveling and holding healing campaigns.[116] After dealing with the issues at Peoples Temple, and possibly in part to distract from them, he told his Indiana congregation that the world would be engulfed by nuclear war on July 15, 1967, leading to a new socialist Eden on Earth, and that the Temple had to move to Northern California for safety.[117][87]

With Jones's return, the majority of his congregation returned to Peoples Temple, dramatically improving their financial situation.[117][87] During 1964 Jones made multiple trips to California to locate a suitable location to relocate. In July 1965, Jones and his followers began moving to their new location in Redwood Valley, California, near the city of Ukiah.[118] Jones's assistant pastor, Russell Winberg, strongly resisted Jones's efforts to move the congregation and warned members of Peoples Temple that Jones was abandoning Christianity.[118]

Winberg took over leadership of the Indianapolis church when Jones departed. The move resolved the divisions within the Indianapolis church through separation. About 140 of Jones's most loyal followers made the move to California, while the rest remained behind with Winberg.[118]

In California, Jones was able to use his education degree from Butler University to secure a job as a history and government teacher at an adult education school in Ukiah.[119] Jones used his position to recruit for Peoples Temple, teaching his students the benefits of Marxism and lecturing on religion.[120] Jones planted loyal members of Peoples Temple in the classes to help him with recruitment. His efforts were successful, and Jones recruited 50 new members to Peoples Temple in the first few months.[120] In 1967, Jones's followers coaxed another 75 members of the Indianapolis congregation to move to California.[121]

In 1968, the Peoples Temple's California location was admitted to the Disciples of Christ. Jones began to use the denominational connection to promote Peoples Temple as part of the 1.5 million member denomination. He played up famous members of the Disciples, including Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, and misrepresented the nature of his position in the denomination. By 1969, Jones had increased the membership in Peoples Temple in California to 300.[122]

Apostolic Socialism

Jones developed a theology that was significant influenced by the teachings of the Latter Rain movement, William Branham, and Father Divine, and infused with Jones's personal communist worldview.[123][75] Jones referred to his belief as "Apostolic Socialism". Following the relocation of Peoples Temple to California, Jones began to gradually introduce the concepts of his doctrine to his followers.[124][125] According to religious studies professor Catherine Wessinger, Jones always spoke of the Social Gospel's virtues, but chose to conceal that his gospel was actually communism until the late 1960s. By that time, he began partially revealing the details of his "Apostolic Socialism" concept in Temple sermons.[126] Jones taught that "those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment", which he defined as socialism.[127]

Jones asserted that traditional Christianity had an incorrect view of God. By the early 1970s, Jones began deriding traditional Christianity as "fly away religion", rejecting the Bible as being a tool to oppress women and non-whites, and referring to their belief in a "Sky God" who was "no God at all".[128] Jones claimed to be following the true God who created all things.[129]

Jones taught that ultimate reality was called the "Divine Principle", and this principle was the true God. Jones equated the principle with love, and he equated love with socialism. Jones asserted he was a savior sent by the true God, to rescue humanity from their sufferings.[128][130] Jones insisted that accepting the "Divine Principle" was equivalent to being "crucified with Christ".[131]

Jones increasingly promoted the idea of his own divinity, going so far as to tell his congregation that "I am come as God Socialist."[124][125] Jones carefully avoided claiming divinity outside of Peoples Temple, but he expected to be acknowledged as god-like among his followers. Former Temple member Hue Fortson Jr. quoted him as saying:

What you need to believe in is what you can see.... If you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I'll be your father, for those of you that don't have a father.... If you see me as your savior, I'll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I'll be your God.[24]

Further criticizing traditional Christianity, Jones wrote a booklet titled "The Letter Killeth", criticizing the King James Bible, and dismissing King James as a slave owner and a capitalist who was responsible for the corrupt translation of scripture. Jones claimed he was sent to share the true meaning of the gospel which had been hidden by corrupt leaders.[132][133]

Jones rejected even the few required tenants of the Disciples of Christ denomination. Instead of implementing the sacraments as proscribed by the Disciples, Jones followed Father Divine's holy communion practices. Jones created his own baptismal formula, baptizing his converts "in the holy name of Socialism".[122]

While in the United States, Jones remained fearful of the public discovering the full extent of his communist views.[79] He believed that if the true nature of his views became widely known, he would quickly lose the support of political leaders and even face the possibility of Peoples Temple being ejected from the Disciples of Christ. Jones also feared losing the church's tax-exempt status and having to report his financial dealings to the Internal Revenue Service.[79] Jones took care to always couch his socialist views in religious terms, such as "apostolic social justice".[79] "Living the Acts of the Apostles" was his euphemism for living a communal lifestyle.[134]

Jones warned his followers that an apocalyptic race war, genocide, and nuclear war was imminent. He said that Nazi fascists and white supremacists would put people of color into concentration camps. Jones claimed he was the messiah sent to save the people by giving them a place of refuge in his church. Drawing on a prophecy in the Book of Revelation, he taught that American capitalist culture was irredeemable "Babylon".[77][135] Explaining the nature of sin, Jones stated, "If you're born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you're born in sin. But if you're born in socialism, you're not born in sin."[136] He taught his followers the only way to escape the supposed imminent catastrophe was to accept his teachings, and that after the apocalypse was over, they would emerge to establish a perfect communist society.[77][135]

Historian Jeff Guinn said, "It is impossible to know whether Jones gradually came to think he was God's earthly vessel, or whether he came to that convenient conclusion" to enhance his authority over his followers.[137] In a 1976 phone conversation with John Maher, Jones alternately said he was an agnostic and an atheist.[138] Marceline admitted in a 1977 New York Times interview that Jones was trying to promote Marxism in the U.S. by mobilizing people through religion, citing Mao Zedong as his inspiration: "Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion."[87] She told the reporter that Jones had once slammed the Bible on the table yelling "I've got to destroy this paper idol!"[87] Jones doctrines taught his followers that the ends justify the means and authorized them to achieve Jones's vision by any means necessary.[131] Outsiders would later point to this aspect of Jones's teachings to allege that he was "morally bankrupt" and manipulating religion and other elements of society "to achieve his own selfish ends".[139]

Jones continued to use fear to control and manipulate his followers in California. He frequently prophesied that fires, car accidents, and death or injuries would come upon anyone unfaithful to him and his teachings. Jones began using illicit drugs after moving to California, which further heightened his paranoia. He constantly told his followers that they needed to be crusaders in promoting and fulfilling his beliefs.[79]

Jones frequently warned his followers that there was an enemy seeking to destroy them. The identify of that enemy changed over time from the Ku Klux Klan, to Nazis, to redneck vigilantes, to later the American government.[79] Through his tactics, he successfully implemented a communal lifestyle among his followers that was directed by him and his lieutenants who were part of a committee called the Planning Commission.[134]

Jones, through the Planning Commission, began controlling all aspects of the lives of his followers. Members who joined Peoples Temple were required to turn over all their assets to the church in exchange for free room and board. Members were also required to turn over all their income to be used for the benefit of the community. Jones directed groups of his followers to work on various projects to earn income for the People Temple and set up an agricultural operation in Redwood Valley to grow food. Jones organized large community outreach projects, taking his followers by bus to perform work community service across the region.[140]

The first cases of serious abuse in Peoples Temple arose in California as the Planning Commission carried out discipline against members who were not fulfilling Jones's vision or following the rules.[141] Jones's control over the members of Peoples Temple extended to their sex lives and who could be married. Some members were coerced to get abortions.[142] Jones began to require sexual favors from the wives of some members of the church.[141] Jones also raped several male members of his congregation.[143]

Members who rebelled against Jones's control were punished with reduced food rations, harsher work schedules, public ridicule and humiliations, and sometimes with physical violence. As the Temple's membership grew, Jones created a security group to ensure order among his followers and to ensure his own personal safety. The group purchased security squad cars and armed their guards with rifles and pistols.[144]

Focus on San Francisco

Main article: Peoples Temple in San Francisco

Peoples Temple members attend an anti-eviction rally at the International Hotel, San Francisco, in January 1977
Peoples Temple members attend an anti-eviction rally at the International Hotel, San Francisco, in January 1977

By the end of 1969, Peoples Temple was growing rapidly. Jones's message of economic socialism and racial equality, along with the integrated nature of Peoples Temple, proved attractive to many in California, especially students and racial minorities.[145] By 1970, the Temple had opened branches in cities including San Fernando, San Francisco, and Los Angeles as Jones began shifting his focus to major cities across California because of limited expansion opportunities in Ukiah. He eventually moved the Temple's headquarters to San Francisco, which was a major center for radical protest movements. By 1973, Peoples Temple had reached 2,570 members,[122] with 36,000 subscribers to its fundraising newsletter.[134]

Jones also grew the Temple by purposefully targeting other churches. In 1970, Jones and 150 of his followers took a trip to San Francisco's Missionary Baptist Church. Jones held a faith healing revival meeting wherein he impressed the crowd by claiming to heal a man of cancer; his followers later admitted to helping him stage the "healing". At the end of the event, he began attacking and condemning Baptist teachings and encouraging the members to abandon their church and join him.[146]

The event was successful, and Jones recruited about 200 new members for Peoples Temple.[146] In a less successful attempt in 1971, Jones and a large number of his followers visited the tomb and shrine erected for Father Divine shortly after his death. Jones confronted Divine's wife and claimed to be the reincarnation of Father Divine.[147] At a banquet that evening, Jones's followers seized control of the event and Jones addressed Divine's followers, again claiming that he was Father Divine's successor. Divine's wife rose up and accused Jones of being the devil in disguise and demanded he leave. Jones managed to recruit only twelve followers through the event.[148]

Thanks to their growing numbers, Jones and Peoples Temple became influential in San Francisco 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.[24] 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.[149][150]

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.[149][151][152] Jones also forged alliances with key columnists and others at the San Francisco Chronicle and other press outlets that gave Jones favorable press during his early years in California.[153]

In September 1976, Assemblyman Willie Brown served as master of ceremonies at a large testimonial dinner for Jones attended by Governor Jerry Brown and Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally.[154] At that dinner, Brown touted Jones as "what you should see every day when you look in the mirror" and said he was a combination of Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Mao.[155] Harvey Milk spoke to audiences during political rallies held at the Temple,[156] and he wrote to Jones after one such visit:[157][158]

Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.

Jones hosted local political figures, including Davis, at his San Francisco apartment for discussions.[159] He spoke with publisher Carlton Goodlett of the Sun-Reporter newspaper about his remorse over not being able to travel to socialist countries such as China and the Soviet Union, speculating that he could be Chief Dairyman of the U.S.S.R.[160] Jones's criticisms led to increased tensions with the Nation of Islam, so he spoke at a large rally in the Los Angeles Convention Center that was attended by many of his closest political acquaintances, hoping to close the rift between the two groups.[161]


Main article: Jonestown

Publicity problems

Jones began to receive negative press beginning in October 1971 when reporters covered one of Jones's divine healing services during a visit to his old church in Indianapolis. The news report led to an investigation by the Indiana State Psychology Board into Jones's healing practices in 1972.[162] A doctor involved in the investigation accused Jones of "quackery" and challenged Jones to give tissue samples of the material he claimed fell off people when they were healed of cancer. The investigation caused alarm within the Temple.[163]

Jones announced he was terminating his ministry in Indiana because it was too far from California for him to attend to and downplayed his healing claims to the authorities.[163] The issue only escalated however, and Lester Kinsolving began running a series of articles targeting Jones and Peoples Temple in the San Francisco Examiner in September 1972. The stories reported on Jones's claims of divinity and exposed fraudulent "miracles" performed by Jones.[163] To suppress the story, Jones had his followers purchase every copy of the Examiner from the stores in Ukiah to prevent the local community from seeing it.[164]

In 1973, Ross Case, a former follower of Jones, began working with an informal Christian prayer group in Ukiah to investigate what was happening at Peoples Temple. They uncovered a staged healing, the abusive treatment of a woman in the church, and evidence that Jones raped a male member of his congregation.[165] Case began reporting his findings to the local police, but they took no action. However, reports of Case's activity reached Jones, who became increasingly paranoid that the authorities were after him.[166]

Shortly after, eight members of Peoples Temple made accusations of abuse against the Planning Commission and Peoples Temple staff members. They accused the members of Planning Commission of being homosexuals and questioned their true commitment to socialism, before leaving the Peoples Temple.[167] Jones became convinced he was losing control and needed to relocate Peoples Temple to escape the mounting threats and allegations.

On December 13, 1973, Jones was arrested and charged with lewd conduct for allegedly masturbating in the presence of a male undercover LAPD vice officer in a movie theater restroom near Los Angeles's MacArthur Park.[168] Jones allegedly motioned to the undercover officer to join him on the theater balcony where Jones was, but later followed the officer into the bathroom where the alleged incident occurred. On December 20, 1973, the charge against Jones was dismissed, though the details of the dismissal are not clear. Furthermore, the court file was sealed, and the judge ordered that records of the arrest be destroyed.[169]


Peoples Temple Agricultural Project ("Jonestown", Guyana)

In the fall of 1973 Jones and the Planning Commission devised a plan escape the United States in the event of a raid by the government, and began to develop a longer-term plan to relocate Peoples Temple. The group decided on Guyana as a favorable location, citing its recent revolution and socialist government, and the favorable reaction Jones had received when he traveled there in 1963.[170] In October, the group voted unanimously to set up an agricultural commune in Guyana. In December Jones and Ijames traveled to Guyana to find a suitable location.[171]

By the summer of 1974 Peoples Temple had purchased land and supplies and Ijames was put in charge of preparing their new site for the first arrivals.[172] Ijames oversaw the installation of a power generation station, clearance of fields for farming, and the construction of dormitories.[173] In December 1974 Jones and the first group of settlers arrived in Guyana to start operating the commune that would become known as Jonestown.[174]

Jones returned to the United States, leaving Ijames in charge of Jonestown, to continue his efforts to combat the negative press. His efforts were largely unsuccessful and more stories of the abuses at Peoples Temple began to leak to public. In March 1977, Marshall Kilduff published a story in New West magazine exposing abuses at the Peoples Temple. The article included allegations by Temple defectors of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.[152][175][176]

The article convinced Jones that it was time to permanently relocate to South America, and he began to compel members of Peoples Temple to make the move with him. Jones promoted the commune as a means to create both a "socialist paradise" and a "sanctuary" from the media scrutiny in San Francisco.[177] Jones purported to establish it as a model communist community, adding that the Temple comprised "the purest communists there are".[178] Jones did not permit members to leave the settlement.[179]

Jonestown had about 50 settlers at the start of 1977 who were expanding the commune, but it was not yet ready to handle a large influx of settlers.[180][181] Jones's lieutenant in Jonestown warned him that the facilities could only support 200 people, but Jones believed the need to relocate was urgent and was determined to begin moving. In May 1977, Jones and about 600 of his followers arrived in Jonestown; about 400 more would follow in the subsequent months.[182] Jones also began moving the Temple's financial assets overseas and started to sell off property in the United States. The Peoples Temple had over $10 million ($42,707,304 in 2020 dollars) in assets at the time.[183]

Religious scholar Mary McCormick Maaga argues that Jones's authority among his followers decreased after the exodus to Jonestown because he was with them every day and he could not hide his drug addiction from rank-and-file members.[184] In spite of the allegations prior to Jones's departure, he was still respected by some for setting up a racially integrated church which helped the disadvantaged; 68% of Jonestown residents were black.[185] 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.[186]

Mounting pressure and waning political support

Further information: Timothy Stoen

Rev. Cecil Williams and Jones protest evictions at the International Hotel in San Francisco, January 1977
Rev. Cecil Williams and Jones protest evictions at the International Hotel in San Francisco, January 1977

Among the followers Jones took to Guyana was John Stoen. John's birth certificate listed Timothy Stoen and Grace Stoen as his parents. Jones had had a sexual relationship with Grace Stoen, and claimed he was the biological father of John.[187] Grace Stoen left Peoples Temple in 1976, leaving her child behind.[188] Jones ordered the child to be taken to Guyana in February 1977 to avoid a custody dispute with Grace.[189] After Timothy Stoen also left Peoples Temple in June 1977, Jones kept the child at his own home in Jonestown.[190][191]

In the autumn of 1977, Timothy Stoen and other Temple defectors formed a "Concerned Relatives" group because they had family members in Jonestown who were not being permitted to return to the United States.[192] Stoen traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1978 to visit with State Department officials and members of Congress, and wrote a white paper detailing his grievances against Jones and the Temple and to attempt to recover his son.[193] His efforts aroused the curiosity of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who wrote a letter on Stoen's behalf to Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.[194] The Concerned Relatives also began a legal battle with the Temple over the custody of Stoen's son.[195][196]

Most of Jones's political allies broke ties after his departure,[197] though some did not. Willie Brown spoke out against the Temple's purported enemies at a rally that was attended by Harvey Milk and Assemblyman Art Agnos.[198] On February 19, 1978, Milk wrote a letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter defending Jones as "a man of the highest character", and claimed that Temple defectors were trying to "damage Rev. Jones's reputation" with "apparent bold-faced lies".[199] Mayor Moscone's office issued a press release saying Jones had broken no laws.[200]

On April 11, 1978, the Concerned Relatives distributed a packet of documents, letters, and affidavits to the Peoples Temple, members of the press, and members of Congress which they titled an "Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones".[201] In June 1978, escaped Temple member Deborah Layton provided the group with a further affidavit detailing crimes by the Temple and substandard living conditions in Jonestown.[202]

Jones was facing increasing scrutiny in the summer of 1978 when he hired JFK assassination conspiracy theorists Mark Lane and Donald Freed to help make the case of a "grand conspiracy" against the Temple by U.S. intelligence agencies. Jones told Lane that he wanted to "pull an Eldridge Cleaver", referring to a fugitive member of the Black Panthers who was able to return to the U.S. after rebuilding his reputation.[203]

White Nights

Jones's paranoia and drug usage increased in Jonestown and he became fearful of a government raid on Jonestown. Concerned that the community would not be able to resist such an attack, he began holding drills to test their readiness. He called the drills "White Nights".[204] Jones would call "Alert, Alert, Alert" over the community loudspeaker to call the community together in the central pavilion. He kept guards armed with guns and crossbows to protect the pavilion.[204]

His followers would remain at the pavilion throughout the drill, in which he told them that evil agents had their community surrounded and were preparing to destroy them. Jones led them in prayers, chanting, and singing to ward off the impending attack.[205] Sometimes he would have his guards hide in the forest and shoot their firearms to simulate an attack. Jones's followers were only told the attacks were a drill when the event was over, and were often terrified by the drills. One drill lasted for six days.[206]

The drills served to keep the members of Jonestown fearful of venturing into the jungle outside of their commune.[207] Following two visits by United States Embassy personnel to check on the situation at Jonestown, and an IRS investigation in early 1978, Jones became increasingly convinced that the attack he feared was imminent.[208] In one 1978 White Night drill, Jones told his followers he was going to distribute poison for everyone to drink in an act of suicide. A batch of fruit punch was served to everyone in the pavilion who sat by waiting for their death, many crying. After some time passed, Jones informed his followers that it had all been a drill and there was not really any poison in their drink.[206][202] Through the White Nights, Jones convinced his followers that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was actively working to destroy their community.[209]

The situation at Jonestown was deteriorating in 1978. The majority of the community were minors or the elderly, and the few people of working age found it difficult to keep up with the work required to support the community. Healthcare, education, and food rations were all in limited supply and the situation was worsening.[210] Jones's personal health was poor and his drug usage was becoming noticeable. His orders were increasingly erratic. He could often be seen staggering and his speech became slurred. His behavior also became more unusual, and he was seen urinating in public. His health became so poor that he found it difficult to walk without assistance.[211][212]

Murder of Congressman Ryan

Congressman Leo Ryan was shot and killed on Jones's orders as he and others attempted to leave Jonestown in November 1978.
Congressman Leo Ryan was shot and killed on Jones's orders as he and others attempted to leave Jonestown in November 1978.

In November 1978, Congressman Ryan led a fact-finding mission to Jonestown to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses.[213] His delegation included relatives of Temple members, an NBC camera crew, and reporters for several newspapers.[214] The group arrived in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown on November 15.[213]

Two days later, they traveled by airplane to Port Kaituma, then were transported to Jonestown in a tractor transporter.[215] Jones hosted a reception for the delegation 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. Tensions began to rise as news spread through the community that some members were attempting to leave. 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.[216] Ryan and his delegation managed to take along fifteen Temple members who had expressed a wish to leave,[217] and Jones made no attempt to prevent their departure at that time.[218]

As members of Ryan's delegation boarded two planes at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jones's armed guards, called the "Red Brigade" – led by Joe Wilson, Thomas Kice Sr. and Ronnie Dennis – arrived on a tractor and trailer and began shooting at them.[219] The gunmen killed Ryan and four others near a Guyana Airways Twin Otter aircraft.[220] 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, which included Gosney and Bagby.[221] NBC cameraman Bob Brown was able to capture footage of the first few seconds of the shooting at the Otter, just before he himself was killed by the gunmen.[222]

The five killed at the airstrip were Ryan, Harris, Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and Temple member Patricia Parks.[222] 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. They escaped into the jungle to avoid being killed.[222]

Mass murder-suicide in Jonestown

Houses in Jonestown, Guyana, the year after the mass murder-suicide, 1979
Houses in Jonestown, Guyana, the year after the mass murder-suicide, 1979

Later the same day, November 18, 1978, Jones received word that his security guards had failed to kill all of Ryan's party. Jones concluded the escapees would soon inform the United States of the attack and they would send the military to seize Jonestown. Jones called the entire community to the central pavilion. He informed the community that Ryan was dead and it was only a matter of time before military commandos descended on their commune and killed them all.[223]

Jones recorded the entire event on audio tape. 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. According to Jones, 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."

With that reasoning, Jones and several members argued that the group should commit "revolutionary suicide" by drinking cyanide-laced grape-flavored Flavor Aid.[a] 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.[224]

One Temple member, Christine Miller, dissented toward the beginning of the tape.[223] 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", adding that death is "just stepping over into another plane", and adding that death is "a friend".[223]

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."[223]

Eighty-five members of the community survived the event.[225] Some members slipped into the jungle just as the death ritual began; one man hid in a ditch. One elderly woman hid in her dormitory and slept through the event, awaking to find everyone dead. The Jonestown basketball team was away at a game and survived. Others hid in the dormitories or were away from the community on business when the death ritual unfolded.[226][225]

A drink consisting of Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide was created and handed out to the members of the community to drink. Those who refused to drink were injected with cyanide via syringe. The mass murder-suicide left dead 909 inhabitants of Jonestown,[227] 304 of them children, mostly in and around the central pavilion.[228] This resulted in the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until September 11, 2001.[229] The FBI later recovered a 45-minute audio recording of the mass poisoning in progress.[230]

Death and aftermath

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 Guyanese coroner Cyril Mootoo said was consistent with suicide.[231] Jones's body was later moved outside the pavilion for examination and embalming. The official autopsy conducted in December 1978 confirmed Jones's cause of death as suicide. His son Stephan speculated that his father may have directed someone else to shoot him.[232] The autopsy showed high levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital in Jones's body, which may have been lethal to humans who had not developed physiological tolerance.[233] Jones's body was cremated and his remains were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.[234]

The military of Guyana arrived in Jonestown after the massacre to find the dead. The United States military organized an airlift to bring the dead back to the United States to be buried.[235]

Lew, Agnes, and Suzanne Jones

Jones's children Lew and Agnes Jones both died at Jonestown. Agnes was 35 years old at the time of her death.[236] Her husband Forrest,[237] and four children, Billy,[238] Jimbo,[239] Michael[240] and Stephanie,[241] all died at Jonestown. Lew, who was 21 years old at the time of his death, died alongside his wife Terry and son Chaeoke.[242][243][244] Stephanie Jones had died at age five in a car accident in May 1959.[100]

Suzanne Jones and her husband Mike Cartmell had both turned against the Temple and were not in Jonestown on the day of the murder-suicide. After her decision to abandon the Temple, Jones referred to Suzanne openly as "my damned, no-good-for-nothing daughter" and said she was not to be trusted.[245] In a signed note found at the time of her death, Marceline directed that Jones's funds were to be given to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and specified: "I especially request that none of these are allowed to get into the hands of my adopted daughter, Suzanne Jones Cartmell."[246][247] Cartmell had two children and died of colon cancer in November 2006.[248][249]

John Stoen and Kimo

Specific references to Timothy Stoen, the father of John Victor Stoen, including the logistics of possibly murdering him, are made on the Temple's final "death tape", as well as a discussion over whether the Temple should include John Victor among those committing "revolutionary suicide".[223] At Jonestown, John Victor Stoen was found poisoned inside Jones's cabin.[195]

Jim Jon (Kimo) and his mother, Carolyn Layton, both died during the events at Jonestown.[250]

Surviving sons

Stephan, Jim Jr., and Tim Jones survived the events of November 18, 1978, because they were members of the Peoples Temple's basketball team; they were playing an away game in Georgetown at the time of the mass poisoning.[225][251] Stephan and Tim were both 19, and Jim Jones Jr. was 18.[252] Tim's biological family, the Tuppers, which consisted of his three biological sisters, Janet,[253] Mary[254] and Ruth,[255] biological brother, Larry[256] and biological mother, Rita,[257] all died at Jonestown. Three days before the tragedy, Stephan refused, over the radio, to comply with an order by his father to return the team to Jonestown for Ryan's visit.[258]

During the events at Jonestown, Stephan, Tim, and Jim Jones Jr. drove to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown in an attempt to receive help. Guyanese soldiers guarding the embassy refused to let them in after hearing about the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip.[259] Later, the three returned to the Temple's headquarters in Georgetown to find the bodies of Sharon Amos and her three children, Liane, Christa and Martin.[259] Guyanese soldiers kept the Jones brothers under house arrest for five days, interrogating them about the deaths in Georgetown.[259]

Stephan was accused of being involved in the Georgetown deaths and was placed in a Guyanese prison for three months.[259] Tim and Johnny Cobb, another member of the Temple basketball team, were asked to go to Jonestown and help identify bodies.[259] After returning to the U.S., Jim Jones Jr. was placed under police surveillance for several months while he lived with his older sister, Suzanne, who had previously turned against the Temple.[259]

Chaeoke Jones, Lew Jones, and Terry Carter Jones. Father, mother, and child all died in the mass murder-suicide.
Chaeoke Jones, Lew Jones, and Terry Carter Jones. Father, mother, and child all died in the mass murder-suicide.

When Jonestown was first being established, Stephan had avoided two attempts by his father to relocate him to Jonestown. He eventually moved to Jonestown after a third attempt. He has since stated that he gave in to his father's wishes because of his mother.[260] Stephan later became a businessman, married, and had three daughters. Although he appeared in the documentary Jonestown: Paradise Lost, which aired on the History Channel and Discovery Channel, he has stated he will not watch it and has never grieved for his father.[261] One year later, Stephan appeared in the documentary Witness to Jonestown where he responds to rare footage shot inside the Temple.[262]

Jim Jones Jr., who lost his wife and unborn child at Jonestown, returned to San Francisco. He remarried and has three sons from this marriage,[251] including Rob Jones, a high-school basketball star who went on to play for the University of San Diego before transferring to Saint Mary's College of California.[263]

Reactions and legacy

The events at Jonestown were immediately subject to extensive news coverage. As news of the Jonestown reached the public, outsiders refused to accept Jones's attempt to blame them for the deaths. Critics and apologists offered a variety of explanations for the events that transpired among Jones's followers. The Soviet Union publicly distanced itself from Jones and what they referred to his "bastardization" of the concept of revolutionary suicide.[226]

American Christian leaders denounced Jones as Satanic and asserted that he and his teachings were in no way connected to traditional Christianity. In an article entitled "On Satan and Jonestown", Billy Graham argued that it would be a mistake to identify Jones and his cult as Christian.[264] Graham was joined by other prominent Christian leaders in alleging that Jones was demonically possessed.[265]

The Disciples of Christ issued a press release disavowing Jones and reported that the community Jonestown was not affiliated with their denomination. They subsequently created a procedure to remove congregations from their denomination, which they used to expel Peoples Temple.[86] Disciples responded to the Jonestown deaths with significant changes for ministerial ethics and with a process to remove ministers.[266]

In the immediate aftermath, rumors arose that surviving members of Peoples Temple in San Francisco had organized hit squads to target critics and enemies of the church. Law enforcement intervened to protect the media and other figures who were purported to be targeted.[226] Peoples Temple's San Francisco headquarters was besieged by the media, angry protestors, and family members of the dead. Archie Ijames, who had returned to take leadership in San Francisco earlier in 1978 was left to address the public. At first he denied that Jones had any connection to the deaths and alleged the events were a plot by enemies of the church. Ijames later came to acknowledge the truth.[235]

The supporters of the church, especially politicians, had a difficult time explaining their connections to Jones following the deaths. After a period of reflection, some admitted they had been tricked by Jones.[235] President Carter and the first lady sought to minimize their connections to Jones.[235] San Francisco Mayor George Moscone said he vomited when he heard of the massacre, and called the friends and families of many of the victims to apologize and offer his sympathies. Moscone was assassinated only a short time later.[235]

Investigations into the Jonestown massacre were conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Congress. Although individual and groups had contacted the FBI about Peoples Temple over the year, the FBI had never launched any investigation before the massacre occurred. Their investigation primarily focused on the failure of authorities, especially the United States State Department, to have been aware of the abuses in Jonestown.[267] Although Peoples Temple collapsed shortly after the events of 1978, some individuals still continued to follow Jones teachings and look to his prophecies for guidance during the 1980s.[268]

Since the events of the Jonestown Massacre, a massive amount of literature and study has been produced on the subject.[269] Jim Jones and the events at Jonestown have had a defining influence on society's perception of cults.[270] The widely known expression "Drinking the Kool-Aid" originated in the events at Jonestown, although the specific beverage used at the massacre was Flavor Aid rather than Kool-Aid.[271]

In popular culture




Fiction literature




See also


  1. ^ Although Temple films show Jones opening a storage container full of Kool-Aid, empty packets of found at the scene indicate that it was Flavor Aid that was used in the murder-suicide.


  1. ^ Rolls 2014, p. 100.
  2. ^ Hall 1987, p. 3.
  3. ^ Levi 1982.
  4. ^ a b Reiterman & Jacobs 1982, pp. 9–10.
  5. ^ a b c Kilduff 1978, p. 10.
  6. ^ Guinn 2017, p. 10.
  7. ^ a b Guinn 2017, p. 11.
  8. ^ "Jones, Jim (1931–1978) American Cult Leader". World of Criminal Justice, Gale. Retrieved October 10, 2012.
  9. ^ a b Hall 1987, p. 5.
  10. ^ a b c Guinn 2017, p. 15.
  11. ^ Guinn 2017, p. 13.
  12. ^ Guinn 2017, p. 14.
  13. ^ Guinn 2017, pp. 15, 20–21.
  14. ^ Reiterman & Jacobs 1982, p. 13.
  15. ^ Guinn 2017, pp. 24–25.
  16. ^ a b Guinn 2017, p. 25.
  17. ^ Guinn 2017, p. 26.
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Further reading