"If we can't live in peace, let's die in peace."
Reverend James Warren "Jim" Jones was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, a cult infamous for the mass murder-suicide of over 900 of its members in a Guyana jungle compound informally known as "Jonestown" on November 18, 1978. This remained the largest loss of American civilian lives in a single event until the 9/11 attacks.
Jones was born in rural Indiana at the height of the Great Depression, in 1931. He was the only child of James Thurman Jones, an unemployed World War I veteran; and Lynetta Putnam, a religious woman who believed that her son was some kind of messiah. The family was extremely poor and lived in a shack without plumbing. People who grew up with Jones later recalled that he was an odd, solitary kid who was obsessed with death and religion. He often officiated funerals for small animals in his family's property and he killed a cat with a knife once. He was also a voracious reader who studied the lives of Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Mahatma Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler from a young age. Since his mother worked outside to support the family and his father was drunk and unresponsive most of the time, Jones would often wander the town alone, making friends with those he considered outcasts like him. In one such occasion, he invited the town's only black man to his home and his father threw them out. In response, Jones stopped talking to his father for many years. Shortly after, his parents divorced and Jones moved out of town with his mother. In 1949, one year after completing high school, he married nurse Marceline Baldwin, who was four years his senior. He also attended a speech by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about the plight of African-Americans, which deeply impressed him.
The Peoples TempleEdit
In 1951, Jones began attending a number of meetings and rallies held by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), while he was studying at Indianapolis' Butler University. As a result, Jones and his mother, who accompanied him to one of these events, were publicly harassed by the FBI. With anticommunist feelings rapidly rising in the U.S. at the beginning of the Cold War, Jones decided that he would "infiltrate the Church" and use it both to propagate a message of racial and social justice without suspicion, and also reach out to people who could be open to such messages but opposed to Communism on religious grounds. Jones himself fluctuated between agnosticism and atheism for most of his life.
In 1952, Jones became a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church but left when its leaders barred him from integrating blacks in his congregation. He witnessed a faith-healing service at a Seventh Day Baptist Church and realized that he could attract more people and money through such services. Finally, in 1956, Jones organized a massive religious convention in Indianapolis, in which he shared the pulpit with then-celebrity minister William M. Branham, and used the benefits to launch his own church, which (after many name changes) settled on the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. This was an explicitly interracial mission that adopted many common traits of black churches, like gospel music, and was particularly influenced by the preaching style of Father Divine, an African-American reverend who advocated a communal living and claimed at different times to be God, Jesus, or "a part" of them. That same year, Jones broke ties with CPUSA after it followed the Soviet Union's decision to condemn Stalinism.
In 1960, Jones was appointed director of the Human Rights Commission by Democratic Indianapolis mayor Charles Boswell. Jones ignored Boswell's orders to keep a low profile, and used his new position to gain more followers and successfully campaign for the integration of several Indianapolis locations, services, and companies. He also rallied against the so-called "White Flight" and in favor of multiracial communities, and adopted children from different races. In 1961, the Joneses became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child, who was named Jim Jones, Jr.
His involvement in the fight for civil rights in Indiana came to an abrupt end in 1962, however, when Jones moved to southern Brazil after reading in a magazine that the area would be safe during a nuclear war that he thought was impending. Due to the government instability in Brazil at the time, Jones carefully utilized a Christian discourse without his usual socialist undertones so he wouldn't be seen as a Communist. This lasted until 1963, when Jones was alerted that the Indianapolis Temple was about to collapse in his absence. Jones returned and prophesied that the world would be engulfed in nuclear war on July 15, 1967. As a result, the Temple made an "exodus" to California's Redwood Valley near Ukiah, where it set a communal farm from which it would create a socialist Garden of Eden on Earth after the disaster. The location was pre-selected after Jones had read, in the same magazine, that northern California would be the part of the U.S. less likely to be damaged in a nuclear exchange.
Though war didn't come, the Temple's following grew exponentially in those years and it opened chapters in all major cities across California. Jones took advantage of the new location's greater liberal tradition to gradually move from Christian rhetoric to what he called "Apostolic Socialism". Eventually, he openly condemned Christianity and belief in a "sky god" in general, stating that his goal was the promotion of Marxism in the U.S. and that Mao Zedong was his inspiration. He wrote a booklet called "The Letter Killeth", in which he derided the King James Bible as a tool made to oppress women and minorities, yet claimed himself to be the reincarnation of Jesus, as well as Buddha, Vladimir Lenin, Gandhi, and Father Divine, even though the last two were alive when he was born. Jones also established ties with leftist groups like CPUSA, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and the Symbionese Liberation Army; and also with media outlets, most notably the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1975, Temple voters were instrumental to elect Democrat George Moscone as Mayor of San Francisco. Several other figures of the Democratic Party met Jones or spoke favorably of him in the 1970s.
Scandals and Flight to GuyanaEdit
In conflict with his furious defense of celibacy outside marriage, Jones was arrested for soliciting gay sex in a Los Angeles theater restroom in 1973. Soon, a growing number of Temple defectors accused him of pressuring male and female members alike to have sex with him; and of publicly shaming, undressing, beating, and sexually abusing members in punishment for various misdeeds. He was likewise accused of taking large quantities of drugs using false prescriptions issued by Temple doctors; and of totalitarian practices like forbidding members to talk to each other, encouraging denouncement of dissidents, separating children from their parents to be raised communally, planting false defectors to catch members who actually wanted to defect, and propagating fears among the congregation that they would be killed by outsiders as soon as they left the protection of the Temple. Impressed by high-profile defections like Suzanne Jones, one of his adopted children, and Grace Stoen, the Temple's attorney and church board chairman in Ukiah, Jones organized "White Nights", in which he ordered members of his staff to drink poison as a test of loyalty, revealing later that the drink given wasn't actually poisoned. He also made plans to move the cult to Canada or the Caribbean on short notice, should government agencies intervene against him. He eventually settled on Guyana because it was poor, English-speaking, boasting a mostly black population, and run by a socialist government.
The member tasked to oversee the construction of the so-called "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project" in a non-populated area of northwestern Guyana was Timothy Stoen, Grace's husband who was another of the Temple's legal representatives. Jones ordered Stoen to take his son John to Guyana because he feared that Grace, who had started divorce proceedings in 1976, might be awarded his custody. John had been born into the cult in 1972 and raised apart from his mother, in San Francisco, where he captivated Temple officials due to his precociousness and ability to chant cult slogans as soon as he learned to talk. They considered him the reincarnation of Jones himself. However, in June 1977, Stoen met Grace in the U.S., and he left the cult himself when she told him that she had been routinely degraded and told that she was not a good mother while she was a member of the Temple, in an effort to keep her from seeing her son. Together with 50 other relatives of Temple members, they formed the "Concerned Relatives" group and demanded the return of John, who had been left in Guyana. The ensuing legal battle became the largest scandal involving the cult yet, as Jones refused to return the child, arguing that he was his biological father and that he had slept with Grace, at Tim's request, to dissuade her from defecting.
That same summer, Jones and around 1,000 of his followers moved to the Agricultural Project in Guyana, which was informally renamed Jonestown. The settlement, which had been self-sufficient until then, had trouble housing the sudden increase in population. As a result, the inhabitants had to work extra hours and cut rations to accommodate the newcomers. Undernourished, many fell ill to tropical diseases that the Temple's doctors could neither identify nor treat properly. Among the sick was Jones himself, whose drug problem also deepened in this time. He furiously attacked Stoen as a traitor in his speeches, and claimed that the U.S. had undergone a fascist takeover and was now a dictatorship that was exterminating racial minorities and political dissidents. "White Nights" were expanded to include the whole population and drills were called to prepare the people to deal with an imminent attack from the outside. A "Red Brigade" of members armed with guns and machetes patrolled the compound's perimeter, in theory to protect it against such attacks, but actually to keep defectors from leaving. Meanwhile, the settlement's speaker network kept repeating fake news of the fascist coup and repression in the U.S. to back Jones' claims.
Attack on Congressman Ryan and SuicideEdit
The Concerned Relatives traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1978 and denounced Jones for human rights abuses in Guyana and the U.S. Jones then hired noted JFK assassination conspiracy theorists Mark Lane and Donald Freed to propagate the idea that everything was a grand conspiracy against the Temple by the intelligence services. In November, California Congressman Leo Ryan led a "fact-finding mission" to Guyana to investigate the allegations on the ground. Three days after arriving in Guyana's capital Georgetown, Ryan and a limited number of journalists and relatives of Temple members boarded a small plane with a Guyanese officer and the U.S. embassy officer Richard Dwyer, and flew to Port Kaituma, a few miles northeast of Jonestown. After long negotiations with the Temple, the mission was given a tour of Jonestown and was allowed to talk to the residents, but Jones barred journalists from staying in the camp for the night. The next day, an exalted Temple member attacked Ryan with a knife. Dwyer, who had command of the mission while on Guyanan soil, issued an order to leave Jonestown against Ryan's wishes, who swore that he would return to continue the investigation. The group departed with fifteen Temple members who had expressed their wish to leave. Jones didn't stop them, but he prophesied that Ryan would be shot.
As the party boarded two planes that would return them to Georgetown, a defector that the others had warned about as a possible plant, Larry Layton, pulled a gun and fired on the crowd. He was incapacitated after injuring two, but this was only a diversion from a larger attack by Red Brigade members that had followed the group on a tractor-trailer. They injured nine more and killed five: NBC News correspondent Don Harris and cameraman Bob Brown; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; defector Patricia Parks; and Congressman Ryan, who was shot over twenty times, the last time in the face while he was already dead on the ground. Back in Jonestown, Jones addressed the residents almost immediately, telling them that the defectors had been killed by the fascist American government and that this was the prelude of an attack on the compound itself, after which all survivors would be tortured, executed, or "turned into dummies". He claimed to have been in talks to get asylum in the Soviet Union but that the Soviets had cancelled such plans after the attack. As a result, he said, the people of Jonestown had no choice but to commit "revolutionary suicide" by ingesting cyanide. Members who suggested alternatives were shut down by the others and forced to ingest the poison, or were shot by the Red Brigade. Jones then discussed with his staff the logistics of murdering Stoen and whether John should be killed. John's body was later found in Jones' personal cabin. Finally, Jones shot himself in the left temple. His autopsy revealed that there were enough drugs in his system to kill any man that had not built poison resistance through longtime drug use, like he did.
In total, 909 people committed suicide or were murdered at Jonestown. The order to commit suicide was also radioed to the Temple's headquarters in Georgetown, where member Linda Amos and her adult daughter Liane murdered Amos' younger children with a kitchen knife, before Linda helped Liane kill herself and then committed suicide with the same weapon. It was ignored, however, by the rest of members at Georgetown and the Peoples Temple basketball team, which was playing a match with the Guyanese national team in the capital and included Jones' sons Stephan, Jim Jr., and Timothy Jones. Only 20 people at Jonestown survived. Mike Prokes, the legal father of Kimo, Jones' son with his mistress Carolyn Layton, left the compound to take the Joneses' will to Georgetown, in which they left everything they owned to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and committed suicide during a press conference four months later. The remaining Temple in California filled for bankruptcy and was officially dissolved in January 1979. Larry Layton was the only person convicted of events related to Jonestown. In 1986, he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to murder Ryan, but he was released from custody in 2002.
"What you need to believe in is what you can see. If you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. If 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."
Jones was an archetypic cult leader and con artist. He found his victims among people that felt marginalized by society and presented himself as their way to find a better life. He had no problem to modify his discourse to connect with a new audience or staging situations using actors. Once enrolled, the new members donated all of their possessions to the Temple, were cut off from their relatives and friends outside the cult, and encouraged to not befriend other members and to report any sign of dissidence to Jones.
Dissidents were then subjected to psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, and later in the cult's history, drugged. All members were continuously fed with fear of the future and the world outside the cult, so they would seek security in Jones and remain loyal to him. The events at Jonestown were planned years in advance, as evidenced by Jones obtaining a jeweler's license so he could legally buy cyanide (used to clean gold) and the stockpiling of enough ammunition to shoot each of Jonestown's residents three times, but only a few guns. The cyanide was mixed in large buckets with Flavor Aid and water, and offered to the members, starting with the children. People that refused to drink were forced to ingest the poison by different means, with up to 35% of bodies at Jonestown showing possible signs of having received injections, and an indeterminate number were shot.
On Criminal MindsEdit
Jones, the Peoples Temple, the attack on Ryan's retinue, and the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown were all mentioned in the Season One episode The Popular Kids when the team discussed killer cults. Real footage of the aftermath at Jonestown was also shown during this sequence.
In Minimal Loss, Rossi recalled how Jones rehearsed the Jonestown mass murder-suicide multiple times before actually doing it, while he tried to convince the state police to not assault the Separatarian Sect's compound when they thought that its leader, Benjamin Cyrus, was directing his followers to commit suicide by drinking poison. Like in the "White Nights" organized by Jones, Benjamin used this rehearsal to know what followers were unconditional to him, and announced that there was no poison in the drinks after a few minutes.
Jones was also compared to Colton Grant, the leader of a cult in The Forever People. Like Jones, Colton tended to wear sunglasses, and his cult practiced separating children from their parents to be raised communally. The episode's subplot about a defecting couple trying to recover their child from the cult may have also been inspired by the case of John Stoen.
- San Diego State University website about Jonestown and the Peoples Temple
- Full list of Jones' victims
- List of Jonestown survivors
- Los Angeles Times article about John Stoen
- CNN article about the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown
- Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple PBS documentary
- Psychology Today's article on Wound Collectors
- ↑ For example, he made faith healing sessions in which the healed were People Temple secretaries pretending to be sick, or faked newscasts that suited his claims of a fascist takeover in the U.S. while in Jonestown. It is also believed that at least some of the threatening graffiti left on Jones' home and Temple properties, when the Temple was fighting for civil rights in Indianapolis, was faked by Temple members.