Anyone old enough to pay attention to daily news in the autumn of 1978 will never forget the shocking story that exploded from the South American jungles of Guyana. It first seemed too outrageous, but the bizarre tale was soon confirmed. Members of a religious cult with ties to a church based in San Francisco had committed mass suicide. Inconceivably mothers and fathers, infants and children, teens and old people, Blacks and Whites had collectively consumed poison. It was the first time that most people had ever heard of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.
The able hand of author Jeff Guinn gives a sweeping and intricate portrayal of the incredible Jonestown story that ended with more than 900 bodies rotting in fetid heaps. “The Road to Jonestown” is Guinn’s exquisitely told tale of megalomania and ultimate horror.
There’s no doubting the charisma Jones once radiated. An amalgam of white-tent revivalist and visionary socialist, he seemed genuinely committed to racial equality and social justice. From a small Indiana town, Jones was the child of a disabled World War I veteran and a woman who flaunted backwater conventions. Despite his mother’s aversion to churchgoing, he demonstrated an interest in the various Protestant denominations in his hometown. He aspired to the ministerial profession.
Eventually Jones headed an integrated church in Indianapolis. He displayed his capacity to get things done: “In 1961, the mayor introduced Jim Jones as director of the Indianapolis Human Relations Commission. Immediately afterward, to the surprise of everyone but the new director, things in the placid go-along-to-get-along city began changing rapidly and radically.” Strides were made toward racial parity and fairness due to Jones’ advocacy.
There was another side. In preaching, Jones was willing to engage in trickery to wow an audience and obtain converts. He wanted people to believe in his wonderworking abilities. Jones performed faith healings. These required trusted accomplices. In the excitement he would cure someone’s cancer and display the diseased matter miraculously removed. “Jones’s accomplices, then and later, were aware that the cancer was actually chicken offal, allowed to rot a bit before use.” Other times he called forth someone wheelchair-bound to stand and walk while a credulous crowd swooned and shouted ecstatically in the aura of supposedly supernal powers.
Jones became obsessed with nuclear war and moved his congregation to Ukiah, California, purportedly where they could escape annihilation. Over the years the pilgrimage would continue to Los Angeles and then San Francisco. Peoples Temple grew and garnered considerable financial donations. Jones’ reputation became especially formidable in San Francisco. He and his congregation were instrumental in helping George Moscone win the mayor’s office. In turn Moscone appointed Jones head of the city’s housing authority. A coterie of political figures like Rosalyn Carter and glitterati like Jane Fonda met Jones. Some visited the exuberant services featuring music and dynamic sermons by the inspirational leader.
Elderly impoverished persons, many of them Black, joined because the congregation promised comfort in their old age. Troubled and unmoored individuals found affirmation in worthwhile endeavors sponsored by the church. Guinn testifies that the Peoples Temple engaged in positive ventures like maintaining addiction recovery programs, providing food and clothing to the needy and ensuring a college education for some who would not otherwise have had the opportunity. Members were expected to live Spartan lives of simplicity and commit fully to espoused socialistic goals. Educated and professional persons were also drawn to the Temple and gave themselves completely to the organization’s aims. Jones himself was not always so diligent.
By 1976 Jones was flying high, but the following year serious dysfunctional aspects of his rule caused disruption. Unsavory discipline and abuses within the organization sowed discord. About his followers Jones once said, “Keep them poor and keep them tired, and they’ll never leave.” Much to Jones’ alarm, some did leave outright. Though married with a family, Jones sexually exploited certain male as well as female members. He had taken to wearing dark glasses due to his daily consumption of drugs that fueled instability and paranoia.
There was also a question of all that money. Exactly how much was there and where was it? Negative media publicity was percolating. Jones was feverishly sure the U.S. government would crack down. Relocation was required. It would bring Peoples Temple to an enclave carved out by dedicated followers dispatched to a nearly impenetrable, remote place.
The government of Guyana welcomed these odd Americans. Such an assemblage of U.S. citizens in the proposed location could dissuade more-powerful Venezuela from annexing disputed territory. It was a Herculean task, but gradually a living compound called Jonestown arose within the humid jungle. Hundreds of Temple members arrived to create a paradise of communal love under the guidance of their godly leader known as Father or Dad. Back home, former members and concerned relatives of still faithful devotees were preparing to launch an investigation. Enlisting the help of intrepid California Congressman, Leo Ryan they hoped to liberate loved ones in thrall to Jones. They would expose the deranged preacher as a charlatan and his mission as fraudulent.
Ryan arrived in Guyana, accompanied by an entourage including media representatives. Jones was apoplectic. Nonetheless Ryan was granted a visitation. Cameras were rolling and things seemed to go well. Ryan’s discussions with communalists and his inspection of the town didn’t precipitate great concern. People seemed happy and under no duress. Then a few members expressed a desire to leave and petitioned Ryan’s assistance. Soon, without warning, a man held a knife to the congressman’s throat: “Motherfucker, you’re going to die.” The attacker was subdued but Ryan and some of his party would soon be killed at a nearby airstrip on orders from Jones. The stage was set for the incredible.
Jones called the congregation together. He announced the murder of Ryan and said that horrible reprisals were imminent. Deadly time had come. Not all willingly consumed liquid from the toxic vat. Some were forced, others shot. Some escaped. Most did as told by Jones. It was recorded on tape. Jones invoked, “Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. ... We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Jones blew his brains out with a gun. The death toll on Nov. 18, 1978, including Ryan and some who had accompanied him, was 918.
This is a sprawling book well written and maybe the last word on the lugubrious legacy of the Peoples Temple. Beware the conman. And always question authority.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full October 11 issue.