Posted on November 22nd.1998
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Remembering Jonestown

It was twenty years ago last week that news of the events at Jonestown was broadcast to an incredulous public. To this day, Guyanese hardly regard the mass suicide/murder as being a part of their own local history, and in a sense they are right. While the Jonestown residents occupied a portion of Guyana's land space, they were not incorporated into its body politic. For the most part United States citizens, they acted out a tragedy which was peculiarly American in its origins as well as its character.

The sheer numbers involved - 909 in the final count - will cause Jonestown to be remembered for as long as mankind walks this planet. There are precedents for it, but the best known of them - the suicide pact of 960 Jewish Zealots at the fortress of Masada - has been questioned by archaeologists, while that at Saipan, when 1,000 Japanese civilians threw themselves from a cliff just before the island was taken by American forces during the Second World War, has been lost in the mind-boggling statistics of death for that war as whole.

If anything good at all can be said to have come out of such a mind-numbing event, it can only be that we have since become more conscious and wary of cults in general, although that still has not prevented other cult suicides. As is it, Jonestown stands as the archetypal example of the dangers of suppressing the rational faculty and that small inner voice of conscience, and allowing another to do the thinking for us.

Jim Jones in 1976

Jim Jones
Jim Jones began his ministry, if such it can be called, innocuously enough in Indianapolis, where he earned a certain respect for his support of social causes such as racial integration, the welfare of the elderly and the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics. His commitment to these causes appears to have been genuine, and it was not for nothing that his Jonestown commune attracted such a large number of African Americans and the elderly.

Disillusioned with the established churches, he began his own church - the People's Temple - which moved to Ukiah, California in 1965. Seven years later, he took the Temple to San Francisco, where he purchased an old church building on the fringes of the Black ghetto from where so many of his adherents were drawn.

Exactly what his beliefs were has been a source of some discussion since his death; there are those who consider him more of a socialist than a religious fanatic. All that can be said now is that there were elements of both in his recorded statements, and in his madness he sometimes claimed to be an incarnation of both Christ and Marx.

Like most paranoics who acquire some degree of authority, he suffered from power disease. Despite the fact that he enjoyed material benefits that the bulk of his flock was denied, he was not an acquisitive man; there were no extravagant residences or cars, for example. Controlling people was his objective in life, one which he pursued with a certain single-mindedness.

What is not in dispute is that he suffered from paranoia, which in the earlier stages was probably not that apparent. What his followers saw was a powerful personality with an undeniable charismatic quality. His good works, such as the drug rehabilitation clinics, spoke for themselves, and his acolytes closed their eyes to everything else.

His methods of control would be familiar to any citizen of a totalitarian state. The Jonestown report of the House of Representatives Committee of Foreign Affairs listed these as isolation from the former life, especially sources of information; an exacting daily regimen requiring absolute obedience; physical pressure ranging from food and sleep deprivation to beatings; and catharsis sessions, where recalcitrant members were interrogated and required to confess "wrongdoing", either real or false.

He was also guilty of the sexual abuse of some of his followers.

Jones deliberately created an atmosphere of mistrust among members reminiscent of Nazi Germany, where even children were encouraged to spy and report on their parents. As a consequence, members were afraid to voice complaints to one another. Needless to say, Jonestown was as difficult to leave as any prison camp, and those who succeeded ran great personal risks.

Members of the Temple had to hand over their worldly goods, as is common in cults. In the case of the elderly poor, that frequently meant their social security cheques, a large cache of which were found at Jonestown after the tragedy.

The dead under a notice 'Love one another'

Owing to the fact that the People's Temple was coming under increasing scrutiny in San Francisco, Jones decided to move his commune to Guyana in 1974. The circumstances under which he did so, as these relate to the Guyana Government, still remain murky.

For those Guyanese who penetrated the settlement - health and education officials and the like - it was at a physical level impressive. Only Guyanese know the amount of labour that has to go into building and maintaining a complex of that scale in the middle of the forest.

For the more observant, however, the glassy-eyed stares and the stock responses of some of the residents were a source of unease.

Jones rehearsed the inmates for those occasions when they would have to meet visitors, in order to present a facade of happiness and contentment.

Untrammelled by the constraints of US society, Jones' paranoia devloped here in full. He saw enemies in the CIA and the FBI who he claimed were trying to destroy the Temple, and even sometimes in Guyanese officials.

Eventually, the infamous white nights, or suicide rehearsals started, information concerning which was brought to the outside world by a Temple defector.

A lone macaw surveys a scene of death

Despite the fact that one or two defectors who had succeeded in escaping had gone on record about the illegalities and human rights abuses in both San Francisco and Georgetown, neither the local US embassy, nor the State Department seem to have been fully alert to what was happening. Part of the reason, according to the House of Representatives report, was the fact that the embassy did not understand the implications of the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act (which are conflicting in their intent). This caused them to be unduly over-cautious in their dispatches home because they thought that these might have to be turned over to the Temple if requested. As a consequence, Congressman Leo Ryan, was not given the kind of briefing by the State Department which would have prepared him for what he was going to confront.

Congressman Leo Ryan

Leo Ryan
The train of events which led eventually to the Jonestown tragedy, was the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan to the commune. He had been alerted to the true nature of Temple activities by a man whose son, a Temple defector, had died under suspicious circumstances. His subsequent investigations led him to ask the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee for permission to come to Guyana for an on-the-ground investigation.

Ryan's official team was accompanied by an unofficial one, comprising certain members of the press, and concerned relatives of commune members.

Jones' reluctance to accede to Ryan's request for a visit was not overcome by the two Temple lawyers, Garry and Lane, and in the end the Congressman announced that he would be leaving for Jonestown at 2:30 pm on November 17 with or without Jones' permission.

After arriving at the commune after being transported the six miles from the Port Kaituma airstrip in a Temple vehicle, Ryan secured permission for the media personnel and the concerned relatives who had been left behind at the strip to visit too.

The first day appeared to go off not too badly, but things went seriously awry the following day. By this time, various members of the visiting party had been given intimations from some of the residents that they wanted to leave. In addition, the media began seeking access to different buildings on the complex, which the Temple officials did not want to allow. This was followed by a disastrous interview with Jim Jones himself, in which questions were asked about a possible arms cache, and about those from the commune who wanted to leave. The interview left Jones in an agitated state.

This was compounded when at about 3:00 or 3:30 pm fifteen members of his flock clambered aboard a truck waiting to depart for the Port Kaituma airstrip. At this point a man named Don Sly attacked Ryan with a knife, and was dragged off by lawyers Garry and Lane. Ryan did not appear unnerved by the incident, and prepared to leave the Temple compound.

The Congressman's party in addition to the media, relatives and defectors, arrived at the Port Kaituma airstrip at about 4:30 pm.

Among their number was Larry Layton, who one of the genuine defectors warned was just a plant.

Unfortunately, that warning went unheeded.

The Port Kaituma airstrip after the shooting

There were two planes waiting for the party on the runway, one a six-seater Cessna. Layton boarded the latter, and it had already taxied to the end of the runway when he opened fire on the other passengers.

Simultaneously, Temple members (not defectors) on a tractor and trailer which had arrived at the airstrip a little earlier, waved aside the Guyanese personnel on the strip, and then opened fire on those who had not yet boarded the other aircraft, a Twin Otter. As a consequence, Mr Ryan, three members of the media and a defector were killed. There were also ten people wounded, five of them seriously.

Marcelline Jones, wife of Jim Jones

The ritual of death
What none of those at the airstrip knew at the time they were attacked, was that the ritual of death had already begun at Jonestown. It started at around 5:00 pm, beginning with the babies, who had a concoction of Kool Aid laced with tranquillisers and cyanide squirted down their throats with a hypodermic needle.

Mothers were asked to give their children the poison to drink, and then drink themselves. Families lay down together to die, parents with their arms around their children, or in one case, a man and his dog. They were found the following morning by the GDF, lying neatly in concentric circles around the compound.

Jim Jones himself did not drink the cyanide; he was killed by a single bullet to the head possibly fired by his wife Marcelline. Those who were closest to him died in his living quarters, including his mistress Maria Katsaris.

Exactly how many of those who died had committed suicide, and how many had been murdered will probably never be known; during the administration of the deadly Kool Aid, the compound was ringed by Jones' aides who were armed with guns. Anyone who showed reluctance to come forward for their cupful of potion, was forced to do so.

The news was brought to the outside world by two survivors, who reached Port Kaituma at about 2:00 am on Sunday, November 19.

The shootings at the airstrip were already known by the authorities in Georgetown, since the Cessna had radioed shortly after take-off on the Saturday. On that day too, the Guyanese police told a defector who had arrived with the Cessna that Sharon Amos and three of her children had been murdered at the People's Temple Georgetown headquarters in Lamaha Gardens.

The Guyana Government
No enquiry has ever been held into the events of Jonestown locally, and no one is clear on the precise relationship between Burnham's administration and the People's Temple.

The House of Representatives report, however, noted the "strong working relationship between the People's Temple and the Government of Guyana." The Temple was allowed either directly or indirectly to import items outside the normal Customs regulations, including weapons and cash.

The report also referred to the compromising of Guyanese immigration procedures, whereby the Temple was able to facilitate the entry of its own members, and inhibit the departure of defectors. In addition, the Guyanese immigration requirements were manipulated to the detriment of opponents of the Temple.

The allegations in the Grace Stoen case are well known, whereby Stoen, a Temple defector attempted through the Guyana High Court to retrieve her son from the commune at Jonestown. She failed, at least in part, it was said, because unknown officials were alleged to have influenced the outcome of the custody proceedings. Her child died with the others on November 18.

There were also charges of a sexual liaison between Temple member Paula Adams, and Laurence Mann, Guyana's ambassador to the United States at the time. It was reported that Adams made tape recordings of her trysts on behalf of Jim Jones, which he then turned over to the Guyana Government.

Adams was not in Jonestown on November 18, and she subsequently married Mann. However, they did not escape the legacy of that night, eventually becoming the victims of murder/suicide themselves.

Key figures in the story are now beyond earthly questioning, more especially Forbes Burnham himself, and whether we will ever know the full truth is perhaps debatable.

More on Jonestown 20 years after