Cult of Madness
He saw himself as an amalgam of Christ resurrected and “a reborn Lenin.’’Hecalled himself “the father” and “a prophet of God.” But to scores of defectors from the People’s Temple cult, its master, the Rev. Jim Jones, was a crazed “little Hitler.” And in the götterdämerung finale that Jones staged for himself and his fanatical followers in the Guyana jungle he managed to rival in horror the suicidal last hours of the Third Reich. “They started with the babies,” said Odell Rhodes, a member of Jones’s isolated farm commune, who fled into the forest as the mass suicide began. By the time they had finished, it is now known, some 900 people, Jones and his wife, Marcie, among them, were dead. And as
the bodies of the victims were flown home last week in U.S. Air Force planes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned to a series of unanswered questions that could roll further shock waves over an already stunned nation.
Question No. 1: Was the whole event plotted from the start by an inner clique to rob the sect of millions of dollars? The prospect seems fantastic. Yet $3 million is missing from the Jonestown compound. Where is it? And what was in the heavy metal locker that one survivor saw three men carry away along a jungle path almost immediately after the ritual death ceremony?
Question No. 2: Where is the sect’s missing seagoing boat Marceline— named after Jones’s wife? Was it used for a Caribbean getaway?
Question No. 3: Why were Jones, his wife and mistress, all shot through the
head instead of poisoned like everyone else? Could they have planned to flee the commune once everyone else was dead? Were they murdered by others who turned greedy?
Question No. 4: Why have so few old people been found among the dead? A lot of elderly pensioners moved out to Jonestown. Is there a mass grave somewhere in the jungle? Were old people systematically murdered over the last year so that their weekly welfare and pension cheques could swell the commune’s coffers?
Question No. 5: Did the sect members really believe that the liquid they were told to drink contained cyanide? Jones had staged at least eight previous “suicide” sessions in which only Kool-Aid was offered.
These were the key riddles. But as the FBI investigators searched for the answers, ordinary Americans were still numbed by the revelations of recent days—each worse than the one before. First came news that Congressman Leo Ryan, four newsmen and a cult member had been shot to death as they tried to leave the Guyana commune following an investigation of conditions. Then came word that 409 cult members, including Jones, had committed suicide immediately following the murders.
Then, at week’s end, the U.S. embassy in the Guyana capital, Georgetown, an-
nounced that there had been a miscount. The number of victims eventually reached about 900. Since 868 passports had been found and only 32 survivors, it seemed likely that few former residents remained unaccounted for.
That was simple arithmetic. What the world could not account for was the apparent willingness of so many human beings to follow one man with such docility through so many evils to their ultimate destruction. The fact is, however, that their early loyalty was not inexplicable.
James Thurman Jones was a pudgy, pasty 47 when he died, sick in body and in mind. But when he set up his first People’s Temple in Indianapolis in the mid-’50s, he was a handsome, charismatic young preacher—albeit not affiliated with any established church. His theme was “religious socialism”—a mixture of food and clothes handouts and updated fire and brimstone evangelism.
His “fully integrated” church drew praise from city fathers and large contributions from a mainly black congregation. In 1965, flushed with success, he moved to cult country—California. Almost at once, he hit the evangelistic jackpot. People’s Temples were established in San Francisco, rural Redwood Valley, Los Angeles and elsewhere. By 1970, Jones was claiming 20,000 followers and had become deeply involved in liberal-left politics.
A supporter of Huey Newton (the Black Panther chieftain), Angela Davis (the Communist teacher) and other black revolutionaries, Jones—mixing Marxist fervor with that good oldtime religion—got the best of both worlds. And when the turmoil of the black power, campus revolt era passed, he found himself a formidable political power in California.
Jones’s regimented followers could get out the vote at rallies in precincts throughout the state’s large black community. Governor Jerry Brown, police chiefs, mayors, district attorneys paid court to him. He chatted with VicePresident Walter Mondale aboard his chartered jet and shared a platform with First Lady Rosalyn Carter in a hall packed with his cheering fans.
But gradually stories about the temple began to leak out that suggested a darker side to the genial, snappily dressed figure who dined with the elite at San Francisco banquets. Renegade followers charged that they had been beaten for petty infractions and forced to denounce each other at humiliating brainwashing sessions that lasted until dawn. Offenders were treated to the “board of education,” a wooden paddle wielded by a muscular follower.
Parents of one 18-year-old girl filed a lawsuit charging that she had been struck 75 times on the buttocks. Other defectors said that Jones was an outrageous charlatan who claimed miraculous cancer cures and the power to raise the dead. Jones gave the most dramatic proof of this “ability” himself. As he left the temple on Geary Street one day, a shot was heard. Jones staggered, blood apparently spread over his shirt. As admirers screamed, he was carried into the church. Minutes later he reappeared in a spotless new shirt, smiling wanly. The crowd roared.
His prophecies of a fascist take-over,
a race war in which blacks would be thrust into ovens like the Jews, increased in force. The nuclear holocaust, too, was coming nearer. The faithful were told to give and give. The poor and the elderly surrendered a fourth or a half of their income. Others gave all their worldly goods, including homes and even life insurance.
Jones organized communes for these devotees, supplying their basic needs in return for long days of work baking, sewing or begging for the cause. He doled out $2 a week in pocket money to each member.
The money, Jones explained, would be used to carve out a promised land for the sect, safe from the coming conflict. With a copy of an Esquire article listing “the nine best places in the world to hide” as his guide, he went prospecting in South America. “Rev. Jones picked Guyana,” said an aide, “because it had many black Christians. He thought they might join the temple.” And after presenting scores of letters from leading Americans—many of them fakedpraising his social and religious work, Jones was given permission to buy
27,000 acres of jungle to build Jonestown. Hundreds of his followers—men, women and children—were shipped out to clear land and plant crops under appalling conditions.
The labor began three years ago, and in August of last year, as criticisms and media interest in Jones mounted, “the father” headed for Guyana, never to return. He took with him several million dollars in temple funds. In the isolation of his promised land, Jones’s paranoia increased. The handful who returned from Guyana told of tougher “catharsis sessions” and punishments. It is not clear when the bizarre slipped over into the brutal. But there can be no doubt that the last 18 months in Jonestown were lived out in a rising crescendo of child and sexual abuse.
Timothy Stoen, a San Francisco lawyer and former Jones aide who left the cult earlier this year, says that Jones had a “relationships committee” that had to approve all romantic entanglements. On one occasion, according to Stoen, a young woman who had been seeing a male cult member without permission was forced by Jones to engage in sexual acts with another man before all 1,100 in the commune at the time. Another former cult member, Anna Mobley, recalled that Jones had something called the “Blue-eyed Monster—a thing they did to children—they took children into a dark room and attached electrodes to them and then shocked them and told them never not to smile at Jim Jones.”
Several Jonestown survivors testified that children who misbehaved or did not work hard enough in the fields were taken at night to a deep pool where they were told that “Big Foot” lived. Two members of the cult would be hiding in the pool as the children were thrown in head first. They would grab the kids by the hands and feet and drag them to the bottom, only releasing them when they were on the point of drowning.
By then Jones was seeing plots everywhere. His 19-year-old son, Stephan— who was in Georgetown the day of the mass suicide—told reporters his father had become “a fascist” who was constantly taking drugs for some unspecified illness.
He often talked of death and staged suicide drills, building up a siege mentality in the camp, and when his mind finally slipped into madness Jones’s hold over the faithful was still powerful enough to persuade hundreds of his “utopian” community to join him in death.
If the process which led up to this macabre finale had only one point of beginning it was probably thousands of miles away in San Francisco, when the mangled body of Bob Houston, a railroad worker, was found on the tracks in
the predawn hours of Oct. 5, 1976. The incident was written off as an accident. But the dead man’s father, Sam Houston, a news agency photographer, didn’t believe the coroner’s verdict. And Houston was a friend of California Congressman Ryan.
Houston persuaded Ryan to accept an invitation to dinner and, over the meal, explained that his son’s body had been found the day after he had announced his intention to quit the People’s Temple. Ryan had once been the younger Houston’s teacher and, in an emotional scene, he promised to investigate Jones’s activities.
Ryan’s file was soon bulging with complaints from families who had lost loved ones to Jones’s charisma and the trail led unmistakably to the remote jungle camp. Ryan alerted the state department and was told that personnel from the Georgetown embassy had visited the camp and reported that the sect was “benign and harmless.” There
was no suggestion that people were being kept there against their will.
But Ryan, who once spent a week in California’s Folsom Prison while researching reforms, was not put off that easily. He decided to investigate firsthand, although he realized that it might be dangerous. Jones and his two American lawyers—Mark Lane and Charles Garry, both with long records of involvement in antiestablishment cases—tried to persuade the congressman to stay at home. But eventually the cult agreed to see Ryan and so, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, he flew out, accompanied by some of his closest staff members, a band of relatives who were particularly worried about their kin and several journalists. (Ryan believed publicity might be his best protection.) After stopping in Georgetown they travelled on to Port Kaituma, a rough-hewn
jungle airport about five miles from Jonestown, in two light planes. Jones’s lawyers Lane and Garry accompanied the party. Immediately on landing Lane obtained Jones’s permission by radio for the party to travel to Jonestown where they were to tour the facilities. By now it was late afternoon and the party was anxious to move on. But as lawyer Lane was to recall later: “A group of angry men and women, one man with a gun, turned up. This had a chilling effect on the people in the plane.” More negotiations took place before everyone was allowed to proceed.
At Jonestown, however, things began to look better. Ryan and his party were cheered to find the settlement’s clean modern buildings, good medical care, advanced farming methods and racial harmony. The emotional climate, too, seemed to be better. Ryan drew sustained applause when he told
groups of residents that the trip had changed his mind about the community. Nor was there any hint of the trouble to come when, in a private meeting with Jones and the lawyers, Ryan said that his only concern was free exit for people who no longer wanted to stay.
Things began to go tragically wrong late next (Saturday) morning. A reporter wandering around the compound was barred from a building where Lane later saw residents living as close together as “slaves on a slave ship.” When Lane argued that the reporter should be allowed in, Jones became angry.
Their interest aroused, reporters soon noticed that the residents quickly walked away whenever they approached them. It seemed they were frightened. A correspondent who managed to talk with one group found that they nearly all wanted to get out, but had been told that Ryan’s party was there to kill them. That afternoon a family of six walked straight up to Ryan and told him they wanted to leave. Jones was mad but there was little he could do immediately and Ryan, his party and about 12 residents started down the dirt track to the airstrip. It was raining.
They hadn’t gone far, however, before one of Jones’s top lieutenants, Don Sly, grabbed Ryan around the head with his left arm and placed a knife against
Ryan’s neck. The two lawyers, who were standing behind the congressman, grabbed Sly and managed to stop him from cutting Ryan’s throat. But in the melee Sly’s hand was cut and Ryan’s clothes were bloodied. Jones, a little way off, was a witness to the whole incident, but he made no move to help and the lawyers, who were staying behind for further discussions, watched with apprehension as Ryan’s party disappeared from sight.
Their disquiet deepened when Jones took them aside and, in a reference to several cultists who had left the camp earlier, said, “There are things you don’t know. Those men who left a little while ago to go into the city are not going there. They love me and they may do something that would reflect badly v.n me. They’re going to shoot at the people and their plane.” Jones then assigned armed guards to escort the lawyers to a far corner of the commune, while he called a mass meeting of members.
Meanwhile, on the airstrip, Ryan’s party was preparing to board when a tractor pulling a trailer with three men aboard stopped some way off. There was just enough time for Ryan to dismiss one of the party’s fears that they might be up to no good when the men in the trailer pulled out automatic weapons and began to shoot. Some people
were able to run away into the dense jungle. Others fell wounded around the plane and a gunman then walked up and fired a coup de grace into the heads of Ryan, NBC news correspondent Don Harris, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, NBC cameraman Robert Brown and defecting People’s Temple member Patricia Parks.
The wounded and those who fled at the first shots spent the rest of the night in terror, believing that the gunmen would return to finish them off; but they did not and a relief plane evacuated survivors late on Sunday. Hours later the seriously hurt were in hospital at Andrew’s Air Force Base, Washington.
Back at the camp, all was confusion. As Lane, Garry and a few survivors told it later, the gunmen drove directly back to Jonestown and reported that they had failed to make a clean kill. It also emerged that Jones had planted a hit man among those who said they wanted to leave the commune to shoot the pilot of Ryan’s plane, but he had panicked when the other gunmen opened up and bungled his job. (He is now in custody in Georgetown.)
Jones was addressing the entire assembly when he got the news. It enraged him further. He told them that mercenaries were surrounding the camp and were closing in for the kill and the suicide ceremony began. As Jones chanted, half in a frenzy, his followers lined ip to take their turn at the vat of Kool-Aid and cyanide. Families
grouped in circles holding hands, waiting to die. Mothers gave the poison to their babies and then to themselves; and minutes later they died—in agony. Anyone who was reluctant, it was said later, was forced to drink at gunpoint. Lane and Garry escaped the nightmare. They persuaded their guards to let them
go and fled into the jungle, from where they could hear Jones shouting “Mother, mother, mother. . .” Survivor Odell Rhodes worked his way from building to building, through a field and, with a panic-stricken group, rushed into the bush. “I didn’t think the guards would commit suicide,” he said. “They were a clique. They didn’t mix much with other people. After that there was a lot of gunfire. I don’t know what happened.”
The as a nightmare motley mixture dragged of on Guyanese all week army detachments, U.S. troops, diplomatic and congressional investigators, FBI agents and relatives of the cultists went about their various tasks. There were the bodies to be identified and flown out for burial in the United States; there was the fate of the hundred other cultists to be determined (more than 1,000 were originally thought to have been in the camp); and the need to establish what had been going on in Jonestown before the tragedy and how, exactly, the final scenes had been played by Jones and his followers.
There was no shortage of glimpses into Jonestown’s normal routine. For instance, Tom Bogue, 17, who succeeded in leaving Jonestown with Ryan’s group, revealed that anyone attempting to escape was put into solitary confinement in a three-foot “punishment box.” Jones called his shotgun-carrying guards the “learning crew,” and troublemakers were put in the “extra-care
unit,” where they were heavily sedated with drugs. Once, when Bogue and a friend were caught trying to escape, they were shackled in chains for three weeks and forced to work in the shackles 18 hours each day chopping wood in the tropical heat. Others who tried to escape were placed in solitary confinement in a box six feet long, three feet wide and only three feet high, in the dark, for a week at a time. Other troublemakers were forced to dig deep storage pits and 200-foot-long ditches. Those who didn’t work didn’t eat.
There was much more of the same, and lurid headlines back home, reflecting local gossip on the cult’s fringes, that Jones might not be dead after all. An autopsy and fingerprint check seemed to squelch that rumor conclu-
sively, but the talk continued.
One thing, however, was certain: the tragedy’s shock waves will be felt throughout the U.S. for years to come. Already demands for investigations of the estimated 2,000 sects and cults of every kind in the nation are being heard. Relatives who tried for years to pry loved ones away from Jones’s temple in California are bitterly protesting the official failure to look into its activities, despite scores of complaints to police, the FBI and state authorities.
Theirs was not the only protest. Ryan’s chief aide, Joe Holsinger, said last week: “Somewhere along the line, between Secretary Vance, whom Leo had the highest regard for, and down at these low-level officials in Guyana, which is a godforsaken post, somebody
should have listened. Someone in there should have said perhaps we should do more.
“If our government is so ineffectual, that somehow we are trapped by these rules, that we cannot do anything, my God, we’re through as a country.”
Little remains of the People’s Temple in California, however; the churches in Redwood and Los Angeles are closed and up for sale. A few hundred hardcore members remain in San Francisco, but they seem as stunned and bewildered as outsiders. So while the immediate reverberations continued, to no one’s regret, the cult of Jim Jones seemed unlikely to long outlive its founder.
William Lowther/William Scobie/ Thomas Hopkins