Friday, 25 April 2008

The Jonestown Massacre

James Warren "Jim" Jones

James Warren "Jim" Jones (May 13, 1931 - November 18, 1978) was the American founder of the Peoples Temple, which became synonymous with group suicide after the November 18, 1978 mass murder-suicide by poison in their isolated agricultural intentional community called Jonestown, located in Guyana, South America. Over 900 people died from cyanide poisoning or gunshot wounds in the aftermath of Jones ordering his men to kill visiting Congressman Leo Ryan and numerous members of his entourage.

Jones was born in Crete, Indiana, to Lyneta Putnam and James Thurman Jones. He would later claim part Cherokee descent through his mother. His interest in religion began during his childhood, mainly because he found making friends difficult, though initially he vacillated on his church of choice.

He graduated from Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana and became a preacher in the 1950s. He obtained a bachelors degree at Butler University in 1961, and after graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, Jones sold pet monkeys door-to-door to raise the money to fund his own church which would be named Wings of Deliverance. He later renamed his church the Peoples Temple; it was located in Indianapolis. Jones became an ordained minister in 1964 in a mainstream Christian denomination, the Disciples of Christ. The church was distinctive for its equal treatment of African Americans, and many of them became members of the church. He began a struggle for racial equality and social justice, which he dubbed apostolic socialism. After leaving Indiana, the Peoples Temple made its home in Redwood Valley, California, since Jones believed it was one of the few places in the world likely to survive a nuclear holocaust.

Jones authored a booklet, "The Letter Killeth" pointing out what he felt were the contradictions, absurdities, and atrocities in the Bible, but also stating that the Bible contained great truths. He was particularly fascinated with his ability to manipulate people. Jones perfected his craft and was very skilled in his new found talent. He claimed to be an incarnation of Jesus, Akhenaten, the Buddha, Lenin, and Father Divine and performed supposed miracle healings to attract new converts. Members of Jones' church called him "Father" and believed their movement was the solution to the problems of society; many did not distinguish Jones from the movement. The church gradually moved away from mainstream Protestant Christianity.

In the summer of 1977, Jones and most of the 900 members of the People's Temple moved to Guyana from San Francisco after an investigation into the church for tax evasion had begun. Jones named the closed settlement Jonestown after himself. His stated intention was to create an agricultural utopia in the jungle, free from racism and based on socialist principles.

People who had left the organization prior to its move to Guyana told the authorities of brutal beatings, murders and of a mass suicide plan, but they were not believed. In spite of the tax evasion allegations, Jones was still widely respected for setting up a racially mixed church which helped the disadvantaged. Around 70% of the inhabitants of Jonestown were black and impoverished.

Religious scholar Mary McCormick Maaga argued that Jones' authority waned after he moved to the isolated commune, because he was not needed for recruitment and he could not hide his drug addiction from rank and file members.

Jim Jones And The Jonestown Tragedy

In November 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to the Jonestown settlement in Guyana after allegations of human rights abuses by relatives of Temple members in the U.S. Ryan's delegation, which included Don Harris, an NBC network news reporter, along with a cameraman, and a TIME magazine reporter, arrived in Jonestown on November 15 and spent three days interviewing residents. Ryan's delegation was originally denied access to the camp, where it was later learned that the residents were practicing songs and dance. The delegation was granted access on November 17. However, it left hurriedly on the morning of Saturday November 18, after an attempt was made on Ryan's life by a man armed with a knife. The attack was thwarted, bringing the visit to an abrupt end. Congressman Ryan and his people succeeded in taking with them fifteen People's Temple members who had expressed a wish to leave. At that time, Jones made no attempt to prevent their departure. However, People's Temple survivors reported that a group from Jonestown left shortly afterwards in a truck with the intention of stopping the delegation and members from leaving the country alive.

Surviving delegation members later told police that as they were boarding two planes at the airstrip, the truck with Jones' armed guards arrived and began shooting at them, killing Congressman Ryan and five others. At the same time, one of the supposed defectors, Larry Layton, drew a weapon and began firing on members of the party. An NBC cameraman was able to capture footage of the shooting. When the gunmen departed, six people were dead: Representative Ryan, Don Harris, a reporter from NBC, a cameraman from NBC, a newspaper photographer, and one defector from the Peoples Temple. Surviving the attack were former California State Senator Jackie Speier, a staff member for Ryan; Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy at Georgetown and allegedly an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency; and Bob Flick, a producer for NBC News. Later that same day, 913 inhabitants of Jonestown, 276 of them children, died in what has commonly been labeled a mass suicide. However, because there is much ambiguity regarding whether many who participated did so voluntarily or were forced (or even killed outright), some feel that mass murder is a more accurate description. Some followers obeyed Jones' instructions to commit "revolutionary suicide" by drinking cyanide-laced grape flavored Flavor Aid (often misidentified as Kool-Aid) along with a sedative. Children were given the drink first and families were told to lie down together. The mass suicide had been practiced in simulated events called "White Nights" on a regular basis. Others died by forced cyanide injection or by being shot. A total of 167 church members escaped the mass killing.

Aftermath of the suicides. The vat containing the poison is visible in the foreground

No video was taken during the mass suicide, though the FBI did recover a 45 minute audio of the suicide in progress. Jones can be heard saying, "Do not be afraid to die ... death is your friend ... don't fear the Reaper". Jones was found dead sitting in a deck chair with a gunshot wound to the head. It is unknown if he had been murdered or if he had committed suicide. An autopsy of his body showed levels of the barbiturate phenobarbital which would have been lethal to humans who had not developed physiological tolerance. His drug usage (including various LSD and marijuana experimentations) was confirmed by his son, Stephan, and Jones's doctor in San Francisco.

In MacArthur Park, Los Angeles on December 13, 1973, Jones was arrested and charged with soliciting a man for sex in a movie theater bathroom known for homosexual activity. The man was an undercover Los Angeles Police Department vice officer. Jones is on record as later telling his followers that he was "the only true heterosexual," but at least one account exists of his sexually abusing a male member of his congregation in front of the followers, ostensibly to prove the man's own homosexual tendencies.

One of his sources of inspiration was the controversial International Peace Mission movement leader Father Divine. Jones had borrowed the term "revolutionary suicide" from Black Panther leader Huey Newton who had argued "the slow suicide of life in the ghetto" ought to be replaced by revolutionary struggle that would end only in victory (socialism and self determination) or revolutionary suicide (death).

Jones married Marceline, a nurse, with whom he had two sons, one biological and one adopted. Their biological son, Stephan Gandhi Jones, did not take part in the mass suicide because he was away, playing with the Peoples Temple basketball team in a game against the Guyanese national team. Jones' adopted son, Jim Jones Jr., was African American; he was also playing with the basketball team at the time of the mass suicide. Jones and his wife were the first white couple in Indiana to adopt an African American child.

Jones claimed to be the biological father of John Victor Stoen, who was the legal son of Grace Stoen and her husband Timothy Stoen. The custody dispute over Stoen had great symbolic value for the Peoples Temple and intensified the conflict with its opponents who consisted of, among others, a group called the "Concerned Relatives."

Jim Jones' son Stephan is a businessman and family man who is married with three daughters. He appeared in the recent documentary Jonestown: Paradise Lost which aired on the History Channel and Discovery Channel. He has stated he will not watch the documentary and that he does not mourn his father, only his mother Marceline. Jim Jr., who lost his wife and unborn child at Jonestown, returned to San Francisco. He remarried and has three sons from this marriage. One of them, Rob Jones, currently plays basketball at the University of San Diego.


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