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Mass Suicide at Jonestown, 1978

The year 1976 was good for Jim Jones; 1977 was not. Tim Stoen had been working in Jonestown, first in a sawmill fourteen hours a day then at paper work. He defected in March, and the news sent Jones into a rage and collapse. A custody battle began over the Stoen's son, John Victor, Jones continuing to falsely claim that he had fathered the boy. And journalists were beginning to come around asking questions. Jones hired Huey Newton's former attorney, Charles Garry, and all inquiries about the People's Temple were directed to Garry's office. And Garry began to portray the Temple as a victim of a political conspiracy.

Word was out that a journal, the New West, was putting together an article on the People's Temple, an article built upon the stories of defectors. Jones decided to take up residence at his commune at Jonestown. He called Cecil Williams and spoke of the news media seeking to destroy him with false accusations. Williams admonished him, saying that running would appear to some as an admission of guilt. Jones gave what to Williams seemed a curious response, Jones saying the he, Jim Jones, "would show them."

It was in the summer of 1977 that Jones went to Guyana, and he took with him numerous commune members, the population of Jonestown rising to over 1,100. The New West article on the People's Temple was published and described life inside the Temple as Spartan regimentation, with fear and self-imposed humiliation. The article called for an investigation of Jim Jones and spoke of Temple involvement in a dangerous operation of care homes and of some mysterious deaths. The article concluded with the comment that the story of the People's Temple had only begun to be told.

Charles Garry was making inquiries of his own in his effort to defend Jones' interests, and he was becoming disillusioned. The lack of independent thinking among Temple members and Jones' authoritarian style offended Garry. Garry had always hoped for honesty from his clients, and he doubted Jones' honesty. But Garry kept his misgivings as a matter between himself and his client, Jim Jones.

Meanwhile, Jones responded to the verbal attacks on the Temple with one of Huey Newton's phrases – revolutionary suicide. This was the title of a book that Newton had recently written, Newton referring to being killed by the enemy while fighting for the revolution. Jones had twisted the phrase to mean killing oneself in the face of an assault by the enemy. It was a peculiar addition to Jones' body of revolutionist ideology. Jones was describing his movement as the only truly socialist movement in the world, and he wanted it to go out with grandiosity.

Jones had begun preparing his followers in Jonestown for an assault by enemies. In September 1977, Guyanian authorities issued a bench warrant regarding Jones' defiance concerning custody of John Victor Stoen. Jones was now subject to arrest. Jones portrayed this to his followers as an attack against the People's Temple and their revolutionary movement. He threatened mass suicide, announcing over the Temple's two-way radio frequency "we're gonna die if anyone comes to arrest anyone." That, he said is the "vote of the people." Jones' friends in California were alarmed and via the Temple's radio Angela Davis spoke to Jim Jones and all her "sisters and brothers" at Jonestown, saying she knew about the conspiracy against them but that she wanted them to know that people across the United States were supporting them. We will do all we can, she said, "to ensure your safety." At Jonestown, Davis' words were transmitted on speakers, and commune members cheered Davis' statement. In California, Huey Newton joined Angela Davis and announced that the Guyanese government should know that Jones "wasn't to be messed with."

Jones' wife, Marceline, and two staff members raced to contact Guyana's Deputy Prime Minister, Ptolemy Reid, then visiting the United States. Reid's wife was found, and she assured Marceline that the Guyanese government would make no assault on Jonestown. Marceline radioed Jones, and Jones called off the alert. The crisis appeared to be over, and Marceline journeyed to Jonestown to join her husband and Temple endeavors there.

Jones still felt insecure, and he began looking for other places to establish his commune. He considered the Soviet Union and Albania. It was naive, and nothing could be arranged. Then, in November 1978, a group from the United States announced that it was going to Jonestown to investigate matters there. It included a California congressman, Leo Ryan, who was concerned about constituent complaints, about the custody of John Victor Stoen and whether some others belonging to the families of his constituents were being held against their will.

No one else in government was much interested in Ryan's trip or in Jim Jones. The State Department was concerned about offending the government of Guyana and tried to discourage Ryan from making the trip. Mark Lane, the lawyer and author of Rush to Judgment, had been defending the Temple and speaking of a conspiracy against the Temple, and he chose to accompany Ryan's party to Guyana. Charles Gerry, annoyed that Mark Lane had butted into his client's business, chose also to accompany Ryan. And so too did some journalists.

Ryan presented his visit to Jonestown as friendly, but temple members were led to believe that those coming to visit were enemies of the Temple and out to destroy Jonestown. Jones received the Ryan party with a show of cooperation. Ryan spoke to Jones' followers, announcing that anyone wishing to return to the United States should join him. A few did, and other Temple members viewed them as traitors. As the Ryan party was leaving the commune by truck, heading for the nearby airstrip, one Temple member attacked Ryan with a knife, but he failed to do much damage. When Ryan and others were preparing to board a small plane to Georgetown, Temple members appeared at the airstrip and fired rifles, killing Ryan, killing some newsmen, one defector and wounding others.

Facing a new and more serious challenge, Jones responded with his suicide option. Jones called a meeting of his followers, and a Temple tape recorder picked up Jones' speechmaking and the supportive clapping and shouts. Jones mentioned betrayal by the defectors. He predicted that men would be parachuted "in here on us." He announced that it was time for what he called revolutionary suicide. Jones said "If we can't live in peace let's die in peace," and there was applause. A lone African-American woman, Christine Miller, spoke against the suicide, saying that she felt that "if there's life there's hope." Someday everybody dies," replied Jones. "That's right, that's right," said others, agreeing with Jones. "The babies should live," said Christine Miller. Jones followed by saying that "The greatest testimony we can give is to leave this goddam world." And from his followers came applause. Jones' followers then started forcing their children to drink grape juice laced with cyanide. They drank the juice themselves, and some shots were fired, one of which, fired not by Jones, killed Jones.

Of the more than 1,100 people at Jonestown 911 died, among them Marceline Jones and John Victor Stoen. A few others, including Mark Lane and Charles Gerry, had escaped through the jungle.


Raven: the Untold Story of Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman, 1982

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