Everyone was welcome at the People’s Temple. Young and old, black and white, over 900 of them lived together at an idealistic socialist commune in the jungles of Guyana called Jonestown. By November 1978, they were all dead.
Captured in one of the most chilling audiotapes ever recorded, Jonestown’s eponymous leader, charismatic preacher Jim Jones, could be heard urging his followers to commit an act of what he called ‘revolutionary suicide’.
Each member was to drink a cyanide concoction out of paper cups full of soft drink kool-aid. Jonestown’s residents, largely consisting of blacks, women and children, seemingly obeyed their leader. Within 5 minutes, their bodies fell to the earth, dead.
Jones would die too, apparently from a self-inflicted bullet to the head. 913 Americans perished in all, thousands of miles from home, their socialist paradise in the jungle turned into the blackest nightmare imaginable.
It remains the worst mass death of its kind in modern history. But what Jim Jones labelled revolutionary suicide, others regard as mass murder.
Over 200 young children were injected or forced to drink the poison, effectively murdered by their own parents and carers. Other residents were been held against their will or had become brainwashed by Jones’ constant night and day preaching.
That at least some of the deaths were murder is obvious, but was something even more sinister at work? Dark suspicions that the events of Jonestown were some kind of CIA mind control experiment began to circulate.
Questions also surrounded the Reverend Jim Jones himself. Who exactly was the mysterious preacher and how had he led nearly a thousand ordinary American people to their deaths in the jungles of South America?
Born during the Great Depression in 1931, Jones’ grew up in a broken and troubled home. His father was a Ku Klux Klansman, something that would have a deep and abiding effect on Jones’ politics for the rest of his life.
Neglected by his parents, the young Jim Jones was taken under the wing of the local pentecostal ministry and would be greatly influenced by the fire and brimstone preachers he witnessed giving sermons at the church.
Inspired by their example, Jones would develop his own brand of grandiloquent oratory. But with this came a sadistic tendency to use his skills to manipulate and bully others, a key factor in the tragedy that would unfold many years later at Jonestown.
Long repelled by his father’s racism, Jones gravitated towards black audiences, finding them particularly receptive to sermons in which Jones would advocate racial equality and rail against the injustices of capitalism.
That highlighted the strange dichotomy of the Reverend Jim Jones — he was an atheist. In fact, he was actively hostile to religion and would tear up and decry the bible at his sermons. For Jones, the ecclesiastical trappings were simply a vehicle for his political and social campaigning.
The absurdity of a man who hated religion forming his own church is perhaps somewhat lost to history, yet that’s exactly what Jones did in 1956. But then the People’s Temple wasn’t really a church at all, it was a cult, with Jim Jones as its god.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the People’s Temple would spawn dozens of branches around California with thousands of followers and a largely black congregation. As this was the height of the civil rights movement in America, Jones’ church and influence amongst black voters lent him the political power he always craved.
But it seems, it wasn’t just politicians who took an interest in the People’s Temple. In the 1960s, the CIA opened a secret file on Jim Jones. The agency has always refused to explain what their interest was in Jones, and they would later inexplicably claim the file was empty.
It was clear the interest was far from routine with the news that the CIA’s internal Office of Security had also vetted Jones, something that would normally be done for those selected to work for the agency. Was Jones a CIA agent?
Extra weight was given to the possibility by the revelation that Jones’ childhood friend and long-time associate, former police chief Dan Mitrione, worked throughout the 1960s for a secret CIA front organisation who specialised in torture and assassination.
By the 1970s, the People’s Temple was flourishing, but the controversies over Jones’ Church also grew. Allegations of sexual abuse, torture and brainwashing caused a major scandal that made national headlines and even drew the attention of congress.
In reaction, the increasingly paranoid Jones dismissed the attacks as an orchestrated campaign against him. Taking the most extreme action, in 1977 he relocated his entire ministry to a settlement in Guyana, South America, he christened Jonestown.
Ostensibly an agricultural commune, Jonestown was more like a prison camp, with armed guards patrolling its perimeter. Although now far away from media scrutiny in America, the stories of braining washing and torture persisted. Those who managed to escape Jonestown even reported many of its members were been held against their will.
The American government had to act. Accompanied by an NBC camera crew and reporters, US Congressman Leo Ryan led a party to Guyana to inspect conditions at Jonestown. 4 Members of the group would not leave Guyana alive.
Although superficially cordial, Ryan’s visit was tense. Whilst an increasingly rambling and incoherent Jim Jones dismissed any suggestions of impropriety, several members of the commune slipped Ryan notes begging him to help them escape.
Seemingly realising Jonestown was doomed, Jones apparently ordered a team of gunmen to follow the congressional party to at the airstrip. On November 18th, 1978, Ryan, 2 NBC reporters and a cameraman were shot dead as they were preparing to board their plane.
Shortly after, Jones enacted the very last of his ‘White Nights’. This was how the preacher described the suicide drills he would regularly conduct at Jonestown. He had already prepared his congregation for the possibility of what he called ‘revolutionary suicide’, as a protest against the injustices of the world.
Claiming that troops would soon arrive and take their children, Jones told his flock that suicide was the only way out. Remarkably, most of them accepted what the leader had ordered. Within a couple of hours, almost everyone was dead, including Jones. Only a handful who hid or feigned death to avoid drinking the cyanide laced kool-aid made it out alive.
But could over 900 people really have agreed to commit suicide at once? The Guyanese pathologist Dr. Leslie Mootoo was the first to examine the bodies. Shockingly, he concluded most of the residents had actually been murdered.
There was also an inexplicable discrepancy in the body count. The Guyanese had found 408 bodies, but later, when the Americans arrived, this was revised to a mind-boggling 913, along with some unconvincing explanations for the disparity.
Along with these problems, there were troubling details about Jonestown itself. Vast quantities of anti-psychotic drugs were found at the site, far in excess of what would normally be needed for 900 people. The camp also hosted a sophisticated hospital, and Jonestown residents were reportedly given medical assessments on an almost daily basis.
Clearly, whatever Jonestown was, it was no ordinary agricultural commune. Was it, as some have suggested, actually a mind control operation? Were the bizarre stories of brainwashing and suicide rehearsals actually part of some sinister medical experiment?
Congressman Leo Ryan’s family certainly believed so. They filed a lawsuit 2 years later alleging that Jonestown was an extension of a clandestine CIA mind control operation called MK ULTRA.
It’s existence revealed only 3 years earlier by the Senate’s Church committee, MK ULTRA was a vast illegal operation that included experiments on unwitting human subjects, the surreptitious administration of mind altering drugs, torture and sensory deprivation.
All of these unedifying activities were also reported to have occurred at Jonestown. Had the CIA secretly continued their mind control experiments under the guise of the Peoples Temple?
Jonestown had CIA connections right from the beginning. Founded in the mid-1970s, its location in Guyana was once a CIA training camp for mercenaries as part of their covert operations in Angola.
George Phillip Blakey, a pivotal figure in the forming of the Jonestown community, placed a $650,000 down-payment on the land in 1973. It was Blakey, more than anyone, who was eventually responsible for the People’s Temple relocating to Guyana, far from the scrutiny of the US Authorities.
Blakey was also an agent of the CIA, involved with their clandestine activities in Angola. Although a member of the Jonestown community, Blakey conveniently absented himself on the day of the massacre. Blakey was also married to another Temple member called Deborah Layton, who would also play a key role in the tragedy.
Layton was one of the first Jonestown defectors to expose what was really happening at the commune, and her allegations that Jones was running a suicide cult did much to fix the idea in the public mind, leading directly to Congressman Ryan’s visit. It would be Deborah Layton’s brother Larry who would murder Ryan on the airstrip at Port Kaituma.
The pair’s father, Dr Laurence Laird Layton, was a senior scientist in the US National security establishment, who for many years worked on their top-secret chemical and biological warfare programs. Whilst not a member of the Peoples Temple, Dr Layton was an important early fundraiser for Jonestown.
George Phillip Blakey, his wife Deborah and her brother Larry all had privileged backgrounds and were born into wealthy families. That they would be involved in a backbreaking agricultural commune consisting almost entirely of poor black people is odd in itself.
But the fact all 3 of these People’s Temple members would play such pivotal roles in precipitating the Jonestown tragedy, yet survive unscathed, is deeply suspicious. Whilst it’s only speculation they were participants in some kind of CIA operation, a more solid link to the agency can be found in the figure of Richard Dwyer.
U.S. embassy official Richard Dwyer accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan on his visit to Jonestown. Neither Ryan or anyone else in the party were aware that Dwyer was also a CIA agent or that the nearby Guyanese capital Georgetown housed a CIA station.
Dwyer’s exact role in the Jonestown massacre has long been a source of mystery. On the infamous ‘death tape’, where Jim Jones can be heard urging his followers to commit suicide, he refers to Dwyer on several occasions, asking an unknown cult member to “get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him”.
Get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him
But according to Dwyer’s own account, he was not there. He remained at Port Kaituma in the aftermath of the shooting at the airstrip. Whether Dwyer is lying about this or not, someone at the CIA knew exactly what was unfolding at Jonestown long before the Guyanese army first found the bodies.
In the early hours of the 19th of November, before the grisly events had been discovered, the CIA’s NOIWON secure radio channel reported ‘mass suicides’ at Jonestown. Whether it was Dwyer or not, the CIA were surely present at Jonestown during or shortly after the tragedy, as there was no other way they could possibly have known anything had occurred at the commune, let alone a mass suicide.
Officially the CIA have always denied any part in the events of Jonestown, or any connection with Jim Jones, but evidently this is a lie. And what’s particularly interesting about their curious early certainty that the tragedy was a mass suicide is it is directly contradicted by the medical professional who first studied the bodies.
The body count
As we have seen, the CIA was keen to report the tragedy as a mass suicide before the bodies had even been discovered. The media would soon follow suit and push the mass suicide story and to this day this is still how Jonestown is most often portrayed.
Incredibly, only 7 autopsies were ever conducted out of the 913 victims and even those weren’t conclusive. All of the bodies had been left out in the heat for so long they had become heavily decomposed, destroying much of the evidence and clumsy embalming meant it was impossible to reliably determine the cause of death.
The determination that the dead had died of cyanide poisoning was largely circumstantial, based on the cyanide crystals that were found in Jonestown’s medical supplies, and syringes and bottles containing the poison. No trace could be found in the vats of kool-aid though, the substance thought of have broken down in the days after the massacre.
Dr Leslie Mootoo, Guyana’s most senior pathologist, was the first medical professional to examine the bodies. Mootoo and his staff methodically examined scores of bodies and came to a surprising conclusion. According to Mootoo, most of the victims had actually been murdered.
83 of the 100 adult bodies he examined had needle puncture marks between their shoulders. As they clearly would not administer the drug themselves in this way, Mootoo concluded they had been held down and forcibly injected.
Bottles containing lethal potassium cyanide but labelled as Valium were found scattered on the ground, leading Mootoo to suspect many victims had been tricked into taking the poison, thinking they were tranquilizers.
Dozens of the bodies had also clearly been shot, and some killed with crossbows. All in all, Mootoo determined some 80–90% of the victims had been murdered. Despite this, the mass suicide story was still the one pushed by the American government and the media.
Once back in the US, many of the bodies were illegally cremated before their relatives could see the remains, whilst hundreds of others remained unidentified.
With no known eyewitnesses to the deaths and less than 1% of the bodies having been autopsied, it was essentially impossible to determine what really happened at Jonestown. Even the evidence and samples Dr Mootoo had meticulously gathered at the crime scene vanished in transit to the United States.
And then there was the astonishing discrepancy in the body count. The Guyanese Army counted the number of victims as 408. Days later when the US Army arrived, this number was progressively revised upwards — 775, 800, 869, 910, 912, eventually settling at the grim total of 913.
The US Army initially claimed the discrepancy was because the Guyanese could not count, an insulting suggestion that was quickly retracted. They would then say some of the bodies had fallen on top of others and covered them. But many wondered how 408 corpses could cover 505 bodies, especially when at least 80 of the initial 408 were children.
Even the 913 figure seemed odd. Estimates of the population of Jonestown were in the 1100–1200 range, not including those known to be elsewhere, meaning at least a 100 of its members had seemingly vanished without trace.
Like members of his family, Congressman Leo Ryan’s chief of staff Joseph Holsinger suspected CIA involvement at Jonestown. In 1980, Holsinger was made aware of a study undertaken at the University of Berkley called ‘The Penal Colony’ that gave him the darkest of suspicions.
The Berkley paper detailed how the CIA’s mind-control program, code-named MK-ULTRA, supposedly terminated in 1973, had actually continued, moving from hospitals and government facilities to religious cults. Cults, Holsinger concluded, like Jonestown.
For Holsinger, several things about Jonestown simply did not make sense. One was the staggering quantities of pharmaceutical drugs found at the commune. For a humble agricultural community of 1200 people, most of whom worked 16 hour days for meagre food rations, the numbers defied explanation.
Amongst the drugs found at Jonestown were Quaaludes, Valium, morphine, Demerol, truth serum sodium pentothal, chloral hydrate, thallium and an incredible 11,000 doses of Thorazine, an anti-psychotic. Many of the substance were noted for their mood-altering and hallucinogenic properties, exactly the kind of drugs the CIA had employed in their MK Ultra experiments.
The parallels between MK Ultra and Jonestown did not end there. The widespread accounts of the abuses at the commune — sensory deprivation, torture, punishment beatings, sexual humiliation and brain-washing, were all exactly the kind of things the CIA had been studying in MK Ultra.
Was the People’s Temple in Jonestown actually an offshoot of the CIA’s mind control projects, as the Berkley paper suggested?
If it was, it might explain how a socialist cooperative in the middle of the Guyanese jungle acquired such vast quantities of mood altering drugs. Or how the CIA knew about the ‘mass suicide’ there before it had even been discovered.
Either way, it’s obvious that brainwashing was at work at Jonestown, even if just from the pulpit of Jim Jones himself. Whilst travelling in Brazil in the 1960s, Jones studied the mind control techniques used by voodoo cults and religions such as Santería and clearly used what he had learnt throughout his time with the People’s Temple.
Some authors have speculated he did so under the wing of the CIA. Also in Brazil at the same time, very close by to where Jones was living, was CIA torture specialist and childhood friend Dan Mitrione. Was Mitrione Jones’ case officer as many suspected? And could Jones’ trip have been a fact finding mission for MK ULTRA?
The Death Tape
A 44-minute audio tape, dubbed the ‘Death tape’, exists which records the meeting Jones called in which he ordered the mass suicide. In it, Jones tells his congregation, as he had done many times before, that troops were going to come and destroy their community.
“One of the people on that plane is gonna shoot the pilot, I know that. I didn’t plan it but I know it’s going to happen. They’re gonna shoot that pilot and down comes the plane into the jungle and we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over, because they’ll parachute in here on us”, Jones is heard to say.
“So my opinion is that you be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act”.
After a brief period of dissent early in the tape, where alternatives to suicide are suggested by some Temple members, most of those present then seem to accept Jones’ orders. Indeed the tape is quite notable for the calm and rational manner in which the community accepts their fate.
…we are not committing suicide; it’s a revolutionary act
If any of the alternative theories about Jonestown are true, they are not recorded on this tape. However, the extant tape clearly contains numerous gaps and excisions, which suggests it was either edited ‘live’ for some reason or that events depicted that do not fit the suicide theory were edited out at a later date.
More than 30 years on, the Jonestown massacre remains one of the strangest and most disturbing events in modern history. And with not a single witness to the deaths remaining to tell the tale, we’ll probably never know what really happened.
What we do know is that hundreds of societies poorest and most disadvantaged people, mainly women and children, travelled far from home looking for salvation, only to find death of the most banal and senseless kind.
Cover image credit: Jonestown Institute, from Wikimedia Commons