James Warren Jones (May 13, 1931 – November 18, 1978) was an American charismatic religious cult leader who conspired with his inner circle to direct a mass suicide and mass murder of his followers in the remote jungle of Jonestown, Guyana. He was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, which he started in his home state of Indiana during the 1950s. He was officially ordained in 1956 by the Independent Assemblies of God and in 1964 by the Disciples of Christ. He moved his congregation to California in 1965 and gained notoriety with its activities in San Francisco in the early to late 1970s. He then left the United States when he relocated the group to Guyana, a country on the northern mainland of South America.

In 1978, media reports surfaced that human rights abuses were taking place in the Peoples Temple in Jonestown. U.S. Representative Leo Ryan led a delegation to the commune to investigate what was going on, but he and others were murdered by gunfire while boarding a return flight with some former cult members who had wished to leave. Jones then ordered a mass murder-suicide of 918 of his followers, 304 of whom were children, almost all by cyanide-poisoned Flavor Aid.

Early life

Jones was born on May 13, 1931 in a rural area of Crete, Indiana to James Thurman Jones (1887–1951), a World War I veteran, and Lynetta Putnam (1902–1977). Jones was of Irish and Welsh descent; he later claimed partial Cherokee ancestry through his mother, but his maternal second cousin stated that this was untrue. Economic difficulties during the Great Depression led the family to Lynn, Indiana in 1934, where Jones grew up in a shack without plumbing.

Jones was a voracious reader who studied Stalin, Marx, Mao, Gandhi, and Hitler, carefully noting the strengths and weaknesses of each. He also developed an intense interest in religion, and one writer suggests that this was primarily because he found it difficult to make friends. Childhood acquaintances recalled him as a “really weird kid” who was obsessed with religion and death. They alleged that he frequently held funerals for small animals on his parents’ property, and that he had stabbed a cat to death.

Jones and a childhood friend both claimed that his father was associated with the Ku Klux Klan, which had gained a stronghold in Depression-era Indiana. Jones recounted how he and his father clashed on the issue of race, and how he did not speak with his father for “many, many years” after he refused to allow one of Jones’ black friends into the house. Jones’ parents separated, and Jones moved with his mother to Richmond, Indiana. In December 1948, he graduated from Richmond High School early with honors.

Jones married nurse Marceline Baldwin (1927–1978) in 1949, and they moved to Bloomington, Indiana. She died with him in Jonestown. He attended Indiana University Bloomington, where he was impressed with a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt about the plight of African-Americans. In 1951, the couple moved to Indianapolis where he attended night school at Butler University, earning a degree in secondary education in 1961—ten years after enrolling.

Founding of the Peoples Temple

In 1951, twenty-year-old Jones began attending gatherings of the Communist Party USA in Indianapolis. He became flustered with harassment during the McCarthy Hearings, particularly regarding an event that he attended with his mother focusing on Paul Robeson, after which she was harassed by the FBI in front of her co-workers for attending. He also became frustrated with the ostracism of open communists in the United States, especially during the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Jones said that he asked himself, “How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”

Jones was surprised when a Methodist district superintendent helped him get a start in the church, even though he knew Jones to be a communist. In 1952, he became a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church, but later claimed that he left the church because its leaders barred him from integrating blacks into his congregation. Around this time, Jones witnessed a faith-healing service at a Seventh Day Baptist Church. He observed that it attracted people and their money, and he concluded that he could accomplish his social goals with financial resources from such services.

Jones organized a mammoth religious convention to take place June 11–15, 1956 in Cadle Tabernacle. He needed a well-known religious figure to draw crowds, so he arranged to share the pulpit with Rev. William M. Branham, a healing evangelist and religious author who was as highly revered as Oral Roberts. Jones was able to launch his own church following the convention, which had various names until it became the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. The Peoples Temple was initially an inter-racial mission.

The New York Times reported that in 1953, “declaring that he was outraged at what he perceived as racial discrimination in his white congregation, Mr. Jones established his own church and pointedly opened it to all ethnic groups. To raise money, he imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.

In 1960, Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell appointed Jones director of the local Human Rights Commission. Jones ignored Boswell’s advice to keep a low profile, however, finding new outlets for his views on local radio and television programs. The mayor and other commissioners asked him to curtail his public actions, but he resisted. He was wildly cheered at a meeting of the NAACP and Urban League when he yelled for his audience to be more militant, and then climaxed with, “Let my people go!

During this time, Jones also helped to racially integrate churches, restaurants, the telephone company, the Indianapolis police department, a theater, an amusement park, and the Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital. Swastikas were painted on the homes of two black families, and Jones walked through the neighborhood comforting local black people and counseling white families not to move. He set up sting operations to catch restaurants refusing to serve black customers and wrote to American Nazi leaders and then passed their responses to the media. He was accidentally placed in the black ward of a hospital after a collapse in 1961, and he refused to be moved; he began to make the beds and empty the bed pans of black patients. Political pressures resulting from Jones’ actions caused hospital officials to desegregate the wards.

Jones received considerable criticism in Indiana for his integrationist views. White-owned businesses and locals were critical of him. A swastika was placed on the Temple, a stick of dynamite was left in a Temple coal pile, and a dead cat was thrown at Jones’ house after a threatening phone call. Other incidents occurred, but some suspect that Jones himself was involved in at least some of them.

Jones and his wife adopted several non-white children; he referred to the household as his “rainbow family”, and stated: “Integration is a more personal thing with me now. It’s a question of my son’s future.” He also portrayed the Temple as a “rainbow family”.

Jones traveled with his family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil with the idea of setting up a new Temple location, after preaching at the Temple about the fears of a nuclear holocaust and reading an article in the January 1962 issue of Esquire Magazine which listed the city as a safe place in nuclear war. On his way to Brazil, he made his first trip to Guyana, a British colony at the time.

Move To California

Jones returned from Brazil in December 1963 and told his Indiana congregation that the world would be engulfed by nuclear war on July 15, 1967 which would then create a new socialist Eden on Earth, and that the Temple had to move to Northern California for safety. Accordingly, the Temple began moving to Redwood Valley, California, near the city of Ukiah.

According to religious studies professor Catherine Wessinger, Jones always spoke of the social gospel’s virtues, but he chose to conceal that his gospel was actually communism until the late 1960s. By that time, he began partially revealing the details of his “Apostolic Socialism” concept in Temple sermons. He also taught that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment—socialism”. He often mixed these ideas, such as preaching that, “If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”

By the early 1970s, Jones began deriding Christianity as “fly away religion”, rejecting the Bible as being a tool to oppress women and non-whites, and denouncing a “Sky God” who was no God at all. He wrote a booklet titled “The Letter Killeth”, criticizing the King James Bible. Jones also began preaching that he was the reincarnation of Gandhi, Father Divine, Jesus, Gautama Buddha, and Vladimir Lenin. Former Temple member Hue Fortson, Jr. quoted him as saying, “What you need to believe in is what you can see…. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father…. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”

In a 1976 phone conversation with John Maher, Jones alternately stated that he was an agnostic and an atheist. Marceline Jones admitted in a 1977 New York Times interview that Jones was trying to promote Marxism in the U.S. by mobilizing people through religion, citing Mao as his inspiration. She stated: “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion”. He had slammed the Bible on the table yelling “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!” In one sermon, Jones said, “You’re gonna help yourself, or you’ll get no help! There’s only one hope of glory; that’s within you! Nobody’s gonna come out of the sky! There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!”

Within five years of moving to California, the Temple experienced a period of exponential growth and opened branches in cities including San Fernando, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. By the early 1970s, Jones began shifting his focus to major cities because of limited expansion opportunities in Ukiah. He eventually moved the Temple’s headquarters to San Francisco, which was a major center for radical protest movements, and both Jones and the Temple became influential in San Francisco politics, culminating in the Temple’s instrumental role in George Moscone’s mayoral victory in 1975. Moscone subsequently appointed Jones as the chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.

Jones was able to gain contact with prominent politicians at the local and national level. For example, he and Moscone met privately with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane days before the 1976 election, leading Mondale to publicly praise the Temple. First Lady Rosalynn Carter also met with Jones on multiple occasions, corresponded with him about Cuba, and spoke with him at the grand opening of the San Francisco headquarters—where he received louder applause than she did.

Jonestown’s formation and operation

Jones had started building Jonestown (formally known as the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”) several years before the New West article was published. It was promoted as a means to create both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from the media scrutiny in San Francisco. Jones purported to establish it as a model communist community, adding that the Temple comprised “the purest communists there are.” He did not, however, permit members to leave Jonestown.

New Children

Jones claimed that he was the biological father of John Victor Stoen, although the birth certificate listed Temple attorney Timothy Stoen and his wife Grace as the parents of the child. The Temple repeatedly claimed that Jones fathered the child in 1971 when Stoen had requested that Jones have sex with Grace to keep her from defecting. Grace left the Temple in 1976 and began divorce proceedings the following year. Jones ordered Tim to take the boy to Guyana in February 1977 in order to avoid a custody dispute with Grace. After Tim himself defected in June 1977, the Temple kept John Stoen in Jonestown. He also fathered Jim Jon (Kimo) with Temple member Carolyn Louise Moore Layton.

In the autumn of 1977, Tim Stoen and others who had left the Temple formed a “Concerned Relatives” group because they had family members in Jonestown. Stoen traveled to Washington, D.C. in January 1978 to visit with State Department officials and members of Congress, and he wrote a white paper detailing his grievances against Jones and the Temple. His efforts aroused the curiosity of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who wrote a letter on Stoen’s behalf to Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. The Concerned Relatives also began a legal battle with the Temple over the custody of Stoen’s son John.

Visit by Congressman Ryan

Congressman Leo Ryan was shot and killed on Jones’ orders as he and others attempted to leave Jonestown, Guyana in November, 1978.

In November 1978, Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to Jonestown to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. His delegation included relatives of Temple members, an NBC camera crew, and reporters for various newspapers. The group arrived in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown on November 15. Two days later, they traveled by airplane to Port Kaituma, then were transported to the Jonestown encampment in a limousine. Jones hosted a reception for the delegation that evening at the central pavilion in Jonestown.

The delegation left hurriedly the afternoon of November 18 after Temple member Don Sly attacked Ryan with a knife, though the attack was thwarted. Ryan and his delegation managed to take along 15 Temple members who had expressed a wish to leave, and Jones made no attempt to prevent their departure at that time.

Port Kaituma Airstrip shootings

As members of the delegation boarded two planes at the airstrip, Jones’ armed guards, called the “Red Brigade,” arrived on a tractor and trailer and began shooting at them. The gunmen killed Ryan and four others near a Guyana Airways Twin Otter aircraft. At the same time, one of the supposed defectors, Larry Layton, drew a weapon and began firing on members of the party that had already boarded a small Cessna. An NBC cameraman was able to capture footage of the first few seconds of the shooting at the Otter.

The five killed at the airstrip were Ryan; NBC reporter Don Harris; NBC cameraman Bob Brown; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; and Temple member Patricia Parks. Surviving the attack were future Congresswoman Jackie Speier, then a staff member for Ryan; Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy at Georgetown; Bob Flick, a producer for NBC; Steve Sung, an NBC sound engineer; Tim Reiterman, a San Francisco Examiner reporter; Ron Javers, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter; Charles Krause, a Washington Post reporter; and several defecting Temple members.

Mass murder in Jonestown

Later that same day, 909 inhabitants of Jonestown, 304 of them children, died of apparent cyanide poisoning, mostly in and around the settlement’s main pavilion. This resulted in the greatest single loss of American civilian life (murder + suicide, though not on American soil) in a deliberate act until the September 11 attacks. The FBI later recovered a 45-minute audio recording of the suicide in progress. (click the link to listen)

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On that tape, Jones tells Temple members that the Soviet Union, with whom the Temple had been negotiating a potential exodus for months, would not take them after the airstrip murders. The reason given by Jones to commit suicide was consistent with his previously stated conspiracy theories of intelligence organizations allegedly conspiring against the Temple, that men would “parachute in here on us”, “shoot some of our innocent babies” and “they’ll torture our children, they’ll torture some of our people here, they’ll torture our seniors”. Parroting Jones’ prior statements that hostile forces would convert captured children to fascism, one Temple member states “the ones that they take captured, they’re gonna just let them grow up and be dummies”.

With that reasoning, Jones and several members argued that the group should commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced grape-flavored Flavor Aid. Later-released Temple films show Jones opening a storage container full of Kool Aid in large quantities. However, empty packets of grape Flavor Aid found on the scene show that this is what was used to mix the solution, along with a sedative. One member, Christine Miller, dissents toward the beginning of the tape.

When members apparently cried, Jones counseled, “Stop these hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity.” Jones can be heard saying, “Don’t be afraid to die”, that death is “just stepping over into another plane” and that it’s “a friend”. At the end of the tape, Jones concludes: “We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.

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According to escaping Temple members, children were given the drink first by their own parents, families were told to lie down together. Mass suicide had been previously discussed in simulated events called “White Nights” on a regular basis. During at least one such prior White Night, members drank liquid that Jones falsely told them was poison.

Death

Following the mass murder-suicide, Jones was found dead on the floor; he was resting on a pillow near his deck chair, with a gunshot wound to his head that Guyanese coroner Cyrill Mootoo stated was consistent with suicide. His body was later dragged outside for examination and embalming. The official autopsy conducted in December 1978 also confirms his death as a suicide. Jones’ son Stephan believes his father may have directed someone else to shoot him, but that is just speculation. An autopsy of Jones’ body also showed levels of the barbiturate pentobarbital, which may have been lethal to humans who had not developed physiological tolerance. A sign could be seen hanging above Jones’ deck chair. Jones had borrowed a quote from George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I think he should’ve suffered much more than he did, for killing so many innocent people and not to mention all the children! Listen to the recording, we all may think they were all crazy for following him but he managed to brainwash all of them! That’s what amazes me, I’d like to think I would never be brainwashed but shit get the right guy to speak and boom you got yourself a cult. Stay safe out there crazies!

Posted by Carrie Dean

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