Born James Warren Jones in 1931 in Crete, Indiana, Jones was raised largely by his mother who taught him to distrust organised religion and also by a family friend who was a member of the Christian Pentecostal movement. From an early age, Jones held strong spiritual beliefs and exhibited a fascination in the end of the world as described in the bible. In 1955 Jones formed a breakaway sect known as Wings of Deliverance comprising of members of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church, insisting that the churches board should contain an balanced number of black and white members. Consequently he renamed his sect The Peoples Temple, reflecting the ethnic diversity that was the group's aim. In 1960, Jones became a minister of the Disciples of Christ denomination, though his title remained independent from that organisation. In 1965, increasing racial tensions caused Jones to move his sect from Indiana to Ukiah, California. Jones's main reason for choosing this location was that it was a nuclear safe-zone, meaning that in the event of nuclear war it would most likely remain untouched. Here, Jones enlarged his church by recruiting from the better-off members of society, and until the mid-1970s, the People's Temple continued to grow at a steady pace. By 1972 the sect had established a second centre in San Francisco.
In 1974 Jones gained permission from the Guyanan government to establish a colony in a remote strip in the interior. Initially called The People's Agricultural Mission, the colony grew slowly at first, with only 50 members by the beginning of 1977, however after the launch of an investigation into tax evasion on account of The People's Temple led by the US government, Jones encouraged members of the sect to relocate to Guyana, he himself moving to live there full-time. The following year, the colony was renamed Jonestown in honor of its leader, and was inhabited by the vast majority of the Peoples Temple's members, who were in excess of 900 members. Many followers who arrived were shocked by what they found on arrival but were unable to leave. The colonists were made to work eleven hours per day six days a week, and on Sundays were made to work for eight hours. The majority of the labour was carried out in the fields where food was grown to sustain the colony, however there was also deforestation and construction to be carried out. Jonestown was later described by a survivor as having more in common with a concentration camp than a religious community.
Everything in Jonestown was carried out communally; in dormitories, husbands and wives slept in separate beds, at meal-times everyone was fed at the same time, everyone attended meetings together, and were forced to listen to the voice of their leader broadcast over a PA system.
After his arrival at the colony, Jones began to abuse drugs on a massive scale. Members of the sect would often be kept awake at night as a result of his playing loud music over the loud-speakers, or preaching endlessly into the night. Living separately from his followers in a house along with his numerous lovers, he had access to food, alcohol and drugs, whereas the main body of the sect survived on rice and beans.
Jones regularly held "White Nights", training sessions where the community was expected to prepare for an attack on the colony by unknown soldiers. During one such drill, Jones ordered his people to commit suicide, and, following his instructions, they all drank from a vat of what emerged to be harmless liquid. Jones now knew that his people were prepared to die for him.
Jones insisted on all members of his sect severing all links to the outside world, giving over all their wealth and assets over to him for what he called 'redistribution'. People who had escaped the colony formed an opposing group, which succeeded in persuading Congress to deal with the matter in hand. Congressman Leo Ryan was sent to Guyana to investigate these alleged infringements of human rights, arriving on November 17, 1978. People living in the colony had been warned by Jones to look happy and unified, but by the end of day one a group of sixteen had come forward and told Ryan that they wished to leave the colony, much to the anger of Jones. That night, a member of the sect attempted to cut Ryan's throat, but was prevented from doing so by members of Ryan's entourage, which included journalists from television and newspapers. The next day, Ryan decided to cut his visit short and return to the US. Boarding two planes which had been chartered to take them back to the United States, Ryan's party was ambushed by a group of Temple guards traveling in a cart towed behind a tractor. Ryan and several others were killed instantly by gunfire, and many others were seriously wounded. Back at the colony, Jones addressed his followers who were amassed in a building about the visit of the congressman. Jones's words were not congratulatory, but instead of disappointment. He told his followers that the only path left open to them was a "revolutionary suicide".
The members of the People's Temple were given a lethal dose of potassium cyanide, valium and chloral hydrate. The people formed lines and filed past the vat to be administered the poison, mixed into grape juice. Mothers brought their children forward to receive their dose first, before consuming the poison themselves. The poison acted quickly, and by the end of the day a total of 914 people lay dead, 276 of them children. Jones died of a gunshot wound to the head—possibly self-inflicted—but nobody witnessed the event and survived.
It was widely believed at the time that Jones had some kind of mental control over his followers. This is doubtful, as in a society such as that which existed in Jonestown, it is unlikely that something such as hypnotic control would have been completely effective.
The most likely theory is that Jones created a feeling of isolation in his colony which was so great that it caused members of his sect to become paranoid and believe that people were out to destroy their group (which in a sense they were) and therefore enter into a state of siege mentality. The idea that the sect was in constant danger of elimination by its enemies also allowed Jones to justify his armed guards, who were in reality there to stop people from leaving the colony. For several years Jones had told of an imminent global war, and his followers, who were living in isolated conditions in the middle of a jungle, had no means of knowing otherwise.
There were rumours after the incident of the involvement of the CIA, and it was speculated that Jonestown was in reality a US government-run experiment into the powers of hypnotism. There is evidence to suggest that Jones himself was in fact a CIA operative. Jones told members of his sect that his years in Brazil in the 1960s were spent helping orphans, whereas his neighbors remember him leading a life of luxury and boasting that he was in the pay of the US government. In Guyana, Jones met regularly with representatives of the Russian embassy. Guyana was a socialist country at this time, however Jones often preached extreme communism to his followers. Could he have been a double agent, posing as a dissatisfied American citizen and passing on false information to the Soviet government? It has been suggested that Ryan discovered what was going on and attempted to return to Washington to expose the experiment, and the CIA had no choice but to kill him in order to maintain utter secrecy regarding their experiments. Initial reports suggest only 500 died of poisoning, but later journalists supplied with information from the CIA reported the death toll to be nearer to 900. The possibility exists that the other 400 survived the suicide and were hunted down and massacred in the jungle in the following days. A report by a Guyanan coroner stated that up to 700 of the bodies showed signs of having been forcibly killed. One of the most prominent arguments supporting the theory that the CIA were responsible is this: why would Jones shoot himself as opposed to taking the poison like everyone else, and if he was murdered, by whom? Some suggest that the CIA had an operative amongst Ryan's party who, after the massacre at Port Kaituma, returned to the colony and ordered Jones to initiate the mass-suicide before killing him.
One of the few who survived the ordeal was a man named Larry Layton. Expressing a desire to leave with the others in Ryan's party, he boarded one of their planes. Despite the other defectors' suspicion of his intentions, Ryan allowed him to come along. Once on board the six-seat Cessna, he produced a gun from underneath his poncho and opened fire, killing two, before being disarmed and restrained. At his trial, he was unable to speak and was compared by his own father to being "like a robot". His father worked as a biochemist at the US Army's Dugway test-site in Utah. Layton's brother worked as a mercenary working for CIA-backed rebels in Angola. Psychotropic drugs were found scattered throughout Jonestown. This evidence supports the theory that Jones somehow "reprogrammed" members of his cult. Could Layton's inability to speak be put down to the use of these psychotropic drugs? If Jonestown was a CIA experiment into mind-control, it would have been difficult to orchestrate. How would it work? Certainly, the religious background to the sect would have aided greatly, as well as the isolation and physical strain the people of the Peoples Temple were put through in day-to-day life in the colony. Rumours exist of electromagnetic devices which could be used to the same effect as psychotropic drugs. Some claim there even to have been experiments into direct thought control techniques involving telepathy.
Whether it was a massacre or a suicide is still the subject of much debate, but nearly everyone who remembers the incident will agree that it was one of modern religious history's darkest moments, and one which will not soon be forgotten. James Warren Jones has earned his place alongside others such as Charles Manson as one of America's icons of evil.
Dreams and Magic, by James Stokes
Now also appears on my website, Pimpin' Villains.