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BOOK REVIEW: "The Road to Jonestown" by Jeff Guinn

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In the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze” the fictional detective advises his colleague Dr. Watson that some time when something doesn’t occur, such as when a dog doesn’t bark when someone comes to a door, may constitute a clue be of significance. And the same point was made by several police officers in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1961 when a local preacher reported that a bullet had been fired at his house late at night when he was the only member of the household who was awake.

The supposed incident was reported by the Rev. Jim Jones, who headed a house of worship known as the “Peoples Temple.” It is where he often preached about the need for racial and economic equality in Indianapolis and the nation as a whole.

The police who conducted the investigation wondered why such an incident did not serve to wake up the three dogs in the home whose barking would have aroused the rest of the family and the neighbors.

When the officers were shown the damage done to a pillar on the front porch by the bullet, they pointed out that it indicated that the bullet was in fact fired from the house, not at it. Jones had been telling his flock that his life had been threatened due to his advocacy for African Americans and that he had recently brought a gun to protect himself as a result.

That incident is recounted in the recently published The Road To Jonestown; Jim Jones And The Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn ( also the author of Manson), and the author documents how that from the earliest days of his career Jones was adept at staging incidents that made his congregants that he was in danger for his efforts on behalf of the less fortunate.

In time he would also tell his followers that they were also in danger due to their membership in an organization that was dedicated to racial equality and greater distribution of wealth. The cleric was often dismissive of what he termed the “sky god” and expressed admiration for the Soviet Union in his sermons.

Jones later moved his organization to Mendocino, California, where he oversaw the construction of communal housing and staffing that provided assistance to those who needed help dealing with social service agencies and also provided medical treatment to indigent people. The cleric reached out to homeless people and provided them with housing and sustenance.

Guinn details how Jones brought a fleet of Greyhound buses that he began to use to transport his followers to African American church gatherings in California where he began to attract additional followers, and that the black pastors of those houses of worship did not realize that that was his reason for coming to their churches.

When people joined the Temple they surrendered all of their property to it, and in time it had bank accounts that were receiving social security checks and child support payments as a result.

Jones often healed sick people at those gatherings, and often those who were healed were members of his flock that had been planted in the audience. He often stunned those who were in attendance by telling them things about their lives that were personal, and Guinn explains how his followers would mingle with the crowd and pick up bits of information about those present that would be submitted to Jones on index cards before he began his presentation.

One could only wonder how he could have used that technique in our time of social media.

Eventually, Jones opened churches in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, and soon became part of the political establishment in the latter city where he used his followers to help elect George Moscone mayor there in 1975.

Jones also met with Rosalynn Carter during the 1976 presidential campaign and later with Vice President Walter Mondale.

His disciples addressed him either as “Father” or “Dad” and marveled about his ability to work seemingly around the clock. But Guinn points out that Jones energy was partly the result of the amphetamines that he took in large number as well as the other drugs he needed to ingest to function.

Jones had married Marceline Baldwin in his youth, who shared his commitment to racial equality- he claimed that they were the first while couple in Indiana to adopt a black child- and they had several children including Jim Jones Sr.

But in the late 1960’s he told his closest associates that her health issues made it difficult for her to satisfy his needs and he began to have affairs with several of his young followers. He also began to have sexual encounters with some of his male disciples, the author documents.

Medical textbooks list paranoia as being one of the effects of abuse of amphetamines , and in time Jones started to exhibit such paranoia and began to tell his congregants that organizations such as the CIA and the FBI were conspiring against the Temple and him.

But like many paranoid individuals, Jones had developed real enemies as well, and some of them were defectors from the temple while still more were parents of Temple adherents who felt that Jones had brainwashed their children into blind obedience to him .

In 1977 a reporter in San Francisco had been approached by some of those defectors and was intrigued by what they told him of members being beaten at gatherings at Jones’ directions as well as the sham cures that were part of the Temple’s show. He knew that his publication would not run such an expose since Jones was now part of the local establishment, but he approached the editor of the monthly publication New West with the idea for such a story.

While Guinn doesn’t mention it, New West was then the property of Australian press baron Rupert Murdoch, who had no ties with the San Francisco establishment, and New West featured in its August 1977 issue a story headlined “Inside Peoples Temple” followed by the subtitle that asked “Jim Jones is one of the state’s most politically potent leaders, But who is he, and what is going on behind his church’s locked doors”?

Several years earlier, according to Guinn, Jones had overseen the creation of a settlement, “Jonestown,” deep in the jungle of the South American nation of Guyana, and by 1977 it was being built by members of the Temple that had been sent there by Jones.

But in response to the New West expose, he ordered more people to that site and he went for what he described as a visit as well.

But he could not escape his enemies there. Emboldened by the revelations contained in the New West article, several family members persuaded Congressman Leo Ryan of San Francisco in November 1978 to travel to Jonestown to ascertain if their relatives were being held there against there will deep in the Guyanian jungle.

In addition, a San Francisco court had ordered Jones to return a young boy he had taken to Guyana whose parents had previously been Temple members.

Congressman Ryan and his entourage, which included several members of the media, were admitted to Jonestown, and a small number or residents indicated that they wished to return to the US with him when Ryan announced that they could do so.

Jones responded by having one of his disciples shoot Ryan at the airfield where he was attempting to board his plane. Then Jones summoned all of the estimated 900 people at the compound and had them drink cyanide mixed with Flavor Aid.

Those that refused to drink it were injected with the poison by Jones armed guards. There is a tape extant of that gathering and when his wife Marceline says “You can’t do this” he is heard to reply “Marceline, you have 40 minutes,” which Guinn believes was Jones way of telling her that three of their sons, who were in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown for a basketball game, had already been given a radio message by Jones to also take their lives.

Marceline Jones had often said that she lived for her children and that if she thought they were dead or would be soon she would be willing to end her life as well.. Apparently she began to scream as many of the children began to die as the drug was squirted into their mouths, because one the last thing Jones is heard saying on the tape is:

“Mother, mother don’t do this, lay down your life with your children with dignity.”

When the U.S. Forces who came to return the bodies to the U.S. arrived several days later they were greeted with the sign that had always hung above where Jones spoke that read “ Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

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About the Author

Bill O'Brien

Bill O'Brien is an attorney based in Oklahoma City.

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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