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Jonestown Redux

Guest John Gillespie

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Guest John Gillespie


I am providing a couple of fascinating pieces, pasted below: (1) an essay by Rebecca Moore on The Canon Of Jonestown, and (2) an investigative work by Uber Investigator Jim Hougan on the background of Jim Jones and the machinations of what we have come to know as Jonestown.

Bon Appetit,


I. Moore


Within weeks of Jonestown, skeptics questioned official accounts of

what had happened. The varying number of bodies proved most

suspicious: first 400, then 650, and then within a few days, 900. The

arrangement of the bodies also seemed odd: is this how people dying of

cyanide poisoning would actually look? Disbelief that people would

voluntarily kill themselves also fueled suspicions that things were not as

they appeared. The fact that so many African Americans had died raised

questions as well. What conspiracy literature attempts to resolve are the

very real inconsistencies that exist in the available narratives.

The first book-length exposé of the government conspiracy to

conduct mind control experiments on black Americans came out in

1988. In Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? Michael Meiers claims

that a Nazi-CIA axis of scientists—including Dr. Laurence Layton, the

father of both Temple member Larry Layton who was convicted of

conspiracy to murder a congressman and of Deborah Layton who

persuaded Congressman Ryan to go to Guyana—tested drugs in

Jonestown as part of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program.58 While Jim Jones

pretended to be a communist, he was actually a registered Republican,

“whose ultra-conservative, right-wing politics were reflective of the Ku

Klux Klan or the Nazi Party and are best evidenced by the fascist form of

his Peoples Temple.”59 Meiers links the Peoples Temple experiment to

the Symbionese Liberation Army, the assassinations of George Moscone

and Harvey Milk, the outbreak of the AIDS virus in the United States,

and of course former Nazis from Germany who control the CIA.60 Meiers

further contends that Jones and his leadership group escaped, and “[t]he

Reverend Jim Jones is alive, wealthy, secure and conceivably sipping pina

[sic] coladas on the veranda as he reads this first published account of

his escape from the carnage he created in Jonestown.”61

If one wanted to discredit conspiracy theories, Meiers’ book would

do it. There are factual inaccuracies, wild leaps to conclusions, and

gratuitous speculations. It is sparsely footnoted, with even a few notes

saying “Pending,” indicating that the citation had not yet been located

or verified. But Meiers attempts to address several legitimate questions


Moore: Canon on Jonestown

with his book, particularly the reason for the tremendous supply of

psychotropic drugs found in Jonestown. Jones’ strange political

connections, his trips to Brazil, and his comments about Richard Dwyer,

the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission to Guyana, on the death tape all serve

as grist for the conspiracy mill.

Against Meiers, Nathan Landau asserts in the book Heavenly Deceptor

that Jonestown was a left-wing conspiracy which sought to bring down

the United States by establishing a base of operations in Guyana.62 Jim

Jones planned to escape using the millions of dollars he had stashed in

various banks in the Caribbean and in Europe.

Jones’ escape plan, called

“The Last Stand” according to Landau, was foiled by Teri Buford as well

as by his circle of guards.63 Buford double-crossed Jones by involving

Mark Lane in the plan to spend the money, since she knew the secret

bank account numbers. The guards double-crossed Jones by killing him

at the end and escaping.

Heavenly Deceptor contains almost all the elements required for a

decent conspiracy theory today: sex, drugs, money, Nazis, torture, the

John F. Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination,

Ayatollah Khomeini and the PLO, and Eva Braun.64 While the book is

ultimately incoherent, it does raise the question of what Jones planned

to do with all of the money hidden away and why it was not used to

improve conditions in Jonestown. It also poses the race question of why

a number of people in the white leadership group escaped at the last

minute.65 Landau sees the deaths of African Americans as evidence of a

racist, perhaps even Nazi, attempt to create a concentration camp in

which people were worked to death rather than exterminated.

While Jeff Brailey’s self-published account of his experience with the

evacuation of the bodies of the Jonestown dead does not fall into the

category of conspiracy literature, The Ghosts of November is sure to fuel

conspiracy theories.66 Brailey, a Licensed Practical Nurse, was a U.S.

Army Master Sergeant with the 601st Medical Company stationed in

Panama which was assigned to participate in the bodylift after 18

November 1978. He derives his account of life in Jonestown primarily

from Deborah Layton [blakey]’s 1978 affidavit which warned of the

potential for suicide, but his most interesting anecdotes come from his

personal experiences of being stationed in Matthews Ridge, Guyana the

week after the deaths.67 He recalls “heading toward a place with more

dead human bodies scattered about than any other place I had ever

been including Vietnam.”68 Brailey claims that he saw Jim Jones lying

dead on the steps of his cabin, not in the pavilion, with his arms in a

different position from that of the famous photograph. He also says

that a lieutenant from the Guyana Defense Force showed him a cabin in

Jonestown with dead Guyanese citizens who had been shot. Brailey

returned from his first visit to Jonestown on 20 November in a helicopter

with a man claiming to work for the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown. The


Nova Religio

official insisted that Brailey shoot anyone who attempted to grab the

large crate of papers he had gathered over the previous twenty-four hours.

Brailey concludes that the man was a CIA “spook,” or operative.69

Brailey attempts to clear up the mystery of the changing body count

with an explanation which may or may not satisfy conspiracy theorists.

He says that bodies had fallen—from youngest and smallest to oldest

and most able-bodied—on top of each other in a depression around

the pavilion. In his words, they fell in an “inverted pyramid.”70 He

provides some useful information about the identification process which

might help researchers determine family groupings. He also notes that

a Criminal Investigation Division of the Army in Panama looked into

charges of theft from Jonestown. This might prove another avenue for

research: military investigations and after-action reports that might allay

conspiracy talk by accounting for discrepancies that appeared in news

coverage of the initial chaos.

Three conspiracy sources take the position that the CIA wanted to

disrupt Jonestown because it was a leftist, interracial, political group. A

cover story in Freedom, the magazine of the Church of Scientology, claims

that the CIA was bent on destroying both Peoples Temple and Leo Ryan,

who had sponsored legislation to curb CIA abuses.71 Quoting former

Green Beret Charles Huff, the article claims that people in Jonestown

did not die willingly. “We saw many bullet wounds as well as wounds

from crossbow bolts,” he said, adding that adults who had not been shot

were injected.72

Dr. Leslie Mootoo, chief medical examiner for Guyana

in 1978, also reiterated his belief—which he first voiced in 1978—that

the majority of people in Jonestown had been murdered, saying that

187 bodies showed signs of injections. Mootoo and his staff did not

complete examinations on all of the dead.

The article also states that, “One source told Freedom the actual killers

had been planted in the Peoples Temple.”73 That source, unidentified

in the article, undoubtedly is Laurie Efrein Kahalas, a Peoples Temple

loyalist who in 1998 published Snake Dance, her own version of events,

and who maintains a website at <http://www.jonestown.com>.74 She

writes that the CIA had a contingency plan to exterminate the

community. CIA sharpshooters, not Temple members, conducted a

professional hit on Leo Ryan and the media in order to eliminate the

congressman and to discredit Jim Jones. The community then had little

choice but to take their own lives, she argues, quoting Jones from the

final tape: “We have no choice now. Either we do it or they do it.”75

Kahalas presents the Peoples Temple perspective on events prior to 18

November 1978 faithfully, if uncritically. She goes further, however, and

labels any account at variance with her own as “disinformation.”

Nevertheless, her book is a valuable look at what Peoples Temple

members thought about a major and on-going child custody battle, about

the Concerned Relatives, and about Ryan’s visit. Moreover, Kahalas raises


Moore: Canon on Jonestown

interesting questions about the hit squad which assassinated Ryan and

the others: where is NBC’s raw, unedited footage of the event, she


The third and most credible example of leftist conspiracy literature

comes from Jim Hougan, a freelance writer and novelist who has

documented and footnoted his research investigating alleged

connections between Jim Jones and the CIA.76 Hougan makes a

compelling argument for tying Jones to Dan Mitrione, a CIA agent

murdered by Uruguay’s Tupamaros in 1970.77 He looks closely at Jones’

mysterious years in South America between 1960 and 1963, including

his trip to Cuba and a trip to Guyana when he supposedly was in Hawaii.78

Hougan’s most important contribution is his emphasis of the fact that it

was the CIA that first described the deaths in Jonestown as mass suicide.79

In other words, very early in the reporting the deaths were identified as

suicide rather than murder, even though Guyana’s chief medical

examiner called them murder. Hougan believes that most residents of

Jonestown were forcibly injected and therefore were in fact murdered.

He bases this belief on the forensic work of Guyana’s medical examiner,

Dr. Leslie Mootoo, and on the eyewitness account of Stanley Clayton,

arguing that these reports are the closest thing we have to an official

judgment on the matter.

The reason for the murders: Jones wanted to

hide the imminent disclosure of his former ties to Mitrione and to U.S.

intelligence agencies.

The magnitude of the Jonestown event itself probably means that in

some respects no account will ever completely satisfy everyone. In an email

message to me Hougan wrote that “if it is in fact the case that the

CIA was in some sense ‘responsible’ for Jim Jones, then the Agency must

also have a responsibility—moral and legal—for those who died at


The Freedom article concludes by saying that “nearly two

decades after the death of Congressman Leo Ryan, America is still owed

a definitive explanation for the many unresolved questions surrounding

the tragedy.”81 It is clear that conspiracy theorists will continue to spin

their tales as long as government documents remain classified.


Jonestown—as a myth, a word, a concept—has entered common

parlance and is visible everywhere. During the threatened strike by major

league baseball umpires in August 1999, one umpire said the strike “is

like the Jonestown, Koolaid thing. But not everybody was going to be

that stupid.”82 A novel by Wilson Harris is titled Jonestown, but has little

to do with the original Jonestown,83 nor does Frank Zappa’s Jonestown

album or the group called Jonestown Massacre. An extremely interesting

popular analysis of Jonestown appears in Daniel Quinn’s novel My


Nova Religio

Ishmael.84 A textbook by Lorne Dawson attempts to present a “sympathetic

understanding” of new religious movements, and does look at Peoples

Temple in a scholarly way.85 But such thoughtful efforts are balanced by

throwaway references to Jonestown in popular culture, such as the

promotion for an episode of the television program Law and Order which

compared an abusive father to Jonestown.

A body of scholarly literature has grown upon the foundations laid

in the first ten years after Jonestown. That first decade saw instant

paperbacks and sensationalistic accounts as well as thoughtful and

thorough investigations into the meaning and reality of Peoples Temple.

The last decade of the twentieth century viewed Peoples Temple through

the lenses of Waco and other violent events involving religious

communities, comparing groups, beliefs, and actions. It also examined

unexplored facets of life within the Temple, from the perspectives of

both women and African Americans. At the same time, however, a canon

exists which seems unassailable by scholars attempting to modify, nuance,

or enlarge that canon.

Will historians and religion scholars be able to amend the existing

Jonestown canon? Right now the odds do not look very good. Although

scholars know that we need more information and more research before

declaring the canon closed, they appear to have little say in the matter.

Moreover, conspiracy theorists may find greater acceptance with the

public in the future, just as they have with alternative accounts of the

John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations. I hope that

this paper sounds the alarm for the pressing need to communicate

scholarly findings with the general public so that one hundred years

from now the canon on Jonestown will reflect information and analysis

that occurred in the decades after November 1978. I also hope this article

points to the urgency of acting quickly to obtain all available documents

about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and to talk with all living witnesses,

before they are irretrievably lost. No matter how closed it looks today,

the canon on Jonestown remains open as long as government records

and first-person accounts are excluded; as long as the stories of African

Americans and women are neglected; as long as the role of apostates is

ignored; and as long as the questions raised by conspiracy theorists

continue to go unanswered. Absent the insights garnered through twenty

years of research, the canon by definition must stay open.

Special thanks go to Fielding M. McGehee, III for editorial assistance on this

article. My

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