Jonestown is the name of the settlement in Guyana founded in the 1970s by the Reverand Jim Jones and populated by members of his religious commune, the People’s Temple. The name “Jonestown” has come to refer to the 1978 event where over 900 people died, including Jones himself.
While official accounts maintain that the deaths were caused by a Jones-led mass suicide, conspiracy accounts argue that most of the dead were murdered. In conspiracy-theory circles, Jonestown is an example of a mind-control cult experiment (with links to the CIA) that went awry.
The official explanation of Jonestown is well known, having dominated news accounts, mass-market paperbacks, documentaries, and made-for-television movies. It states that on 18 November 1978 Jim Jones, the charismatic and fanatical guru who founded the People’s Temple and established the religious commune Jonestown, persuaded his followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Over 900 members did so, and Jones himself died via a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Around the same moment, U.S. Congress member Leo Ryan (on an official investigation mission) and three reporters were gunned down on the Port Kaituma airstrip as they tried to leave Jonestown.
The assassins did not die in the “White Night” of mass suicide, but fled and went into hiding. One of the gunners, Larry Layton, was later tried and convicted of the murders. The entire event of Jonestown was attributed to the psychotic leadership of Jones, and engendered general suspicion of idealistic, alternative, and experimental religious groups.
Mass Suicide or Mass Murder?
Conspiracy accounts challenge this official explanation on two major counts: that most of the members died by murder rather than suicide, and that Jim Jones, far from being a lone nut leader, was enmeshed in the shadowy network of intelligence and mind control.
Evidence for the former begins with the initial news accounts, which listed the suicide toll at 400, and claimed that 700 had fled into the jungle. A week later the accounts were revised to say that 913 people had consumed the poisoned concoction.
Not only did this leave almost 200 people unaccounted for, it indicated a shift in the number of suicides. U.S. military and embassy officials on the scene first explained the inconsistency by claiming that the Guyanese people could not count, that they had missed a pile of bodies (even after days of searching and counting), and that the discrepancy was due to bodies being stacked on one another. However, the first photographs from the scene (150 of them, both aerial and close-up) showed no stacking.
In addition, skeptics find it difficult to believe that 408 bodies (82 of them children) could conceal over 500 others. Instead of this revised story and number counting, skeptics like John Judge believe the initial reports that stated that the majority of Jonestown members fled into the jungle.
But what happened to them then? C. Leslie Mootoo, the top Guyanese pathologist, was the first to examine the bodies. He noted that the vast majority of the dead did not exhibit symptoms of cyanide poisoning (which include muscular contortions, especially in the face).
At the Guyanese grand jury hearing, Mootoo testified that 80–90 percent of the victims had fresh needle marks in their shoulder blades, that a number of others had been shot or strangled, and that at least 700 had been murdered.
The grand jury, after hearing Mootoo’s testimony and considering other evidence, concluded that only two people had committed suicide. In addition, some photos showed gunshot wounds, while others displayed drag marks leading to the bodies, indicating that the bodies were moved after death.
Initially, the U.S. Army spokesperson declared that no autopsies were needed, as the cause of death was not an issue. While the United States dispatched large military aircraft for the retrieval of bodies to the United States, they performed the task slowly. The bodies were left to decompose in the heat for almost a week, making autopsies impossible.
Relatives and the National Association of Medical Examiners complained that the remains were ineptly handled, often illegally embalmed or cremated, and nearly impossible to identify. These badly botched procedures signaled a cover-up for skeptics (since forensic reconstruction of the White Night could not be done), further indicating a mass slaughter.
But who performed the killing? A number of theories emerge here. One version is that Jones’s elite armed guards (about twenty men) hunted the fleeing members. These guards were an all-white group who had special privileges during the Jonestown stay (90 percent of the dead were women and 80 percent were black).
Some of these armed guards were responsible for gunning down Congressperson Leo Ryan and the reporters on the airstrip. Witnesses and survivors describe the killers as glassy-eyed “zombies” and their killing as mechanical and methodical. Most of these armed guards escaped and are still unaccounted for.
Other theories implicate U.S. Green Berets who were in Guyana at the time, as well as British Black Watch troops also training in the region. Guyanese troops and police (some of whom were on the scene of the Ryan killings but did very little to defend them) have also been implicated.
Jim Jones’s fate has also come under suspicion. While the official story maintains that he committed suicide, conspiracy theories point to the fact that the gun allegedly used was found some 200 feet away from the body. Photos of Jones’s body do not show his identifying tattoos. The FBI examined Jones’s fingerprints twice (highly unusual for what is supposed to be an exact science), while his dental records were never checked.
Putting all of these pieces together, the conspiracy theory argues that what happened on 18 November 1978 was a mass murder, put into action because of Congress member Ryan’s investigative findings that uncovered the true nature of the People’s Temple.
Messianic Cult, Government Mind-Control Experiment, or Both?
Beyond the events of that day, however, conspiracy theorists also place Jonestown in a larger context, implicating the very nature of the religious commune into the shadowy world of intelligence. In a tape recording made during the White Night, Jim Jones is heard yelling, “Get Dwyer out of here!” He was referring to Richard Dwyer, who was working as deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Guyana.
Dwyer was listed in the publication Who’s Who in the CIA, and was allegedly an agent since 1959. He was found at the airstrip where Ryan and the others were killed, stripping the dead of their belongings. Other embassy members, some of them close to Jones, were also involved in intelligence work.
Jones’s childhood friend Dan Mitrione joined the CIA-financed International Police Academy. Mitrione was a police advisor in Brazil during Jones’s ministering there in the early 1960s, where neighbors found Jones’s wealthy lifestyle to be suspicious (he claimed he was getting paid by the U.S. government).
Jones’s early work in founding the People’s Temple in 1965 in Ukiah, California, his moving of the church to San Francisco (where supporters Mayor Miscone and Harvey Milk were later mysteriously killed), and his eventual relocation to Guyana were all implicated in mysterious deaths, large financial dealings, and illegal activities. Most of Jones’s wealth (estimated at between $26 million and $2 billion) disappeared after the mass death.
According to survivors and ex-members, Jonestown was anything but the socialist utopia or religious commune its self-promotional literature claimed. These survivors described the organization as a cult, complete with routine harassment, forced labor, and torture (including repeated “White Night” drills).
After the collective death, investigators discovered a massive cache of drugs, with large quantities of thorazine, sodium pentathol, and numerous other tranquilizers and psychotropic drugs used in the CIA’s MK-ULTRA behavioral modification experiments.
A number of survivors ended up with mysterious fates even after they avoided the gruesome “White Night.” Former Jones aide Michael Prokes held a press conference where he accused the U.S. authorities of hiding an audiotape of the massacre.
After meeting the press, Prokes went to the bathroom and allegedly killed himself. Jeannie and Al Mills, who planned on writing an exposé of Jones, were found murdered in their home. Yet another former member was involved in the 1984 mass murder of Los Angeles school children.
In 1980 the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence found no evidence of CIA activity in Jonestown. A year before, based on many of the discrepancies, sinister links, and evidence around Jonestown, former Ryan aide Joseph Holsinger came to the conclusion that sums up the Jonestown conspiracy theory.
He argued that Jonestown was a mass mind-control experiment with CIA involvement, in which MK-ULTRA techniques (officially halted in 1973) were transferred from institutions to religious groups. Holsinger also argued that Ryan’s congressional investigation found incriminating evidence of this experiment, and that Ryan and the 900 members of the People’s Temple were murdered to prevent exposure.