Jonestown: 25 Years Later

Tragic events in Guyana still reverberate, cause pain in communities

Twenty-five years and some 2,800 miles removed from the tragic end of the Peoples Temple Agricultural and Medical Project in Jonestown, Guyana, the impact of what went on there Nov. 18, 1978, still can be felt in Indiana.

In the handful of houses that comprises Crete, one still attracts attention because it was the birthplace of James Warren Jones.

In nearby Lynn, where Jones spent the majority of his youth, his home is gone, replaced by a grocery store. Yet memories remain, and many residents would prefer the world forget that he ever lived there — not because of the young man that he was, but because of the man he became.

In Richmond, where Jones graduated from high school in 1949 and married a local girl, a sadness remains with her family and friends.

In Indianapolis, where the Rev. Jim Jones debuted professionally in the pulpit and collected a strong, integrated, community service-oriented congregation known as the Peoples Temple, there is still pain among friends and families whose loved ones followed Jones first to California and then into the jungle of Guyana, where they died under his leadership.

The time and distance have only dulled the impact felt when Jonestown became synonymous with death in the world’s vocabulary. On Nov. 18, 1978, a congressman and four others were shot and killed on an airstrip and 913 adults and children — followers of Jones — died in a remote compound.

The only constant that remains is the question: Why?

What made him different?

In most of this region, the questions don’t come as often as they used to, but a fascination still exists with the Rev. Jim Jones, once leader of one of America’s largest congregations, the 10,000-member Peoples Temple in California.

Joyce Overman Bowman, a 1950 Lynn High School graduate now living in Indianapolis, has followed the Jonestown saga since the tragedy occurred. She has books, videotapes and talks to others about her former schoolmate. She has been interviewed for articles and documentaries about Jones, who is often referred to as a cult leader.

Negative memories last longer

Linda Black is Crete’s historian and is planning to create a museum about the town in a building that once housed a blacksmith.

Inquiries about Jones and his birthplace are made about a half-dozen times a year, she said. Usually, they are from people not from the area, and many are working on school papers, books or documentary projects.

The Randolph Southern High School Junior Historians group she sponsors even has done a project on Jones.

“The fact that he was born here, we cannot deny. That’s a fact you cannot change,” Black said.

“You wonder why it all evolved the way it did,” she said. “Sports people today think they’re godlike — they’re up there at the top and nobody can touch them. They think they’re beyond that point. That’s pretty much what happened to Jim Jones.

“… He just chose an unacceptable way of trying to cover up all this problems at that point. We all answer in different ways … Maybe it seems more natural than we would like to think,’ Black said.

The memory of Jonestown is etched deeply, she said, because people have a tendency not to be able to let go of negative thoughts.

“We celebrate and quickly forget the good things, but have a tendency to hang on to those things we cannot forgive and forget,” she said. “What were all of the things that were good that Jim Jones did before he got to that point? There were many positive things to begin with. He had quite a gathering. There was good there. What changed it, we don’t know.”

Towns prefer disassociation

In Lynn, where Jones received most of his schooling, the inquiries about him have tapered off. Some are fielded at town hall by Kaylene Straley, Lynn’s town clerk; others come to Washington Township Public Library and Museum librarian Suzanne Robinson or assistant librarian Marilyn Engle.

“The main thing we have had is college students coming in to do reports,” Engle said. “Really, people in Lynn don’t talk about it.”

Straley said when Lynn makes the news for reasons other than its relationship with Jones, people are glad and hope it will wipe away the association of Jones.

“Some of his family still lives here,” Straley said. “On the whole, there really isn’t a whole lot of discussion about it.”

Curiosity seekers

Like Bowman, Monisa Wisener of Winchester graduated from Lynn in 1950. She thinks the events at Jonestown continue to resonate in Lynn because everyone was shocked by it.

She is the chief volunteer, genealogist and board secretary at the Randolph County Historical Museum. Before that, she worked in the Randolph County Health Department. At both places, she has fielded inquiries about Jones.

Some people wanted his birth certificate; others wanted more information.

The same can be said of the people who call once in awhile to the Earlham Cemetery office looking for information about the burial places of Jim Jones and his wife, Marceline Baldwin Jones. She was buried in the cemetery, and at her family’s request, Jones was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.

School memories

Margaret Anne Kaiser graduated from Richmond High School in 1949 with Jones. She only knew him by sight.

“I think the fascination is that it was such a horrendous thing that people have never gotten over it,” Kaiser said.

Richmond High School Alumni Association director Karen Chasteen doesn’t like associating Jones with the school, noting that there are many more worthwhile alumni, such as Wilbur Wright of the Wright Brothers.

A community tragedy

One of the people who feels the impact of the catastrophe at Jonestown most deeply is Marceline Baldwin Jones’ sister, Sharon Mills of Richmond.

Each time a landmark anniversary of the deaths rolls around, she prays she won’t be contacted and cries when she is. Then, she deals with it.

“It’s just a part of my life,” she said.

“It’s hard for those in the community,” she said. “I can see it on the faces of my friends, those who know about me, they know it’s out there, they know the anniversary is coming. I can just see the pain they have for me.

“It not just affected our family, it affected everyone — 913 people died. It will not go away.

“I have accepted that this is a part of my life,” she said. ” I am so grateful to God that my life is very good. God has seen me through so many things.

“Basically, a lot of good people died that day,” Mills said. “It’s hard to understand … I certainly don’t have any answers.

“I don’t know how or what or why it all happened. I know who is responsible.”

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