JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Whatever Warren Jeffs may turn out to be, whatever happens to his followers, nothing, thank goodness, compares to what we know and what we’re still learning about another religious leader, the Reverend Jim Jones and his cult of death.
ANNOUNCER: Seduced by a madman, they lined up to die.
STANLEY CLAYTON, FORMER PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBER: And she went up to that Kool-Aid, to that death barrel, and she just didn’t hesitate. And she died in my arms.
ANNOUNCER: Mass suicide, or was it mass murder? More than 900 dead — new research and new details, a terrifying look at what turned Jonestown into a killing ground.
ANNOUNCER: Across the country and around the world, this is ANDERSON COOPER 360.
Sitting in for Anderson and reporting from the CNN studios in New York, here’s John Roberts.
ROBERTS: And thanks for joining us, everyone.
But, first, a new and revealing take on one of the most enduring mysteries of our time. Twenty-eight years ago today, Americans were trying to absorb — absorb gruesome reports of a mass killing in a far-off jungle. The dead were Americans who had followed man named Jim Jones to a tiny South American nation. Most of them never came home.
Were they the victims of mass murder or mass suicide? A new documentary tries to answer that question. It’s a fascinating film — in a moment, my interview with the filmmaker and Jim Jones Jr.
First, some background.
ROBERTS (voice-over): When Jim Jones started the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s, it was progressive, a place where black and white could worship together a refuge for the poor and elderly.
REVEREND JIM JONES SR., THE PEOPLES TEMPLE: I represent divine principles, total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, where there are no racists.
ROBERTS: His church became a haven for the idealistic, the downtrodden, the dispossessed. Jones’ congregation thought they were following a visionary.
JIM JONES SR.: Wherever there’s people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am, and there I am involved.
ROBERTS: But that vision came with a price.
NEVA SLY HARGRAVE, FORMER PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBER: We turned our paychecks over every time we got paid. And then we got an allowance, $5 a week.
ROBERTS: Jones built the Peoples Temple into not just a church, but a powerful political force. He could turn out hundreds of demonstrators in a heartbeat to support politicians and community causes.
On the outside, Jones’ community appeared upbeat and unified — behind closed doors, though, another story.
LAURA JOHNSTON KOHL, FORMER PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBER: I was in a lot of meetings where people were spanked or beaten. And I — I was slapped once also in a — in a public meeting.
ROBERTS: Harsh punishment was how Jones kept his congregation in line. He demanded loyalty.
But, as the years wore on, and Jones became more controlling, and the temple more controversial, some parishioners fled, and began talking to the press.
DEBORAH LAYTON, FORMER PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBER: Before the article was going to break, Jim convinced the publisher that she needed to read it to him. And he realizes that this article is going to be hugely damning. They flew out to Guyana six hours before that article was going to hit. ROBERTS: Guyana was Jim Jones’ escape plan, Jonestown, he called it, utopia in the middle of the South American jungle — no radio or TV. The sole source of information was Jones himself.
JIM JONES SR.: The United States is calling for the removal of all blacks and Indians.
REBECCA MOORE, FAMILY MEMBERS DIED AT JONESTOWN: There was this pervasive sense of being under attack in Jonestown. He told them that things were just getting worse in the United States. They couldn’t go back home, and not only that, but these forces were traveling to Guyana to destroy them there.
ROBERTS: In truth, the only thing keeping people in Jonestown was Jim Jones. And when word of that began to leak out, it did attract attention from officials back home.
One of them, California Congressman Leo Ryan, who traveled to Jonestown in November 1978.
REP. LEO RYAN (D), CALIFORNIA: I think that all of you know that I’m here to find out more about questions that have been raised about your operation here.
ROBERTS: Ryan wanted to know if church members were being held against their will. His aide was dispatched to find out.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now, do I both understand you to say that you both want to leave Jonestown on this date, November 18, 1978?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When word got out that people were leaving, all hell broke out.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You bring those kids back here! You — you bring them back! Don’t you take my kids!
ROBERTS: Congressman Ryan headed for the small airstrip outside Jonestown, promising safe passage to anyone who wanted to leave with him. But Jim Jones had other plans.
Ryan and his entourage were ambushed as they tried to board his plane. Five people, including the congressman, were killed. That’s when Jim Jones began his death spiral.
JIM JONES SR.: The congressman is dead. You think they’re going to allow us to get by with this? You must be insane. If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace.
TIM CARTER, FORMER PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBER: That’s when I noticed that there were armed guards kind of taking positions up around the pavilion.
JIM JONES SR.: Die with respect. Die with a degree of dignity. It’s nothing to death. It’s just stepping over into another plane. Quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly. Where’s the vat, the vat, the vat? Bring it here, so the adults can begin.
ROBERTS: The vat was killed with a Kool-Aid-type drink laced with cyanide.
STANLEY CLAYTON, FORMER PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBER: My wife came up to me. She — she didn’t have no tears in her eyes. She just — it was — was just in a daze. And she went up to that Kool-Aid, to that death barrel, and she just didn’t hesitate, just took it, and drunk, and then told me to hold her, to take her. And I did. And she died in my arms.
ROBERTS: More than 900 people tied that day. Some call it a mass suicide. Those who escaped call it mass murder.
CLAYTON: I ain’t never used the term suicide, and I’m not going to never use the term suicide, that that man killed — was killing us.
ROBERTS: Jim Jones never drank his own poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. A final act of protest was how he described Jonestown.
JIM JONES SR.: We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide, protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.
ROBERTS: The new documentary, “Jonestown: The Life and Death Of Peoples Temple,” opened recently, and it is a riveting film, to say the least. It includes interviews with survivors and relatives of some of the victims, as you saw.
I recently talked with Jim Jones’ adopted son, Jim Jones Jr., and director Stanley Nelson about the film.
ROBERTS: Stanley, I want — I want to play a clip from the documentary here. It’s two of Jim Jones’ childhood friends speaking with each other
Let’s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE”)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From the time I was 5 years old, I thought Jimmy was a really weird kid. There was something not quite right. He was obsessed with religion. He was obsessed with death.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My brothers came back with stories of him conducting funerals for small animals that had died.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A friend of mine told me that he saw Jimmy kill a cat with a knife. While having a funeral for it was a little strange, killing the animal was very strange.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Stanley, what was Jim Jones’ childhood like? And — and how did that shape him as an adult?
STANLEY NELSON, DIRECTOR, JONESTOWN: “THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE”: Well, I think it was really important to show that Jim Jones was very strange, you know, from the very beginning, from a very young child.
You know, he was from the other side of the tracks. You know, he lived in a very small community in Indiana. And he was, you know, as close to being an outcast from the community as there possibly could be. His father basically didn’t work. His father drank a lot.
And, you know, Jim Jones was really — was really an outcast. I think that there was also something strange within Jim Jones. You know, it didn’t all come from the outside. Some of it was — was something that was internal, and that was there from the very beginning.
Jim, what caught the attention of authorities — I mean, the church was controversial, from — from the — from the get-go here. But really what caught the attention of the authorities was that people were — they had heard that couldn’t leave Jonestown in Guyana.
Let me play another clip about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE”)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said, I really want to get away from him. And, by Christmas, I will be gone.
JIM JONES SR.: By Christmas, you want to be gone? By Christmas, you want to be gone?
JIM JONES SR.: By Christmas, do you want to be gone?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would ask you, could I go home to make a trip to see my people?
JIM JONES SR.: I have the power to send you home by Christmas, but it’s not on a Trans World Airlines. It’s blasphemy. It’s blasphemy to talk about going back, when you have not been given approval.
Do you want to go home?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
JIM JONES SR.: Well, then be seated, and shut your mouth, and don’t be in my face anymore. (END VIDEO CLIP)
ROBERTS: Jim Jones really beating up on someone who said that he wanted to leave.
Could general people in the congregation, though, leave Jonestown of their own free will?
JIM JONES JR., SON OF JIM JONES: People couldn’t leave if they wanted to.
But I think you have to look at kind of back going to the philosophy and some of the insecurities Jim Jones had. He could not see why someone would want to leave this mission and cause.
I mean, you also have to look at what Peoples Temple was providing and what it did — and what it did.
JIM JONES JR.: And — and I think this film really exemplified that very well.
I mean, it had homeless shelters before it was something that was common, had soup kitchens, had drug rehab programs, had your aging citizen, senior citizen homes. There was a family and sense of community that was formed.
JIM JONES JR.: And he just couldn’t see why people would want to leave.
ROBERTS: I believe you were — you were off in Georgetown, playing basketball at the time of the mass suicide, the mass murder, whatever people want to call it.
Had you been there, would the outcome have been different, or do you think you wouldn’t be here talking to us today, if you were there?
JIM JONES JR.: You know, for many years, I have thought that very same question. You know, could I have made a difference? Could the fact that my brothers were and myself were all not there, would we have made an impact?
And, you know, I think that overstates the humanity…
JIM JONES JR.: … of the 909 people that were there.
The chain of events that occurred within the 24 hours that Leo Ryan came there, and to — up to the actual taking of the poison, and — and Jim Jones being shot, I don’t know if anything could have changed those events.
ROBERTS: Well, it’s a terrific and a fresh look on a piece of history that, to some degree, has been misunderstood up until now.
Jim Jones, Stanley Nelson, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
NELSON: Thank you.
JIM JONES JR.: Thank you.
NELSON: Thank you so much.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
Possibly Related Products
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.