Has any other small American city been exposed to the glaring spotlight of national and world attention as much as has Richmond?
Admittedly, I don’t have an answer to the question. However, it’s a timely query. Why?
This Tuesday, Nov. 18, will be the 25th anniversary of the suicides and murders of 913 Americans in Jonestown, the jungle colony founded by 1949 Richmond High School graduate James Warren Jones in the South American country of Guyana.
That ultimate tragedy is one of a half dozen times the nation and the world have focused on Richmond. Meanwhile, the nation’s newspapers and radio and television stations are certain to recall this week the horrific tragedy of a quarter of a century ago.
Jones ordered his cult followers to swallow a lethal poison — and to administer the poison to an estimated 300 children. His still-unbelievable decision came in the wake of the ambush murders of California Congressman Leo Ryan, three members of the media, and a Jonestown defector. The killers were intimates of Jones.
Those murders came earlier in the day on Nov. 18 as Ryan and the others prepared to leave Guyana from a crude airstrip near Jonestown.
Ryan led the delegation to Guyana to investigate complaints from his constituents that their relatives and friends were severely mistreated in Jonestown.
As the years have passed, Jones appears to be a humanitarian turned despot. I believe the most definitive book on Jones, his life, and the carnage at Jonestown was written by Tim Reiterman assisted by John Jacobs. Reiterman, at the time a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, accompanied Rep. Ryan to Guyana and was wounded at the airstrip.
The book’s title is “Raven.” It was published in 1982 by E.P. Dutton Inc., 2 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. Reiterman had investigated Jones for 18 months before joining Ryan for the latter’s ill-fated, fact-finding mission to Guyana.
The book’s foreword terms “Raven” the “anatomy of a dreamer, genius, a conman, a madman.”
Jones is also linked to the Randolph County communities of Crete, where he was born, and to Lynn where he spent boyhood years. He came to Richmond to complete his high school education.
While an attendant at Richmond’s Reid Memorial Hospital, he met hospital nurse Marceline Baldwin of Richmond and they were married later. Jones and his wife were among the more than 900 dead on that dreadful day 25 years ago.
Jones became an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ denomination in the 1950s. He established a congregation in Indianapolis and named it the Peoples Temple. He became known as a champion of African-Americans, other minorities, and the poor. He was named the first director of the Human Rights Commission in the Hoosier capital.
In 1965, he led about 150 members of his Indianapolis flock to California where the Peoples Temple eventually embraced congregations in Ukiah, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
In the mid-1970s, I interviewed Marceline Jones while she was in Richmond visiting her parents, Walter and Charlotte Baldwin, and her two sisters, Eloise Klingman and Sharon Mills. At that time, Marceline listed these accomplishments of the Peoples Temple in California: a drug rehabilitation program, care homes for children and the elderly, a free diagnostic and outpatient clinic, a legal aid program, a free dining hall for indigents, and the launching of the agricultural and medical mission in Guyana.
Later, California contacts alerted me to charges media members were investigating: Jones’ alleged healing powers; his craving for sex and drugs; the beatings and other mistreatment some members of his flock suffered; the claim he fathered a boy by a parishioner.
In the wake of those charges and accompanying investigations, Jones led many of his congregation to Guyana. Then came the incredible end.
Richmond’s collective heart was deeply saddened and the citizenry grieved for the parents and sisters of Marceline Jones. It was learned that Marceline had pleaded with her husband to cancel his horrendous poison plan.
On the 20th anniversary of the Jonestown debacle, Clifford Dickman, Richmond’s mayor in 1978, recalled the community’s grief two decades earlier:
“We had such sympathy for the family here. We knew they had to feel so badly.”
In 1984, I interviewed by telephone Stephan Jones, only biological son of the couple. He escaped the bloodbath because he was playing basketball in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. Recalling his mother’s long-suffering role, he said: “I realized (too late) she felt she was the only buffer between my father and us (other children, all adopted). She told me once that he could be the greatest man alive or an Adolph Hitler. He turned out to be Hitler.”
Dick Reynolds is the former editor of the Palladium-Item. He is retired and living in Richmond.