Jim Jones led his flock to death in jungle
Lynn, Ind. — Jimmy Jones was born to preach.
As a grammar school student in this small town in rural Indiana, the architect of one of the most notorious mass murder-suicides in history liked to hang out with kids one or two grades behind him.
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They were easier to boss around.
Jimmy would arrange the members of his childhood congregation on the porch steps of a friend’s house. Then, he would drape a sheet over his shoulders, step up on a wooden packing crate and start preaching like the devil.
“Most of the time, Jim was a pain,” said Peter Jones, who is unrelated. “There always seemed to be trouble around him.”
Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple perished in the South American jungle, either shot, injected or otherwise poisoned by the deadly punch he had ordered them to drink.
The world was shocked by Jonestown. But interviews with people who knew Jones before he brought his congregation to California reveal early warning signs in the young life of this crazed prophet — the quick temper, the lust for power, the turning points from which there would be no turning back.
The spiritual journey of Jim Jones would end in a remote jungle compound littered with bloated bodies. But it began with a troubled farm boy here in America’s heartland.
James Warren Jones was born in the hamlet of Crete, Ind. — just outside of Lynn — on May 13, 1931.
His father, James Thurman Jones, saw combat in Europe during World War I and was never quite the same when he got home. Some of the old-timers around Lynn believe that Old Jim had been exposed to mustard gas. Others say he was just a drunk. Medical reports show he spent five years in a psychiatric hospital in the 1920s.
Shortly after his release, he married Lynetta Putnam, a woman who was 15 years younger and had been married twice before. She gave birth to Jimmy.
When Jimmy was 4 or 5 years old, his mother would give him a sack lunch and send him out of the house. He would wander around town with his lunch, often with a stray dog following him around.
“My mom was in the kitchen having coffee one day, and there was this little kid at the door with his sack lunch,” said Phyllis Wilmore, who now lives in Indianapolis. “He said, ‘Can I come in?’ He sat down and was very polite. He said, ‘This is my lunch, but I think I’ll eat it now.’ “
Wilmore dated Jimmy in high school. By that time, he had figured out how to deliver a sermon.
“When we were in our sophomore or junior year, we had this basketball rivalry with another school,” Wilmore recalled. “We had a big pep rally before one of the games, and Jimmy decided to stage an elaborate funeral for the other school. He got up and started preaching and did an incredible job. He had the control and inflection. It was like the real thing, but was all intended to be a joke. He was very self-assured on stage. He had that coal black hair and piercing eyes that would look right through you.”
There were five churches in town — Friends, Nazarene, Methodist, Apostolic and the Church of Christ. Jimmy went to all of them.
“He was idealistic and cynical at the same time. He’d join these churches, and then he’d get disillusioned and quit and go join a different one,” Wilmore said. “When he’d join, he’d listen to everything they said. He’d go whole hog for it and then decide the people leading it weren’t following what they were preaching.”
Jones wanted to be a preacher, and he moved to Indianapolis to fulfill that dream.
He became a student minister with a temporary appointment for the Methodist Church, but he didn’t stay there long.
Methodist church leaders in Indiana thought that the young, charismatic preacher was “too free a spirit to be constrained by the close supervision and discipline of the district superintendent,” according to church records. So in 1955, Jones took a small flock of followers he had gathered from a few local churches and founded his first Peoples Temple at the corner of 15th and New Jersey in Indianapolis.
It was a place where the Holy Spirit seemed to be rattling the windows and shaking the walls. Blacks and whites worshiped together freely. There was prophecy, faith healing, speaking in tongues and loud, joyful music. The church was booming, and the media were paying attention.
Jimmy Jones, the troubled boy in Lynn, had become “the Rev. Jim Jones.”
Gene Cordell and his family began their association with Peoples Temple on Easter Sunday 50 years ago. His Aunt Edith had just lost her pet monkey.
“One day,” said Cordell’s wife, June, “she found the monkey that she’d bought had hung himself on his leash. She wanted another monkey.”
Jones was selling pet monkeys to raise money to start a church. He had placed an ad in the Indianapolis Star.
“So she went over and she bought ’em — a boy monkey and a girl monkey. . . . Jimmy started telling her about his church. She comes back, and she tells me I’m going with her on Easter morning,” said June Cordell.
Before long, the Cordells and other members of their family were mainstays of the church.
Peoples Temple also was where Gene Cordell had one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of his life.
“One night I was sitting in church,” he said. “I turned around, and there were two older guys behind me. I looked at them, and they said, ‘God is in you.’ I turned back around later, and they were gone. To me, they were angels standing behind me. I stood up, and I felt like I could have walked through a wall.”
But there were other spirits at work. Cordell and several other early associates said Jones changed in 1957 after he and a busload of church members rode off to Philadelphia to visit an infamous black evangelist called Father Divine.
Born George Baker in 1880, Father Divine founded the Peace Mission movement in New York in 1932 — a spiritual revival that made this son of former slaves a very wealthy man.
“When Jimmy come back from seeing Father Divine, he was a changed man,” Cordell said. “I saw it right away. . . . I sensed the change. After that, it was ‘my way or no way.’ It was ‘I am He. I’m in control.’ He was not just the pastor in the church. He was The Man. Father Divine convinced him he was The Man — that he was God.”
Max Knight, who knew Jones as a kid growing up in Lynn and later as a reporter working at the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium, a local paper, also blames Father Divine.
“From that moment on, Jim went downhill fast,” Knight said. “He got into drugs. He got into sex. You name it. He felt that he was bigger than God himself, and it destroyed him. He became a little god of his own. There is no doubt about it.”
Peoples Temple was starting to look like a cult, and June Cordell wanted her husband back. Not only that, she had seen patients abused at a nursing home that Jones had set up as part of his Indianapolis ministry. The Cordells told Aunt Edith about it, and their report got back to Jones. The Cordells started to get threatening phone calls and had to change their telephone number. Then, they got a late-night visit from Jones.
“He got me up in the middle of the night,” said June Cordell. “He said, ‘You don’t ever open your mouth to anybody about anything you see in that nursing home or anything involving me. The look out of his eyes really scared me. I never wanted to come across him again — especially alone.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jones took several long trips to South America, looking for a place where he could someday escape with his flock. But by the summer of 1965, Jones had put his South American plans on hold. He had decided to head for Northern California with his Indiana followers.
June and Gene Cordell already had left the church and wanted get Aunt Edith and other family members out of Peoples Temple. But by then, Aunt Edith had changed her will and left her entire estate to Jones.
In June 1965, Cordell found Edith and some other temple members packing up the car. They had planned to sneak out of town without a word.
Eventually, 20 members of the Cordell family would join Jones in California. Over the years, a few family members would leave the cult, but others would be born into Peoples Temple.
In the end, 20 members of the Cordell family died in Jonestown.
Peoples Temple established its California beachhead in Ukiah and soon built a large, modern church in scenic Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. During the 1970s, Jones expanded his California empire, taking over an abandoned synagogue on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
In February 1974, he secured a tract of jungle from the Guyana government.
But Jones never lost touch with his Indiana roots. He would return for revival meetings and take busloads of his devotees to visit the land of his birth.
Knight hardly recognized Jones when he ran into the Peoples Temple leader during one of his last Indiana visits.
Knight was still working as a reporter for the Palladium. On that day, he was having trouble coming up with his lead paragraph and went out for a walk around the block to clear his head.
“I’m going down Main Street and realize there are three people coming toward me,” he said. “I didn’t think much about it. I had my head down and was thinking about my story, and I glanced up, and all of a sudden I realized I was walking straight into the middle of them. I did a double take and stopped and said, ‘My goodness. Jim! What in the world has happened to you?’
“Jim Jones had his hair combed back, and he had on — not a zoot suit — but certainly not a suit that was ‘Indiana.’ He had big sunglasses sitting up on top of his head and a goon on each side of him. Two enormous big guys — one black, one white. We stood there on the street and talked. He was back from San Francisco. We talked for a good 10 minutes.
” ‘Jim,” I said, ‘I’m curious. Why the change? Why the sunglasses? The bodyguards?’ He grinned and said — this is a statement I’ll never forget — he grinned and said, ‘Max, when you reach the top, you’ve got to play the part.’ “
Jim Jones was playing the part and playing it well in San Francisco. Many saw him as a politically progressive minister with one of the most racially integrated and socially active churches in town.
Mayor George Moscone, whose campaign had been given a much-needed boost by Peoples Temple activists, named Jones president of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Willie Brown, then a powerful state assemblyman, was another close political ally.
Jones also had won the praise of several influential editors in the local press as well as of some of the top religious leaders in San Francisco. But by the summer of 1977, a long-suppressed expose of abuses of power inside Peoples Temple appeared in New West magazine.
Reporters in the daily press were unleashed and allowed to investigate the charismatic preacher who used threats, intimidation and an army of devotees to hold onto power and maintain his progressive reputation.
Jones took off, and in Nov. 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democratic congressman representing San Mateo, along with a group of reporters and concerned family members. headed down to Jonestown to investigate.
The fuse was lit. Ryan and four others were shot and killed at a nearby airstrip — a prelude to the coming carnage.
Hyacinth Thrash was one of the early converts who followed Jones to California and then on to Guyana.
She and her sister joined Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in 1957, but in the months leading up to Nov. 18, 1978, Thrash saw troubling changes in Jones and his church. What had begun in Indiana as an enlightened, racially integrated Christian ministry in the 1950s had turned into an armed camp of fear, brutality and paranoia deep in the South American jungle.
Thrash was living in a cottage she shared in Jonestown with three other older women. One of her roommates told her that something had happened at the Port Kaituma airstrip, where the congressman from California was taking off with some temple defectors.
She hid under the bed and didn’t wake up until the next morning.
“When I got outside,” she said in an interview before she died, “it was like a ghost town. I didn’t see or hear anybody. I went over to another senior citizen building where my friend Birdy lived. When I got to the door, I saw Birdy sitting in the chair, draped in a sheet. I could tell it was Birdy by her shoes. I say, ‘Birdy, Birdy, what’s wrong?’ “
“But she didn’t move . . .I looked down the row of beds, and all the people were either sitting up or laying in bed. They were all covered with sheets.”
“I said, ‘Oh, God, they came and they killed them all, and I’s the onliest one alive! Why didn’t they take me, too?’
“I started screaming. I thought maybe I was dead, too. I pinched myself. Was I alive? I couldn’t believe it. I just stood there.”
Thrash was the only one alive. A few Peoples Temple members had fled into the jungle and escaped the murder-suicide ritual, but she was the only survivor who was there when Guyana troops came to Jonestown more than a day later.
Thrash eventually returned to Indianapolis, where she died in 1995 at the age of 93. Before her death, she told her story to a local writer, Marian Towne, in hours of taped interviews. Last month, to mark the 25th anniversary of Jonestown, Towne and another Indianapolis writer, Marsha Grant, produced a play about Thrash’s life, “The Onliest One Alive: Surviving Jonestown, Guyana.”
To her dying day, Thrash credited Jones with curing her of breast cancer in the late 1950s. She continued to believe that even after she saw him fake faith healings by “removing” bloody chicken livers from people’s bodies and proclaiming their tumors were gone.
“In San Francisco,” Thrash said, “he started throwing the Bible away. He threw away the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Noah’s Ark. . . . Jim did get a shipment of Gideon Bibles in Guyana. But when the toilet paper ran out, he told us to use the leaf of the Bible. But I couldn’t do it! Not God’s word.”
Jonestown anniversary events
Two events — a memorial service in Oakland and a panel discussion in San Francisco — will be held to mark the 25th anniversary of the mass murder-suicide of Peoples Temple members at Jonestown, Guyana. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Evergreen Cemetery, at 6450 Camden Ave. in Oakland, where 406 Jonestown victims lie beneath one headstone. Jonestown’s impact on the African American community in San Francisco will be the subject of a panel discussion and film preview Wednesday night at the San Francisco Public Library.
Both events mark the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown carnage, when more than 900 members of Peoples Temple died in the infamous mass murder-suicide. An estimated 70 percent of the victims were African American followers of the Rev. Jim Jones, who led his cult in an act of “revolutionary suicide” on Nov. 18, 1978. The event at the library, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the African American Coalition for Health Improvement and Empowerment, the African American Historical and Cultural Society, the San Francisco History Center and African American Center of the San Francisco Public Library.
It will begin at 6 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, 100 Larkin St. For more information, call (415) 355-1327 or e-mail AfterJonestown@yahoo.com.