Once upon a time there lived a man called Rev. Jimmie Jones, and he believed in absolutely anything, so long as it was unbelievable. He believed that he could resurrect people from the dead by screaming formulas into the air; he believed that he was the reincarnation of V.I. Lenin, Father Divine, and Jesus Christ; he believed that he was the greatest romance-maker of all times; and he believed in socialism.
It should come as no surprise that when the founder of the now-famous People's Temple began bellowing these fantastic superstitions in a loud and bellicose fashion, two things quickly happened. He became tremendously popular amongst all the important Gucci liberals, and he moved to San Francisco.
This vaudevillian performer of socioeconomic revivalism combined the political genius of a Bella Abzug with the promotional genius of a W.C. Fields, and he regularly rewarded his public with virtuoso acts. A favorite is thus described by the indisputable Newsweek:
The "healings" were strictly carnival stuff. Whitie Freestone offers an outline of a typical cure: "Jim had people go to a house and use the bathroom. They would look into the medicine cabinet and find medicine for, say, heart disease. Then they'd get this person to come to the church, and Jim would pick the guy out, scare him to death, and say 'You've got heart trouble.' Other times he would tell a person he had cancer. Then they would carry back a towel with bloody meat in it. Jim would holler, 'Don't get too close, that's cancer.' But I would look right at it and you know, it was the same piece of meat every week. I think they kept it refrigerated."
Eventually Jones refined the cancer act, commanding his top aides to find a better prop. They devised a mixture of chicken entrails and their own blood. Then they left it in a warm room until it congealed into a rancid and apparently convincing mess. Jones also allowed congregations to eavesdrop on his conversations with "spirits"—aides who hid in crawl spaces in the ceiling. Once he even healed himself of a mysterious gunshot wound from an unseen sniper—and he displayed his bloody shirt in a glass case like an icon. The stunts were often orchestrated to suit the audiences. The elderly blacks who formed a majority of his followers usually witnessed old-fashioned tent-revival-style cures, for example, and visiting radical celebrities might be treated to a seance with the soul of sainted labor leader Joe Hill.
Stage talent such as this is rare, and public-service entrepreneurs soon realized its potential in helping to reconstruct a New Deal coalition. So valuable were Reverend Jones's political connections, in fact, that one can only speculate why he was never asked to join the Carter administration at the Cabinet level. He had, after all, served with distinction as San Francisco's director of urban housing, where his tour de force was holding public hearings. There, he had maximum opportunity to utilize his polished oratorical ability in denouncing the multidimensional evils of capitalism. Jones routinely packed his hearings with busloads of his captivated little lambs, hauled in from as much as 100 miles away, who would add riotous outbursts in support of their leader's vile pontifications on "profiteers," "absentee landlords," and anyone else not on the government payroll.
Practitioners of the democratic process grew fond of this shrewd artist of political science, a fact that was to be of strategic importance for the Reverend Jones. Because trouble was brewing with his "dissenters" and "defectors"—the kind of nuisances that any socialist utopia, from the USSR to the People's Temple, seems to be infected with. These reactionary agents spread incredible tales: of a minister who boasted of having sex with 14 women (and two fellows) all in one day, of a communal garden in South America where slavery had been instituted as a revolt against capitalist exploitation, of a plot to hoard millions of dollars (representing the life savings of hundreds) to promote equality, of the murder of dropouts, of mass suicide drills.
Against these ghastly charges the People's Temple amassed impressive support from prestigious persons. Endorsements poured in from Mrs. Jimmy Carter, California Gov. Jerry Brown, the Honorable Joe Califano, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley, and Assemblyman Willie Brown (who was to speak at a People's Temple fundraiser, presumably cancelled, two weeks after the Guyana holocaust). California Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally felt so intimate with the Temple as to tell government investigators to back off (read: cover up) their inquest. Ditto the late Mayor Moscone's administration in the Bay Area. A Los Angeles probe by the district attorney was even scared off by the State Department. And while the West Coast jet set was protecting the Temple stateside, the local Guyanese authorities were kept at bay by the incredible threat that if their snooping began to irritate the Reverend Jones he would conduct a mass suicide to embarrass the Guyana government. This was not, try to remember, a Mel Brooks comedy.
This formidable coalition served the socialist credo—and the public image of Jonestown—well. They managed quite successfully to dispose of the "propaganda" while Jonestown operatives laid careful plans to dispose of the propagandists. "Death penalties" were issued against those who failed to grasp the reality of Reverend Jones's Marxist paradise, and the mysterious deaths of several Temple dissidents remain, to this day, unsolved. Reporters with questions were carefully attended to, and many emerged with body alterations or discovered open-pit barbecues in their hotel rooms. The esteemed Barry Goldwater and John Stennis even managed to put the US Senate in the hit-list top forty.
Investigative journalism also found its way onto the "enemies list." When the San Francisco Chronicle was given the Temple "dope" in the spring of 1977 by a staff reporter, city bigwigs—and paper advertisers—put the lid on it. When the reporter turned free-lance and landed the piece as a headliner with the exposé-hunting New West magazine, Reverend Jones's minions gained the intervention of noted journalists, politicians, and starlets in an attempt to kill the story. In the forefront of the unsuccessful hush-up drive was—hold on to your Constitution—the American Civil Liberties Union! Moreover, this defeat for the freedom-of-the-press, public's-right-to-know sloganeers was quickly followed with a stunning victory. According to Temple lawyer Mark Lane, an accurate (his description) story that the National Enquirer had commissioned and had already paid $10,000 for was "never published because the publisher of the National Enquirer checked with the State Department and they said it was all untrue, and they knew it was true."
"A BEAUTIFUL PLACE"
This was a coverup, all right—and no Laurel and Hardy job like you'd get from the Nixon White House. Reverend Jones was revered for his superhuman powers, and when it came to bamboozling the top layer of California's saucer-eyed progressives, all the sensational plaudits were well founded. Despite his maniacal sermons wherein he would spit at the Bible and stomp it onto the floor while screaming that his folks were spending too much time with it and not enough time with him, despite his passion for filling the air until dawn with his female worshippers' coerced testimony that his sexual organ was the most awesome in Christendom, despite the multiple murders of Temple defectors, despite a concentration-camp establishment where a white clique controlled a mostly black population with Stalinist brutality and ghetto-like living conditions, Jonestown, Guyana, managed to survive every challenge. With the unquestioning patronage of the respected liberal establishment, the People's Temple flourished.
So delicious was the taste of Jones's born-again Marxism to the upper crust, that the congressional "fact-finding" mission, commanded by the late Rep. Leo Ryan, was convinced that their tour revealed universal happiness. After checking every nook and cranny, Congressman Ryan concluded, "This is a beautiful place." He then assured the testy Reverend Jones that he would kill any congressional hearings into the Jonestown commune. This great victory gave Charles Garry, the nervous attorney for the People's Temple, a feeling of "elation."
Garry's relief was understandable, for he had been promoting the Temple's Jonestown franchise for a year and a half as "a little jewel that the whole world should see." Such flattery had managed to effect a radical consensus in the United States that, as reported by Newsweek, "Jonestown was a counterculture paradise." Garry surely must have felt a surge of righteousness at that critical juncture, for it was he who had spent considerable energies to convince Reverend Jones to allow the congressman admission to the jungleland commune in order, in Garry's words, "to prove to the world that these people criticizing you are crazy."
But just as Garry was basking in his elation, another ecstatic Guyana groupie broke the bonds of socialist tranquility by attempting to slit Ryan's throat with a fishing knife. The commando was on direct orders from Rev. Jimmie Jones—which it is superfluous to point out, because it was quickly demonstrated that all one thousand Jonestown roomers were on direct orders from the Reverend. Leo Ryan's life was spared only by onlookers who managed to restrain the crazed assailant. Garry's immediate question following the incident provides us with a cruel insight into the type of specimen with which we are dealing: "Does this change everything?" he asked Ryan.
Garry, shaken but resourceful, hurriedly proceeded to explain the attack as the work of a "provocateur," a double-agent planted by right-wing forces to embarrass the Temple. Mr. Garry's wit has had 69 years to ferment, let us not forget, and has been sharply honed in the legal defenses of Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and an army of noted visionaries. The late congressman assured him that all was still delightful.
Mark Lane was the other, newer, People's Temple lawyer. But Mr. Lane has had more experience with creating conspiracies than just about anyone, and it had taken him only minutes, several weeks before, to figure out this one. On September 27, 1978, he wrote a 10-page memo to Reverend Jones: "Counter-Offensive: Projected Offensive Program for the People's Temple." It revealed: "There has been a coordinated campaign to destroy the People's Temple and to impugn the reputation of its leader Bishop Jim Jones.…Among the suspect organizations are the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Post Office and the FCC. It is apparent that various newspapers and writers have participated in a coordinated effort to defeat Bishop Jones and the People's Temple." And this came, exactly two weeks after he had first heard about the People's Temple, from the author of a book entitled Rush to Judgment.
What was the Counter-Offensive?
• Come up with $7,500 in cash to quash an exposé in the National Enquirer (the money went through Lane, and it worked!).
• Set up a "Jonestown Embassy" in Lane's three-story office building in Washington, D.C.
• Publish glowing tales on the Jonestown haven in Mother Jones and Marxist newspapers.
• Have the finest French filmmaker (a Lane associate, according to Lane) film "the miracle of Jonestown" for television audiences worldwide.
• Commission Geraldo Rivera to shoot an ABC-TV documentary on Jonestown for American television.
• Get Jack Anderson and Les Whitten, "a friend of mine, to run a story predicting that we will be filing action in the near future."
What legal action? Freedom of Information action, of course. This would serve to uncover the criminal plot. Unfortunately, Lane was soon to find that Mr. Garry had long since pounced on the files of all of Mr. Lane's persecutors and had found virtually no interest in the People's Temple by the Feds.
So traumatic was this cold shoulder by the proper authorities, whom Mark Lane thought he could count on for a good conspiracy when he needed it, that Lane is now, post-Guyana massacre, alleging that the State Department was derelict in not investigating the People's Temple. As the Los Angeles Times reported at a press conference two weeks after the suicide drill: "Lane continually lambasted government agencies for being unresponsive to complaints about Jonestown but at the same time he would not dismiss the possibility that there had been federal attempts to harm the People's Temple." So Lane had discovered that the government had both a conspiracy and a conspiracy not to have a conspiracy.
A STRANGE CLIENT
Lane might be defended as acting within the bounds of legalistic license; he was only servicing his client. On the other hand, his "impugned" client should have been his first clue that Jonestown was not simply a benign leftist version of Leisure World. Lane now admits that Jones's behavior was strange: he would not come out of his house during the day and he made rambling, irrelevant interruptions in conversations about proposed legal strategies.
Indeed, one would be pushed to the wall to come up with a stranger bird (apart from board members of NOW) than the Reverend Jones. Crippled with paranoia, he had chosen Ukiah, California, and Guyana, South America, as home bases precisely because they are among the geographical points safest from nuclear bombardment. A neighbor recalled that "there were times when just the sound of an airplane flying overhead would start him crying." Cancer preoccupied his imagination as well, and he was incessantly claiming to his inner circle that he sported a plethora of fatal afflictions.
His sense of exaggeration was well developed. He boasted of tremendous sexual prowess and forced his disciples to vouch for him, handing out church questionnaires quizzing, "Do you fantasize about Father sexually?" Whenever he was asked about the size of the crowd attending his sermons, he was known to double the actual total. And this was after the original count had been bloated with imported fanatics, hauled in in 11 full-sized transport buses, jammed so full that the children were stuffed into the luggage racks. And even Mark Lane might have perceived a touch of bravado when, as Newsweek reports, "Jim Jones began telling friends that he himself was Jesus Christ."
But Lane was unflappable. His faith ran so deep, in fact, that today—after 912 true believers have been sent to their reward—he proudly claims that he would still advocate the same strategy as he did on September 27! Lane, who escaped with his scalp by a hair, still believes!
This is less surprising when we discover that he was fully aware of what was meant by "the Jonestown miracle." According to cocounsel Charles Garry, "Mark Lane knew everything; the guns, the drugs, the suicide pact—and he never told anyone."
LANE'S DREAM WORLD
Maybe he just couldn't stand the thought of disturbing the pristine little experiment; it was, sort of, a radical's dream come to life. He was at the top, Minister of Law, of his very own socialist state. A Russia Minor. A mini-Moscow. It was a spittin' image of the real-live grown-up USSR utopia. It had it all:
• Omnipresent armed guards patrolling the edges of Jonestown à la the Berlin Wall. These ill-mannered military police were aptly named "the learning crew" and the "public service unit."
• Chronic shortages of food and supplies. Jones once ordered Temple members in San Francisco to loot all nearby gas station restrooms to alleviate a toilet paper crisis. Jonestown settlers were fed rice and beans for dinner (rice and water for breakfast and lunch); real meat came their way but one night a week. Reverend Jones, on the other hand, enjoyed steak and delicacies at each meal, sharing his food scraps with loyal followers to instill devotion.
• The work schedule was seven days per week, from dawn until late in the evening. The time off was for brief "meals" and lengthy "meetings." Tom Bogue, a 17-year-old survivor, recalls, "Those who didn't work didn't eat."
• Captured escapees were subjected to various tortures: public floggings administered to sensitive portions of the body; three weeks of chopping wood in the tropical sun at 18 hours per day; one week of solitary in a six-by-three-foot box; and getting shot up with Thorazine and stuffed into the "extra care unit"—the final measure "for people who supposedly were lunatics," meaning that they wished to return to America.
• A May Day ceremony to display the awesome power of the State. The Jonestown version would gather the citizenry to the pavilion, where Reverend Jones would command, "Quiet, and you'll hear one of our new weapons." The ensuing bazooka ka-boom would leave a lasting impression.
• The leader, Reverend Jones, lived in the luxury of aristocratic elegance but forced the great masses to sleep in quarters that Mark Lane would later compare to "slave ships."
• The Big Lie. Jones's chief means of persuasion was to scream of continual, pervasive conspiracies against his dream world and to convince his followers that the KKK and the CIA were beneath every pebble, just waiting to murder Temple sympathizers who had left the protective arms of Father Jones.
• A dictatorial power elite, held together in a rigid, inflexible hierarchy. The Central Committee, of about a dozen commissars, was called the "Angels" and took charge of big socialist concerns like counting the money and enforcing death penalties. The second tier was analogous to Gosplan, roughly: the "Temple Planning Commission." These strategists were trusted with only slightly less important tasks, like rounding up big crowds for all of Jones's public appearances.
Little wonder Lane was so keen on filming the camp. It would have been a smash: "Little Soviet on the Prairie."
The Soviet role model was more than symbolism, or at least Jimmie Jones was hoping it might be. His aim was to win for Jonestown full honors in satellite-hood, and he demonstrated his good faith in the deal by willing the People's Temple's $10 million cache to Russia in the event of catastrophe. But Russia, only used to taking things that are explicitly not offered to it, rejected the voluntary gift, suggesting its favorite charity: UNICEF. Lane reported, "Jones was crushed, just crushed," that a socialist country would not accept the cash. Jones desperately pleaded, "What are we doing wrong?"
It is easy to sympathize with Jones. For it is hard to figure out what else he could have done to prove his faith.
Or what else Mark Lane could still be doing. Lane continues to fight a one-man show and operate one-celebrity press conferences, even as his own lies, like his denial that he was paid by the Temple (his "favor" brought him a $10,000 bonus and $6,000 per month plus expenses), become national headlines.
So long has Lane been a prophet of the in-crowd that he may singlehandedly claim credit for carrying on the Spirit of Jonestown. Lane's antics in this crusade recently prompted Esquire legal editor Steven Brill to write: "On major issues, Mark Lane is as utterly truthless as any who has ever moved across our headlines. And his motives are always the same: profit and headlines."
In what does much to justify Lane's jumbo fees as a defense counsel, Brill reveals that Lane met with a reporter for the penny-ante Ukiah Daily Journal (circulation 9,000), a Kathy Hunter, who had written some of the first (true) horror stories regarding the Jonestown mob. Lane used a phony name (Mark Lande), a phony title (writer for Esquire magazine), and tape-recorded the proceedings. He then held a San Francisco press conference to denounce her claims. Lane dismissed his deception by pointing out, "if I told her I was a lawyer for the Temple she would have never talked." More bravely, Lane used his journalist cover to question another man present at the meeting who had brought suit against the People's Temple for holding his daughter hostage. Lane baldly asked what the gentleman's terms might be in an out-of-court settlement. "In short," notes attorney Brill, "a lawyer on the opposing side in litigation posed as a reporter to learn his opponent's settlement terms."
Rather than running for the border after the frightful holocaust he so loyally assisted, Lane runs for the microphone—and his literary agent. When Lane reported to Memphis police that "hit squads" from Jonestown had survived the suicide festivities and were preparing to knock off numerous big shots, his royalty advance on his Guyana book bounced from $100,000 to over $150,000. Curiously, the only evidence of these goons was a claim by Lane that some packets of the popular beverage mix Kool-Aid were left on his doorstep. Memphis police detectives (Lane resides in Memphis) plainly feel that the Honorable Mr. Lane did the deed himself. This, Lane knows, is "just part of the plot to discredit me and get me murdered."
"Who's trying to murder you?" asked Brill.
"The CIA, through the media, principally the same media that covered up the Kennedy and King assassinations. The key media are CBS and the New York Times."
"Is Walter Cronkite a CIA agent?"
"I don't know what he is, but I know what he's done and what he's doing.…By reporting I was in Geneva [taking money out of a People's Temple bank], I could have been killed."
"Why would the government want you killed?"
"I don't know. Why was King killed?"
Lane's self-confidence as to his relative standing in world history is only surpassed by his appreciation of those who have gone before him. As personal references, Lane shouted at Brill: "Why don't you talk to Bertrand Russell or Arnold Toynbee about me? Come on, write that down, goddamn it. Write down Bertrand Russell." Poor old Bertrand met his maker in 1975; Toynbee, in 1970.
Such a grasp of reality is not easily matched by high moral fiber, but Lane comes through here heroically. Our self-confessed Jonestown martyr claims his just honors by bellowing: "I went there and saved the lives of a lot of —-ing people.…I risked my life for people. I made it possible for five people to get out."
And so the pathetic Mr. Lane, unreconstructed, lunges forth with the mission, philosophically dismissing Jones's ill fate as the product of a sort of hit-or-miss proposition: "Jones became a devil. If you cannot be God, you don't just fall back to the rank and file.…If you win, you're Moses, if you lose, you're Charles Manson."
"FIZZLED AT THE END"
Charles Garry has at least acknowledged that the People's Temple made a mistake. The decimated Black Panther lawyer spilled his guts in a particularly juicy interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer.
Scheer: The paranoia led to the mass deaths. How do you finally come to grips with this? The body count has gone up to 900.
Garry: I am just numb.…There is no rational basis for it. No sense to it. It's sick. Just sick.…They were killed not by an enemy, but by a friend—terminating their lives to a point where contributions they had made were destroyed. They believed in socialism and they set the history of socialism backward. They believed in freedom, in human freedom, and the very essence of how they died disproved that. It is just sickening. I just keep thinking about it and I go into a circle and I get very morose and upset about it.…And the only thing that I can say is that we have to learn something from this.…No one person should be given that kind of power and that kind of authority over human life.
Scheer: There were reports all the time from people leaving him saying that there were guns and violence and drugs. Why didn't you put any stock in the reports?
Garry: I didn't trust them, I didn't believe them. Unfortunately many of the things the defectors said were true. The way they said it and the way they did it, in my opinion, they lacked credibility.
Scheer: You don't have any sense that you were too willing to accept this, that you made allowances for him [Jones]?
Garry: Well, perhaps I did, but we always make allowances for people that we work with.…We always like to think the best of people that are in our corner. But that is a mistake. We keep making the same mistake over and over.…We don't criticize our so-called heroes. That was the weakness in the entire People's Temple setup. And that is the weakness in practically every left-wing organization that I have ever had anything to do with. We let them get away with murder because he is the leader. We don't want to rock the boat. The extreme example is how Stalin was permitted to get away with it for many, many years.…
Scheer: But why didn't you know about Jones' corruption? There just seemed to be something so profoundly rotten about this Jonestown place.
Garry: I know, but it wasn't apparent. Just the opposite was apparent.…I was there four days the first time and three days the second time, over a period of a year. And everything was perfect when I was there. And I marveled at it.
Scheer: You are a person who has defended a lot of people who needed defending. Why does this good work keep getting mucked up with movements that go berserk?
Garry: I'll tell you what the consolation is. The consolation is that these groups at the time make steps forward. The People's Temple made contributions for 25 to 30 years that you can't overlook. The fact that they fizzled at the end doesn't take away the years of affirmative works that they had done.
Scheer: Charles, they didn't just fizzle out at the end—they killed babies.
Garry: When I say fizzled—they destroyed the very things that they created, including themselves.…
Scheer: But doesn't it send a chill through you? How does it feel—that you were involved in this grotesque thing?
Garry: Well, I don't take any personal responsibility for it.…things were kept from me, I was used, I was lied to, things were distorted to me.
A LITTLE JEWEL
As Garry struggles to forget the grotesque picture of Jonestown, he should be soothed with the knowledge that he has loads of company. Many millions of true believers have successfully repressed the ugly carnage of socialist reality in favor of the poetic fantasies of their leaders' imaginations. As socialist utopianism produces Siberias, Auschwitzes, Great Leaps Forward, Cambodias, and Jonestowns, the slogan-strewn billboards must be turned on ultrahigh to attract our hopes and distract our eyes. And ever-more belligerent must become the attack on individualist social institutions. Do not mind the concentration camps for dissenters, we are informed, but look at General Motors' profits! Forget the human corpses stacked and bloating in the heat of socialism's "miracle," but look at capitalism's cruel persecution of the snail darter!
Eric Hoffer's The True Believer diagnosed the pathology of those who leap to grasp an identity in the "movement" or "leader" that they are missing in themselves. As Dr. Jardat Sukhdeo, chief of psychiatry at New Jersey Medical School, commented after examining one-fourth of the 80 Jonestown survivors, "Their lives have been directed and controlled. To go back into a free society where they have to make their own decisions is very frightening."
Whatever explanation we have for the depravity of Jones's captured flock, what alibi is there for the Garrys and Lanes, the door-to-door swindlers who, wittingly or duped, kept the death camp afloat? These men are not sheep; we certainly observe them enjoying the freedoms of their constitutional, private enterprise society. Is it love of bright lights? Middle-class guilt? Innocence? What can we say of intelligent men who mouth the clichés of despots? who inevitably, as Garry tells us, make possible the wickedest and most rancid barbarism?
The questions are rhetorical, but our search to "learn something from this" need not be. We would do best, in fact, to begin our quest by sticking with the brilliant suggestions—far more brilliant than he suspects—of Mr. Mark Lane. Doesn't he baldly assert that his memo still goes? Then let's do it! Since Lane has called this "an incredible experiment with such vast potential for the human spirit," why not display our data? Let's take Mr. Lane seriously and watch his heart go out when those camera crews go in. The agrarian socialist playground stands ready for motion picture documentation. Roll 'em!
Let us also grant Charles Garry's dream to "make the world see our jewel." It is estimated that a healthy $10 million remains, rejected by the Russians, in the Temple vaults—let's waive the inheritance taxes and build them a monument. Two-thirds of the bodies are unclaimed—let's embalm the cast of characters and return them to the chosen land.
Bodies piled to the sky. Deadly weapons strewn about. Cyanide in the Kool-Aid pitcher. Prison barracks for dormitories. Slogans of "peace" and "sharing" and "brotherhood" scribbled on posters plastered everywhere—always with the mug of Master Jones.
And while those were the first words of Jonestown, a historical landmark might bear the memorable prose of the last, spoken by a man with a gun stuck to the ribcage of Ms. Rauletter Paul, who was reluctant to murder her baby boy at the moment of reckoning: "You dumb bitch, you better do it or we're going to shoot your ass off."
And the marquis out front, in steel letters a hundred feet high, should trumpet Mr. Garry's tribute: "Here lies Jonestown, Guyana. A little jewel the whole world should see."
Thomas Hazlett, a REASON columnist, has published in National Review, Inquiry, and Libertarian Review. He is currently a doctoral student in economics at UCLA, where he is on the staff of the International Institute for Economic Research.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Pleading Jim Jones' Case".