Thirty-five years ago today, agents of the Peoples Temple, a tighly knit and deeply paranoid church that had relocated from San Francisco to Guyana, assassinated the visiting congressman Leo Ryan and embarked on a mass murder/suicide that claimed more than 900 lives. The congregation's commune was nicknamed Jonestown, after church leader Jim Jones; the chief means of death was a powdered drink doused with cyanide. (The drink was probably Flavor-Aid, but it has gone down in popular memory as Kool-Aid. I'll bet they're still tearing their hair out about that at Kraft Foods.)
Later this week, we'll be observing the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death. The two anniversaries are linked by more than just the time of year: Mark Lane, one of the first and most influential of the Kennedy conspiracy writers, was in Jonestown when the massacre began, along with fellow JFK theorist Donald Freed. (In addition to their work on the nonfiction shelves, Lane and Freed had a hand in writing Executive Action, one of the lamer conspiracy thrillers of the '70s.) As Jim Jones told his flock that the world was plotting against them, he incorporated Lane and Freed's ideas into his spiel. Later, Lane himself would be a featured player in some of the conspiracy theories that inevitably appeared after the massacre. As I wrote in The United States of Paranoia, Mae Brussell believed that Jonestown existed
so the secret government could "experiment on black people; mind control; electrodes; sexual deprivation; fear; mass suicides." [Larry] Layton, "a robot in the hands of Jim Jones," had assassinated Ryan to keep the truth from coming out, and the mass slaughter that followed had been a part of the cover-up.
Not every conspiracist shared Brussell's interest in brainwashing. In 1975, the JFK assassination theorist Mark Lane allegedly told her that he'd "never appear with you publicly. People know you're crazy. There's no evidence of mind control in the United States." But Lane had a Jonestown connection of his own: He had been one of the Temple's attorneys, and he had argued shortly before the massacre that "American intelligence organizations" were making "a deliberate effort" to "destroy the Peoples Temple, to destroy Jim Jones, and to destroy Jonestown." Brussell could now quote Lane's words of praise for the Guyana settlement ("It makes me almost weep to see such an incredible experience with such vast potential for the human spirit and soul of this country to be cruelly assaulted by our intelligence agents") as she painted her old rival as a part of the grand machine. "I'm very proud to say that I've hated his guts and tried to expose him for years," she told her audience.
It shouldn't be surprising to see such speculations after COINTELPRO, CHAOS, and other measures fanned the Left's fears of the government. But that wasn't the only factor at work. Every subculture accumulates demons, and by the late 1970s the New Left and the counterculture had plenty of demons to contend with. If it is possible to discuss "the sixties" in reference to events that took place in 1978–and culturally speaking, I think it is–then the deaths at Jonestown, a colony that until its destruction had presented itself to the world as a multiracial socialist utopia, marked the end of the sixties, a moment even more deflating than the Charles Manson murders or the Rolling Stones' lethal concert at Altamont. The massacre also came within a month of the assassinations of San Francisco's liberal mayor George Moscone and the city's first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk. If there were ever a time when a spirit of doom hung over the California counterculture, this was it.
Brussell's grand conspiracy narrative found a way to link Jonestown to the San Francisco shootings, and it managed to work in the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Manson murders, the Zodiac killer, and the sixties assassinations too. As history, it was a jerry-rigged assemblage of facts, half facts, rumors, and guesses. But as a mythic translation of a jarring historical moment, it had a powerful pull. Brussell transformed a collection of free-floating anxieties into an external enemy with a name.
Where are they now? Lane went on to serve as attorney for the far-right Liberty Lobby. Freed co-scripted the Robert Altman film Secret Honor. And the massacre itself intensified a moral panic that cast every small, strange, and young religion as a potential death cult.
• Tim Cavanaugh revisits San Francisco in the age of Jonestown.
• Alan Moore and Peter Bagge interview Kool-Aid Man.
• The Jonestown Express, the colony's in-house funk band, covers Joe Tex's "Ain't Gonna Bump No More." The music starts at :56.