Dear People: Remembering Jonestown

Includes 43-minute tape in which Jim Jones leads his followers into drinking from cyanide-laced vat

"None of the children were ever identified. They were actually shipped over, you know; shipped back to the United States and buried in a mass grave in Oakland."
  • "None of the children were ever identified. They were actually shipped over, you know; shipped back to the United States and buried in a mass grave in Oakland."

FROM THE BACK COVER: "When we remember Jonestown, we usually think of the deaths of Jim Jones and his followers in a jungle far away from the United States. Some of us remember that a congressman and several journalists died there. Many of us simply remember that hundreds of people died. For the most part, we have responded to the horror of it -- mass deaths, parents dying with their children, an apparently blind allegiance to a flawed leader -- by denying and excluding; we characterize People's Temple as a cult, as if that word explains it all. We do not remember -- we may never have known--how the people of Jonestown lived. We have forgotten that they once lived among us as neighbors and friends, a community that won the praise and support of some of our most notable leaders.

Dear People: Remembering Jonestown presents letters, personal histories, reports, newsletter articles, and other documents, as well as photographs, from the People's Temple collection at the California Historical Society. These documents, many published here for the first time, provide an emotionally dense, vivid portrait of one of the most compelling social movements of the 20th Century, enlarging our understanding not just of Jonestown but of the strengths and fault lines of all humanity.


Denice Stephenson is a special project archivist for the People's Temple Collection at the California Historical Society. This collection is the repository of the most complete set of personal and official documents related to the subject. Stephenson has provided assistance to researchers and to family, scholarly, and media projects since 2000.


Denice Stephenson welcomes me at the door of the California Historical Society on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco. She has curly salt-and-pepper hair cut in a bob. Middle-aged but with a youthful enthusiasm that belies her years, Denice is slim and wears a bright top and blue-tinted glasses. She leads me down to the basement where most of the Jonestown archive is housed. The archive includes 170 boxes of personal documents, depositions, and government papers--most that are stored here in a floor-to-ceiling high-density storage system. There are six long steel bookcases, painted white, facing sideways and running 20 feet to the back of the room. I am invited to turn the crank handle of one shelf and then a second; each bookcase slides smoothly to the right, creating an aisle so that I may comfortably step forward to view the rows of boxes labeled "People's Temple" on the shelves. (With a motion-ratio of 1:6000, one pound of my effort displaces 6000 pounds of archival material--two full turns of the crank and I easily shift more than one million documents of the Jonestown archive. After viewing some of the material, we adjourn to the second -floor conference room. At the large oak table, I turn on the tape recorder.)

"Can you tell me a little bit about your history here at the California Historical Society and how you came to work with the Jonestown material?"

"Well," said Stephenson, "I got a call from a college friend of mine, Rebecca Moore. Her family lost two sisters and a nephew in Jonestown and donated their papers to the California Historical Society after the tenth anniversary of their deaths. Rebecca asked me to come down to the Historical Society to do some research for a film that was being made about People's Temple for a Canadian history television show. She also asked me to check to see what was happening with the papers."

"Then what happened?"

"After I finished the research project, the librarians asked if I wanted to get the Moore family papers in the proper boxes and archival folders, to create an online directory." She smiled. "The librarians were both friendly and helpful, and so I started volunteering just a couple of hours a week."

"When was that?"

"That was in 2000," she said, adding that over time her involvement built up. "I was surprised by what I found in the archive."

I was eager to know what was in the archive, but I first asked if Stephenson were a professional archivist or historian.

"No, I am a community organizer," she said. "I began this project for my friend, but eventually I found myself doing a lot of research because of a play that was commissioned by my husband based on the materials in the archive."

"A play about Jonestown?"

She nodded.

"I find it hard to imagine a play about such a tragedy."

"Yes, of course," she agreed. "But in 2001 my husband and I saw a production at Berkeley Rep Theater of The Laramie Project, about the brutal murder of the young gay student Matthew Shepherd. That was also a dark story, but it made a powerful play."

I'd seen the play on DVD. "It was certainly riveting," I said.

"I'd been working in the archives for a few months," she continued, "and my husband and I were struck by the type of storytelling, the interviews that were used to construct the play, and thought, 'What if a play about People's Temple...' I was just overwhelmed by how many of the voices were present even in the archives here."

Stephenson said that she wrote the book as a companion to the play. "When people see the play, if they want to know more they can find that some of the documents that are quoted are in the book."

(Stephenson's husband, David Dower, worked with Lee Vondekowsky -- a member of the writing team of The Laramie Project and head writer and director for this play -- and put the project together over three years. The play, The People's Temple, opened in April to rave reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and is expected to travel.)

"Are there other ongoing projects related to the archives other than your book and the play?" I asked.

"People are writing books both fiction and nonfiction, and there's a new documentary that's supposed to air next spring for the PBS series American Experience. Meanwhile, the actual cataloging of the records goes on. We recently got 1000 new photographs and 800 cassette tapes related to People's Temple and another 15 cases of documents from the estate of psychologist Margaret Singer, who did a lot of work with cults and in particular Jonestown."

I returned to a remark that Stephenson had earlier made, about some things that surprised her while working in the archives. "Can you describe some of those?"

"Well, for one thing there are eight different collections that make up People's Temple."

"And you have them all?"

Stephenson nodded. "Yes. And the thing that struck me the most, though, were originals of letters written by people who were living in Jonestown, like from my friend Rebecca's sisters, Annie Moore and Carolyn Layton. There was just so much warmth and information and hope and anger and bitterness. Everything was in these letters."

"Was there a favorite?"

"A child who had just gotten to Jonestown, writing back to a friend, talked about the daily schedule, about all the fruit that they were eating and growing, and he ended his letter with a request: 'Please send me gum.' " She smiled. "It was this kind of story, the human aspect, that gives us a different perspective on the daily lives of the people who were involved in People's Temple and those living in Jonestown."

I suggested that ultimately it was the human story that resonates. "In a sense that is all that we have because do we really understand what happened, do we?"

"For me one of the greatest tragedies is that there weren't autopsies done on the bodies and that there are so many things that we can't know about how the people died there."

"Do we know the exact number of those who died?"

"Well," said Stephenson, "the death list is not complete yet."

I was stunned. "It has been more than 25 years!" I said. "Why isn't it complete yet?"

"None of the children were ever identified," she said. "They were actually shipped over, you know; shipped back to the United States and buried in a mass grave in Oakland. And then others, most of the older adults-- or, you know, young adults and older people -- were identified, but some of those were also 'unclaimed.' These are also buried in this mass grave."

I asked for particulars.

"So much was going on so quickly that the Guyanese and American officials and the Jonestown residents had a very difficult time actually trying to remember who was where and what -- you know, to be sure that that person actually died. And there were also some Guyanese children involved." Stephenson reminded me of something that is in the book and kind of tragedy within the tragedy. A number of Guyanese children often spent time at Jonestown, and some of those who were there that final day were killed. "Their parents were never able to claim their bodies," she said. "They were shipped to the U.S. and now lie in the mass grave in Oakland."

"What is the number usually agreed upon?"

"I'd say -- including Congressman Ryan's staff and the three journalists, all together on that day of tragedy, November 18, 1978 -- that 918 people died."

"How many survived?"

"About 80 people. They survived by running off into the jungle."

I said that Stephenson's book reminded me that these people were committed to changing society and their lives, that they weren't crazy. "They were in Guyana for a purpose, and they believed in Jim Jones."

Stephenson invites me down to the ground-floor library where are housed 900 tapes and close to 60 books on the People's Temple, plus 20 binders that include 10,000 individual and passport photographs with 5000 people represented. The library is a cozy place where a handful of men and women, some wearing white cotton gloves, handle photographs and rare documents from other archives.

"What do you hope for from the book and your work with the archives?"

Stephenson says that she has tried to make the materials more accessible to researchers in the future. Then suddenly her voice shakes, she blushes, and her eyes get teary. "Most people just remember the bloated bodies turned face down, and these photos in our archive, especially the membership photos and the passport photos, help to put a face on those bodies. So often the people who died in Jonestown are called 'cultists,' and people do not distinguish between the children who were there, the seniors who were there, or that people were killed there. They didn't just all line up to drink cyanide punch on one person's order.

"The photographs in our archives hopefully lead us to ask who were they, and how did they get involved, and what was going on at the time that they followed this man to Guyana. Many people died. They died and we don't know how they died, but certainly they did not all kill themselves. They were killed by people who also loved them. Sometimes the effort to getting to the point of asking the questions is almost more important than the answers we learn."

I ask to hear the tape made on that day, the 43-minute one in which Jones leads his followers into drinking the cyanide-laced drink. Stephenson invites me to sit at a small table where there is displayed the image used on the tape made by the People's Temple Gospel Choir. The tape, He's Able, borrows its title from an old gospel song and refers to divine intervention. Here, however, "he" is a reference to Jim Jones. Stephenson inserts the audiotape in the boombox and fixes the volume. I listen for a few moments, then stop the tape.

"Who is the woman who is asking for calm?" I ask.

"That's Christine Miller," she says and locates Miller's photo in one of the folders. I study the image of the only person who questioned Jones. Christine Miller was an attractive brown-skinned, middle-aged African-American woman. The shot may have been taken at one of the People's Temple's Sunday meetings as she is wearing a stylish go-to-church hat. Christine Miller unsuccessfully tried to ease tensions. She begged "Dad" (the name given Jim Jones) for a chance to explore other options that might save all their lives. Like the hundreds of others whose headshots are kept in the folder, this courageous woman is dead.

On the tape, Jones's manner is cool and patronizing. It is chilling to hear his invitation to his several hundred followers to kill themselves after first killing their children and to hear the wide applause. How desperate must have been the Jonestown experience for these people to make them willing to consider destroying themselves and their children. The full transcript of this tape is included in Dear People: Remembering Jonestown.

"Well, someday, everybody dies. Some place that hope runs out, because everybody dies. I haven't seen anybody yet that didn't die. And I'd like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I'm tired of being tormented to hell, that's what I'm tired of. Tired of it. [Applause] Twelve hundred people's lives in my hands, and I certainly don't want your life in my hands. I'm going to tell you, Christine, without me, life has no meaning. [Applause] I'm the best thing you'll ever have... It's not to be afeared. It is not to be feared. It's a friend. It's a friend sitting there; show your love for one another. Let's get gone. Let's get gone. Let's get gone. [Children crying]... Where's the vat, the vat, the vat? Where's the vat with the Green C on it? Bring the vat with the Green C in. Please? Bring it here so the adults can begin... We said -- 1000 people who said, we don't like the way the world is. Take some. Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn't commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."

The tape ends.

Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. Denice Stephenson, editor. Heyday Books, Berkeley. 2005. $16.95.

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