Silent Command 94: Hurry, My Children: A Jonestown and Peoples Temple Audio History

CW: This mix consists primarily of cassette recordings recovered at Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978, after more than 900 people either committed suicide or were murdered.  Parts of it include graphic depictions of violence, terror, physical and psychological torture, and death.  If this topic is in any way unsettling to you, do not listen.  You cannot unhear it!

For Silent Command 94, we’re taking a deep dive into the tape archive maintained by the Jonestown Institute.

I’ve always been interested in cults from a social perspective.  To me, the crucial delineation between “cult” and “legitimate religion” lies in what happens if you try to leave.  Drop out of a typical synagogue or church and people might offer to pray for you, or you might keep getting fundraising calls, but that’s usually it.  Drop out of a cult and you may find yourself targeted for excommunication, harassment or worse.  

So when I happened upon the Jonestown tapes about a decade ago, you can imagine how intrigued I was.

I’d already heard the “death tape,” the 45-minute excerpt of the last day of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, aka Jonestown.  It’s justifiably considered one of the most horrifying recordings ever made.  It’s the sound of almost 1,000 people dying of cyanide poisoning in the jungles of Guyana on the orders of their pastor, Reverend Jim Jones.  You can hear faint screaming as Jones, audibly sedated and unwell, enjoins his congregation to “take the potion” – the infamous vat of Flavor-Aid, cyanide, and a cocktail of other deadly drugs – before the Guyanese Defense Force supposedly comes in and breaks up the commune themselves.

However, the Jonestown massacre didn’t just spontaneously happen.  It took years of planning and psychological manipulation.  Jones, a paranoid man, recorded most of his sermons, phone calls, radio communications and group meetings.  The FBI recovered hundreds of these tapes from the Jonestown site.  Most of them have now been transcribed and uploaded to the internet.  Over the course of a few years, I downloaded a sampling of the tapes and tried to put them in some sort of chronological order and context.  What turned Jim Jones from a progressive Midwestern preacher Indiana to the architect of the biggest loss of American life prior to 9/11? 

No one signs up to be in a “cult.”  Initially, at least, Jones apparently did some good in for civil rights and equality.  Let’s also not forget that this group wasn’t always perceived as fringe.  For most of its time in San Francisco, the Peoples Temple was a significant, desirable voting bloc. Jones was on the city housing commission.  He hobnobbed with local and national politicians.  Rosalyn Carter, the First Lady, knew of him.  Only in 1977, after a series of damning articles hit the press, did Jones and most of his followers flee to their Guyanese agricultural compound.

People joined up with Jones thinking they were fighting racism and prejudice.  Once sucked in, though, new recruits found themselves trapped.  There were the all-night meetings and expectation of financial sacrifice.  The increasingly apocalyptic tone of Jones’ sermons.  The secrecy of temple rituals and policies.  The gradual switch from a Biblical to radically Marxist worldview.  The vaguely threatening phone calls, and vows of retribution, against those branded “defectors” or “traitors.”  The coerced confessions.  The creeping talk of “revolutionary suicide.” Progressively scary stuff.

In the background there was Guyana, which Jones sold to his flock as some sort of tropical paradise.  Once there, however, they were subject to isolation, overwork, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, endless brainwashing, public humiliation and solitary-confinement boxes – all textbook cult behavior, practiced by the group that practically wrote the textbook.  Yet even there, the tapes make it clear that there was also music, laughter and friendship.  And as terrorized as many felt in Guyana, there were others who sincerely felt that they were building a community.

So this isn’t a compilation of “crazy Jim Jones” moments.  You will definitely hear a few of his unhinged rants and his horrible, hyena-like laugh.  However, I wanted to try to explore how the Peoples Temple members interact with each other.  I very much wanted to bring in other voices beyond Jones’.  From the tapes there are interviews, song snippets, poetry, and even Jones’ aborted attempt to dictate his own autobiography.  There are recordings of San Francisco local news broadcasts about the Temple.  There are a couple of segments from He’s Able, the 1973 People’s Temple Choir LP (Brotherhood Records).  There are several phone calls that, in my opinion, sum up just how intimidating this group could be toward outsiders.

As for the events of November 18, 1978, I’ve juxtaposed excerpts from the now-familiar “death tape” with the American embassy’s simultaneous attempts to make sense of the strange chatter they were hearing over the shortwave radio.  It all ends with a series of news items that seem to have been recorded in Jonestown the day after the suicides, which conspiracy theorists have pondered ever since.  

This is not meant to be any sort of definitive summation.  There are too many tapes, too many stories, too many theories and tangled narratives for that to even be possible.  There’s plenty more I could have included.  Still, I hope this provides some context.

It took about two weeks to edit this into a two-hour audio diary.  The process put me in a strange, morbid headspace that I don’t like at all.  It’ll be nice to have this thing done and out into the world.

The He’s Able tracks (“Welcome” and “Walking With You Father”) come from WFMU’s Beware of The Blog.

The NBC footage (“People play games, my friend…”) comes from YouTube. (I didn’t jot down the specific link, but you can find it in numerous videos.)

Everything else comes from the Jonestown Institute website. Tapes used: Q134, Q1028, Q1015A, Q679, Q678, Q800, Q681, Q135, Q933, Q432B, Q049, Q050, Q051, Q172, Q174, Q189, Q204, Q219, Q042, Q245, Q279, Q304, Q313, Q320, Q432, Q594, Q693, Q708, Q659, Q709, Q1289, Q1290 and Q875.