Insane in the Brain: A Rare Video of Mass Murderer Jim Jones Preaching

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Peoples Temple’s mass murder/suicide in the jungle of Guyana, South America. It was the single greatest loss of American civilian life ever recorded in a non-natural disaster — not counting the attacks of 9/11. And although the events of November 1978 offer a cautionary tale about religious fervor and the mad demands of false messiahs, it’s also true that Jim Jones, the evil genius in question, was a deconverted Christian who had come to embrace marxism and atheism.

On the demand of the Indiana-born cult leader, 908 people — including more than 300 children — ended their lives by gulping down a poisoned drink (an act that may have given rise to the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”). Some of Jones’s followers imbibed the fatal beverage willingly, hoping to “step into another plane,” as their leader put it. Others were forced at gunpoint. Temple members hunted down and killed a visiting U.S. Congressman and members of the American press. Jones, a few hours after ordering and overseeing the carnage, ended his own life with a single bullet to the head.

The next day, this was the scene from the air:

An early remembrance of sorts comes to us via the website Dangerous Minds, which yesterday posted a mind-bending fly-on-the wall video of a San Francisco Peoples Temple gathering from around 1975, three years before the bizarre tragedy in Guyana.

I don’t know who the woman is at the 1:20 mark, or whether she made it out alive. I hope so. Clearly, though, she was firmly in Jones’ grasp:

There are so many miracles in this church that it’s hard to tell about one without telling about two or three because they blend together and make a beautiful flow of miracles that changes our lives. I have a job that I’ve had for a year that was gotten for me by a miracle. The man employed me and then I wasn’t able to go to work for six weeks, and he waited for six weeks with nobody working for him, because our father [Jim Jones] kept that job open for me.

She then relays how her employer, whose business was faring badly, inexplicably became deluged with new orders after she told Jones about the company’s trouble. And there are further “miracles” she wants to share: When her car ran out of gas, she was more than a mile from the nearest service station, but she made it there anyway after simply restarting her vehicle. Somehow, this was Jones’ doing, she believes.

And you know, for 30 years, I prayed to a Sky God. And I got down on my knees and I pleaded and I cried for help, and I got nothing but disappointment and heartache. And now we have a father who loves each one of us so much that we don’t even have to ask for blessings… He wants to give us so much that everything we need and desire is there before we ask. How thankful we are for you Jim! Thank you!

The “Sky God” reference is jarring in the churchy context. It seems like an atheistic putdown, and that’s probably what it is. One of the deeply odd things about the Peoples Temple was that, eventually, Jones slipped the moorings of his Christian religion and supplanted it with rigid interpretations of marxism and socialism — without ever letting go of his preacher’s persona.

Once a staunch Methodist, he seems to have considered himself a non-believer. During one sermon, Jones thundered that

There’s only one hope of glory; that’s within you! Nobody’s going to come out of the sky! There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!

A 1976 phone transcript has Jones saying:

Off the record, I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. … I’ve felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became an atheist. I have become — you feel tainted by being in the church situation.

In an interview with the New York Times in 1977, Marcy Jones said that her spouse had been deeply influenced by watching Mao Zedong‘s forces overthrow the Chinese government, and added:

“Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion.”

Not to put too fine a point on it: Jim Jones was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a ball of fucking insanity. Even after he began working toward a secular egalitarian utopia, he kept or adopted all the trappings of Pentecostal-style religion: the flashy-reverend schtick; the robes; the inspired exuberance of his sermons; the faux miracles. He then combined all those things with equal parts Elvis Presley (charisma, swagger, aviator glasses) and Mao Zedong (communist ideology, totalitarianism, violence).

On paper, the good Reverend should have been shunned by everyone with half a brain: by socialists for grossly perverting the movement’s mainstream policy objectives; by his largely black spiritual following, many raised in the tradition of Christianity, for literally stomping on the Bible (“this black book has held down your people for 2000 years. It has no power!”); and by all in polite society for displaying unsettling strands of paranoia and megalomania, perhaps brought on Jones’ well-known drug abuse.

But his congregation in California grew into the thousands, and left-leaning activists and politicians such as Willie Brown and Harvey Milk were among his passionate defenders. As thanks for the Temple’s political support, San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Authority Commission, where the Reverend eventually made chairman. The sainted Milk, in a letter to President Jimmy Carter just nine months before Jonestown‘s mass murder/suicide, declared the cult leader “a man of the highest character.”

Jones would have agreed. Encouraged from a young age by a mother who thought she’d given birth to the Messiah, he’d begun to think of himself as the reincarnation of Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, and Lenin — among others. “If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God,” he told his followers.

Some women — and men — saw him as something else: a lover:

While Jones banned sex among Temple members outside of marriage, he himself voraciously engaged in sexual relations with both male and female Temple members. Jones, however, claimed that he detested engaging in homosexual activity and did so only for the male temple adherents’ own good, purportedly to connect them symbolically with him.

The more you learn about Jones, the more improbable he becomes. For instance, he earned money for the first church he started by raising monkeys and selling them door to door. Then he discovered a better source of income, requiring Temple members to tithe 25 to 40 percent of their gross incomes — and sometimes to sell their homes and give the money to the church. (After the reverend’s death, the Times noted that he had at least five million dollars socked away in foreign accounts.)

No blog post — and no video, no matter how revealing — can do justice to this complex maniac. Your best bet is probably Tim Reiterman‘s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, followed closely by Julia ScheeresA Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. Both authors jump fearlessly into Jim Jones’ maw of delirium — a mixed pleasure if there ever was one.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Tainda

    It’s people like him who absolutely terrify me. More terrifying are the people who follow that type. They prey on the weak.

    Instead of railing against religion we need to teach people to think for themselves instead of blinding following ANYTHING.

    • Gus Snarp

      I agree that the most important thing is learning to think critically and evaluate evidence and arguments rather than blindly accept authority.

      But that doesn’t mean we can’t rail against religion too! ;-)

      • Tainda

        Once we teach them to think religion will go away.

        I still rail too though lol

    • Michael W Busch

      It’s people like him who absolutely terrify me. More terrifying are the people who follow that type

      I am confused. Do you mean that Jones was more terrifying than his followers, or that his followers were more terrifying than Jones? I don’t think the latter is justified.

      One of the things that made Jones particularly dangerous was that he was quite intelligent in how he manipulated others – distorting people’s perceptions, constant surveillance and self-incrimination, moving people to an unfamiliar and strictly-controlled environment. These techniques are common and effective strategies for inducing compliance, and can and do work on entirely normal people (as things like the Stanford Prison Experiment showed in distressing detail).

      Part of the teaching you quite rightly advocate should include awareness of how those techniques are used, and how to recognize and so be less susceptible to them.

      • The Other Weirdo

        In other words, he used religious concepts without all the supernatural trappings.

        • Michael W Busch

          Those techniques of manipulation aren’t “religious concepts”, although Jones’ particular style was derived from Christianity (among other things). Rather, many religious groups use them because they are frequently effective in getting people to comply with an authoritarian social structure.

          So do non-religious groups: I mentioned the prison experiment, which was set up to investigate causes of conflict and abuse in US military prisons and very rapidly went horrifically wrong. There are other examples – the gulag comes to mind.

          • The Other Weirdo

            So I guess the real question is, “Did the first king come up with it and the priests copied it?” or “Did the first priest come up with it and the kinds copied it?”

            • Michael W Busch

              The real causality is probably far messier than that, with different people developing and refining ways of manipulating others independently over a very long time.

    • baal

      There is a reason I rail against ideology and insist insufferably on looking at facts in context and drawing conclusions rather than starting with an ideology and fitting ideas and facts (oddly enough, contexts get dropped) into it.

    • Miss_Beara

      Instead of railing against religion we need to teach people to think for themselves instead of blinding following ANYTHING.

      I am always amazed by people who will follow religious leaders or cult leaders who never question the highly questionable. They give their entire mind and body to these people. These are the same people who say “we are all sinners” or “I am worthless/useless/awful/weak without God.”

  • Carpinions

    A big thanks for posting this. Very informative and multi-faceted lesson in just how easily superstition and abuses of the human mind’s shortcomings by very clever people can end up in widespread carnage, even in our more enlightened society. Adding in some of those on the periphery of this story also helps illustrate just how big Jones was in reality, how many instances were missed to stop him, and how big of a lie the whole thing lethally became. I was only a year and a half old when the mass murder occurred, so it’s still safe to say it was before my time.

  • Gus Snarp

    I think the biggest problem with religion is that it provides the wrong basis for beliefs and decision making. While that basis is called “faith” it is really simply the authority of priests. They can give a number of fallacious, but very appealing to those not versed in critical thinking, reasons they are to be believed: appeal to authority, appeal to antiquity, appeal to popularity. If those don’t work, then they use emotional tricks akin to brainwashing, or just outright brainwashing. They may hold up a holy book as the ultimate authority, but the book must be interpreted – by the priest, who is the real authority. Jones may have called himself and his followers atheists, but functionally he was just the priestly authority and god all rolled into one. The same is true of the communist dictators we’re told are evil because of atheism. What enables them to do great evil is the same thing that enables religion to do great evil: an unaccountable authority that sets itself up above all reason, evidence, and critical thought.

  • Stev84
    • WallofSleep

      I should have know someone had beat me to it.

  • ortcutt

    This is a really good documentary about People’s Temple and Jim Jones.

  • Harold Baize

    It is faith whether in an imaginary god or the dogma or a political doctrine.

    A good article, but a little too anti-left. I don’t think it is accurate or necessary to say that Milk has been “sainted.” I think even the most left leaning of people recognize that Harvey Milk was just a person with flaws like the rest of us.

    • Blue

      Yes, I think this is an important that needs to be made more often – it’s the adherence to a dogmatic ideology that causes problems. Atheists aren’t invulnerable to dogma and flawed reasoning simply by virtue of not believing in deities.

  • tinker

    This tragedy was part of my conversion. It happened when I was 14. (To make sure that I paid attention about it my best friend at the time was named Jim Jones.) I was very much a Xtian at that time, I had just gone through my confirmation. The was this was presented at the time was that all those people were blindly following Jones like sheep. I think that made an impression on me that I did not want to be a sheeple myself.

    On a side note, I use the ‘drink the kool-aid’ reference myself and it has always conjured up the memory of the horror of this story. I was not aware that it could have come from these ‘acid tests’. It has only had the connotation of blindly following an insane person and doing what you are told to me.

  • C Peterson

    Jones wasn’t an atheist by any reasonable definition. He simply rejected all the traditional gods in favor of himself. Is God an atheist? Maybe.

    As far as traditional socialism and Marxism… these are very interesting systems that, for all intents and purposes, function as non-theistic religions. I wouldn’t call them religions, simply because that word is best kept for theistic belief systems, but in so many respects socialism and Marxism take their lead from religion. Both are steeped in dogma, much of which is demonstrably in conflict with reality, and much of which stands at odds with natural human behavior. It’s not surprising that many of the individuals most associated with these political and social systems grew up in homes profoundly influenced by religion.

    • Blue

      Jim Jones rejected the notion of deities. How do you figure he wasn’t an atheist? It’s bad enough when religious people use the “no true Scotsman” argument – please, let’s not start engaging in the same defensive mindset.

      • C Peterson

        There’s no fallacy in my comment. Did you even read it? All I said is that’s it’s a very peculiar kind of “atheist” who raises himself up as a god, which pretty well describes what Jones did.

        • Blue

          Yes, I read your comment. You said “Jones wasn’t an atheist by any reasonable definition.”

          Jim Jones did not believe in gods. He rejected the notion of a higher power. How is that NOT a “reasonable definition of atheist”?

          Now I’ve read both of your comments and they still look like No True Scotsman fallacies.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Although if he thought Lenin was any sort of messiah, he was even more deluded. Whether religious or atheistic, cults of personality lead to no good.

  • Librepensadora

    I remember this tragedy well, but I had not known that Jones himself had not drunk the poisoned beverage. One thing that stands out, given Jones’s paranoia about the government, is that Mark Lane was one of his stateside lawyers.

  • Blue

    “Raven” is a good account, but it has some weaknesses. Check out the “Jonestown apologists” blog by Tom Kinsolving. His father, Les Kinsolving, was the first journalist to blow the whistle on the Peoples’ Temple and his employer, the Examiner, silenced him. Tom Kinsolving offers a solid critique on “Raven” while acknowledging that it’s one of the best books on the subject.

    Of the few Jonestown survivors, several seem to still be entrenched in a cult mentality.

  • J-Rex

    Great post!

    I’ve noticed that some personality types have more need for meaning and purpose than others. I don’t have that need. What I want to believe doesn’t matter; I don’t believe things just because they make me happy.

    My sister and mother are the opposite. They need to know that there’s some sort of purpose or higher power. My sister went through a phase of questioning fundamentalist Christianity a while back, but she went from that to becoming Orthodox. She could question some of the things she believed, but she couldn’t bring herself to question her overall beliefs. It just feels natural for her to keep following what she wants to be true. I’ve even asked her recently how much of Orthodoxy she believes and she’s told me that she doesn’t really know, but she’s willing to follow the teachings because…it’s beautiful and meaningful? Or something?

    I can see how if someone like her realized that their religion didn’t make sense, they would still feel that deep desire to believe in something. It was hard for me to lose my faith and I don’t have that need, so I can see it being devastating for someone else. That leaves them very vulnerable and they’re desperate to latch onto anything that makes their life seem meaningful again. It’s so sad that some people set out to take advantage of that vulnerability.

  • WallofSleep

    “…an act that may have given rise to the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid””

    The funny (odd, not humorous) thing is that the product used was Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid.

    • Tanner B James

      It is exactly how that phrase came about.

  • Tanner B James

    The methodist youth group, I was once a part of, paid a visit to The Peoples Temple in San Fransisco, I shook Jim Jones’ hand and ate BBQ with him. Hopefully I’ll get to pay a visit to Mars Hill and meet Mark Driscoll.

  • Noelle

    The over-used phrase “drink the kool-aid” to refer to others who agree with someone the speaker does not is absolutely terrible. It gives me the shudders and makes me think of dead people. When I have complained about this in the past, I am told I am overly sensitive or exaggerating (or even worse, the person saying it has no idea it refers to a mass murder/suicide). If being sensitive to this kind of horror makes me too sensitive, I’d hate to be the calloused person who uses such a gruesome analogy so flippantly.

  • midnight rambler

    So, I’m currently reading Raven and started delving into some of the other material, and maybe someone who knows more can help me out with this thing bugging me. This seems to be the most widely spread recording of Jim Jones:

    It’s been sampled in a couple of songs, and it exemplefies his craziness. But while it’s attributed to various times, including the “death tape” just before the end (which it’s obviously not, based on the sound of his voice), I can’t find it anywhere in the Jonestown/PT recordings (some aren’t available, but those all seem to be pretty mundane based on the FBI description).

    The best candidate seems to be tape Q636, which is of a “White Night” in April 1978. The FBI summary says that “JONES further stated that if anyone comes to try take any one of them, they will not let them. They will die, they will have to take anybody over the dead bodies of the rest of them”, which is part of the Youtube clip; but it’s not on the tape – the ululation that begins that clip is right at the end (30:20-40), and it’s a 30 minute tape, so they couldn’t have just cut it off from the digital version. It’s supposed to be continued on tape Q637, but that picks up from a different point.

    So, WTF? Where is the souce of this clip? Is there another recording of the same event?

  • pagansister

    I remember that event—-and could NEVER understand how one could intentionally KILL their children because some looney tune told them a bunch of lies about an invisible being. Unfortunately, he isn’t, he wasn’t and won’t be the only looney tune who will convince people to kill in the name of GOD! Sad and totally sick.

  • Foxhole Atheist

    I am originally from Guyana and this is the only thing that most people know about Guyana who know about Guyana at all…it’s not surprising he settled there..the entire country was this bizarre mix of Christinsanity (as well as Hinduism and some Islam), socialist/communist leanings, and most of all corruption..a powerful mix for this brand of insanity…my cousin was a preacher, into the speaking in tongues thing but then fell out of the particular church when he found out that the head of the church was using a lot of the church money for his own uses – this was not unusual…anyhow back to Jones…whether he was an atheist or not is irrelevant as his most outstanding characteristic was that he was a meglomaniac…and unfortunately, there are a lot of vulnerable folks that will fall for these charismatics irrespective of the story they are weaving…religion is just one of those stories that makes it easy to gather up vulnerable people

    I don’t think atheism provides a privileged position when it comes to whether or not you are a corrupt human being

  • Mark

    See Tom wolfe’s book written in 1968 for the origin of the drinking the kool-aid or acid test references. “The electric kool aid acid test” a well worth the read.