On the 1978 recordings known as “The Death Tapes,” Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones is heard encouraging his followers to commit “a revolutionary suicide” with him.
“I lived for all, and I will die for all!” he preaches on the scratchy, low-quality recording. “It’s not worth livin’ like this. Without me, life has no meaning. We have no other road.”
Fearing they were surrounded by mercenaries who would upend their lives, Jones instructed everyone to die together peacefully by drinking a cyanide-laced Flavor Aid punch. As armed guards pointed guns and crossbows at the followers, most obeyed, although some were forcibly injected with poison. In all, 918 people died, including nearly 300 children.
Gruesome news images from the aftermath—one of the largest and most shocking mass deaths of Americans in history—showed a sea of dead bodies lying face down, side-by-side, across the People’s Temple settlement deep within the Guyana jungle, an area known as Jonestown.
Jones, however, never drank the poisoned punch that killed nearly all of his followers. Instead, he died from a gunshot wound to the head. His death was believed to be quicker, and less painful, than the demise of his Peoples Temple members.
Yet 40 years later, there is still some mystery surrounding how Jones died. Was his gunshot self-inflicted? Could someone else have pulled the trigger through an act of heroism or loyalty? Is it possible that he was already dying from other health problems?
“I don’t think he intended to survive,” Rick Alan Ross, founder and executive director of the Cult Education Institute and author of Cults Inside Out tells A&E True Crime. “There was a certain level of narcissistic rage. Like, ‘If I’m not around, why should these people want to live?'”
Jim Jones’ inconclusive autopsy
Jones’ dead body was found sprawled out on the stage in the settlement’s pavilion. There was a small pistol on his chest and a gunshot wound to his head. Toxicology reports found no traces of cyanide in his system, although they found potentially lethal levels of the drug Pentobarbital, a sedative sometimes used for euthanizing animals. However, the report said Pentobarbital intoxication did not cause Jones’ death.
Most experts who have studied the massacre believe Jones shot himself. But no one can say with 100 percent certainty that someone else didn’t shoot him. Even the autopsy doesn’t rule out homicide.
His death is “consistent with suicide,” the autopsy said, but “the possibility of homicide cannot be entirely ruled out because of the lack of specific and reliable information.”
Conflicting information about where the gunshot entered his head also clouds the question.
The autopsy said the bullet entered his left temple and exited the right. But Guyana pathologist Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the first medical doctor on the scene, reported the entrance wound was on the right side of Jones’ head. If Jones was right-handed—something that remains unknown—a gunshot wound to the left temple would have very difficult. The autopsy was unable to test Jones’ hands for gunpowder residue because the body had decomposed and had been extensively handled, making false-positive or false-negative results likely.
Mootoo added to the speculation by telling American news reporters that he couldn’t confirm Jones’ death was suicide because his body was too badly decomposed.
“I don’t believe (Jones) was a megalomaniac as people have said. I do believe he was power-drunk, but a person like that would never kill himself,” he told the paper.
From a psychological standpoint, experts agree that Jones orchestrating the mass suicide along with his own was the ultimate power play.
“Everyone had to die for Jones’s final statement to have the impact that he wanted,” writes Jeff Guinn, in his book, The Road to Jonestown.
“He did not want to die painfully with cyanide,” Ross adds. “This is the death he wanted.”
Who pulled the trigger?
Jones’ close friend and personal nurse, Annie Moore, was believed to be one of the last people to die in Jonestown. That led to speculation that she could have shot Jones, and then shot herself. But that didn’t happen, insists her brother-in-law, Fielding McGehee, co-director of the Jonestown Institute.
Annie Moore died from a gunshot wound from a different gun, in a different location and left a suicide note praising Jones, McGehee tells A&E True Crime.
McGehee and his wife, Rebecca Moore, Annie’s sister (Rebecca lost a total of three family members in Jonestown), are now co-directors of The Jonestown Institute. Their website, supported by San Diego State University, contains extensive research on the massacre.
Another person dismissing the idea of Annie Moore as a killer is author Julia Scheeres. In her book on Jonestown, A Thousand Lives, Scheeres heavily researched Moore’s role and concludes she didn’t kill Jones.
“There was no hero in this story,” Scheeres tells A&E True Crime. “There’s this longing to have someone stop him, but it didn’t happen.”
Was Jim Jones dying?
Another theory about Jones’ death is that he was already dying. Believing his members couldn’t survive without him, this was his opportunity to die on his own terms.
Jones may have had an undiagnosed medical condition in the final months of his life. He’d been running a temperature of roughly 100 degrees for six straight weeks and had a deep cough. His friend and physician Dr. Carlton Goodlett examined him three months before the massacre, and, fearing some type of dangerous lung infection, urged him to seek medical treatment immediately. Goodlett was later quoted in news reports saying he believed Jones wouldn’t have lived longer than a few weeks more without medical attention. On top of that, Jones had been abusing prescription drugs and amphetamines. On several tapes in the fall of 1978, he speaks slowly and incoherently as if heavily medicated.
“He was increasingly incapacitated,” McGehee says. “He may have been dying.”
His mental health was teetering, too. In the final months, Jones exhibited paranoia and ordered mass suicide drills, but he also showed humanity. The Jonestown Institute found a recording from two weeks before the massacre where Jones reprimanded two children for pulling the wings off of a fly, tearfully telling them how precious life is, McGehee says.
Yet, hours before the massacre, he arranged for the murders of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and three journalists. They had just visited Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse, and Jones knew they would return home and report his criminal activity: He would be headed to jail and his temple would be leaderless.
If he was going to die, he wasn’t going to give up control of his followers and the temple he built, Ross says: “This would demonstrate to the world his total power and control over them.”
Could more information still surface?
More answers could come from the 250 to 300 tapes from the People’s Temple that The Jonestown Institute has yet to comb through.
“Every single time I drop a tape into the tape player, I have no idea what I’m going to hear,” McGehee says. “A lot of times you listen to one and think, ‘This makes it more confusing than ever.'”
Meanwhile, at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, 200 people will gather November 18, 2018 to mark the massacre’s 40th anniversary. It’ll be held in front of the mass grave where 409 of the people who died in Jonestown were laid to rest, and it’s likely to be the last big gathering, as survivors and family members age and dwindle in number.
The memorial’s four white granite slabs contain the names of all 918 people who died in Jonestown, including Jones. The decision to include his name was controversial, since survivors’ family members view him as a mass murderer.
“People still get emotional when they’re here,” cemetery owner Buck Kamphausen tells A&E True Crime. “It brings back memories from all those years ago.”
The intent of the service is to humanize the People’s Temple members and their families.
“These aren’t just crazy people,” McGehee says. “These were people looking to make a better life.”
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Was Jonestown a Mass Suicide or a Mass Murder?
What Was It Like to Die of Cyanide Poisoning at Jonestown?
Watch ‘Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre’
Inside Jonestown: How Jim Jones Trapped Followers and Forced ‘Suicides’