Julia Scheeres | A Thousand Lives | 26 minutes (6,304 words)
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For our latest Longreads Exclusive, we’re proud to share Julia Scheeres’ adaptation of her book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, which tells the story of five people who lived in Jonestown at the time of the infamous massacre, which occurred 36 years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978.
This story also includes home movies—never before released publicly—from inside Jonestown. The footage, discovered after the massacre, includes tours of the compound by Jim Jones and interviews with many of those who lived and died there. You can view the entire series of clips at YouTube.com/Longreads.
* * *
The journey up the coast was choppy, the boat too far out to get a good look at the shore. While the other passengers spread out in sleeping bags over the deck, 15-year-old Tommy Bogue gripped the railing, determined not to miss a beat of this adventure.
This was his first sea journey. His first trip outside the United States. His first sighting of jungle. Guyana: the very name was exotic. He’d never heard of it before his church established a mission there. As the shore blurred by, vague and mysterious, he imagined the creatures that roamed beyond it. Many of the world’s largest animals lived there: the giant anteater, the giant sea otter, the giant armadillo, the 20-foot green anaconda. He’d read and re-read the Guyana entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica until he could spout off trivia to anyone who paid attention to what the skinny, mop-haired teen had to say. Now, as the trawler chopped through dark waves, he ticked off this book knowledge to himself. He knew a few things about the strangeness surrounding him, and those few things comforted him.
Everything about Tommy was average—his height, his build, his grades—except for his penchant for trouble. His parents couldn’t control him. Neither could his church. He was always sneaking out of services to smoke weed or wander the gritty streets of the Fillmore District. Ditching church became a game—one that he was frequently and severely punished for—but one that proved irresistible.
They’d only told him the day before that he was leaving for South America. His head was still spinning with the quickness of it all. He was glad to get away from the never-ending church meetings and rules. But mostly he was excited about seeing his father. Jim Bogue left for Guyana two years earlier, and although he’d called home using the mission’s ham radio, the conversations were rushed and marred by static. His father sounded proud of all the pioneers had accomplished at the mission post, and Tommy was eager to see it for himself.
As the trawler swung in a wide arc toward land, the other congregants crowded Tommy at the railing. The boat nosed up the Waini River, its wake lifting the skirts of the mangroves as parrots flashed in the high canopy. The travelers slipped back in time, passing thatched huts stilted on the riverbanks and Amerindian families, who eyed them warily from dugout canoes.
At Port Kaituma, Pastor Jim Jones finally emerged from the wheelhouse, wearing the dark-lensed, gold-framed sunglasses that rarely left his face. He welcomed them to the village—which seemed to consist of little more than stalls selling produce and used clothing—as if he owned it. Tommy listened attentively to Pastor Jones, who was only there for a short visit. Guyana was a fresh start for him and he wanted to make his father proud.
A tractor pulling a flatbed trailer motored up. The newcomers boarded it with their meager belongs. As they lurched down the pitted road toward the settlement, they grabbed the high sides, joking as if they were on a hayride.
Jim Jones in 1971
Pastor Jones raised his voice over the thrumming diesel engine to boast about the mission. About the “ice cream tree” whose fruit tasted like strawberry sherbet. About the abundant crops of cassava, bananas and cutlass beans. About his protective aura, which surrounded the property—there was no sickness there, no malaria, no typhoid. No jungle cats or snakes dared venture onto it. Nothing bad happened there.
At some point, Tommy noticed the squalor: the shanties lining the road, the kids with open sores and distended bellies, the dead dogs rotting where they fell. The trenches of scummy water. The stench. The mosquitoes. None of this jibed with the movies of the mission they’d seen at church, which made Guyana look like a lush resort.
The tractor turned down a lane that wound through a tight stand of trees. The canopy soared 200 feet above them. The light dimmed and Tommy glanced behind them at the receding brightness, then ahead to where his father waited.
[pullquote align="center"]Guyana was a fresh start for Tommy and he wanted to make his father proud.[/pullquote]
View more home movies from Jonestown
* * *
The draw of that lonely outpost, some four thousand miles away from California, was different for everyone. Some wanted to escape the ghetto. Others wanted to be part of a bold social experiment. They were going to give a big thumbs-down to AmeriKKKa and forge a utopia free of all the evil -isms. Some people planned to volunteer a few months before returning home. Others thought it’d be a great opportunity to their kids to spend a semester abroad. In the beginning, members of Peoples Temple referred to the settlement as Jones did, calling it “the promised land.”
When Tommy arrived, there were only two dozen people living in Jonestown. In those early days, there was a real sense of purpose. Old people sorted rice and cleaned vegetables, young people weeded the fields and hauled boards from the sawmill.
Tommy worked alongside his dad, hammering together cottages. They’d both changed in two years. Tommy sported a scraggle of fuzz on his upper lip; his father seemed more defeated than ever. In California, with Jim Jones’s encouragement, Jim Bogue’s wife had embarked on an affair with another church member. This was not uncommon; Jones split up marriages and families as he saw fit. Loyalty to the cause, he preached, should trump mere human alliances. When Tommy jumped off the tractor trailer, Jim Bogue rushed to embrace him, joyful tears wet on his cheeks. It was the first time Tommy had ever seen his father—his reserved, stoical father—cry.
Jonestown from the sky.
They relaxed together at suppertime, when the settlers gathered to eat family-style dinners of fried chicken or fish with local greens. Cans of Pepsi were shipped up from Georgetown, and the kitchen handed out peanut butter fudge for treats. Afterwards, they’d play board games or watch movies in the large, open pavilion at the settlement’s center. Some nights the youth would find a boom box and dance as the voice of Diana Ross wailed in the jungle. It was July 1976. America was celebrating its bicentennial; Jonestown was birthing a new society.
Then it all changed.
New West magazine was about to publish an exposé portraying Jim Jones—by now a celebrated California powerbroker—as a charlatan who faked healings, swindled money from his followers, and fathered a son with an attractive acolyte. It was all true.
Until then, Jones had only visited the mission sporadically. But now he moved in permanently, occupying a secluded cottage on the outskirts of Jonestown with two concubines while his wife took up residence nearby.
Then he started to evacuate his flock from San Francisco before the scandals went public. By fall of 1977, there’d be 700 people shoehorned into Jonestown, five times more than the compound could feed.
But Jones didn’t care whether his people thrived in Guyana—he had far darker plans for them.
For several years, he’d been mulling over an idea he called “revolutionary suicide.” He wondered if his followers were dedicated enough to Socialism to kill themselves for it. In 1973, he’d talked to confidants about the possibility of loading his top aides onto buses and driving them off the Golden Gate Bridge, or onto a plane and having someone shoot the pilot. But then he came up with a grander plan: Jonestown. In a remote jungle in South America he could isolate his followers and do as he pleased with them.
New West magazine on Jim Jones and Jonestown
By the time they regretted moving to Jonestown—a two-day boat ride from civilization—it was too late. They were trapped there. He confiscated their money and passports and dropped all ministerial demeanor.
“If you want to go home, you can swim,” Jones told disgruntled residents. “We won’t pay your fucking way home.”
In September, he raised the notion of “revolutionary suicide” with the rank and file. He took a vote to see how many people supported it. Three loyalists raised their hands. The vast majority of Jonestown residents were shaken by his word and vehemently argued against it—they’d come to Guyana to forge better lives for themselves and their children, not to die.
But Jones wouldn’t let the subject drop. He harangued them nightly; they had to prepare themselves to give the ultimate sacrifice.
Tommy was scared. He started plotting his escape, with his best friend Brian Davis, who was also 16. From the Amerindians Tommy had learned jungle survival skills—how to build snares, find water, differentiate between poisonous and edible plants. To develop a “jungle eye” to get his bearings by focusing through the trees at breaks in the foliage. To ditch trackers by walking up streams or in circles.
He shared all this with Brian. They schemed in whispers, out of sight, in the dark. They’d make their way to Venezuela, then somehow back to California. On Nov. 1, 1977, under the guise of looking for firewood, they crossed the line separating the fields from the jungle and ran, clutching gunny sacks stuffed with food, clothing, and matches.
They made good headway until darkness fell. There is no “jungle eye” at night. When they raised their hands to their faces, they felt heat emanating from their palms, but saw nothing. They kept tripping on vines, startling at weird noises. All the fanged and clawed creatures hunted at night—the jaguar and puma, the anaconda and emerald tree boa. They turned back to the road running between Port Kaituma and the neighboring village. As it cut through a steep hill, the Jonestown guards surrounded them.
At the pavilion, the throng waited, angry at being hauled out of bed. Jones sat on a platform at the front, sneering as the guards shoved the teens toward him.
In a low growl, Jones asked the boys how far they thought they’d get before switching on a tape recorder resting on the table beside him. The tape, Q933, was one of 971 audio tapes that FBI agents recovered from Jonestown after the massacre.
It starts mid sentence, as the guard berates Tommy:
… I’d just like to say, this idiot—you’ve been in the bush, but you’ve only been around where people are always at…and there ain’t going to be no animals there. You get out in the Venezuelan jungle, and you’re going to run into every kind of fucking thing. They would’ve killed you, you’re lucky we found you. You know what lives here, man, you know it. Don’t say you don’t.
Jones: “What lives there? The puma? The leopard? The ocelot? ‘Bout 50 different breeds of poisonous reptiles? Are you aware of this—any of this? How long you been around here?”
Tommy: “Fourteen months, Father.”
Jones interrogated the boys, then asked if anyone else had questions for “these assholes.” The size and sound of the crowd’s fury is frightening even on a low-quality tape recording. How much more so it must have been for the two boys that night. The recording shows Jones’ disturbing ability to switch from a gentle rebuke to an enraged bellow in the space between two words. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy. “Goddamn white fascist bigots!” a woman shrieks. “You’re evil!” Jones shouted before spitting several times. Tommy’s mother Edith rushed forward to slap his face repeatedly until Jones told her “enough.”
The conversation took a surreal turn when Edith suggested she cut both their heads off, then commit suicide, to keep the “church from getting in trouble.”
Edith Bogue, talking to Jones
A long debate ensued about whether the boys should die. Jones stopped the recording the session before dictating their punishment, but a slip of paper retrieved by the FBI revealed what it was. The typed release, signed by Jim and Edith Bogue and by Joyce Touchette—Brian’s guardian in Jonestown—permitted the boys to be “physically restrained by chain” to prevent them from running away again.
The next day, each boy had a metal ring welded onto his ankle, which was connected to the other boy by a three-foot chain. They were forced to run wherever they went, dragging the chain between them. They had to sleep together, shower together, use the toilet together, and sleep on the same bunk.
A guard led them to a fallen tree and ordered them to turn it into firewood. They chopped wood from dawn to dusk. During their second week, Brian, exhausted and sore, slid his thumb over the wood splitter as Tommy wielded the sledgehammer.
“Hit it,” he whispered. Tommy refused. “Dude, hit it so we can have a break,” Brian insisted. They argued briefly before Tommy relented. The guard took them to the clinic, where a nurse bandaged Brian’s thumb and sent them back to work.
A year later, one of the boys would make a final, successful, attempt to escape Jonestown.
The other would die there.
The parents of Tommy Bogue agree to restrain him with chains.
* * *
In December 1977, another cord tethering Jim Jones to reason snapped when his mother died in Jonestown. A life-long smoker, Lynetta was in the last stages of emphysema when she moved to Guyana. In December, she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed, and she died within two days. A few hours after her death, an emotional Jones gathered his followers in the pavilion to notify them of her passing. He described his mother’s last moments as she gasped for air with her “tongue hanging out, saliva flowing down her face. She couldn’t move her eyes.” He invited people who knew Lynetta well to take a last look at her. Although she looked horrific while she died, in death she looked “very well, very well indeed,” he said.
Again he raised the specter of mass suicide.
“How many plan your death?” he asked.
“There’s a number of you that do not lift your hand and say you plan your death. You’re gonna die. Don’t you think you should plan such an important event?”
He called on a 75-year-old Texan named Vera Talley.
“Sister Talley, don’t you ever plan your death?”
On the tape recording of the conversation, she sounded hesitant.
“No,” she finally said.
“And why don’t you, dear?” Jones asked.
“I don’t know, I just hadn’t thought about it.”
“Don’t you think it’s time to think about it?”
The old woman was confused; she thought Jones was talking about life insurance. “My husband quit paying it and I didn’t have no money to pay it, and I just let it go, and I hadn’t thought no more about it.”
“I’m not talking about insurance,” Jones said. “I’m talking about planning your death for the victory of the people. For socialism, for communism, for black liberation, for oppressed liberation … Haven’t you ever thought about taking a bomb and running into a Ku Klux Klan meeting and destroying all the Ku Klux Klan people?”
The microphone buzzed loudly, interrupting and angering Jones. He admonished people sitting in the back of the pavilion to stop playing with their babies and pay attention.
Maya Ijames, an 8-year-old biracial girl with a cloud of soft black hair, lifted her hand. She, too, was confused.
“What does planning your death mean?” she asked sweetly. On the tape, her voice is shockingly innocent and clear.
In his response to Maya, Jones launched into a diatribe, the essence of which was captured in one sentence: “I think a healthy person has to think through his death, or he may sell out.”
The remark revealed Jones’s deepest fear, that his followers would betray him. He’d rather they die first. “When somebody’s so principled, they’re ready to die at the snap of a finger,” he told the crowd, “and that’s what I want to build in you, that same kind of character.”
He described various methods of suicide. “Drowning, they say, is one of the easiest ways in the world to die. It’s just a numbing, kind of sleepy sensation.”
The crowd was solemn, and their lack of enthusiasm infuriated him. “Some of you people get so fuckin’ nervous every time I talk about death!” he shouted. He stuck out his tongue and pretended to gag, just as he’d seen his mother do in her last breaths. The crowd laughed uneasily.
An elderly woman refused to smile at his antics, and he turned on her: “You’re gonna die someday, honey!” he bellowed. “You old bitch, you’re gonna die!”
Baby nursery at Jonestown
He started keeping lists of those residents who didn’t raise their hands when he held votes for revolutionary suicide, of parents who were “too attached” to their children. He directed Jonestown’s medical team to research ways to kill everyone and to be creative about it—there wasn’t enough ammunition to shoot the one thousand people who now populated Jonestown.
On Wednesdays, the camp doctor, Larry Schacht—a loner with depressive tendencies like Jim Jones—took a break from healing Jonestown residents and researched ways to murder them. He grew botulism and other deadly cultures in discarded baby food jars, but ultimately decided suicide-by-bacteria would take too long. Another scrap of paper, collected by FBI agents, reveals his “solution” to the problem. “Cyanide is one of the most rapidly-acting poisons,” Schacht wrote in the memo. “I had some misgivings about its effectiveness, but from further research I have gained more confidence in it, at least theoretically…cyanide may take up to three hours to kill but usually it is within minutes.”
He placed an order for one pound of sodium cyanide from J.T. Baker, a chemical company in Hayward, California. The order, which cost .85, was for enough poison to kill 1,800 people.
* * *
A water brigade at Jonestown.
The extreme duress of life in Jonestown made people crack. They didn’t care about socialism if it meant chronic hunger, exhaustion, and fear. Some days they’d stand in the food line after a day of working in the fields, only to be handed a few slices of watermelon. At night, Jones screened documentaries on Nazi death camps or read from the torture memoir of a Chilean Socialist, hoping to infect them with his relentless nihilism.
Despite the odds, residents clung to the hope that they’d get out of Jonestown alive. Human instinct is to survive; surrendering to death is unnatural. Jim Bogue made a plan. He got his family into Peoples Temple—now he had to get them out.
Since Jones was constantly badgering residents to finds ways to make money, Bogue proposed gold prospecting. It would allow him to survey the jungle and the possibility of escaping through it. He didn’t know a thing about gold—other than that it seemed to be all that the cursed soil was good for—but the leadership agreed to give him a go at it, even ordering prospecting guides and pans.
He set off into the jungle with another Jonestown resident named Al Simon. Bogue found a kindred spirit in Simon; neither man was in Jones’s inner circle and both were estranged from their wives. Something in Bogue’s gut told him Simon was trustworthy. It was possible to get a sense of another resident’s true feelings by reading their body language during Jones’s harangues: a wince, a sigh, a moment’s hesitation during a death vote. But it took months for Bogue to broach the topic of escape with Simon. First they discussed the failure of the farm. Eventually they discussed the failure of Jim Jones.
Al Simon, with Summer Simon
Simon was also deeply afraid. In the rallies, he sat with his toddler, Summer, sprawled sleeping in his lap, while Crystal, 4, and Alvin, Jr., 6, dozed on the hard bench beside him. He was thankful that they were too small to understand most of what was said during those bleak discussions. He made it clear that he was against revolutionary suicide. “I feel all the children here should have a right to live to carry on,” he wrote to the Temple leader. As the months passed, however, it became increasingly clear to him that Jones didn’t give a damn about anything, even children.
Using machetes, the two men started hacking a path behind the sawmill. They planned to forge a trail for several miles to the narrow-gauge railway that ran between Port Kaituma and the neighboring town. Bogue wrote Jones periodic updates, saying he’d found a promising streambed that had a “good rock formation, good water source”—always adding that he’d need more time to suss it out.
The men’s progress was agonizingly slow. The rain forest was dense with vines and saplings, and in some stretches, they’d hack for hours, until their muscles shook, only to clear few yards. Blisters caused by his water-logged boots covered Bogue’s feet, but his resolve to save his family was a powerful anesthetic.
Somehow their plan would succeed; they had to believe it. The opposite was unfathomable.
Then came another twist: Congressman Leo Ryan from San Mateo, California, announced plans to visit Jonestown. He wanted to investigate charges that residents were being held against their will.
When Jones heard the news, he was beside himself. He gathered residents in the pavilion:
Jones: “I can assure you, that if he stays long enough for tea, he’s gonna regret it….son of a bitch. You got something to say to him, you want to talk to him?”
Jones: “Anybody here care to see him?”
Jones: “I don’t know about you, I just wanted to be sure you understood where I’m coming from. I don’t care whether I see Christmas or Thanksgiving, neither one. You don’t either. We’ve been debating about dying ’til, hell, it’s easier to die than talk about it…I worry about what you people think, because you’re wanting—trying to hold onto life, but I’ve been trying to give mine away for a long time, and if that fucker wants to take it—he can have it, but we’ll have a hell of a time going together.”
At first he refused to let Ryan enter Jonestown. But his lawyers urged him to reconsider. Barring the congressman would only validate rumors that Jones was hiding something, and when Ryan returned to Washington, he’d probably hold hearings on the matter.
And so, on Nov. 17, the congressman, along with an entourage of reporters, relatives and government officials, were escorted into Jonestown. At first, the reception went well. Residents obeyed orders to not complain and offered rehearsed answers to prying questions. Before the group’s arrival, they’d been fed a hearty dinner of barbecued pork, biscuits, callaloo greens, as well as the first coffee they’d tasted in months. Having a bellyful of good food buoyed their morale.
The guests were treated to a talent show. The Jonestown band played. Residents danced. It was an intricately staged song and dance.
At a break, Ryan addressed the audience: “This is a congressional inquiry. I think that all of you know that I’m here to find out more about questions that have been raised about your operation here, but I can tell you right now that, from the few conversations I’ve had with some of the folks here already this evening, that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.”
The residents’ applause, which lasted a full minute, reverberated off the metal roof. The NBC cameraman panned over the ecstatic crowd, before returning to the congressman, who waited for the noise to subside with an awkward smile. He attempted to speak several times, but was drowned out each time by applause, whistling, shouting, and drums.
Around eleven that night, residents started to fade into the darkness toward their cottages. The elaborate charade seemed to be a success.
Until the next morning. During an interview, NBC correspondent Don Harris asked Jones about the allegations of mistreatment and imprisonment. Jones denied everything. Harris showed him a note that a resident had slipped him the previous day. “Help us get out of Jonestown,” it said. Next, Edith Parks, a grandmotherly woman with white hair and cat’s-eye glasses walked up to a State department official. “We want to leave,” she said.
The house of cards was tumbling down.
Tommy saw Edith Parks talking to Ryan’s aide, Jackie Speier, and panicked. They’d been ordered to steer clear of visitors. He sprinted to find his dad, who told him to collect his two older sisters and meet up at the sawmill.
Al Simon was already there with his daughters and father, Jose Simon.
There was no time to wait—they needed to leave now, Bogue said.
Jim Bogue in Jonestown
But Simon couldn’t find his boy, Alvin, Jr. He wanted to return to the central area. “I’m gonna get him, and I’ll be right back,” he said. Bogue promised his friend they’d wait for him; the two men had forged a path to freedom together and together they would hike it out.
But Al Simon didn’t return. Finally the party decided to return to the pavilion to look for him. They found a growing number of defectors and decided to join them.
Congressman Ryan told the Bogues that the truck was too full; they’d have to wait for a second load out.
“There won’t be another load,” Edith Bogue retorted.
Jim Jones walked up to Jim Bogue and threw his arm around his shoulder.
“You know you don’t have to go,” Jones said.
Bogue just looked at the ground and shook his head.
“If you do go, you’ll be welcomed back anytime,” Jones said. “Even some of those who have lied against us have come back.”
Bogue just let him talk. He had nothing more to say to him.
[pullquote align="center"]‘Help us get out of Jonestown,’ the note said.[/pullquote]
* * *
The jungle surrounding Jonestown.
The sky had been swirling with dark clouds all morning and now a giant wind heaved through the pavilion, sending papers aloft and rocking the wooden planters hanging from the rafters. It was if all the tension in Jonestown had condensed in the sky above it and had now, on this final, horrible day, transmogrified into its own physical force. The clouds split open, rain drummed the pavilion’s metal roof, drowning talk, stifling movement. A moat formed around the structure’s edges.
Jones sat defeated as his aides pressed in around him. He didn’t listen to their reasoning that too few people had left to justify any drastic action. He simmered with rage, telling his lawyer that those who were leaving were traitors. He narrowed his eyes with hatred behind his dark glasses, licking his dry lips repeatedly, intent on his diabolical plan.
Tommy saw his buddy Brian Davis in the crowd.
“Why don’t you come on?” Tommy asked him.
“I can’t go,” Brian said. He had a weird flat look on his face. His father, a true believer, stood beside him.
As the defectors carried their baggage down the walkways, their roommates, relatives, co-workers, friends, and adversaries watched, huddled in doorways, eyes darting, chewing their cuticles. “Goodbyes” seemed beside the point.
As Al Simon walked his kids toward the dump truck with his father, his estranged wife appeared. She pulled Alvin Jr. from his grandfather’s arms and shrieked at her husband:
“You bring those kids back here! Don’t you take my kids!”
Jose Simon snatched up his grandson again and cradled him to his chest like a baby, then starts toward the truck again. The television camera zooms in: the grandfather’s face is grimly determined, the boy’s eyes wide with anguish. They hurry down the muddy path and catch up to Simon, who carries Summer while Crystal, lopes beside him. The two men walk shoulder to shoulder, casting nervous glances behind them.
They almost made it.
[pullquote align="center"]‘You bring those kids back here! Don’t you take my kids!’[/pullquote]
Jones’s lawyers intervened; Simon couldn’t just take the kids. Congressman Ryan offered to remain at the settlement to negotiate the custody matter but as he talked to the lawyers, a burly ex-marine named Don Sly rushed from the crowd and put a knife to the congressman’s throat. The lawyers pulled him off and urged Ryan to leave—for his own safety. The politician was clearly shaken—as a representative of the United States government, he thought his position would afford him respect and protection in Jonestown.
The defectors crowded into a huge dump truck. Ryan, shirt ripped from the tussle, climbed into the cab. The drive to the airstrip took forever. Halfway to the front gate, the truck stopped so the television crew could film a few last shots of the jungle. The defectors protested. “Grab your sisters and hit the jungle if anything goes down,” Tommy’s dad told him.
At the airstrip, more anxiety: the airplanes that were supposed to be waiting weren’t there.
Fifteen minutes later, a five-seater Cessna appeared, followed, several minutes later, by a 20-seat Guyana Airways Twin Otter. NBC’s Bob Brown filmed them landing. In the background, you can see a group of men huddle together then walk to the tractor-trailer, which was parked next to the smaller plane. Speier started making seat assignments. There were 30 people but only 26 seats. The defectors boarded first. She told the reporters that some of them would have to wait and fly out the following day. They protested, each eager to file their Jonestown story before the others. An Amerindian child ran onto the plane, and Speier was trying to coax him out when the passengers noticed the tractor trailer barreling toward them across the airfield.
Driving it was Stanley Gieg, a handsome 19-year-old from the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek. Gieg stopped 30 feet away from the Otter, parallel to its open gangway. Five men who’d been crouched in the trailer bed, stood, holding guns. They hopped to the ground and started shooting as they walked toward the plane. They shot out the nose wheel, then trained their guns on people.
Tommy was sitting directly in front of the gangway. “Duck down!” someone yelled, and everyone—including the pilot and co-pilot—dove to the floor. The woman in front of Tommy, wasn’t fast enough. A bullet hit the back of her head and her brain landed in the seat next to her. Tommy jumped up to close the door, putting himself in the line of fire. He knew they’d all die if he didn’t. He pulled on the cables, but the gangway cables were too heavy. His sister Teena jumped up and together they closed it. Tommy was sprayed with shot in his calf and Teena took a .22 bullet in hers.
The assailants walked to the other side of the plane, firing their guns. Ryan ran around the front of the plane, before crumpling to the dirt grabbing his neck. “I’ve been shot,” he said.
NBC cameraman Brown continued filming the attack until he was hit with a slug. In the raw footage, he groans loudly before the film dissolves into gray static.
As the passengers inside the Otter watch from the windows, the gunmen stalked among the wounded, shooting them point blank. Dead were Parks, Brown, Harris,
Greg Robinson, a photographer for the San Francisco Examiner, and Leo Ryan—the only U.S. congressman to be assassinated.
Once the attackers drove off, Tommy lowered the gangway. The survivors got out and were starting to regroup when someone yelled, “they’re coming back!”
Tommy grabbed his sister Teena and sprinted for the bush.
Back in Jonestown, Jones summoned his followers to the pavilion one last time. He told them the congressman was dead and that the Guyanese army would arrive at any moment—to torture and kill them. “We had better not have any of our children left when it’s over,” he said.
The FBI would collect Jones’s final speech from the tape recorder beside his chair. The “Death Tape,” as it became known, ran for 44 minutes, and included more than 30 edits where Jones stopped and started recording. After one early edit, Jones warns a “Ruby” that she’ll regret what she said—if she doesn’t die first. A survivor would later state that high school principal Dick Tropp also opposed Jones’s plan, calling it “insane.” We’ll never know how many others he silenced.
On the tape, Jones’ voice is sometimes slurred. Probably he is high. He lisps some words beginning with “s.” “Suicide” becomes “thuicide,” “simple” sounds like “thimple.” His autopsy report would reveal that his tissue contained levels of the sedative pentobarbital that were “within the toxic range,” evidence of long-time abuse of barbiturates.
Only one person is heard opposing Jim Jones on the tape, and that is Christine Miller, a 60-year-old native of Brownsville, Texas.
Miller: I feel that as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.
Jones: Well— someday everybody dies. Some place that hope runs out, because everybody dies.
Miller: I’m not saying I’m afraid to die.
Jones: I don’t think you are.
Miller: I look about at the babies and I think they deserve to live, you know?
Jones: I agree. But don’t they also deserve much more, they deserve peace.
Miller: When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us.
Jones: We will win. We win when we go down.
Miller: I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. I have a right to choose mine, and everybody else had a right to choose theirs.
She was shouted down. An elderly man took the microphone, crying. “Dad, we’re all ready to go. If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready—I’m pretty sure all the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me.”
He is roundly applauded. The tide had turned in Jones’ favor. He’d been goading them toward this night for years.
Jones: Please get us some medication. It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. It’s just simple. Just, please get it. Before it’s too late. The GDF (Guyana Defense Force) will be here, I tell you. Get movin’, get movin’. Don’t be afraid to die. If these people land out here, they’ll torture our children, they’ll torture our people, they’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this.
Parents try to console their children. Lovers embrace. Confused seniors wonder what’s happening. Jonestown guards circle the pavilion, guns trained on the cowering residents—they can either take the “potion” or be shot.
Jones is impatient.
Jones: Have you got the medication here?! You’ve got to move!”
From the school tent, aides carry a large steel drum containing a dark purple liquid. Dr. Schacht mixed his toxic cocktail carefully. It contains potassium cyanide, valium, chloral hydrate (used to put babies and small children to sleep for surgery) potassium chloride (used to stop the heart muscle in lethal injections) and Flavor-Aid, a cheap Kool-Aid knockoff. Nurses fill paper cups and syringes with the poison and residents are told to form a line, mothers and babies first.
It’s impossible to determine how much time passes between edits on the Death Tape. The tape is recycled; whenever the mike falls silent, there is a ghostly bleed through of the Delfonics’ 1968 hit “I’m Sorry.” The music would later be misconstrued by some, including FBI analysts, to be live organ music, as if a funereal march played while people lined up to die.
As Jones talks, trying to soothe the congregation, kids scream. High-pitched, terrified screams. “Don’t tell them they’re dying!” Jones tells parents. He reassures them that it’s only “a little rest, a little rest.” Poisoned parents, weeping, carry their poisoned daughters and sons into the dark field next to the pavilion, cradling them as best they can as they begin to writhe and froth at the mouth. They watch their kids die, then begin to convulse themselves.
Jones tapes his last lie for posterity: “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
He descends from his throne and pulls residents who hesitate toward the vat.
After watching his people die in agony, Jones chose a quicker death. It would be interesting to know his last, drug-sludged thought as he placed the barrel of his .38 Smith & Wesson revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger. He’d accomplished his deepest desire: soon, people all over the world would know his name. It would be synonymous with evil.
After the massacre.
* * *
As Tommy and Teena plunged through the jungle, the small holes peppering his calf hemorrhaged blood. Pure adrenaline kept him moving. He used the survival skills the Amerindians taught him, leading his sister in circles and walking up streams to keep their attackers at bay.
He grew delirious from the blood loss. He thought he saw a man leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette. He grew convinced that birdcalls were actually made by the Jonestown thugs as they signaled their positions to each other and zeroed in for the kill.
At the Port Kaituma rum shop where the other airstrip survivors had taken refuge, Jim Bogue told reporters he wasn’t worried about his son. “He knows the bush,” he boasted.
But Tommy lacked the primary tool for jungle survival: a knife. Without one, they couldn’t eat. They gulped down muddy river water. By the third morning, his leg smell like rotten meat and maggots infested the bullet holes. He could barely walk. He’d see a light in the distance, and limp toward it, thinking it was a way out of the jungle, only to find it was an opening in the canopy, a light well. He and Teena sunk to the jungle floor, dejected, when they heard the splashing of boat oars. “Tommy Bogue!” called a lilting Guyanese voice. It was one of the Amerindians who’d taught him how to survive in the bush.
When rescuers carried him into the rum shop on a stretcher, for the second time in his life, Tommy Bogue saw his father cry.
* * *
Thom Bogue, today.
* * *
Julia Scheeres is the author of the memoir Jesus Land, which was a New York Times and London Times bestseller. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown was named one of the “Top 10 Books About the 1970s” by the Guardian and was named a “best book of the year” by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and two kids.
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