Magazine article The New American

(South) American Killing Fields: In 1978, the "Reverend" Jim Jones, Who Actually Preached a Message of Atheistic Socialism and Heaven on Earth, Instigated Hundreds of Deaths in Jonestown, Guyana

Magazine article The New American

(South) American Killing Fields: In 1978, the "Reverend" Jim Jones, Who Actually Preached a Message of Atheistic Socialism and Heaven on Earth, Instigated Hundreds of Deaths in Jonestown, Guyana

Article excerpt

Georgetown, Guyana, is no place for tourists in the heat of June--or anytime else, for that matter. The seedy, crime-ridden capital of one of South America's least-known and most backward countries was hacked out of fever-ridden equatorial forests by Dutch and English colonizers in the late 1600s, eager for a toehold on a continent dominated by Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers. But Guyana, wracked by poverty and violence since long before independence from Britain in 1966, had always attracted dead-enders, adventure-seekers, and, in general, those wishing to escape the rigors of civilization. Evelyn Waugh had repaired there once to write, holed up in the Tower Hotel, one of Georgetown's oldest and best-known stopovers.

In June 1978, another guest appeared at the Tower Hotel, not as well known as Waugh, but whose actions would set in motion an unimaginable chain of events in the Guyanan jungle, events that horrified America and the world like no event until 9/11.


The staff of the Tower could not have imagined that the gaunt, wild-eyed young woman who checked in that fateful June day was anything other than stark, raving mad, the product of drugs and too much tropical sun. "They" were after her, she averred, and would try to hunt her down if they could. She made the hotel staff swear they would tell no one of her arrival, and spent much of her time in her room, huddled in the bathtub, expecting to die in a hail of bullets. Within a few days, she slipped out of the Tower and boarded a plane to the United States. The young woman was Deborah Layton, one of the few who managed to escape from a remote Guyanan settlement known to the outside world as Jonestown.

Deborah Layton was, by her own admission, the product of the "permissive atmosphere of Berkeley, California" during the '60s and early '70s. In August 1971, at the age of 18, she joined the Peoples Temple, a cult-like secular "church" founded and run by the "Reverend" Jim Jones, who called his revolutionary gospel "apostolic socialism." Layton became a close associate of Jones, and eventually followed him and the Peoples Temple down to the jungles of Guyana, where they had relocated from California in the mid-1970s, ostensibly to escape legal and political persecution on American soil. Only six months after her arrival in Jonestown in December 1977, Deborah Layton fled for her life.

Even as a boy in Indiana, the man who would become the leader of the Peoples Temple stood out. He was, childhood associates recalled in a documentary, a "really weird kid" obsessed with religion and death. He allegedly killed house pets and held elaborate funerals for them. Of above-average intelligence, Jones was a voracious reader. He studied the writings of Hitler, Marx. Stalin, and Gandhi, and graduated early and with honors from high school in 1948.

Jones Jive

Jones became enamored at a very young age with revolutionary socialism, and yearned to found a Utopian society along pure socialist lines. In 1951, he joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). but was not satisfied to be a mere foot soldier in such a far-reaching enterprise. He decided that the best way to attract a following was to assume the mantle of "Reverend" and found a church -- though Jones himself, in keeping with his socialist credo, appears to have been an atheist most, if not all. of his adult life. He was fascinated with faith healing, and decided to harness the persuasive power of miracles -- performed, of course, by clever sleight of hand with willing accomplices. Accordingly, he founded the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel, aiming to dupe Bible-belt Midwesterners into embracing his revolutionary Marxist dogma.

Although Jones' organization attracted a lot of attention for its philanthropy and interracial congregation, Jones did not attract as many adherents in Indiana as he expected. In spite of a close relationship with the Mayor of Indianapolis and numerous appearances in local media, Indianans remained wary of this fringy reverend with the hypnotic speaking style. …

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