I was living in San Francisco during the years that the Reverend Jim Jones and his People’s Temple were at their zenith in popularity and recognition. Like a lot of people in that city at that time, I didn’t pay much attention to Jones or his church until the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan and four others. Following that, as we all know, were the mass suicides (some forced) at Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana.
When I decided to base Julia’s first adventure on a similar type of figure as Jones, I researched that history and was shocked to learn of the power Jones held in San Francisco at that time — enough influence to threaten the life of anyone who stood in his way. In the Madness of Mercury, Julia speaks out against a power-hungry preacher and must fight for her life and livelihood.
This is brief synopsis of the real life preacher’s troubled history and the tragedies he created.
In the early 1970’s, Reverend Jim Jones, born May 13, 1931 (a Gemini), founder of the People’s Temple, moved his flock to the City of San Francisco. Jones taught that “those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment.” He derided traditional Christianity and claimed to be the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi, Father Divine, Jesus, Gautama Buddha and Vladimir Lenin.
Within five years, the People’s Temple grew exponentially and became politically influential in San Francisco politics and in 1975 played a major hand in the mayoral victory of George Moscone. In turn, Mayor Moscone appointed Jones as Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. California assemblyman Willie Brown praised Jones as a combination of “Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein . . . and Chairman Mao.”
Jones gained public support at the national level as well, including vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale who publicly praised the Temple in 1976. First Lady Rosalynn Carter also met with Jones on multiple occasions, corresponded with him about Cuba, and spoke with him at the opening of the San Francisco Democratic Party Headquarters.
By the summer of 1977, allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within the Temple began to surface and a group of Temple defectors, the Concerned Relatives, initiated a media campaign against Jones and the Temple. As a direct result of media scrutiny, Jones and several hundred Temple members abruptly relocated to a compound in Guyana (Jonestown).
Most of Jones’ political allies broke ties after his departure, but some did not. Harvey Milk who had spoken at political rallies at the Temple, wrote to President Jimmy Carter defending Jones “as a man of the highest character,” and claimed Temple defectors were trying to “damage Rev. Jones’ reputation” with “apparent bold-faced lies.” Mayor Moscone’s office issued a press release saying that Jones had broken no laws.
California Congressman Leo Ryan, concerned by the claims of the Concerned Relatives, led a fact-finding mission to Jonestown in November of 1978 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. His delegation included relatives of Temple members, an NBC camera crew, and reporters for various newspapers. The group arrived on November 15 and were hosted by Jones at a reception that evening.
Following a knife attack by a Temple member, Congressman Ryan brought the visit to an abrupt end and attempted to leave with fifteen Temple members. Jones made no attempt to prevent their departure. As members of Ryan’s delegation boarded planes at the airstrip, Jones’ Red Brigade armed guards arrived and began shooting. The guards killed Congressman Ryan, Don Harris, an NBC reporter; Bob Brown, an NBC cameraman; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; and Temple member Patricia Parks.
Surviving the attack were future Congresswoman Jackie Speier, then a staff member for Ryan; Richard Dwyer, the Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. Embassy at Georgetown; Bob Flick, an NBC producer; Steve Sung, an NBC sound engineer; Tim Reiterman, a San Francisco Examiner reporter; Ron Javers, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter; Charles Krause, a Washington Post reporter; and several defecting Temple members.
Later that day, Jones, obviously aware that his days were numbered, urged “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Children were given the drink first and families were told to lie down together. Nine hundred and nine inhabitants of Jonestown, 304 of them children, died of cyanide poisoning, the greatest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Jones died on November 18, 1978 by a gunshot wound to his head. It is suspected his death was a suicide. The FBI later recovered a 45-minute audio recording of the suicide in progress.