Jonestown Revisited banner

'Jim Jones is Planning to Kill Everyone'

In this series, Newsweek reconstructs the events leading to the Jonestown Massacre as it happened in 1978, day by day.

November 1, 1978: Congressman Leo Ryan, a 53-year-old Democrat from San Mateo, California, was known for political theater. During his two decades as a politician, he had posed as an inmate to investigate prison conditions, went undercover as a substitute teacher to document poverty in Watts, and laid beside baby seals in Newfoundland to keep them from being slaughtered by fur hunters.

For the past year, Ryan had heard increasingly alarming reports about Jonestown. The community, established in Guyana by a California preacher named Jim Jones, was engulfed in mystery. Although Rev. Jones billed Jonestown as a socialist paradise built on equality and love, rumors persisted that the 900-plus Americans living there were being held against their will by armed guards.

The silver-haired politician stepped into a fray after a group of his constituents asked him to investigate the welfare of their loved ones in the community. The "Concerned Relatives" as the group came to call itself, had compared notes and realized something strange, perhaps even sinister, was happening in the South American settlement. Some relatives hadn't received a single letter from their family in Jonestown for more than a year. Others received only breezy missives about how wonderful their lives were in Guyana, but didn't respond to relatives' pointed questions or news that a beloved grandparent had died. There were indications that outgoing mail was censored—some letters arrived with the bottom of a page cut off; other letters had words crossed out.

Jonestown aerial photo FBI
An aerial photograph of the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, 1978, taken by F.B.I. investigators F.B.I.

Their worry turned into alarm after one of Jones' top aides, Deborah Blakey, left the church and issued a dire warning: Jim Jones was planning to kill everyone in Jonestown. Blakey told reporters that residents were "exhausted, underfed, and afraid" and urged the U.S. government to "take adequate steps to safeguard their rights."

But therein lay the rub: The State Department was too fearful of violating resident's First Amendment rights—which prohibited government interference in the religious practices of American citizens—to investigate Jonestown.

The Concerned Relatives believed Ryan, with his history of cowboy actions, was their only hope. After several meetings, he agreed to help them.

On November 1, the congressman sent a carefully-worded telegram to Jim Jones:

Dear Reverend Jones,
In recent months my office has been visited by constituents who are relatives of members of your church and who expressed anxiety about mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who have elected to assist you in the development of your church in Guyana.
I have listened to others who have told me that such concerns are exaggerated. They have been supportive of your church and your work. Your effort, involving so many Americans from a single U.S. geographic location is unique. In an effort to be responsive to these constituents with differing perspectives and to learn more about your church and its work, I intend to visit Guyana and talk with appropriate government officials. I do so as part of my assigned responsibilities as a Member of the House Committee on International Relations....It goes without saying that I am most interested in a visit to Jonestown, and would appreciate whatever courtesies you can extend to our Congressional delegation....

Ryan Telegram to Jim Jones
The telegram that Congressman Leo Ryan sent to Jim Jones in 1978. Courtesy of Julia Scheeres. Julia Scheeres

Ambassador John Burke would help him arrange transportation to the remote community, Ryan wrote, but he would appreciate "whatever courtesies" Jones could extend to his congressional delegation during their visit.

Ryan believed that his official capacity as a member of Congress would protect him from whatever dangers lurked in Jonestown. But his 28-year-old aide, Jackie Speier, was less confident. Before they flew to Guyana, she'd insist that they both write out their wills, which she placed in the top drawer of her desk. Just in case.

Julia Scheeres is an award-winning journalist and author. Her books include Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.