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'Everyone is to Smile Constantly': Jonestown Prepares For an Earlier Visitor

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

November 11, 1978: On Saturday, Jonestown residents were ordered to stay within the community's central area and keep away from the settlement's perimeter, where the dense jungle rose up like a dark green wall. This was for their own safety, Jones insisted: there were rumors that the Congressman's entourage might sneak up the Kaituma River into Jonestown in order to bypass Guyanese authorities at the airport.

Despite Jones' claims that the community had hosted "many" friends and family, very few outsiders had ever laid foot inside Jonestown. One person who did was author Donald Freed, who had published a history of the Black Panther Party and was mulling over a book project on the Temple. In the late summer of 1978, the community spent weeks preparing for Freed's arrival. Night after night, Jones grilled residents on the "correct" answers to the questions Freed might ask them:

Jones: How's the food here, madam?

Female resident: The food is wonderful.

Jones: (angry) I don't know what wonderful means. What kind of food do you have?

Female: We have chicken, we have pork, beef...We also have plenty of fruits, vegetables.


Jones: Okay. Uh, tell me, do you put people in boxes here and bury them in boxes?

Male resident: No, uh, I...

Jones: I'd look more shocked—I'd look more shocked than that.

Male resident: No, we haven't, you know...

Jones: I'd say "What?! Hell no! What prompted that question?"

Listen to the audio, courtesy of the Jonestown Institute:

They were told to refer to Jones as "Jim," not "dad" or "father"—as they had in California—to avoid appearing "cultish." They were to tell Freed that families lived together. That they didn't believe in suicide because it was a "selfish act."

"Everyone is to smile constantly and make the Victory sign to each other in passing," he ordered.

Jonestown aerial plus Freed inset
An aerial photo of Jonestown, taken by the FBI, with author Donald Freed, inset. Freed's visit prompted Jim Jones to coach aggressively the residents of Jonestown in how to answer questions about their diet and living conditions. FBI, Jonestown Institute

After Freed arrived, Jones bragged about the settlement's medical services before encouraging him to get a physical exam, which he did. Freed later reported that during the exam, a nurse gave him eye drops that blurred his vision for 10 hours. While he found this odd, his interactions with Jones were more concerning. As the two men strolled along a pathway, Jones told Freed that the results of his rectal exam indicated that he suffered from a type of gonorrhea that "was only transmitted by homosexual encounter." Freed, a recent widower, wasn't gay, and told Jones as much. Jones brushed aside his protests, assuring Freed that he was open-minded; he himself had been forced to have sex with his male followers to keep them dedicated to the cause.

As "Reverend" Jones regaled him with tales of his sexual exploits, Freed became increasingly uncomfortable. Yet he looked at the smiling faces, at the people flashing him the "V" sign, and felt inspired.

Although the Temple leader was off-putting, the community he'd created appeared to be a great success.

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