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Jim Jones Vows to Kill Whoever is Trying to Poison Him in Disturbing Audio

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

November 5, 1978: Jim Jones's chronic drug use did something worse than affect his speech. His drug abuse also made him paranoid. He believed that U.S. government agencies ranging from the CIA to the Postal Service were trying to undermine his settlement because residents were avowed socialists. And he grew increasingly fearful of his own followers.

His mental instability seeped into the community like a toxic fume. On November 5, his private nurse, Annie Moore, wrote him a 22-point memo accusing another nurse of poisoning his food.

To: Jim
Re: Poisoning

"Please read and take seriously," she began. "I know you now believe this Jim, but I think we should keep on record these things." She'd been watching Joyce Touchette's "every move and action," Moore wrote, and had concluded that Touchette was a CIA agent and—based on her "slanted handwriting"—possibly schizophrenic.

Jonestown nurses regularly gave sedative-laden milkshakes and food to unsuspecting residents to control and muffle them. Now Moore accused Touchette of slipping a dangerous amount of tranquilizers into Jones' regular milkshake in an attempt to kill him. "She is clever, but not enough to fool us," she wrote at the memo's conclusion.

As Jones deteriorated mentally and physically, he spent entire days holed up in his cabin, fussed over by his two dark-haired concubines. He stationed armed guards outside the door and warned residents to stay away from him lest they find themselves "in a lot of trouble that's meant only for mercenaries." He carried a .357 magnum revolver in his waistband and gave his lovers lighter .25 caliber pistols. He assigned two people to watch his food be prepared to ensure nobody poisoned it, and ordered an antidote just in case someone still managed to do so.

Jim Jones Guyana jungle
Jim Jones with Jonestown followers, exact location and date unknown. Jones used scare tactics to convince Jonestown residents that they were under attack. Getty Images

Deep in the Guyanese jungle, Jones created a vacuum of reason where his paranoia played out unfettered. He staged fake "mercenary attacks" with the collusion of his sons, who crept into the jungle to fire guns into the air while the panicked residents cowered on the floor of the pavilion until security guards chased the "intruders" away. These staged attacks kept Jonestown residents afraid and obedient, hesitant to flee into the bush toward freedom.

After reading Moore's memo, Jones announced at that night's rally that someone had tried to poison him for the third time.

Excerpts of an audio recording of the meeting:

Jones: We have the sediments, and we're going to study them under the microscope. What kind of beast do we have in our midst?

[Crowd reaction]

Jones: But don't you worry. If you're guilty, we'll find you.

[Crowd: Applause and cheers]

Jones: My feet may not be ready, but what I can put in my hands is.

[Crowd: Applause and cheers]

(Tape edit)

Jones: —know I'm tired of this shit. If I catch you, the court won't have any opportunity to deal with you, 'cause I'm going to hang you on the highest tree I can find.

[Crowd: Applause and cheers]

(Tape edit)

Jones: —(unintelligible opening) food, to watch that food from beginning to end. I don't worry about myself, as much for our people. I want you to watch that food. 'Cause we've got some kooks in our midst.

There was a wildly dark irony to his screed. At the same time that Jim Jones expressed his unfounded suspicions that someone was trying to kill him, he was secretly stockpiling enough poison to kill everyone in Jonestown—nearly one thousand women, men and children.

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