Jonestown Revisited banner

Jonestown Members Said They Were Fine, But They Were Afraid For Their Lives

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

November 7, 1978: On the morning of Tuesday, November 7, U.S. Consul Doug Ellice flew up to Jonestown from the Guyanese capital to conduct "welfare and whereabouts" checks on residents.

The 31-year-old diplomat was new to the job; this was his first visit to the settlement. He was the point person for relatives worried about their family members in Jonestown and had a long list of residents he'd been asked to speak with. His predecessor had advised Ellice not to send the list of names in advance so Temple leaders wouldn't have time to coach residents or arrange for them to be "indisposed."

But Ellice ignored this advice. He didn't want to wait around while dozens of residents were tracked down. He brought along the vice consul, Dennis Reece, to help interview residents. The two men stationed themselves at a table in the field next to the pavilion, out of range of eavesdroppers and the microphones that were rumored to be hidden throughout Jonestown.

At a rally the night before, Jones had warned residents to be careful of what they said to the visitors, suggesting they were covert CIA agents who were part of a "vast conspiracy" to destroy their movement. He directed residents to listen to and memorize a recording of questions the visitors might ask them and the answers he wanted them to supply. If asked about their diet, for example, residents were to respond that they ate "meat every day...and fish and rice and vegetables and pastries and all sorts of teas and coffee."

Jones also directed his followers to make a huge list repairs to various buildings and areas of Jonestown before the Consul visitors arrived: "This must be remedied tonight", he insisted.

On the day of the consulate visit, the residents on the list approached the table one by one, handing Ellice and Reece their passports to confirm their identities. They repeated Jones' lies about eating well and smiled widely, as instructed, to appear happy. The diplomats made the same offer to each of them: if you want to leave today, all you have to do is accompany us to our car and we'll get you home. But to a person, each resident turned down the offer. Such was Jones' psychological grip on his followers: Not only did they fret that the consular visitors were the enemy; they also worried that if they defected, Jones would take his rage out on the loved ones they left behind.

After their interviews, the residents' passports were once again confiscated and the diplomats were whisked off for a tour of the property, which had been hastily cleaned the day before.

The two men had fulfilled their duty—as broadly outlined by their job descriptions. But they failed to perceive the menace roiling just beneath Jonestown's tidy surface. They didn't notice the bright fear shining in residents' eyes. Or know about the cache of poison waiting in a locked storeroom.

Ellice and Reece stayed for lunch, during which they were treated to an elaborate charade. The Jonestown Express sang "America the Beautiful" as residents stood and pressed their hands to their hearts in a rousing show of feigned patriotism. Jones appeared, late, wearing a gauze mask and shuffling between two assistants. He complained that he had a 105-degree fever, but both men noted that his palm was dry when they shook his hand, as was his forehead. While Jones's mask hid his chronic lip-licking — his dry mouth being a common side effect of drug addiction — he couldn't conceal his slurred speech. At one point, he tried to spell a simple word that he didn't want a nearby child to overhear before giving up in frustration.

1 of 2

The visit was cut short by an approaching thunderstorm. The pilot wanted to fly back to Georgetown before it hit. As the plane skimmed the settlement, the diplomats noted that they couldn't see "barbed wire, any guards, armed or otherwise, or any other physical sign that people were being held at Jonestown against their will."

The State Department passed along this information to Ryan. As a result, the Congressman's staff was more concerned about travel logistics and what type of clothing to pack than they were about the potential for violence.

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