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Ryan Sets Course for Showdown at Jonestown 'Prison'

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

November 16, 1978: A few members of the concerned relatives found their way to the Temple's headquarters in Georgetown. One mother stood outside the gate, crying. Another yelled through it, demanding to put in touch with her child in Jonestown. A reporter walked into the backyard. All were barred from entering.

Then the relatives made their way to the U.S. embassy, where a flustered Ambassador Burke told the despairing group that his hands were tied; Jonestown was private property. If they trespassed, they would be arrested.

Georgetown Peoples Temple base
The People's Temple headquarters, 41 Lamaha Gardens, Georgetown. Up to 60 or 70 people lived and worked at the residence. The Jonestown Institute

At the hotel, Ryan held a press conference questioning the Temple's tax exempt status, noting that he hadn't seen any religious symbols in the Georgetown house or on the group's letterhead. Jonestown sounded a lot like a "prison" to him, he said, and he worried about residents' "mental health."

In Jonestown, when he recounted the day's drama to his followers later, Jim Jones was full of angry swagger.

Jones: So you want to see your congressman tomorrow, stick around, he may come in. I don't know what- how long he'll stay, and I don't know what uh, necessarily will take place and what kind of sequential arrangement. But I can assure you that if he stays long enough for tea, he's gonna regret it.
Jones: (tape edit) Son of a bitch. You got something to say to him, you want to talk to him?
Crowd: No!
Jones: Anybody here want to see him?
Crowd: No!
Jones: I don't care whether I see Christmas or Thanksgiving, neither one. (tape edit) You don't either.
(Voices of agreement, applauding)
Jones: ­(tape edit) (unintelligible) -we been debating about dying till, hell, it's easier to die than to talk about it... I worry about what you people think, because you're wanting- trying to hold on to life, but I've been trying to give mine way for a long time, and if that fucker wants to take it, he'll– he can have it, but he'll have a hell- a hell of a time going together.

Again and again, he expressed a desire to die. He took yet another suicide vote.

Jones: So how many- how many would just as soon die as live anyway?
[On the audiotape, there's no audible response.]
Crowd: (silence)
Jones: I see the climate hasn't changed much.

After a brief pause, he continued his tirade against the Temple's enemies in a defeated tone. If he didn't let the delegation in, Congressman Ryan would return to the States and put even more pressure on Jonestown. And eventually another, larger, group would fly down to assail them.

In Georgetown, Ryan announced to the concerned relatives and reporters that he'd located, and chartered, a twenty-passenger plane, which would fly them up to Port Kaituma the next afternoon.

Port Kaituma
The Port Kaituma airstrip. Leo Ryan chartered a 22-seat plane to visit Jonestown in November 1978. Clarence Cooper. Used by permission of Preston Jones/John Brown University.

His aide, Jackie Speier, would later state that the congressman believed the presence of the media would protect him from danger; he didn't believe Jones would do anything rash in front of a large group of journalists. The surviving newsmen would later say they believed the opposite to be true as well: that Ryan's stature as a congressman would protect them.

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