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Some Jonestown Residents Dream of Escape

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

November 10, 1978: After Jim Jones began discussing "Revolutionary Suicide" as if it were inevitable, there'd been a surge in runaway attempts and nervous breakdowns. He accused residents of faking mental illness to get out of work and threatened to shoot runaways in the legs. Some residents launched quieter protests; a Tennessean named Alleane Tucker, 49, was reprimanded for singing slave songs in the field.

Now Congressman Leo Ryan's visit became the focus of conversation in the settlement's cramped cottages—as did Jones's worsening physical condition. The Temple leader could barely walk; his face and body were swollen with edema, his hands puffed to almost twice their usual size.

Naturally, some residents pondered taking advantage of his weak condition to make a break for it, and Jones seemed to sense their thoughts. "See if you can make it to any railway," he told them at a rally on November 10. "See if you can get to any passport. Try. I dare you to try. You don't know who you're talking to. Just because I don't use the language of the church, I am that which they call God... I will see you in the grave. Many of you."

(Source: Jonestown Institute)

Despite the odds, they clung to the hope that somehow, someday, they'd get out of Jonestown alive. Human instinct is to survive, not to surrender passively to death. Younger, stronger residents peered into the bush, weighing their chances at walking to freedom despite Jones' warning of lurking "mercenaries" and venomous snakes. Older and weaker residents prayed for divine or governmental intervention. Despite Jones' claim that he was divine, they clung to their faith in a Christian god.

Jim Jones 1978
Jim Jones speaking at Jonestown, sometime in 1978. Jones fed his followers fake news about the outside world to make them stay. The Jonestown Institute

He did his best to deprive them of hope. He was their only link to the outside world and he perverted that world to suit his purposes. In the "news" that he read to them each night—and which they were later tested on—he told them that American newspapers were publishing stories arguing that Blacks were "better off during slavery," that scientists had engineered a way to kill off people of color by poisoning the water supplies of inner cities, that the Supreme Court had ruled that only whites could attend college. Fascists were taking over America, he said; they were better off in Jonestown.

He reinforced his bleak outlook with books and movies. Mandatory films included "Night and Fog," a documentary about the horrific medical experiments Nazis performed on Jews in concentration camps. He screened the film repeatedly, pausing the reel to interject his own nihilistic commentary. He read gruesome descriptions of torture from The Question, the memoir of a French-Algerian Communist named Henri Alleg imprisoned by the French military for supporting Algeria's independence. Again and again he tried to lead them to the same conclusion: it would be better to kill yourself than to be tortured to death.

A man named Harold Cordell managed to sneak a small transistor radio into Jonestown and he pressed it to his ear each night to listen to Voice of America broadcasts and ferret out Jones' fake news. His family had joined the People's Temple in Indianapolis, and now he had a dozen relatives living on the settlement, including his five children, his estranged wife, and his mother.

With creeping horror, Cordell realized that there was only one reason Jones would paint such a wretched picture of the outside world: he was trying to make death more appealing than life.

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