November 18 was the 42nd anniversary of the massacre at Jonestown. It’s a story of global interest, and one I think about all the time, as the Peoples Temple began in San Francisco (where I live) and many of its figures are people I see around to this day. For example, Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Spier, who was left for dead on the tarmac that day, was just re-elected this month. And former SF Mayor Willie Brown, whose name you likely know as he was one of vice-president elect Kamala Harris’s earliest champions, normalized Jim Jones and his group via his public-access TV show. And the site of the Peoples Temple is the post office where I just renewed my passport!
So when I say I think about it all the time, I’m not exaggerating. But given the anniversary, I thought it made sense to run down some of our favorite true crime properties that cover the Peoples Temple story. We’d also love your recommendations, so please drop them in the comments. — EB
American Experience: Life and Death of Peoples Temple
This is Sarah’s top pick, and I don’t disagree. This 2006 documentary is arguably one of the most lauded items on this list, starting with Jones’s life in Indiana, then SF, then Guyana. One thing that sets it apart is a load of new footage the filmmakers uncovered from inside the Peoples Temple (aka my post office), including Jones’s “healing” services. PBS has a full transcript of the doc here, and it’s available for streaming on Kanopy.
You can hear Sarah and me discuss AE:LaDoPT on this episode of the Blotter Presents; we also get into TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones which is not so great.
A Closer Look
I’m always fascinated by how local news covers an event in the moment, and the November 20, 1978 edition of San Francisco PBS station KQED’s news show, A Closer Look, does not disappoint. Perhaps most chilling in this report is the appearance by then-SF mayor George Moscone. He’d be gunned down a week later in City Hall by Dan White, in the same shooting that killed groundbreaking gay politician Harvey Milk. Think about that. A week later.
Inside Peoples Temple
You have to remember that at the time, people totally thought the Peoples Temple was a great place, and the city’s biggest power players quashed rumors that Jones was anyone but an awesome guy. Journalist Marshall Kilduff was one of the few people willing to push back, but the publication at which he worked — the San Francisco Chronicle — was reluctant to run with his investigation. So, in an unusual move, Kilduff was allowed to shop the story around, and with co-author and former Village Voice scribe Phil Tracy, landed the piece in New West magazine. The account was so incendiary that many believe it drove Jones from SF to Guyana. You can read the original piece, what was published in August of 1977, here — the video above is a 2019 conversation with Kilduff on how he reported the piece.
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle
This four-part Sundance doc on the case is a nice compromise if a full-length doc on the topic is too much for you — each episode is 42 or so minutes, which is practically bite-sized. Unlike some of the other properties on this list, this gives the surviving members of the cult a full voice, which may or may not help you understand how and why they followed Jones in the first place. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Sarah and Toby Ball discussed J:TitJ on this episode of the Blotter Presents, if you’d like to hear their dulcet tones weigh in.
Transmissions From Jonestown
This 2017 podcast is known as the “definitive” one on the case, as it’s one of the only shows that was given access to a trove of original recordings by the Jonestown Institute. The latest episode just went up yesterday, and I haven’t listened to it yet, but it sounds wild: “Was Jim Jones responsible for a series of deaths that occurred in California, years before the tragic mass murder suicide in Guyana? Three automobile accidents, spanning three decades, provide a backdrop for examining this question, and others, about the infamous cult leader and Peoples Temple members,” the show says in the description to the latest episode. So I guess there’s a Season 2?
Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple
Author Deborah Layton, escaped the Peoples Temple a few months before the mass slaying, and in the book she not only provides an insider’s history of the church, but offers a unique portrait of Jones. Her firsthand account of her escape through the jungle is pretty remarkable, too. The writing isn’t the best, per Sarah’s review on Tomato Nation, but the book moves right along. It’s available on Amazon.
Friday on Best Evidence: Thanksgiving true crime!