The Jonestown Peoples Temple compound in Guyana the day before the mass suicide on November 18, 1978.
The Jonestown Peoples Temple compound in Guyana the day before the mass suicide on November 18, 1978.

US congressman’s fact-finding tour to Jonestown was his last

CONGRESSMAN Leo Ryan was a politician who didn't take his job lightly.

For him there were no junkets at the public expense; he went on genuine fact-finding tours, ones that often put him at personal risk, like the one that took him to the icy shores of Newfoundland to investigate the inhumanity of seal hunting in 1967.

He stood in front of people bearing clubs to protect the seals.

He also had himself incarcerated in Fulsom prison to look into accusations of corruption in 1970.

After the riots in Los Angeles in 1965 he spent two weeks as a substitute teacher in the Watts neighbourhood, an area of low incomes, high unemployment and high crime rates, gathering information on what had led to the riots.

But in 1978 he flew to Guyana, on South America's North Atlantic coast, to look into claims of human rights abuses among followers of Reverend Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the religious cult the Peoples Temple that mixed socialist notions with ideas about serving God. It would be his last fact-finding tour.

 

US congressman Leo G. Ryan (right) with his legislative counsel Jackie Speier, en route to Guyana on November 14, 1978, to investigate cult leader Jim Jones. Speier was badly wounded in Guyana, but survived, and in 2008 won Ryan’s former seat in Congress.
US congressman Leo G. Ryan (right) with his legislative counsel Jackie Speier, en route to Guyana on November 14, 1978, to investigate cult leader Jim Jones. Speier was badly wounded in Guyana, but survived, and in 2008 won Ryan’s former seat in Congress.

 

Jones had established a colony called Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana where he preached his peculiar version of Christianity, brainwashing most of his followers into blind obedience. But many wanted to get out, or some who had left were unable to bring their children.

After Ryan paid a visit on November 18, 1978, 40 years ago this weekend, Jones ordered members of his cult to kill Ryan and several others accompanying him, as they tried to board a plane.

Ryan's visit had unwittingly triggered Jones' paranoia that the US government was out to get him and, along with ordering Ryan's death, Jones also ordered his followers to commit suicide. It was the worst mass murder-suicide of American citizens in US history.

The congressman couldn't have known that his attempt to help Jones's followers would have had such dire consequences. Ryan was born in 1925 in Nebraska, the son of two newspaper reporters. His father died when he was 11 and by then his mother was serving with Franklin Roosevelt's Social Security Administration, so Ryan was sent to boarding schools.

In 1943 he graduated high school and joined a US Navy officer training program, serving aboard a submarine at the end of WWII. He took advantage of the government program allowing ex-servicemen to go to college, earning a bachelor degree from Creighton University in Nebraska in 1949. After doing a graduate degree he briefly served as a school superintendent but left to teach English and civics at a school in California.

 

Reverend Jim Jones, pastor of the Peoples Temple in San Francisco in 1976.
Reverend Jim Jones, pastor of the Peoples Temple in San Francisco in 1976.

 

He developed an interest in politics as a Democrat party member and gained a government appointment to the parks commission in 1955 and then he gained a seat on a South San Francisco council in 1956. In 1962 he became mayor of South San Francisco and later that year won a seat in the state assembly.

Ryan soon gained a reputation for his fact-finding missions, which some opponents derided as publicity stunts. In 1972 he was elected to the US House of Representatives.

From 1976 Ryan's office began getting calls from families of people living in his electorate who had been drawn into the People's Temple cult. One of them, Grace Stoen, managed to get out, but had to leave behind a child who was still being held by Jones and his followers.

Jones held a peculiar power over his cult members. Born in 1931 to the wayward, foul-mouth Lynetta Jones and her third husband, a disabled WWI veteran John Henry "Jim" Jones, neither of whom were church goers. It was only through a neighbour, Myrtle Kennedy, that Jones had any religious upbringing as a child. But he took to it quickly and became set on a career as a preacher.

He also became interested in socialism, through a Christian youth group that espoused a kind of "Christian communism" in high school.

After leaving high school he became a student pastor at a Methodist Church, but later abandoned Methodism favouring conducting his own revival style meetings. He faked mind-reading and faith healing to develop a following.

 

Bodies of five people, including Congressman Leo J. Ryan, on the airstrip at Port Kaittuma, Guyana, after an ambush by members of the Peoples Temple cult on November 18, 1978. Picture: Tim Reiterman/The San Francisco Examiner via AP
Bodies of five people, including Congressman Leo J. Ryan, on the airstrip at Port Kaittuma, Guyana, after an ambush by members of the Peoples Temple cult on November 18, 1978. Picture: Tim Reiterman/The San Francisco Examiner via AP

 

In 1955 he founded his own church group, which eventually became the Peoples Temple in Indiana. Inspired by the rhetoric of a black preacher known as Father Divine, Jones began winning over a large mostly African-American congregation through a message of equality and racial harmony in an era when people were fighting for civil rights.

After becoming convinced that a nuclear war was imminent in 1961, he went to Brazil and Guyana looking for what he believed would be the safest place in the event of a war. He later returned to Indiana but in 1965 he moved his church to Redwood Valley in northern California, near the town of Ukiah.

Jones became increasingly autocratic and Messianic, calling himself "the prophet" and getting people to sign over their fortunes to him, allegedly to be held in common for his community. He encouraged members to take part in rallies and protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

The idea of the nuclear holocaust never left him and in 1977 he moved his Peoples Temple to Guyana, establishing what amounted to a commune, a model Christian and socialist society aiming to become self sufficient by farming.

 

Person wearing gas mask views some of the dead bodies at the scene of mass suicide on November 18, 1978. Most of his followers took poison but some were shot.
Person wearing gas mask views some of the dead bodies at the scene of mass suicide on November 18, 1978. Most of his followers took poison but some were shot.

 

Hundreds of bodies strewn around the Jonestown Commune in Jonestown, Guyana.
Hundreds of bodies strewn around the Jonestown Commune in Jonestown, Guyana.

 

US military personnel place bodies in coffins at the airport in Georgetown, Guyana, after 900 members of the Peoples Temple committed suicide in Jonestown in November 1978.
US military personnel place bodies in coffins at the airport in Georgetown, Guyana, after 900 members of the Peoples Temple committed suicide in Jonestown in November 1978.

 

This November 1978 file photo shows the Peoples Temple compound after bodies were removed. Dozens of members survived because they had slipped out of Jonestown or happened to be away on November 18, 1978. Those raised in the temple or who joined as teens lost the only life they knew.
This November 1978 file photo shows the Peoples Temple compound after bodies were removed. Dozens of members survived because they had slipped out of Jonestown or happened to be away on November 18, 1978. Those raised in the temple or who joined as teens lost the only life they knew.

 

In November 1978 Ryan arrived with journalists and relatives of people who were still with the cult to investigate claims of abuse and convince Jones to let some members leave of their own accord.

After hosting Ryan and the others on November 17, the congressman was attacked by a man wielding a knife but was unhurt.

On November 18 as Ryan and his party were about to board a plane to leave Guyana, members of the cult riding on a tractor towing a trailer appeared at the airstrip and began shooting, killing the congressman along with an NBC cameraman Bob Brown, NBC reporter Don Harris, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and cult defector Patricia Parks.

Jones then ordered his followers to commit suicide, drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid, a kind of powdered soft drink mixed with water. Those who didn't drink the Kool-Aid were shot. The death toll reached more than 900.

In 1983 Ryan was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.



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