Jonestown, 30 years later: original audio recordings from People's Temple and Guyana.

The single most comprehensive online public resource for original source material related to Jonestown is Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, a website sponsored by San Diego State University's Department of Religious Studies. The site includes scanned documents, photographs, first-person testimonies and reflections, and a periodic email newsletter with updates on research, and the whereabouts of those who survived.

The section I've spent the most time in is the Audiotape Project Index, which includes copies of original recordings made by People's Temple members in California and Guyana.

Some of the cassette recordings at the SDSU website were retrieved from Jonestown by the FBI; others are in the possession of the FCC, which monitored radio transmissions from the compound. I'm not clear on the specifics, but it seems many of the original recordings in government possession are lost, missing, or still classified and unavailable to the public. Some ham radio operators once maintained a website documenting their battle to get the FCC to release more shortwave radio recordings from Jonestown, but the website is now offline.

Here is a list of recording transcripts and summaries at the SDSU Jonestown Project website. They include:

* Peoples Temple audiotapes collected by FBI
* Tapes of Peoples Temple radio conversations collected by FCC
* The Miscellaneous Audiotapes link includes tapes donated from private individuals and collections.
Three examples of the recordings in this collection:
* FBI #Q 042, "The Death Tape", made in Jonestown on 18 November 1978, during the mass deaths. Warning: the audio is very disturbing. You can hear children dying. Here is the audio at
* FBI #Q594: In this tape recorded 5 days before the mass deaths, Jones and followers fantasize how they will torture and kill People's Temple defectors.
* FBI #Q174: music and entertainment performed by Peoples Temple members in October, 1978. An announcer speaks: "And now, ladies and gentlemen. We’re glad to have you here in Jonestown, Guyana. Sit back and enjoy yourself. We have a brief program. Presenting to you, the Jonestown Express."
The Jonestown Institute website is maintained by Elizabeth Parker, and archivist-historians Fielding McGehee III, and Dr. Rebecca Moore, an SDSU professor of religious studies. Together, they have played an instrumental role in preserving and digitally archiving many important historical documents related to People's Temple at SDSU, and with the California Historical Society. The SDSU site introduction expresses hope that visitors "will come away with an understanding that the story of Jonestown did not start or end on 18 November 1978. Dr. Moore has a personal connection to the tragedy: her two sisters died there. Annie Moore was Jim Jones' nurse, and Carolyn Moore Layton was his lover and lieutenant.


* The fact that so many Jonestown-related source materials went missing or remained classified for years has fed much speculation, and many conspiracy theories. This Feral House book includes an interesting essay by Jim Hougan which explores some of the wackier theories, and some of the possible links between Jonestown and various military/government activities involving the US or Guyana.

* Snip from a 1998 CNN item about how the lack of access to documents and audio recordings has fueld rumors of CIA involvement:

Some people believe CIA agents were posing as members of the Peoples Temple cult to gather information; others suggest the agency was conducting a mind-control experiment. In 1980, the House Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the CIA had no advance knowledge of the mass murder-suicide. The year before, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had concluded that cult leader Jim Jones "suffered extreme paranoia."

The committee -- now known as international relations -- released a 782-page report, but kept more than 5,000 other pages secret. Without those documents, it's hard to confirm or refute the speculations that have sprung up around Jonestown, said Melton, who planned to be in Washington Wednesday to ask for the documents' release.

George Berdes, chief consultant to the committee at the time of the investigation, told the San Francisco Chronicle the papers were classified to assure sources' confidentiality, but he thinks it is time to declassify them.

* Loren Coleman has a post up on his Copycat Effect blog about connections between the Jonestown deaths and the murders of then San Francisco political figures Harvey Milk and George Moscone. For some time before the extent of his insanity and destructive activity were known, Jones and his church -- in which most members were black, while most leaders were white -- received expressions of support from left/liberal politicians including Milk and Moscone, and black power activists like Angela Davis and Huey Newton.

Boing Boing posts on Jim Jones, Jonestown and People's Temple:

- Jonestown, 30 years Later: Inside People's Temple, the 1977 exposé.
- Jonestown, 30 years later: original audio recordings from People's Temple and Guyana.
- Jonestown, 30 years later: Life and Death of People's Temple (PBS video).
- Jonestown, 30 years later: interview with a survivor (video)
- Jonestown, 30 years later: From Silver Lake To Suicide
- Jonestown, 30 years later: "Father Cares," NPR documentary from 1981
- Raven: The Untold Story of The Reverend Jim Jones and His People
- Andrew Brandou on his Jonestown paintings


  1. Thanks for posting this stuff,Xeni. I’m not sure I want to listen, but it is important that this sort of madness not be forgotten.

  2. Jones was actually on the board of the San Francisco Housing Authority, which I suppose should be obvious to anyone living near their properties.

  3. Jim Jones is buried in Earlham Cemetery in Richmond, Indiana. He was from Lynn, IN.

    My wife worked up in Lynn for a year or two. It’s a town of about 1500 people, so of course everybody knows everybody. A friend at work told her about the day Jones and his people, driving three or four shiny silver buses, pulled into Lynn to say good-bye on their way down to Guyana.

    Freaky. That such a thing could have happened in reality. It’s damned important to remember it, because otherwise the human psyche just … slides off.

    And no. I don’t think I’ve got the strength to listen to that tape. But thanks for posting it.

  4. I had to go and listen to the disturbing tape. Yikes. It’s crazy how he just keeps talking through the whole thing! Why does he keep saying quickly, quickly?

    1. Lisa, if you dig around the SDSU site, there are a number of essays there where people are interpreting that in different ways. Some people think the “quickly, quickly” part is where Jones was ordering that uncooperative people or resisters be killed, either by injection or shooting.

  5. I think this is the first time Xeni’s posted something which not only calls for but demands a chaser…

    And we’re talking unicorns knitting bacon bedecked scarves for adorable kittens or something…

  6. #11: you beat me to the punch. I did not listen to the recording (have no intention of doing so) but just thinking about the sound of 276 children while they die screaming in convulsions at their parents hands is… ENTIRE PAGE-FULL OF UNICORNS, **NOW**

  7. oops Xeni didn’t see your reply @13

    seriously… even a thread about Unicorns blinking after being *beheaded* would be a comedown from this

  8. There’s this moment in Werner Herzog’s spectacular documentary “Grizzly Man” where Herzog listens to a tape of his subject and girlfriend being killed by the very bears they loved. The tape was in the possession of the young man’s family and they had never listened to it. You see Herzog sitting there, still, quiet, contemplating what he’s listening to. He takes off his headphones, passes the tape back to the family member and intones “You should never listen to this”. The documentary contains none of the tape, and it doesn’t need it.

    I’d never listen to those tapes personally, and I can’t imagine the pain of family who would. For all the wonders and grandeur we can, and should, seek out, some things…some things are best unheard.

    1. @mgfarrelly, that’s a moving and very relevant anecdote. I presume the recording you’re referring to here is the “death tape,” specifically.

      I feel the same way about the Jonestown “death tape” as I do about beheading videos. I don’t watch them or listen to them, unless there is a specific need for me to do so (say, in the course of duties related to reporting a news story).

      That’s also why I didn’t directly embed the “death tape” audio in this post.

      The preservation of this historic record matters. But we should not expose ourselves, and one another, casually to such a potent record of violence. I believe treating this material casually results in a kind of deadening of the soul, and is disrespectful to the victims and their surviving loved ones.

      As an aside, I feel the same way, personally, about heavy exposure to explicit fictional violence — say, hardcore gore films, SAW and the like. That’s just me, just my personal sense of what equilibrium means. Sure, consenting adults should be free to create that work and expose themselves or others to it. But I feel like it does change who we are.

  9. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the tape, but I read the transcript. I felt extremely emotional and had to stop at least once (when the transcript first mentioned children crying).

    I then came back here and started writing a comment but then stopped, wondering why I had even looked at the transcript. Was I just a voyeur? I think, though, that there was a reason: a valid reason, and not just to do with the historical record (which is also important). The “lust of the eye” that Takuan mentioned may, actually, be intermingled with a sort of horrified empathy that draws one in. Empathy should not be denied: it connects us to our emotions. I think this is more than just voyeurism — tragedy and horror brings a renewed gratitude for what we have — my empathy for the kids crying as their parents give them the Flavor-aide, their friends dying around them, the parents asking if they can die with their kids instead of waiting for the adults’ turn — all of this forces me to consider my own relationship to my children in a way that I just don’t do every day. I do not want to be presumptuous and say that this gives meaning to these peoples’ deaths. But it helps me understand why I read the transcript.

    Maybe this is all a part of what it means to preserve the historical record. I remember feeling the same way when I first heard a description of the gassings at Auschwitz.

    1. @Ian Holmes, there is a kind of sacredness in such records. That is why we preserve them. And that is why we are drawn to witness them.

      I did listen to the “death tape,” for instance, and I don’t think there’s much abstraction in saying the souls of the victims are captured in those sounds.

      Understanding the human experience in history, understanding what this experience was in a bone-deep, nonverbal, instinctive way — that, if anything, is what may help human beings prevent atrocities. By being fully human.

      To empathize is to be fully human.

  10. reading sutras banishes demons

    The causes and conditions from accumulated
    kalpas grows heavy,
    Until in this life the child ends up in
    its mother’s womb.
    As the months pass, the five vital
    organs develop;
    Within seven weeks the six sense organs
    start to grow.
    The mother’s body becomes as heavy as
    a mountain;
    The stillness and movements of the fetus
    are like a kalpic wind disaster.
    The mother’s fine clothes no longer
    hang properly,
    And so her mirror gathers dust.
    The pregnancy lasts for ten lunar months
    And culminates in difficult labor at the
    approach of the birth.
    Meanwhile, each morning the mother is
    seriously ill
    And during every day is drowsy and sluggish.
    Her fear and agitation are difficult
    to describe;
    Grieving and tears fill her breast.
    She painfully tells her family
    That she is only afraid that death
    will overtake her.
    On the day the compassionate mothers bears
    the child,
    Her five organs all open wide,
    Leaving her totally exhausted in body
    and mind.
    The blood flows as from a slaughtered
    Yet, upon hearing that the child is
    She is overcome with redoubling joy,
    But after the joy, the grief returns,
    And the agony wrenches her very insides,
    The kindness of both parents is profound
    and deep,
    Their care and devotion never cease.
    Never resting, the mother saves the
    sweet for the child,
    And without complaint she swallows the
    bitter herself.
    Her love is weighty and her emotion
    difficult to bear;
    Her kindness is deep and so is her
    Only wanting the child to get its fill,
    The compassionate mother doesn’t speak
    of her own hunger.
    The mother is willing to be wet
    So that the child can be dry.
    With her two breasts she satisfies its
    hunger and thirst;
    Covering it with her sleeve, she protects
    it from the wind and cold.
    In kindness, her head rarely rests
    on the pillow,
    And yet she does this happily,
    So long as the child is comfortable,
    The kind mother seeks no solace for herself.
    The kind mother is like the great earth.
    The stern father is like the encompassing
    One covers from above’ the other supports
    from below.
    The kindness of parents is such that
    They know no hatred or anger toward
    their offspring,
    And are not displeased, even if the
    child is born crippled.
    After the mother carries the child in
    her womb and gives birth to it,
    The parents care for and protect it
    together until the end of their days.
    Originally she had a pretty face and a
    beautiful body,
    Her spirit was strong and vibrant.
    Her eyebrows were like fresh green
    And her complexion would have put a
    red rose to shame.
    But her kindness is so deep she will
    forego a beautiful face.
    Although washing away the filth injures
    her constituion,
    The kind mother acts solely for the
    sake of her sons and daughters
    And willingly allows her beauty to fade.
    The death of loved ones is difficult
    to endure.
    But separation is also painful.
    When the child travels afar,
    The mother worries in her village.
    From morning until night, her heart is
    with her child,
    And a thousand tears fall from her eyes.
    Like the monkey weeping silently in
    love for her child,
    Bit-by-bit her heart is broken.
    How heavy is the parents’ kindness and
    emotional concern!
    Their kindness is deep and difficult to
    Willingly they undergo suffering on their
    child’s behalf.
    If the child toils, the parents are
    If they hear that he has travelled afar,
    They worry that at night he will have
    to lie in the cold.
    Even a moment’s pain suffered by
    their sons or daughters
    Will cause the parents sustained distress.
    The kindness of parents is profound and
    Their tender concern never ceases.
    From the moment they awake each day,
    their thoughts are with their children.
    Whether the children are near or far away,
    the parents think of them often.
    Even if a mother lives for a hundred
    She will constantly worry about her
    eighty-year-old child!
    Do you wish to know when such kindness
    and love ends?
    It doesn’t even begin to dissipate
    until her life is over. “

  11. A love so great
    A need to protect so strong
    That when that love is bound
    With fear
    By truth or lie
    She will throw her child
    From the cliff

  12. Jim Jones is buried in Earlham Cemetery in Richmond, Indiana.

    Per David Chidester’s Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (Indiana University, 2004, pg. 20) Jones was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.

    This is an Indiana urban legend that has been around for a while – I heard it when I was at Earlham College in the early 90s.

    Jones’ wife Marceline (a Richmond native and Jonestown victim) is buried in Earlham Cemetery, however: [Find a Grave]

  13. I agree with Xeni and Ian Holmes, that it’s an expression of sympathy that drives me to watch or listen to some things that are painful, but I think this one is too much for me. Just reading the comments here made my eyes water.

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