Peoples Temple: The Long Goodbye

Friends and relatives of the Jonestown dead will be meeting next Sunday in Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery to memorialize victims on the 40th anniversary of the mass poisoning. While Peoples Temple held services in their buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles, it established no such tie to Oakland, making the final resting place for nearly half of Jim Jones’s victims a peculiar postscript to the most peculiar story in American history.

The logistical problems inherent in transporting 918 bodies from Guyana for interment in the United States served as one issue complicating the proper burial of the dead. The poverty of so many of the deceased’s relatives, the advanced decomposition preventing identification, and the shame that many families felt over the manner of their kin’s deaths all combined to create a nightmare following the nightmare. The discovery of the cremated remains of nine Jonestown victims in a shuttered Delaware funeral home in 2014 illustrates how convoluted and chaotic the process was.

The answer to the question, why Oakland? stems from the refusal of more natural resting places for the dead to accept them. Guyana, despite the expanse of Jonestown, refused to allow the burial of the bodies in its ground. Delaware, site of Dover Air Force Base where the human remains landed from Guyana, wanted the bodies far away as well. “Public officials in Delaware were present for the send-off,” Rebecca Moore notes in Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple regarding the trucking away of corpses, “relieved to see the bodies depart because they feared a mass grave in their state.” San Francisco, which contains few cemeteries after many relocations, similarly balked.

“Oakland, to my knowledge, the reason everyone was put there is because other places refused,” Thomas Beikman, who stumbled upon the aftermath of a Jim Jones devotee slashing her kids throats in a Georgetown, Guyana, bathroom forty years ago, explains. When asked what the Peoples Temple connection to Oakland is, Beikman exclaims: “Absolutely none.”

And in Oakland, the Jonestown dead did not receive a proper memorial until 2011. Even then, the inclusion of “Jim Jones” on the memorial’s list of names pitted survivors against one another. A place of healing instead rubs old sores.

San Francisco strangely does not remember the victims of Jim Jones in any official memorial. More strangely, People’s Temple’s home city memorializes Jim Jones’s boosters. As I show in Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco, before the poor drank Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid in South America, the powerful in San Francisco did. Whereas the former suffered great consequences, the latter enjoyed great rewards.

Photo credit: Nancy Wong

Carlton Goodlett, a business partner and the personal physician of Jones, helped get the former drug addict who oversaw Jonestown’s mass poisoning into medical school. He proclaimed Jonestown as “the wave of the future” three months before the carnage. Goodlett remained so loyal that two days after Jonestown he praised the town’s namesake as “a man who really attempted to practice the dogmas of Christianity,” and bitterly attacked Congressman Leo Ryan, Fourth Estate critics of the Temple, and even the Concerned Relatives traveling to Guyana to rescue family members -- the very people Jones’s goons shot on the airstrip outside of Jonestown. The late publisher and activist now lends his name to the most prominent address in San Francisco. Two decades ago, the board of supervisors named the street that gives city hall its address “Carlton Goodlett Place.”

Herb Caen acted as an uncritical booster for Peoples Temple in his San Francisco Chronicle column. In 1996, San Francisco held a “Herb Caen Day” and christened a street “Herb Caen Way.” That year, he won a special Pulitzer Prize that recognized him as “a voice and conscience of his city.”

“I shall be back,” Harvey Milk wrote Jim Jones after attending a Peoples Temple service. “For I can never leave.” Despite Milk’s pledge of loyalty, the biopic on his life leaves his friendship with Jim Jones on the cutting room floor. Neither the Harvey Milk Terminal at San Francisco’s airport nor the city’s Harvey Milk Plaza address the most significant event in his political career. Milk called Jonestown “a beautiful retirement community” devoted to “alleviating the world food crisis” to Carter administration cabinet official Joseph Califano. “Such greatness I have found at Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple,” he wrote Guyana Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. Most damning, when Jim Jones abducted a six-year-old boy from San Francisco to his South American concentration camp, Milk attacked the character of his parents in a letter to President Jimmy Carter. “Rev. Jones is widely known in the minority communities here and elsewhere as a man of the highest character, who has undertaken constructive remedies for social problems which have been amazing in their scope and effectiveness,” the San Francisco supervisor claimed to the president about a man who ultimately killed more African Americans than any Klansman. Despite a California court order, the president did not intervene.

The late Congressman Phil Burton (“The Reverend Jim Jones has taken to heart the Biblical injunction, ‘faith without works is dead’”), former assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown (“a highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation”), the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone (“Rev. Jones examines his conscience more thoroughly than anyone I know”), and so many others who aided and abetted Jim Jones attach their names to government structures in and around San Francisco.

Strangely, a city that celebrates Jim Jones’s boosters does nothing for the one man who stood up to him. Leo Ryan, the congressman assassinated by Peoples Temple goons on an airstrip outside of Jonestown as he extracted members wishing to leave, affixes his name to some federal buildings outside of the city. But San Francisco does not remember Leo Ryan, just as it does nothing to memorialize its citizens that he died to save.

Beikman, kidnapped as a boy at Jones’s instruction as the Temple moved from Indiana to California, emigrated with the Temple from San Francisco to Guyana. When he returned to the United States for good, he did so with neither his mother and brother, who died in Jonestown, nor his father, whose presence in that bathroom where Sharon Amos slashed her kid’s throats resulted in detainment in Guyana. “My mom was flown from Dover to Martinsville,” the Hoosier notes. “They couldn’t identify Ronald. He’s in that mass grave.”

Gertrude Stein famously wrote of Oakland, “There is no there there.” Ronald Beikman and more than 400 of his fellow Jonestown victims may lie in Oakland. But for Peoples Temple, there is no there there, either.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books, 2018).