Jonestown Massacre

The PBS documentary Jonestown: the life and death of Peoples Temple

November 18 2008* marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre where over 900 followers of a cult led by the Reverend Jim Jones killed themselves at his behest in Jonestown in Guyana.

James Warren Jones was born in Indiana in 1931. It was here, during the 1950s, he started his own church, which was to become the ‘Peoples Temple’. In 1965, reportedly to protect its members against nuclear war, Jones moved the Peoples Temple to Northern California. This move eventually brought increased media scrutiny, and in 1977, with mounting accusations that Jones was illegally diverting the income of cult members for his own use, Jones and hundreds of his followers emigrated to Guyana and set up an agricultural commune, the narcissistic ‘Jonestown’.

The authors of Schizophrenia: a short introduction think that Jones was suffering from Schizophrenia:

Even more rarely a strong personality with psychotic delusions is able to impose them on a whole community. This seems to have been the case with the tragic ‘Jonestown massacre’

Jim Jones was the charismatic leader of a religious cult. He was almost certainly psychotic. He suffered from mysterious fainting spells, heeded advice from extraterrestrials, practised faith healing and experience visions of a nuclear holocaust. He lead his followers to a remote part of the jungle where they she up a community isolated from the rest of society. The community lived in fear of an unnamed enemy and destroyer who would descent upon them and kill them mercilessly.**

Rather than being devout, Jones was a communist and his interest in worship was to achieve social and political goals. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Jonestown was more reminiscent of a Stalinist state than a religious community, and Jones more megalomaniac Marxist than deranged religious leader. Preaching social equality, Jones had recruited mostly lower income African-Americans into his church, inviting them to become part of creating a utopia. They found a regime directly by North Korea of eight hours of work followed by a further eight of study. Witnesses report that they were instilled with a pervasive sense of being under attack. Just like during the worse days of the Cultural revolution members would turn each other in as potentially enemies to the common cause. No one was allowed to leave the settlement and beatings were administered to dissenters at group meetings.

Jones himself was reportedly obsessed with his personal safety, and recruited two Temple members to place themselves between himself and an assassin’s bullet, should the need arise. He is described as becoming increasingly paranoid through the 1970s aided, no doubt by abuse of LSD and marijuana as well as other drugs. At his post mortem, enough Phenobarbital was found in his body to kill someone who had not developed considerable tolerance. Jones was often noticed by his follower as having slurred speech which he put down to his nurse giving him the incorrect medication.

Jones would rehearse mass suicide in order to test his subjects’ loyalty. This presumably came in useful following the chain of events that started on November 14, 1978. On this day US Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana with a group of newsmen and relatives of Jonestown residents to conduct an unofficial investigation of alleged abuses of Temple members. Four days later, as Ryan’s party and 14 defectors prepared to leave from a nearby airstrip, Jones ordered the group assassinated. Ryan and four others were killed but when Jones learnt that others had escaped and would likely bring in Guyanese authorities, he commanded his followers to drink cyanide adulterated punch; Jones himself died of a gunshot wound in the head. Guyanese troops reached Jonestown the next day, and the Jonestown death toll was eventually placed at 913 (including 276 children).

Jones was clearly disturbed, but for my money rather than schizophrenia, I favour Jones suffering a schizotypal personality disorder, which is classed under F20-29 Schizophrenia, schizotypal and other delusional disorders in ICD-10. It seems unlikely to me that Jones would have been able to achieve the foundation of a church and ultimately that of a substantial settlement if he had been severely affected by schizophrenia, whereas People with schizotypal disorder whilst not have a full blown schizophrenia type picture can display odd beliefs, unusual perceptual experiences, suspiciousness and paranoid ideation. Under stress this can deteriorate into psychosis, which, with the tragic end of Jonestown would fit the picture.

Another interesting question is why nearly a thousand of Jones’s followers apparently allowed themselves to become part of a massive suicide pact. The Jonestown film suggests that there was a great deal of coercion involved in this, but by settling in Jonestown its inhabitants were self selected to be susceptible to Jones’s will and people whose utopia has just collapsed might be a desperate bunch. Jonestown’s inhabitants had been living in an atmosphere of paranoia the veracity of which appeared to be aptly illustrated by the visit of Congressman Ryan. Their worries, channelled through a disturbed but charismatic man, were ultimately fateful.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – The Ballad of Jim Jones

PBS documentary website

A rather disturbing tape recording made as the Jonestown inhabitants debated whether to commit suicide

Jim Jones biography

Rt Rev. Tom Butler said something sensible about this on Radio 4 thought for the day 18 November 2008


*The day I started to write this post.

** These are the own two paragraphs on the subject, which leads to the suspicion that they didn’t give the matter in depth consideration.

Psychiatric disorders of the rich and famous #1 Howard Hughes

When Howard Hughes died on April 5 1976, the state of his body compelled the FBI to resort to fingerprints for identification. Severely malnourished, he weighted 40kg and his hair, beard, fingernails and toenails had grown grossly long. X-rays revealed broken-off hypodermic needles still embedded in his arms.

A strange way for one of the world’s richest man to go, and not what Hugh Hefner has in mind. During his life, Howard was known as a film maker, industrialist, and aviator. At various points in his life he owned an international and two regional airlines, a major motion picture studio, mining properties, a tool company, gambling casinos in Las Vegas, a medical research institute, a vast amount of real estate; had built and flown the world’s largest airplane; and had produced and directed the movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ – a Hollywood film classic. However it is perhaps for the psychiatric disorder of his final years that he is best known.

His father was the wildcatter Howard Robard Hughes, his mother the Dallas heiress Allene Gano. When Hughes was four years old, his father patented a rotary drill bit able to penetrate thick rock, which revolutionizing oil drilling. He shrewdly decided to commercialize this himself thereby creating start-up capital for Howard Jr’s subsequent vast empire. Howard Jr. showed engineering ability himself, setting up Houston’s first wireless broadcast system when he was eleven years old.

Hughes’ early life was shaped by his mother doting on him with excessive concern about his health, his teeth and his bowels. Hughes appears to have been introverted from an early age, characteristics that were exacerbated by this mother’s worries. She is said to have disapproved of the young Hughes making friends in the belief that other people were disease carriers, thereby giving him an excuse to escape social pressures. When Howard wanted to attend summer camp his parents requested assurances that their son would be protected from contracting polio. When this was not forthcoming, it was decided to keep him home. After attending camp another summer, Hughes avoided the next year’s camp by complaining about headaches and bad dreams. Later, on the verge of adolescence, Howard became ill and was kept out of school for almost a year. He developed a form of paralysis which disappeared several months later

When Hughes was 16 his mother died during surgery, his father died two years later. As a result, at the age of eighteen, Hughes took control of his father’s company. Soon afterwards he became enamoured with the motion picture industry and moved to Los Angeles.

Hughes was married for the first time in 1925 to Ella Rice, a Houston socialite. By 1927 this marriage was failing, no doubt in part as he kept her at home isolated for weeks at a time. Following this he was linked romantically variously to Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Jane Greer, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Janet Leigh; there were also rumours of homosexual affairs, but evidence for this is equivocal.

Hughes wrote and directed ‘Hells Angels’, a film about First World War RAF pilots, in 1930 and during this production he cemented a lifelong passion for aviation. By the 1940s Hughes’ obsessive tendencies were becoming apparent and during the production of ‘The Outlaw’, which featured the barely covered breasts of its star Jane Russell, Hughes was obsessed with a minor flaw in one of Russell’s blouses, and wrote a detailed memorandum on how to fix the problem. He contended that fabric bunched up two seams, giving the distressing appearance of two nipples on each of Russell’s breasts. To remedy this he designed a complicated cantilevered bra; Russell never wore it.

During the last thirty years of Hughes’ life, his story becomes more incredible and his behaviour more erratic and bizzare. In 1946, while test-piloting the XF-11 photo reconnaissance plane, Hughes crashed the in Beverly Hills and wasn’t expected to live. The multiple fractures he sustained lead to the liberal administration of morphine and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to opiates.

In 1952 Hughes purchased RKO Studios and immediately cut the staff there from 2,500 to 600. His management over the next two years, which involved shutting down productions for weeks at a time to try to control dust, or to check the staff’s credentials to sift out communists, eventually lead to the studio’s downfall in 1955. In 1957 he married Jean Peters, who was 22 years younger than him. Their marriage lasted until 1971. During this time he was probably a bigamist as following his death his estate came to an out of court settlement with Terry Moore who claimed to have married him in 1949.

In 1966 Hughes became one of the richest men in the world when he was forced to sell his shares in TWA making him $547 million. In the same year Hughes and Peters moved to Las Vegas, although by this time, due to Hughes’ phobias, they tended to communicate by notes rather than by meeting. On arrival in the city, having reserved the top two storeys of the Desert Inn for 10 days, Hughes then refused to leave. The matter was finally resolved by Hughes buying the hotel for twice its valuation price.

In 1968 Hughes was still living in the Desert Inn, where he is reported to have seldom slept, instead spending the night watching old movies. Occasionally, he would nod off and missed parts of the film being screened. In the age before video recorders, he bought the Las Vegas KLAS-TV so that he could have the chunks he had missed rebroadcast.

Towards the end of this life, Hughes’ business holdings were overseen by a small panel dubbed ‘The Mormon Mafia’ because of the many Latter-day Saints on the committee. Although Hughes was not a member of the church, he considered them trustworthy. In addition to supervising day-to-day business operations and Hughes’ health, they also went to great pains to satisfy Hughes’ every whim. Remaining financially canny, Hughes moved hotels every 180 days to avoid personal income tax and during a visit to London Hughes Hughes fractured his hip during a nocturnal bathroom run. He refused to accept specialist advice that he exercise to get better, instead opting to remain bedridden, which led to his living in increasing squalor and filth.

Several doctors were kept in the house, but Hughes rarely saw them and usually refused to follow their advice; likewise despite having a barber on call he only had his nails cut once a year. In 1976 a 70-year-old Hughes, who had already been in a coma for three days, died at 1.27pm, en route by private jet from Acapulco in Mexico to a hospital in Houston. The official cause of death was chronic kidney disease, but it is just as likely to have been from dehydration, malnutrition and neglect.

Much of the strange behaviour that Hughes demonstrated in later life is attributed by some biographers to tertiary stage syphilis. This strikes me as rather unlikely. It very possible that brain injuries caused by numerous air crashes also played a part. Any psychiatric formulation would have to consider the possibilities of some or all of a severe obsessive compulsive disorder, a personality which was allowed to deteriorate due to the indulgence of his acolytes, dementia, and schizophrenia. It is clear that there was a failure of proper care towards the end of Hughes’ life, no doubt caused in part because of the great power he wielded in spite of his psychological incapacity.

Sources for this posting:

Channel 4 Howard Hughes a chronology

Howard Hughes psychological autopsy


BBC ‘on this day’ death of Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes biography

Another biography