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Political Assassinations: Leo Ryan


Leo Ryan represented California’s 12th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 1973 until 1978. In the latter year, the congressman began to hear rumors of inhumane treatment at the Peoples Temple in Guyana, the site of a religious compound founded by a charismatic minister, the Reverend Jim Jones. Ryan might have declined to intervene since Guyana was outside of US jurisdiction, but the congressman was a friend of the father of former Temple member Bob Houston, who was found dead not long after he spoke with his ex-wife about leaving the Temple. As he read about the group, Ryan resolved to investigate a laundry list of allegations lodged against Reverend Jones and his heavy-handed henchmen.

The brainchild of James Warren Jones, the Peoples Temple was supposed to be a new-age religious movement based on Christianity mixed with socialism and principles of racial equality. Jones believed that he could achieve politically liberal social goals by creating a Pentecostal church that attracted a wide group of misfits who might otherwise never belong to a formal organization. In later years, he confessed that he was using religion as a cover for spreading Marxist ideology throughout the United States.

Jones was always an odd personality. Born in rural Crete, Indiana, on May 13, 1931, he knew poverty intimately as a child. In 1934, his family, struggling to survive in the depths of the Great Depression, moved to Lynn, Indiana, where young Jim grew up in a house without indoor plumbing. Aside from living in poverty, he had a difficult time making friends. He was a bookish child, always reading about historical figures and philosophers, including Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx, and Adolf Hitler. His peers recalled him as a “really weird kid” obsessed with religion and death. He reputedly killed household pets so he could stage elaborate funerals.

He may have been an odd character, but Jones proved to be a bright student, graduating from Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana, in December 1948, on the eve of his seventeenth birthday. The following year, he married a nurse named Marceline Baldwin, and the couple moved to Bloomington, Indiana. Two years later, they moved to Indianapolis. Jones attended night school and eventually earned a college degree in secondary education.

He joined the Communist Part of the United States (CPUSA) in 1951, but he grew impatient when it became clear that he was destined to play a bit part in the Communist movement. Ironically, given the hysteria among Americans about the extreme ideas of the CPUSA during the early 1950s, Jones’s politics became far more radical than the Communists’ beliefs. Many idealistic young liberals who joined the CPUSA during the 1930s and 1940s left the organization when it became clear that totalitarians such as Joseph Stalin and Mao tse-tung were using the ideology as a convenient pretext for their authoritarian regimes to murder millions of people. Jones was not bothered by tales of slaughter and abuses of power. An admirer of the repressive North Korean regime, which he believed to be the purest expression of socialist ideals, Jones adopted three children of Korean ancestry as a demonstration of his allegiance to North Korea.

When Jones founded his first church in the 1950s, he believed that socialist ideals should be mixed with religious faith. He was the figure at the center of everything. It was clear to anyone who closely scrutinized his church from its earliest days that Jim Jones had created a cult. Unfortunately, few people scrutinized his operation during those early times.

By the early 1960s, Jones felt that he had outgrown the provincialism of Indiana. Obsessed with the likelihood of an imminent nuclear war, he and Marceline relocated to Brazil because he had read that the country was a suitable place to ride out the apocalypse. They lived there for three years, ministering to the power and downtrodden. After the day of reckoning was inexplicably delayed, he and his wife returned to the United States. On the way home, they visited a small, out-of-the-way country, Guyana, a remote outpost that would play a pivotal role in their later lives.

Back in Indiana after his lengthy absence, Jones realized that his church had grown as much as possible in the Midwest. He resolved to pick up and move on to California. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Golden State was an ideal spot for someone pedaling a new brand of mysticism or a social utopia. Disaffected young people from across the country—indeed, from everywhere on the globe—gravitated to the West Coast of the United States in search of a dream. Setting up shop in Ukiah, in the Redwood Valley, Jones’s move paid rich dividends. The Peoples Temple attracted a following far beyond what Reverend Jones could have imagined when he eked out a living in Indiana. He eventually opened churches in Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles.

As his congregation grew throughout the 1970s—some estimates suggested that as many as 20,000 people claimed membership at the height of the Temple’s popularity, although sober assessments placed the number at closer to 3,000—Jones became a force to be reckoned with in Northern California politics. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone appointed Jones to serve on the San Francisco Housing Authority. California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally became a fan. Jones met with California Governor Jerry Brown, vice presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale, First Lady-to-be Rosalynn Carter, and numerous local officials. To outward appearances, he was a politically astute, morally straight religious leader—a bit goofy, perhaps, but a man committed to good works on behalf of his fellow man.

As the self-proclaimed messiah’s behavior became increasingly erratic, less-committed members of his flock strayed. Even worse, they talked. By 1977, wild stories circulated about Jones’s sexual escapades, drug abuse, atheism, and other-worldly views about his own divinity.

Jones had been ruminating about establishing an isolated compound in the jungles of Guyana, South America, for years. If he held total control over church members—including the ability to control media access and contact with outside parties—he could become the absolute leader he had always longed to be. The problem with operating a socialist church inside the United States was that too many eyes were on him. Members contacted their loved ones; newspaper and television outlets were ubiquitous; ex-members ran to the press and offered salacious details about church business. It was almost too much for an autocrat to bear.

Once and for all, Reverend Jones needed to consolidate his power. Throughout the spring and summer of 1977, he and his followers engaged in a flurry of activity, moving supplies and equipment to Guyana. Groups of disciples soon departed from the United States in search of paradise.

Back in the United States, as stories circulated and other defectors came forth, a “Concerned Relatives” group formed. They traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby federal elected officials to investigate the strange goings-on within the Peoples Temple. Congressman Leo Ryan learned of their actions and met with the group during the summer of 1978. He promised to fly down to Guyana after the November election and personally investigate. As a member of the International Operations Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the congressman could legitimately claim as his mission the protection of US citizens’ lives and property while they lived abroad. The relatives had found a tenacious, sympathetic champion.

The congressman was true to his word. On November 1, 1978, Ryan announced that he would travel to Guyana to launch an investigation owing to his role as chairman of a congressional subcommittee exercising jurisdiction over American citizens living in foreign countries. He was accompanied by several members of the media as well as 17 relatives of Peoples Temple members who were worried about the health and welfare of their loved ones. When they arrived in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, their reception was not cordial, but Ryan insisted that he be allowed to visit Jonestown, as the compound was known, to assess the conditions there. He eventually arranged for a small plane to fly them to an airfield near the remote outpost.

A tense series of interviews at Jonestown convinced the congressman that more than a dozen people wished to leave the Peoples Temple. The interviewees appeared to be genuinely frightened of Rev. Jones and his more zealous followers. The situation grew desperate. As he was conducting an interview, the congressman was attacked with a knife. Ordered to leave the compound, Ryan vowed to return.

The congressman and his entourage arrived at the airstrip to fly back to Georgetown. A few minutes later, as the travelers were waiting to board the airplanes, members of the Peoples Temple appeared and opened fire with guns, killing Ryan, three journalists, and a departing Temple member and wounding nine others. Survivors fled to the nearby jungle. The date was November 18, 1978.

When the Guyanese army arrived the next day to investigate, they rescued the survivors and collected the bodies of the people slain the preceding day. The extent of the horror became clear when they arrived at the Jonestown compound to discover the bodies of more than 900 men, women, and children who had committed mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with the poison cyanide. Reverend Jones lay dead, too, from a gunshot wound to the head. It was an apparent suicide.

Assessing the motives of the killers who shot Congressman Ryan is difficult for many reasons. First, it is not altogether clear who these individuals were, so determining their intentions is an uncertain enterprise. It is safe to assume, however, that the men (and perhaps women) who pulled the triggers that day in the jungles of Guyana were the most zealous of the zealous. They were cult members who had surrendered some portion of their individualism to the Reverend Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

The research on individuals who join religious cults indicates that no one type of person is more susceptible than others to cultish appeals. Men and women of all ages, education and income levels, race, and ideology can become cult members. The one commonality among cult members appears to be a desperate desire for friendship, identity, respect, and security. The cult offers them something that no other institution or group has provided.

Not surprisingly, members of the Peoples Temple tended to be young people who felt alienated from conventional society—racial and ethnic minorities, runaways, drug-users, prostitutes, mentally-ill misfits, Hippies, and outcasts of all sorts. The Peoples Temple offered them a home where supposedly they would be loved, respected, and valued. The reality differed markedly from the promise, but by the time the members understood the horrors of life inside the People Temple, they were caught in the trap.

As for the man who built the cult around his strange personality, Jim Jones has been characterized as a drug-addicted, militantly homosexual, delusional psychopath. He was a paranoid authoritarian maniac who brooked no dissent and insisted on absolute loyalty. Presumably, he ordered his disciples to murder Leo Ryan as well as the staff members, reporters, and defectors who accompanied the congressman to the airstrip on November 18, 1978.

Of the types of political assailants, it seems unlikely that Jones was a Type 1 actor. He did not instruct his followers to kill a United States congressman because he passionately held a set of political views diametrically opposed to the congressman’s policies. Type 1 actors seek out political figures to kill. In the Jim Jones case, a political figure sought him out while Jones would have preferred to be left alone. The isolated figure living in the jungle compound was, if anything, apolitical. Jones befriended political figures during his time in Indiana and California, but those associations were a means to an end. He professed to be a socialist who performed good works on behalf of the poor and disaffected, but those actions, too, smacked of rank opportunism. Jones did what was necessary to attract adherents, charm politicians, and repel perceived enemies. Political issues did not drive his actions.

Similarly, Jones probably was not a Type 2 actor seeking to kill a famous political figure to enhance his own status. Inside his own carefully crafted community, he already enjoyed the highest status possible. He claimed to be superhuman, and the Peoples Tempe cult was essentially a cult of personality centered on Jim Jones. A classic Type 2 actor feels marginalized and ignored. Jones was hardly ignored. In fact, he wanted Congressman Ryan and the press to ignore him, but they would not.

Was Jim Jones a Type 3 assassin—so nihilistic and divorced from society that he no longer believed life was worth loving? Perhaps he was a Type 4 assassin, descending into madness in the jungles of South America surrounded by his brainwashed automatons. It is difficult to say. His cavalier manner in discussing mass suicide suggested that he was a Type 3 actor who did not distinguish between living and dying. His willingness to send 900 men, women, and children to their deaths with little or no compunction makes a persuasive case for a genuinely alienated human being.

It is tempting to see Jim Jones as insane—the quintessential Type 4 actor—an unhinged madman peddling his dangerous, quasi-socialist doctrines to an audience comprised of brainwashed zealots and unwilling slaves trapped in a hellish prison. One wonders whether the good reverend knew all along that his one-man freak show would end in mass death and destruction in an obscure corner of the world or if the descent was gradual, silent, unheralded. Perhaps his God complex finally got the better of him as he surrendered to his delusions. Without a diagnosis from a competent psychiatrist or psychologist, determining whether Jones suffered from a mental defect is impossible to state with high confidence. Some of his actions suggested he was not in his right mind.

Yet to some extent, his actions were rational. Congressman Ryan interfered with church business and threatened to destroy the Peoples Temple; therefore, he needed to be removed. If the cause of a problem could be eliminated, the solution would advance the assassin’s interests. Yet murdering a United States congressman only exacerbated Jones’s predicament, hastening the apocalypse. If he was worried about the level of outside scrutiny, ordering the assassination of a congressman ensured a far greater level of scrutiny.

One school of thought hints at the possibility that Jones purposely acted to eliminate other options. The only way he could guarantee that he and his followers would commit revolutionary suicide was to force their hand. Killing Ryan and members of his entourage was a rational means of moving the Peoples Temple toward the next step of the journey. “We can’t go back,” Jones said, and he was correct.

Jim Jones and his henchmen fall into the Type 5 category because no one will ever know precisely what depths of despair or delusion drove them to commit their crimes. Intent is always a difficult concept to pin down. When cult members are involved, understanding their motivations becomes almost impossible owing to the large number of people involved and their varying motives and differing states of mind. Whatever demons drove them to act, the demons died with them in the South American jungle in November 1978.

Chapter 24 of my book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders discusses the tragic Jonestown episode in some detail.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez