Why you should care
Because every monster had a childhood.
Neighborhood kids stretched their necks as young Jimmy prepared birds and rats for burial. A lover of rituals, the youngster would theatrically open trap doors to reveal the dead, light candles, stage altars, use oil and shrouds, and then lead his peers in funeral processions.
Catastrophic flaws he had aplenty, but budding cult leader Jim Jones sure had the gift of gab. Even as a child in small-town Indiana, he maintained an audience of schoolmates, sometimes as many as a dozen, with passionate services delivered inside a small barn behind his home. Dressed in a white sheet that doubled as a robe, he’d read from the Bible, give sermons or conduct funeral ceremonies for deceased neighborhood animals. But when his parents purchased him a toy medical kit, he began experimenting on living animals, conducting blood transfusions between different species and once amputating a chicken’s leg so he could attach it to a duck.
Seen less as a leader and more as an oddball, his flock of congregants gradually deserted him.
“Animal abuse is a common symptom in youths on a trajectory to scoring high on psychopathy as adults,” says Dr. Kent A. Kiehl, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico and author of the 2014 book The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience. Because psychopathy is a developmental disorder, “symptoms should be present by age 10,” he says, noting how some callous or unemotional traits can be seen “as early as age 5.”
Ever since the Jonestown Massacre of November 18, 1978, Jones has been described countless times as both a psychopath and a narcissist. But as a kid, young Jimmy was just an engaging little character who kept his youthful congregants coming to his barn. He would provide a bowl of lemonade or a “sweet punchlike drink,” as told by Tim Reiterman’s book Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Back then, Jones’ punch was safe to drink. It was the early 1940s, and it would be years before the host’s personality fully blossomed, and decades before the ingredients to his punch took a deadlier turn.
Born on May 13, 1931, in Crete, Indiana, he grew up an only child in the nearby Hoosier town of Lynn in a house by the railroad tracks. His father, James, was 16 years older than his mother, Lynetta, and their marriage was far more distant than their age gap. The father was a World War I veteran whose lungs had been all but destroyed by mustard gas. His ill health, combined with a lack of formal education, made it tough to find work.
The breadwinning mother worked in a factory and nursed grandiose dreams for her son, whom she warned to avoid being “a nothing” like his father, who was struggling to draw breaths in a nearby room. Lynetta didn’t hesitate to express her opinions and “was a scandalous figure about town,” who “drank, smoked, cursed and was a vocal member of the local union,” as described by Julia Scheeres in her book A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown. Another difference between the Joneses and their religiously conservative neighbors was that the family didn’t belong to a church.
Feeling like an outsider early on, Jim would forever identify with marginalized people, be they Blacks in an institutionally segregated society or the train-riding white transients to whom he continually gave sacks of food. Spiritually intense but restless, he sampled every type of church in the area before discovering the Gospel Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church at the edge of town where people spoke in tongues en route to religious ecstasies. A woman of influence at the church noticed Jones’ oratorical talent and began cultivating him as a child evangelist. When Lynetta — who had little use for a “sky god” — heard about her son becoming a rising star at the histrionic Gospel Tabernacle, she put an end to his attendance there.
As a teen, Jimmy’s barn preaching drew fewer and fewer faithful. Seen less as a leader and more as an oddball, his flock of congregants gradually deserted him. Such loss was a personal injury that, when threatening to repeat itself years later in the form of his Peoples Temple members leaving, would make him act out with extreme hostility.
Jones’ father died in 1951, and his mother followed Jim in 1977 to his isolated “utopian” community of Jonestown in Guyana, South America, where she died that December of natural causes. “Reverend Jones,” as he was then known, had become the founder and head of the Peoples Temple — a group of more than 900 congregants who believed in racial integration and a communist community. Unlike the young neighbors who had grown tired of Jimmy’s funerals, 918 faithful stuck with Jones as he instructed them to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking poisoned punch on that fateful fall day.