Slouching Toward San Francisco (Nov. 14, 2012)

Jim Jones was raised by a mother whose dreams were too big for the Indiana farm town where they lived. “Don't be nothing like your dad,” Lynetta Jones drummed into her boy, while big Jim rocked forlornly in his armchair, his lungs so badly scarred by mustard gas in the First World War that he couldn't wheeze his way through a full day's work. The boy developed a messianic complex at an early age, killing a cat so he could try raising it from the dead. One day he marched into the drowsy, God-fearing town wearing a makeshift white robe to confront the sinners in the pool hall -- including his own sad, hard-drinking father. “You are all going to hell,” the boy preacher proclaimed sternly.Jones became a rising young Pentecostal preacher in Indianapolis, building a mixed-race congregation -- a daring move in 1950s middle America -- and starting a rainbow family of his own with his wife, Marceline. Soon after Marceline gave birth to their first son, Stephan, the couple adopted a girl from a Korean orphanage and an African-American infant whom Jim anointed with his own name -- only the beginning of what would become a multiracial brood.

A cloud of menace hung over Jones's racially advanced church. The preacher and his wife received late-night crank phone calls, and a dead cat was thrown at their house. Someone painted a swastika on the church door, and Jones once found glass in his Sunday pot luck dinner. But some members of the church wondered if the hostile acts were staged by Jones himself.

 In July 1965 Jones convinced 140 members of his congregation to abandon their lives in Indiana and move westward with them to the California promised land: a valley in Mendocino County where Jones said they would be safe from redneck tormentors and from the nuclear doomsday that he predicted would reduce most of America to poisonous smoke and ash. It was the first exodus engineered by Jones who was always trying to outrun his own demons. His followers headed west in a dusty caravan of pickup trucks, vans and cars.

As the People's Temple established itself in Redwood Valley -- recruiting new members, many of them black and poor, from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and other cities -- Jones set about infiltrating the local power structure. Though Jones told his flock that the one true God was socialism, the church worked hard to win over the Republican establishment that controlled Ukiah, the county seat. The Peoples Temple bought tickets to local Republican fundraisers, bombarded GOP politicians with flattering letters, and contributed to their campaigns. Jones announced that he was a registered Republican and was supporting Nixon for president in 1968, and even befriended the head of the local John Birch Society. Meanwhile, the Church infiltrated members into the Sheriff's Department and the county social services department and Tim Stoen went to work in the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office as the County Counsel. The same political strategy that would work so effectively in liberal San Francisco was first tested in conservative Ukiah.It did not take long for Jones, always looking for the big stage that his mother envisioned for him, to outgrow the Redwood Valley. He began extending feelers into San Francisco, leading weekly services at a junior high school auditorium in the Fillmore as early as 1970. Long before George Moscone came into their sights, Temple officials wooed Mayor Alioto, buying a hundred tickets to a breakfast fundraiser for Alioto in 1973 and sending him a box of homemade candy in 1975.

That year, the People's Temple moved its headquarters to San Francisco, taking over an old Jewish synagogue next to the Black Muslim mosque on Geary Boulevard once occupied by the Fillmore Auditorium. It was an eerie synchronicity — the building once a haven for the zebra butchers sitting side-by-side with the temple that would become infamous as the headquarters of the deadliest cult in US history.

Using the same bag of tricks he used on politicians — including donations, bouquets of flattery, and his considerable personal charm — Jim Jones won over key black church leaders in the Bay Area, including activist pastors Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial in the tenderloin and J. Alfred Smith of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland. With Jones's impassioned pulpit performances and his organization's social outreach programs, including a free medical clinic and food and clothing donations, the People's Temple soon established firm roots in the devastated Fillmore neighborhood. Traditional black churches — whose pastors “preached the sweet bye and bye,” in Reverend Smith's words, and limited their social services to Christmas basket giveaways — found it hard to compete with Jones's theatrical evangelism. The white preacher began luring away hundreds of black worshipers; massive “sheep stealing” that rival black ministers grumbled about but did little to counteract.Jones moved into the Fillmore at its most vulnerable moment. Urban renewal czar Justin Herman had “literally destroyed the neighborhood,” observed neighborhood activist Hannibal Williams, “[and] people were desperate for solutions, something to follow. Jim Jones was another solution. He had a charismatic personality that won the hearts and souls of people. And people followed him to hell. That's where Jim Jones went. That's where he took the people who followed him.”

In the beginning, Jones was greeted as a “godsend” in the black community, remarked Reverend Smith. Here was a white pastor who “had the gift of communicating with black people. He didn't communicate in the sterile way of the seminary. Now, if you listen to Joneses sermons, you can hear him following the rhythms and cadences to match the beating of the human heart.”

And his flock, ignored and scorned by society, was electrified by Jones's vision of a new Eden. Everybody was exalted in his services, even the lowliest recovering drunks and addicts. “He made us feel special, like something bigger than ourselves,” said one temple member. “Total equality, no rich or poor, no races,” said another. “We were alive in those services,” testified one more. “They had life, soul power.”

Jones -- an oddball and renegade his entire life, someone who never felt at home in his own skin -- had found his identity by taking on a black persona. He saw himself following in the footsteps of Malcolm and Martin, leading “his” people out of bondage and into the promised land.

In reality, Jones maintained a racial hierarchy within the organization. While church membership was primarily black, the 37 member planning commission, as Jones called his leadership council, was dominated by white women — at least six of whom were his sexual conquests and firmly under his sway. “When people talk about my father manipulating black people, that's true,” said Jim Jones Jr., the preacher's black adopted son. “It was politically advantageous for him to give me his name.”

There was something exhibitionistic about the way that Jones and his wife treated their black son. “I was the chosen one,” he said. “I was more loved in my family than the other kids, even their biological son, Stephan. I remember mom wiping charcoal off a dirty pot one day and rubbing it all over her face — to show that we were all black.”


Jones soon learned that his control over a well-organized, mixed race army of some 8,000 dedicated followers gave him major stature with San Francisco's liberal elite. Redevelopment had bulldozed the Fillmore's political power into the ground. But now this strange white man with the hipster shades, Indian black hair, and cadences of a black Bible thumper seemed to be erecting a new political power line into the rubble strewn, crime-ridden no-man's-land. Jones could be counted on to deliver busloads of obedient, well-dressed disciples to demonstrations, campaign rallies, and political precincts. The city's liberal Burton machine quickly identified the People's Temple juggernaut as a potentially game-changing ally in its long battle to take over City Hall.

It was Willie Brown who first recognized that Jones's organization could play a pivotal role in his friend George Moscone's run for mayor. A meeting was set up between Jones and Moscone in the office of Don Bradley, the candidate's veteran campaign manager. Bradley was initially cautious. “I was a little leery we were getting into something like the Moonies,” he later recalled. But after he looked into the Temple's campaign history in Mendocino and saw how effective it was in delivering victories there, Bradley enthusiastically embraced Jones's volunteer army. Nearly 200 Temple members showed up at Moscone headquarters, fanning out to campaign in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, and helping the candidate finish first in the November election.

In the December runoff between Moscone and Barbagelata, People's Temple went even further to secure victory for its candidate. On the eve of the election, Jones filled buses with Temple members in Redwood Valley and Los Angeles and shuttled them to San Francisco. Security at polling places was lax on election day and many nonresidents were able to cast their ballots for Moscone, some more than once. “You could have run around to 1200 precincts and voted 1200 times,” said a bitter Barbagelata later, after losing by a whisper of a margin. But he was not the only one who claimed that the Peoples Temple stole the election for George Moscone. Temple leaders also claimed credit.

“We loaded up all 13 of our buses with maybe 70 people on each bus and we had those buses rolling nonstop up and down the coast into San Francisco the day before the election,” recalled Jim Jones Jr. “We had people going from precinct to precinct to vote. So could we have been the force that tipped the election to Moscone? Absolutely! Slam dunk. He only won by 4,000 votes. I'm sorry, but I've got to give my father credit for that. I think he did the right thing. George Moscon was a good person; he wanted what was best for San Francisco.”

Jim Jones made sure that George Moscone never forgot his political debt to Peoples Temple. The man who began his term in City Hall with a ringing promise to make San Francisco a beacon of enlightenment would start off his administration with a wretched burden on his back. The mayor could never rid himself of the stench of contagion that Jones brought with him, and as time went by, the power-hungry preacher only sunk his fangs in deeper. The pastor was a wickedly smart reader of a politician's character and he knew that the way to enchant Moscone was with young women, not money. When it came to bribing politicians, the Temple leader had ample supplies of both. Jones bragged of supplying Moscone with black female members of his congregation. Jim Jones Jr. remembered the mayor as “a party guy. He'd always be there at Temple parties with a cocktail in his hand and doing some ass grabbing.”

Temple insiders talked about how Mayor Moscone was one of the politicians under the control of “Father.” They gossiped about the night that the mayor had fallen into Jones's hands. “Moscone was known to be a boozer; he liked to drink at parties,” recalled Temple member Hue Fortson, now a pastor in Southern California. “One night there was some sort of Temple event that the mayor attended. The next morning I heard that Jones phoned Moscone and told him it was a pleasure to see him the night before and to see him having such a good time. “But I want to let you know that the young lady you went off with is underage,” Jones told him. “Now, don't worry, Mayor, we'll take care of you — because we know that you will take care of us'.”

Jones might have made up the stories of sexual blackmail. He was known to concoct outlandish tales. “Jim was always bragging that he had sexually compromising information about politicians,” remembered Terri Buford, an on-again, off-again mistress of Jones who belonged to the Temple's inner circle. “But you never knew if what he said was true. He once told me that Willie Brown was sexually attracted to him. He just made stuff up.”

Whether or not Moscone was sexually compromised by Jones, he was certainly politically ensnared. The mayor initially resisted the Temple's efforts to insert its members throughout city government. And when Jones himself pushed for a high-level appointment, Moscone at first tried to appease him with a harmless post on the Human Rights Commission. But the Temple leader insisted on a position that had more clout, and the mayor decided he was in no position to alienate Jones. In October 1976 Moscone announced that he was naming Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority which oversees the operation of the city's public housing. The agency, the largest landlord in the city, was a notorious maze of corruption, and it provided Jones's organization with ample opportunity for shady self-dealing. A few months later, Moscone pulled strings to promote Jones, making him chairman.Jones swept into the normally tedious meetings of the Housing Commission like a banana republic despot, surrounded by an entourage of aides and grim-faced security guards. Looking stern and inscrutable behind his aviator sunglasses, Jones ran the meetings with scripted precision while sipping a frothy white drink brought to him by a hovering retainer. The audience, packed with elderly black Temple worshipers, erupted into wild cheers at his most routine pronouncements. Temple enforcers roamed through the meetings, keeping a watchful vigil and even blocking people from entering the bathroom while Jones was inside.

Jones used his position to take possession of public housing units and install Temple members in them, and he put other followers on the Housing Authority payroll. The preacher was building his own power base within city government. “He was using his power to recruit members and to put the hammer on people,” said Dave Reuben. “He had a lot of authority.”

“Jim Jones helped George Moscone run this city,” said Jim Jones Jr., a chillingly matter-of-fact assessment of the Temple leader's creeping encroachment in San Francisco.

Political leaders, aware of Jones's ability to deliver — or manufacture — votes, lined up to pay tribute to the preacher. He worked his way into the good graces of officials high and low -- most of them Democrats, since that was the party in power in California and San Francisco in the mid-1970s. But Jones was also happy to exchange mutually complimentary correspondence with the offices of Ronald Reagan and statesman Henry Kissinger.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jones wangled a private meeting with Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn, at the elegant Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill, arriving with a security contingent that was bigger than her Secret Service squad. Later Jones accompanied Moscone and a group of Democratic dignitaries who climbed aboard vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale's private jet when it touched down at San Francisco International Airport.

Governor Jerry Brown sang the preacher's praises. Congressman John Burton lobbied the governor to appoint Jones to the high-profile board of regents which oversaw California's sprawling public university system. Supervisor Dianne Feinstein accepted an invitation to lunch with Jones and to tour Peoples Temple.

But no political figures were more gushing in their praise of Jones then Harvey Milk and Willie Brown. Milk, a perennial candidate for office until he finally won a supervisor seat in 1977, aggressively sought Jones's political blessing. “Our paths have crossed,” Milk wrote Jones during an earlier campaign for supervisor, in a letter filled with the kind of all-out reverence that the cult leader demanded from his followers. “They will stay crossed. It is a fight that I will walk with you into. … The first time I heard you, you made a statement: 'take one of us, and you must take all of us.' Please add my name.”

Not content to hear dignitaries whisper flatteries into his ear, Jones staged a testimonial banquet in his own honor and demanded that politicians in his debt offer him public tribute. On the evening of September 25, 1976, the Temple on Geary Boulevard was converted into a formal dining hall with linen table cloths and floral arrangements. At the head table sat mayor Moscone, District Attorneys Freitas, and Assemblyman Willie Brown, who acted as the evening's exuberant master of ceremonies. As he introduced the man of the hour to the overflow audience, Brown reached new heights of shameless, ass-kissing puffery. “Let me present to you,” Brown roared, “a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein … Chairman Mao.” By the time Jones rose to tumultuous applause, he seemed likely to walk on water.

Privately, San Francisco political leaders expressed doubts about Jones and his strange church. One day friend of Milk's named Tori Hartmann dropped off some boxes of campaign brochures at People's Temple so that Jones's army could distribute them. Hartmann was immediately creeped out by the uptight, high security atmosphere inside the Temple where sentries stood at attention outside each room, like the palace guards in the wicked witch's castle. “This is a church?” Hartmann said to herself. Later, after she sped back to the Castro and told Milk about her bizarre experience, the naturally cheery politician turned deadly serious.

“Make sure you're always nice to the Peoples Temple,” he told her. “They're weird and they're dangerous, and you never want to be on their bad side.”

Cleve Jones, a young Milk aide, accompanied him to People's Temple for a couple of Sunday services. “Harvey told me, 'Be careful, they tape everything.' Everyone knew Jim Jones was creepy, everyone knew he was a megalomaniac. But everybody also saw his church full of black and white people — black people from the Fillmore who had been subjected to apartheid like policies and seemed to be finally getting some respect.”

Members of Moscone's staff were also beginning to hear troubling reports about Peoples Temple. One day mayoral aide Dick Sklar suggested to his family maid — an African-American woman who had followed the Sklars to San Francisco from Ohio — that she attend a Sunday service at People's Temple. “I didn't know anything about it,” Sklar said, “but she was a churchgoing woman and I thought she might like it. Afterward she came back and said it was the scariest place she'd ever been. They searched her, asked her questions. I had no idea.”

Moscone himself could not ignore how peculiar his political ally was. “I was at every meeting that Jim Jones ever attended with the mayor,” said Corey Busch. “I can tell you that after every one of those meetings, the reaction was, 'This is one weird bird.' He always wore the dark glasses. You couldn't predict Jonestown, but he was definitely weird. In retrospect, maybe we should have seen that, but we didn't.”

As City Hall looked the other way, Jones quietly consolidated his power in San Francisco, extending his influence in political, religious and media circles. The Temple worked its mojo on dozens of community organizations from small groups like the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association to higher profile ones like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Farm workers. Jones won their gratitude by donating money and flooding their rallies and events with local supporters.

By early 1977, it seemed that Jim Jones had conquered San Francisco. He had the mayor in his pocket and commanded the fawning loyalty of powerbrokers such as Willie Brown and rising stars like Harvey Milk. Using San Francisco as its power base, the People's Temple was ready to expand its operations in Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities where it had already sunk roots.

There was only one politician who seemed willing to confront the powerful cult: cantankerous John Barbagelata, the fading voice of San Francisco conservatism.


John Barbagelata, who had never stopped fuming about his shady mayoral defeat, kept banging the drum about Jim Jones's political machine and its insidious influence in City Hall. During the Proposition B recall campaign, the supervisor charged loudly that San Francisco was being taken over by extremists and kooks — and the Peoples Temple was the most dangerous element of this new coalition. Moscone angrily rejected Barbagelata's accusation. “There is no radical plot in San Francisco,” the mayor declared. “There is no one I've appointed to any city position whom I regard as radical or extremist.”

Meanwhile, Joe Freitas bluntly dismissed Barbagelata's voter fraud charges. In March 1977 the DA wrote Barbagelata, assuring him that his deputy Tim Stoen had investigated the fraud allegations and determined “that there was not sufficient evidence” to pursue the case. An outraged Barbagelata, now finally aware of Stoen's blatant conflict of interest, circled Tim Stoen's name in red on the Freitas letter and scrawled, “President People's Temple.”

By then Stoen had disappeared from the DA's office and had flown to Guyana where Jones was already preparing his next refuge in a remote jungle. But Barbagelata kept after the Peoples Temple which he suspected of getting its hands on foster children and kids deemed “incorrigible” by courts and spiriting them off to Guyana along with the public funds attached to the children. The anxieties of Peoples Temple relatives were beginning to rise as members began vanishing from San Francisco and Oakland. The conservative supervisor was the only city official who seem to be making inquiries about the fate of children in Jones's control. San Francisco's welfare chief reacted huffily that Barbagelata would even propose such an investigation.

It took courage to confront Jones's maniacal organization. Barbagelata was barraged with scornful letters from a phalanx of well-positioned People's Temple supporters such as the Reverend Norman E. Leach, executive director of the San Francisco Council of Churches, who condemned the supervisor's talk of a “radical takeover” of the city as “merely sour grapes.”

Leach then went on to offer pious counsel to Barbagelata: “Have you ever discussed with the Reverend Jim Jones your views as to his belonging to some sort of 'coalition' which is eroding the 'balance of power in San Francisco' and 'attempting to control everything'? I know Jim and know him to be an independent person, a man of strong values and convictions, and a man not beholden to any organization or group or individual. … Build your own coalition if you wish. But don't find secret coalitions in existence which are not there.” Jones was sending his number one political enemy a message: if Barbagelata sat down and came to terms with him, maybe he too could reap the benefits enjoyed by San Francisco's political winners.

Reverend Leach had been arrested in 1974 and convicted of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor 12 or younger” in Napa, California, but if federal officials knew about the Presbyterian minister's legal record, they apparently did not use it to manipulate him. “They were simply very good at co-opting people,” Leach said later.Other letters that Barbagelata received from Temple members felt more ominous. “We got letters from Jones's followers saying, 'We hear you've been saying things about Father, and we want you to stop saying these things about Father.' And then there were subtle threats,” recalled Barbagelata's son Paul.

The People's Temple letters came during a very disturbing period for the Barbagelata family which had been subjected to a terror campaign for months, beginning during the 1975 mayoral race. To serve in San Francisco politics during the 1970s was to sign up for war duty. Many local officials — especially high profile ones such as Mayor Alioto and Supervisor Feinstein — were subjected to death threats and bombing attempts. But Barbagelata, the city's leading conservative, was a particular obsession of the radical underground.The Barbagelata home in quiet, leafy St. Francis Wood, was the target of more than one bombing attempt; strangers showed up at St. Brendan's, the family's church, saying they had been asked to drive the Barbagelata kids home; bricks, beer cans and other projectiles were thrown through Barbagelata's real estate office and campaign headquarters; and cars belonging to campaign volunteers were firebombed and vandalized. 

(Courtesy, David Talbot, author of the excellent history of San Francisco in the fraught years of the 1960s and 1970s: "Season Of The Witch."  This is part two of three passages having to do with Mendocino County.)

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