Indiana University reflects 30 years after Jonestown massacre

Infamous Jim Jones, who ordered a mass suicide in 1978, was a former student on Bloomington, Indianapolis campuses

Indiana Daily Student/November 17, 2008

Sixty years ago, James Warren Jones wasn't a cult leader or a radical preacher. "Jim" Jones was just a 16-year-old freshman living at what is now the Ashton Center at IU.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of when Jones - one of IU's most notorious former students - ordered a mass suicide and murder of more than 900 people in Guyana, South America. The Jonestown massacre is one of the most deadly mass murder-suicides to date.

On Nov. 18, 1978, Jones ordered his followers in Jonestown to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid or be killed. This decree came just after Jonestown followers killed members of a congressional delegation that was investigating reports of human rights abuses.

Californian congressman Leo Ryan was killed and remains the only member of Congress to be killed in the line of duty.

Religious studies doctoral candidate Jeremy Rapport specializes in alternative religious movements such as Jonestown, which he said Jones believed was his path to eternal salvation.

"Jonestown was his vision of a socialist paradise that he thought was necessary for salvation," Rapport said, "so he taught that the only way human beings can achieve salvation was in this socialist paradise."

Although Jones is most well-known for his religious and political beliefs, most students who recognize his name have probably heard the rumor that he used to live in Collins.

Student services assistant Kristen Murphy heard the rumor while she lived in Collins in 1998. She said most students don't know who Jones is or that he once went to IU.

"More students in Collins know about that than the rest of the University because of that rumor," she said. The truth is a different James Jones - James K. Jones - lived in Collins during that time.

Rapport said Jones is not well-known at the University because some people don't like to mention that he went to IU.

"A lot of people know that he went here, a lot of people from the state know he's a Hoosier, and a lot of people would just like to leave it at that," Rapport said.

During the time he spent at IU, Jones was seen as a loner. He used to sit alone staring into the Jordan River, often for hours at a time.

In an Indiana Daily Student article written only nine days after the mass suicide, Kenneth Lemons - Jones' freshman roommate - said, "Everyone got along beautifully. But this man had not one friend in the dormitory from the time he moved in until he moved out. But he wanted it that way."

Lemons also said he wasn't surprised by the news about Jones' cult and said Jones viewed himself as somewhat of a messiah.

In a Herald Times article written less than a week after the 1978 massacre, Lemons remembered a time when he was on the top bunk and Jones was on the bottom. Lemons said Jones stabbed him with a hatpin through the thin mattress.

Lemons added that Jones showed radical religious and political views while at school.

"He considered himself above everyone else and pored over the Bible, often rambling about his religious philosophies," Lemon said in the Herald Times article.

Rapport said Jones' religious beliefs were shaped early in his life in a rural part of the state.

Jones was born in Lynn, Ind. and attended IU as an undergraduate between February 1948 and May 1951. During that time, Jones never declared a major. He then moved to Indianapolis and resumed his schooling during the spring semester of 1953 at IU Indianapolis, never completing an undergraduate degree.

He took another hiatus from school until 1959. During this period he founded what would become the People's Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. While in Indianapolis, Jones eventually got an education degree from Butler University.

In 1965 Jones moved his radical church to Ukiah, Calif., due to anti-minority feelings in Indianapolis.

The utopian settlement was moved to Jonestown, Guyana, in 1973.

An IDS article from Oct. 5, 1989, explains a movie made about a Jonestown survivor Hyacinth Thrash.

"His strong preaching style, along with forms of blackmail, gave Jones control over people's lives," Thrash said in the movie. "He took everything. Our money, our homes, our minds and eventually our lives."

For now, Jones remains one of IU's most unknown and sinister former students.

"His legacy at Indiana is more or less the same as it is nation-wide," Rapport said. "He is this infamous man who happened to be a Hoosier."

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