I REMEMBER..November 18, 1978: Of cults and death

The Daily News (Philadelphia), November 18 1999

Dorothea always has been different.

My parents were devoted Quakers. But my wives, all but one of my children and I have been more spirited than spiritual. The exception has been daughter Dorothea, whose restless soul led her to embrace first Roman Catholicism following a rebellious youth, and then a series of pseudo religions that, forgive me, were more cult than church-like once you peeled away all the gobbledygook.

There was Eckankar, then a spin with the Hare Krishnas, followed by a detour to San Francisco and the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple with her teenaged son, Freeman.

I cannot tell you to this day what the People's Temple stood for. Dorothea tried to explain in her letters and phone calls that it was all about racial harmony and surviving an inevitable nuclear Armageddon. Indeed, most of Jones' followers were black, or like Dorothea, of mixed heritage as I am myself. And in anticipation of the end of the world as we knew it, they had carved out a settlement in the jungle of Guyana, a dirt-poor country in South America.

Early in November of 1978, Dorothea sent Freeman back to Philadelphia to stay with Eunice and me. She was going to fly to Guyana, but promised to be home by Christmas. My wife and I were not pleased that her latest infatuation would take her so far afield, but at least our grandson would be with us - well out of harm's way.

Little did we know. Oh, Lord, little did we know when we awoke 21 years ago today to the horrifying news that Jones had led more than 900 of his followers to their deaths in a macabre suicide ritual at the Guyanan compound.

The cult leader, sitting in a roofed pavilion on a crude throne under a sign that read "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," had urged his disciplines to drink grape-flavored punch laced with potassium cyanide.

In all, 913 people, many of them young children, died. Jones was found with a bullet wound in the head, he too a suicide. Or maybe not. The mass deaths had occured hours after U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California, who had flown to Guyana to investigate reports Jones was abusing his followers, was shot to death in an ambush at a nearby airstrip. Three journalists and a People's Temple defector also were killed and 11 others wounded.

Eunice was beside herself. For the first time in my long life, I prayed. Then the phone rang.

"Hi, Pop-Pop. It's Dorothea," the voice on the other end announced. "I'm okay. I missed the flight. I'm still in San Francisco. I love you. I'm coming home."

Also on this date

1951: "See It Now" makes television premiere.
1966: U.S. Romam Catholic bishops abolish meatless Fridays rule.
1997: CoreStates and First Union banks merge.

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