Jim Jones: His Indianapolis life included performing miracles and selling monkeys

Indianapolis Star/November 14, 2018

By Will Higgins

Jonestown happened 40 years ago Sunday.

On Nov. 18, 1978, in a South American jungle, some 900 members of the Peoples Temple, at the command of charismatic and unhinged cult leader Jim Jones, drank a cyanide-laced punch and died.

Jones died alongside them of a gunshot wound to the head, believed to be self-inflicted. He was 47. He'd lived most of life in Indiana, including 16 years in Indianapolis, pivotal years. Here he was charitable, and productive.

He started a church, a soup kitchen too, and a clothing give-away — he helped the poor. In a time of strict racial segregation, he was an outspoken advocate of racial integration and racial harmony. In November 1961, he and his wife, Marceline, became the first white couple in the state of Indiana to adopt a black child.

He was ambitious — he reached broad audiences by preaching not just from the pulpit but also on the radio. He advertised his preaching in the newspapers. He got on the radar of the mayor of Indianapolis, who appointed him to an important job  — Human Rights Commission director.

Here are nine locations in the city that tell the story of Jones in Indianapolis.

3230 S. Keystone Ave. Here stood the Somerset Methodist Church, Jones' first church. It was 1953. Jones was 22. He and his wife, Marceline, lived nearby in the 3000 block of Villa Avenue.

The church is gone and in its place is a gas station/convenience store. The Jones' modest house appears a bit unkempt.  

It was at Somerset Methodist where Jones hatched his plan to import monkeys from Calcutta, India, and use them to raise funds, selling them as pets, door-to-door, for $29 each. He also used the monkeys as incentives to grow his congregation, awarding monkeys periodically to the church members who brought in the most new members. Jones credited the monkey strategy with helping grow his flock to about 300 persons. 

The scheme unraveled when monkeys started arriving in Indianapolis dead. In April 1954, a shipment of three monkeys arrived. Only one was alive. A week later came a shipment of seven monkeys. Three were alive, and those just barely.

Jones "balked at paying an $89 air-freight bill assessed on the original seven monkeys and abandoned them in the Customs warehouse here in the basement of the Federal Building," the Indianapolis Star reported.

To the rescue came Assistant Customs Collector Eugene J. Okon. Okon sent an underling to buy bananas. He mixed the bananas with some brandy he'd confiscated and fed the concoction to the monkeys. "An hour later," according to the Star, "the three animals were able to sit up and chatter softly among themselves."

1502 N. New Jersey St. Here, in a modest, wood-frame church building that had been vacated by Mormons, in early 1955 Jim Jones established his first Peoples Temple. A tireless promoter, Jones at least once solicited worshippers by promising in one newspaper ad: "Gift to Mother with the Largest Family Present."

Jones claimed to perform healings on a regular basis — "51 converted and healed last Sun.," said a newspaper ad published April 9, 1955. Many churches promoted "healings" at the time and a few, including Jones', even guaranteed miracles. But Jones' ads were among the cockiest. In one, published April 2, 1955, he claimed "1,000 Definite Testimonies of Healing Miracles in this City."

The building is still standing and currently houses a Baptist church. 

975 N. Delaware St. By 1958 business was booming at Jones' Peoples Temple on North New Jersey Street. Seeking more space, Jones moved the congregation into this grand, domed structure that had recently been vacated by the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. IHC had moved to the suburb of Meridian Hills. Jones was 27.

His new digs were impressive, built of limestone in 1899, designed by the noted architecture firm of Vonnegut and Bohn in the Neoclassical style, with large and magnificent stained-glass windows.

The Peoples Temple called it home until 1965, when Jones moved his operation to California. Subsequently, several other congregations worshiped there. The last was St. Jude Deliverance Center, taking over from the Wings of Deliverance Church in 1972. The building was destroyed by fire in April 1975. The lot is vacant. 

2300 block of Broadway Street. Jones and his family moved into a large, four-bedroom house (hardwood floors, 2 bathrooms, 2 fireplaces, 2 car garage, big front porch) in this tree-lined block in the late 1950s. It was only about a mile from the church on New Jersey Street. The Joneses, unlike many of their white neighbors, stayed put, did not head for the suburbs, as African-American residents moved into the neighborhood.

The Jones house is still standing and looks in need of some work, but the rest of the block looks great. The new-construction single family houses blend well with the surroundings.

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155 N. Alabama St. In February 1961 Indianapolis Mayor Charles Boswell met with Jones at City Hall and offered him the job as head of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, a watchdog group formed to monitor racial injustices.

Jones told the mayor he'd take the job (while keeping his preaching job), and afterwards he and some city officials walked over to Stachler's, a nearby coffee shop at 155 N. Alabama St., to discuss the task ahead. Star reporter William Anderson joined them. Years later Anderson remembered the meeting: "All came away with the feeling that Jones was sincere, dedicated and willing to take on the responsibility of the new position." Anderson said Jones seemed like "a quiet person, almost shy, but with piercing dark eyes."

It is unclear what Jones accomplished as Human Rights Commission director, but he may have ruffled feathers. He'd been on the job just two months when Boswell reigned him in. The mayor ordered Jones to stop publishing a newsletter informing people of his efforts at promoting racial equality. Any such communication with the public from now on would require mayoral approval.

Jones later reported receiving hate mail and harassing phone calls at his home. After nine months on the job Jones took a leave of absence for health reasons.

The building has been torn down and a large office building now occupies the space.

401 N. Randolph St. — Former site of the Indiana State Women's Prison  In 1959, as Jones' career was taking off, his mother Lynetta moved from Randolph County to Indianapolis to be near her only child. Later she followed him to Jonestown where she died in 1977, months before the mass suicide. She was 73.

During her seven years in Indianapolis working at the prison, Lynetta Jones overlapped with three of the nation's most famous criminals, Connie Nicholas, convicted of killing her Lilly executive boyfriend Forrest Teel, and Gertrude and Paula Baniszewski, the mother-daughter convicted in the October 1965 torture slaying of Sylvia Likens.

The prison, which dates to 1873, was closed in 2017. The Indiana Department of Correction still owns the vast campus but has not yet settled on plans for its future. 

307 N. Pennsylvania St. Carolyn Pickering worked here in the building that housed the Indianapolis Star. She was a Star reporter.

In 1972 Pickering received a letter from a distraught Indianapolis woman whose daughter had joined the Peoples Temple and followed Jones to California — and was now being terrorized. Pickering began an investigation that resulted in a series of stories that exposed Jones as a con artist presiding over an "atmosphere of terror." Her reporting, which predated the massacre by six years, was thorough and damning. But it was ignored.

The Star moved out of the building in 2014. The building was torn down. An apartment building now occupies the space.

3900 block of Graceland Avenue Hyacinth Thrash, who worked as an elevator operator at a clothing store catering to "stout" women, lived here with her sister Zipporah "Zippy" Edwards, when she first encountered Jim Jones, in 1957. She was hooked, and so was her sister. In 1965 when Jones pulled up stakes and headed for California, the sisters were among about 150 Hoosiers who followed him. They hung onto the house on Graceland until the mid-1970s when, as Jones was planning the church's move to Guyana, they sold it and gave the proceeds, $35,000, to Jones. During the 21 years they were followers of Jones, Thrash figured she and her sister gave him about $150,000.

More on Hyacinth Thrash: She woke up in Jonestown — everyone was dead

The sisters followed Jones to South America, to the nation of Guyana, to the clearing in the jungle that Jones called Jonestown. On the day of the massacre, Hyacinth hid under her bed. She said she either fell asleep or passed out. She woke the next morning to the carnage, the dead bodies of everyone she knew, including Zippy.

Hyacinth remained in Jonestown, among the dead, alone, all day. Rescue came the next day.

3549 Boulevard Place Hyacinth Thrash returned to Indianapolis in 1982 at age 77 and moved into the Mount Zion Geriatric Center. Here she lived out her days. A book was written about her, and a documentary made about her, both called "The Onliest One Alive." She gave media interviews, mostly on anniversaries of the tragedy. 

She forgave Jim Jones. In 1988, on the 10th anniversary of the mass killing, she told a reporter: "I just don’t feel nothing towards him now, no bitterness towards him. I was at times, but I prayed to the Lord, because you can’t hate nobody. So I was healed of that.”

Thrash died in 1995 at age 90.

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