The first official home of the People’s Temple led by the notorious Reverend Jim Jones – Photo: Ryan Hamlett
As time passes, any city of size will accumulate ghosts of those who have passed through it, and Indianapolis is no different. Whether it be Teddy Roosevelt speaking from the Circle in 1902, the Beatles performing at the State Fairgrounds in 1964 or Elvis’ final performance at Market Square Arena in 1977, Indy has its share of sites where the famous, or in this case, infamous, have tread. Scattered about the Circle City are a handful locations touched by an odd, olive-skinned and raven-haired boy from Lynn, Indiana, turned influential cult leader, whose actions cost the lives of nearly a thousand followers and spawned the cautionary phrase “don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
James Warren Jones was born in the microscopic town of Crete, Indiana on May 13th, 1931, though he would spend his childhood in nearby Lynn, 15 miles north of Richmond, IN. Growing up, neither parent took a particular interest in young Jim. His father, James Thurman, a veteran of WWI, suffered from exposure to mustard gas in France and his mother Lynetta, college educated and ambitious, had once had aspirations well beyond how her life had turned out. Left to fend for himself, Jim would roam Lynn, haunting its library, soaking up anything he could read and slipping into services at a variety of local churches, a few of whom urged the raven haired boy with the silver tongue up to the pulpit to read scripture to the delight of the congregation.
The Jones family moved to Richmond as Jim entered high school where he cultivated a reputation as a thick-skulled intellectual, who usually insisted his ideas were correct and who frequently exerted his will upon his peers as if testing his power. While working as an orderly at Reid Memorial Hospital in Richmond, Jones met a young nurse named Marceline Baldwin whom he enchanted before leaving for Bloomington to attend Indiana University. It was at IU that the less than popular Jones attended a speech by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about the plight of blacks in America that made an impression upon him. He married Marceline–surprising her family when he announced his intent to join the ministry–and relocated with his new bride to Indianapolis in 1951.
According to several different sources, in June 0f 1952, Jones took a position as a student pastor at Somerset Methodist Church. Details about this church and its exact location of this church remain a mystery. Some sources spell “Somerset” with the one “M”, others two, it was said to be on Indy’s southeast side near Beech Grove, possibly on South Keystone Ave., however after much research, the exact location has yet to present itself.
Regardless of Somerset’s exact locale, while there, Jones gained a small amount of notoriety for selling small monkeys that he imported from South America and sold door to door for $29 each. This odd side-business made the front page of the Indianapolis Star in April of 1954 when he refused to pay for a shipment of monkeys that had died on their voyage to the U.S. His notoriety grew as he pressed his church to allow African-Americans to attend services, which they resisted mightily, forcing Jones to find a new congregation.
After leaving Somerset, Jones spent a short while as an associate minister at Laurel Street Tabernacle near Fountain Square, where he gathered the first few members of what would become the People’s Temple. Occasionally, Jones took the pulpit of the church at St. Clair and Park Avenue in what is now the Phoenix Theater. Later in 1954, using the profits from his door-to-door pet sales, Jones opened Indianapolis’ first interracial church at Hoyt Avenue and Randolph Street, first dubbed “Wings of Deliverance” and later renamed “Community Unity Church,” captivating his followers with his Pentecostal influenced theatrics and staged faith healings. In 1956, Jones bought his first church, a small building in the racially mixed Old Northside at 1506 North New Jersey Street. Here, Jones renamed his church once again, settling upon the “People’s Temple Full Gospel Church.”
Under Jones’ guidance, the People’s Temple operated soup kitchens and led canned food drives for the city’s poor, operated nursing homes and aid for the disabled and pressed for racial equality in the former hot bed of the Klu Klux Klan. Practicing what he preached, he and his wife Marceline created his “rainbow family” adopting several children of different races, including three from war-torn Korea, a Native American girl and after having one biological child of their own, became the first white couple to adopt a black child, Jimmy Jr., in 1961.
As his ministry swelled, the People’s Temple expanded into their last Indianapolis home, relocating to the former synagogue of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation at 10th and Delaware Street. Ironically, the Rabbi who leased Jones the old synagogue, Maurice Davis, lectured and organized against fringe religious cults, specifically targeting the Unification Church led by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Perhaps to protect himself and his ministry from such a label, Jones sought out and was accepted into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a progressive denomination with abolitionist roots that may not have been fully aware of Jones’ faith healing past and domineering leadership.
In 1960, Indianapolis’ 35th Mayor, Charles Boswell (D) appointed Jones director of the Human Rights Commission where the outspoken minister helped to desegregate churches, restaurants, theaters, Riverside Amusement Park and Methodist Hospital, for which Jones was lauded by the Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s African American newspaper.
There were early signs of what was to come. Temple followers were asked to call Jones “Dad” or “Father,” were asked to consider him an incarnation of God and encouraged to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with their Temple family rather than their biological families, to strengthen allegiance to Jones. The turning point seems to be a 1961 vision Jones had of an impending nuclear war in which Chicago, and Indianapolis by proximity, were destroyed. After a 1962 Esquire article listed Belo Horizonte, Brazil as the safest local in the event of a nuclear holocaust, Jones left his Indianapolis congregation to relocate his rainbow family to Brazil, stopping through the British colony of Guyana on his way. After a few years in South America, word came that the People’s Temple was falling apart without him and Jones returned to Indiana, sharing his vision of impending nuclear doom and convincing his followers to move en masse to northern California to avoid annihilation. With that, in 1965, dozens of Hoosiers set off to Redwood Valley, California and for some, their ultimate demise. The former temple at 10th and Delaware suffered a mysterious fire, soon after witnesses purportedly saw members of the Jones clan removing items from the premises.
There are scores of materials covering the fate of Jim Jones and the members of the People’s Temple from their 1965 exodus from Indiana until their violent deaths in Guyana in November of 1978,. Once Jones and his followers picked up and headed west, they left the historic wheelhouse pertaining to this website.
Needless to say, Jim Jones was an evil man whose actions led to the deaths of nearly a thousand men, women and children, including one U.S. Congressman. Yet, while here in Indiana, he was also a force for good, spearheading the desegregation of Indianapolis and helping the poor and unfortunate, albeit done ultimately for his own personal acclaim. Jim Jones stands as a prime example of how man is capable of great good as well as great evil. And also how a city or place or building can so easily be tainted by those who pass through them.