30 Years After Jonestown

This Nov. 1978 file photo of the aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy shows some of the dead. Thirty years ago, more than 900 Americans died in a murder and suicide ritual at the Peoples Temple agricultural mission in the jungle of Guyana. Passage of time since the holocaust has faded the differences between some temple enemies and loyalists, because they have experiences in common. Many share painful memories, guilt-filled feelings, loss of loved ones and psychological scars from an incomprehensible event that has come to symbolize the ultimate power of a charismatic leader over his followers. Although Jonestown has long ago passed from worldwide headlines to history, people who were entwined with the calamity live with it daily. (AP Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS — In her small room in the Mount Zion Geriatric Center, an octogenarian named Hyacinth Thrash sat for years, waiting.

God would soon be coming. At least she hoped so.

She had lived a long life in service to Jesus.

A native of Alabama, she had endured all the humiliations people can inflict on one another.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she would witness later.

Catherine “Hyacinth” Thrash was one of four people to survive the events at Jonestown, Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978.

And she was the only survivor remaining in the camp, the rest having fled into the jungle.

Thrash eluded the true believers circulating through the compound, either coercing the followers of the Rev. Jim Jones into committing suicide or forcing the poison on them outright.

Upon reflection

Lying in her bed at Mount Zion on an early March day in 1988, Thrash did not seem threatening. A slim, frail, gray-haired black woman, she barely wrinkled the sheets.

The writer quietly plugged in his recording deck and slipped in a tape.

“You’ve had the flu, I hear,” the writer said.

“Yeah,” Thrash whispered. “My voice has been so hoarse, I couldn’t talk right.”

The writer, a callow chap of 31, leaned closer with the microphone.

“If you get to where you don’t want to talk anymore, you just let me know. OK?”

Thrash nodded silently. She had already made peace with the subject.

Helping people

“I met (Jones) in 1957, and I thought he was a great man, from all that I heard about him,” Thrash began.

Her path had guided her to Indianapolis, where she became a member of Jones’ church.

“He helped a lot of people,” she said, in a kind of defense. “He put coal in black folks’ bins and give them ’em shoes and things. Always willing to help somebody.

“Of course, I liked that work, helping somebody. And I was willing to go along with him, because at that time, he was really doing good.”

Hyacinth Thrash went along with Jones and his followers, to California.

Where things began to change.

“All the time he was here in the States, we still thought he was all right, you see,” Thrash said.

“He didn’t act, you know, so we would think he was a bad man. He didn’t do that until he got to Guyana.”

Something happened

In Guyana, Jones transplanted his People’s Temple and its socialist influence to a patch of jungle he dubbed “Jonestown.”

“He was losing control of everything, it seemed like,” Thrash said.

“He tried to do some healing, and he couldn’t do that no more. I believe that kind of worried him, too. ...

“I don’t know what caused it, but I do believe he lost his mind down the line. Something happened, because a lot of (the people) thought that.”

In Jonestown, though, such dissent was forbidden.

“He had us scared to talk about him after got there. He had 12 bodyguards, and if you said anything about him, he’d have them beat on you. And other times, he’d walk up and down the aisle naked. He did a lot of things (like that), and that’s when I knew he’d gone crazy.”

The next morning

On that day in November 1978, as death curled across the compound like fog, Thrash wedged her tiny frame under a bunk, flat against the back wall. She thought the compound was under attack from mercenaries, as Jones had warned. If they ransacked the quarters, Thrash would escape detection.

She would not escape the horror.

The next morning, Thrash, who had passed out from exhaustion, crept outside into the sun, only to find bodies. Hundreds of them. Friends and fellow worshippers woven together, limbs locked across each other. Men, women, children. And her sister, Zipporah Edwards. All dead.

Delicately, Thrash stepped across the killing field and into the outside world. It would be another whole day before the Guyana troops reached the compound.

Forgiveness

How did she feel about Jones 10 years later?

“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.”

The writer clicked off the tape recorder and tried to smile.

“Miss Thrash, thank you for sharing your story.”

Again, she nodded her head. She had spoken enough about this story. Enough for a thousand lifetimes.

And on a cold November day in 1995, her waiting was over. God finally came, 27 years after Hyacinth Thrash fooled the devil. She was 90 years old. Every day of it.

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