Jeff Guinn knows the sound of a tyrant riling up a crowd.

Over the course of 19 books, the Fort Worth, Texas-based author has examined some of America's most notorious killers, from Bonnie Parker to Charles Manson. His latest work is a biography of an equally infamous but more puzzling figure: Jim Jones, the reform-minded Marxist minister who led his followers in 1978 to a mass death by cyanide in Guyana. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $28) traces the preacher's path from the tent-revival circuit in Indiana to the height of power in 1970s San Francisco, where Jones won the favor of politicians who included Harvey Milk.

Before stopping at Powell's Books this week, Guinn spoke with WW about how a man who claimed to be Jesus Christ while popping amphetamines could gain such influence in a major, progressive West Coast city—then deploy it to orchestrate the largest murder-suicide in U.S. history.

WW: Most people remember Jones as somebody who persuaded a thousand Californians to drink poisoned Kool-Aid in the jungle. What are we forgetting?

Jeff Guinn: All that's left of Jones and Jonestown in our memory is that phrase, "Don't drink the Kool-Aid," which we've taken to mean, "Don't be an idiot and follow leaders who clearly don't know what they're doing." But that's wrong from the beginning. It wasn't Kool-Aid. And there were members who would not drink the Flavor Aid that was laced with cyanide. But there were armed guards, and the people that refused were held down and forcibly injected. Jones knew that this would only gain a place in history if it was just a massive number of deaths. So he set it up that everyone would die, willing or not.

What cautionary tale would you take?

Jim Jones was a demagogue. And Americans have always been susceptible to demagogues. First, he comes out and says, I'm the only one that can save you. Second thing, a demagogue will divide the world into us—the people who believe everything he's saying—and everyone else. And everyone else is the enemy. Third, demagogues want their followers to listen to only them. Any negative things that are being said or written about them are lies, it's being made up. And the final thing is, any demagogue always brings followers to a terrible end. It's inevitable.

There's a fascinating segment in this book where Jones tries to get one of his followers to seduce a San Francisco newspaper columnist so he'll stop writing investigative stories.

That's right. Jones had manipulated the press pretty well in the smaller Northern California town where he had set up operations. But when he got to San Francisco, the press wasn't always going to give him a great big kiss in print every time he did something, which is what he expected. Yes, he did contemplate having one of his more attractive female followers seduce the columnist. He would have his followers picket; they would come out in real force anytime there was a story he didn't like. If he didn't like the story that you're writing right now and it appeared in print, that afternoon you could expect to see at least a few hundred members of Peoples Temple surrounding the building, waving signs and demanding a retraction.

You make the case that he was both a demagogue and an unlikely civil rights leader. How do you resolve that conflict?

We like our villains to be completely evil. And that usually isn't true. In the case of Jim Jones, as a young minister in Indianapolis in the late '40s and early '50s, he almost single-handedly integrated one of the most segregated major cities in America. Peoples Temple itself under Jones' leadership had great social programs: drug addiction programs, free cafeterias where anybody could eat, free clothing giveaways. Peoples Temple even took ghetto kids, who had no chance for an education beyond the streets, and paid their full rides to [attend] college.

This isn't in any way to excuse, ultimately, what Jones did. Please understand that. But so many of his followers stuck with Jim Jones as Jones got stranger and stranger because they'd also seen all the good things that he'd accomplished. And they were willing to kind of overlook what they thought were increasing quirks, because they believed in the good work that was getting done.

Jeff Guinn (Simon and Schuster)
Jeff Guinn (Simon and Schuster)

Is that the same reason he was so consistently embraced by progressive politicians in California?

Part of the reason. The social programs were great, and certainly there were politicians who admired that. But Jones could also produce a sackful of votes. He tried to have as many of his members become registered voters as he could. And then, once a politician would tie in with Jones and Peoples Temple, come election day Jones would use the fleet of church buses to pick up voters at their homes and bring them to the polling places, as long as they were going to vote right. He could conceivably deliver elections in big cities or even statewide. That's how he got his power niche in San Francisco.

Jones was very canny in terms of what politicians need, which is not only obvious supporters from the minority community—but the right kind. In the '60s, the Black Panthers scared the hell out of white people across the country. But Peoples Temple was a mixed-race church, and these were polite, hard-working people, and the only reputation they had was doing great things in the community. He knew the buttons to push, and he pushed them brilliantly.

The scene of mass murder and suicide you recount from Guyana is even more disturbing than I expected. How do you account for how parents were persuaded to kill their own children?

Not all of the parents were, to begin with. You have to get away from the idea that these sort of mindless sheep lined up and did exactly what Jones told them. Of the 900 or so people who were inside Jonestown that day, almost a third were children, from infants to middle-school kids. Another couple hundred were senior citizens: very old people who, if they didn't do what Jones wanted, they would have been left out in the middle of the jungle to fend for themselves and wouldn't have lasted.

He had them isolated. They're in the middle of the jungle, they can't hear anybody else but Jones reporting every night what he said was the world news. And Jones had convinced them that the American military, the CIA, the FBI, the Guyanese army, mercenaries from around the globe, at any time were going to come storming in and kill everybody. Adults and maybe even the children—and if they didn't kill the children, they were going to drag the kids away into some kind of capitalistic slavery. Many, many of them believed that.

And yet there were parents who resisted.

How sincere do you think Jones was about the ideals he espoused?

There's the old saying that you really can't look into a man's heart and know what he believes and doesn't believe. Jones, from childhood, always was a tremendous prevaricator. He would say what people wanted to hear.

But we do know, even as a teenager, he'd go into the big town in that part of Indiana, Richmond, and he would preach in public that racial discrimination was wrong, that everybody was equal. And the only thing he was going to get out of that was a chance to get beaten up every now and then. When he first had his own church, Community Unity, which turned into Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, he really raised the standard of living and the standard of acceptance for minority people in Indianapolis. He brought about change for the better.

The problem was, as his power grew, so did his megalomania. If he said something, no matter how outrageous, in some way it must be true. Again, the warning signs were there, and they were ignored by people who followed him and by the politicians who wanted what he could bring them, which was votes. If you see leaders today saying and doing some of the things Jones did, then it's time to turn around and run. The stuff I learned writing this book scares the hell out of me now.

GO: Jeff Guinn reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 800-878-7323, powells.com, on Wednesday, April 19. 7:30 pm. Free.