California survivors of a family that had six members in Jonestown, Guyana, puzzled this weekend over their apparent deaths while relatives on the East Coast tried in vain to arrange funerals for the six, who represented four generations.
Mary Cottingham, 83; her daughter, Florence Heath, 53; her son, Grover Washington, 50; her granddaughter, Mary Morton, 33; her grandson, Michael Heath, 14, and her great-granddaughter, Vickie Morton, 8, are believed to be among the more than 900 members of Peoples Temple who dies in the mass suicide in Jonestown Nov. 18.
Cottingham's daughter, Essie Flynn of Pittsburg, Calif., said her relatives "wanted to go so bad . . . And they said they were happy, but I don't know what happened after they got there." She said her mother and sister had tried unsuccessfully to draw her into the cult, but she concluded it was "not religious."
In New York, Flynn's brother, Timothy Washington, loaded his station wagon with family members Saturday and drove to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where he hoped to find remains of his kin. The air base is processing the victims' bodies.
Officials told him only that it might take weeks to fingerprint and identify the bodies. Washington gave the officials some pictures and medical records that might help in identifying his relations.
Relatives on both coasts said it was Florence Heath, a longtime follower of temple leader Jim Jones, who introduced other family members to Jones and the cult, persuading her mother and Flynn to move to California to join it in 1975.
"She said she had been going from church to church looking for something, and when she found this man she had found it," Flynn said of her sister.
Flynn said she "came out here because my sister told me he was a mighty great healer, but he didn't heal my asthma and epilepsy," or her painful bursitis. Her mother and sister continued trying to draw her into the organization until they left for Guyana earlier this year, she said.
"My mother said she was going to the Promised Land" when she left California for the group's South American settlement, Washington said at the Dover base. "They felt that man was like a god."
Mary Cottingham moved to Brooklyn after she was widowed in the 1960s to be near several of the eight children she had raised on a farm in Florence County, S.C. She was active in the Baptist Church and senior citizens' groups in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
She took with her to California - and later to Guyana - her youngest son, Grover, 40, who was retarded, according to Flynn.
"We have peace here in this land . . . I wish your children would have come along," Heath wrote to her sister in February, shortly after arriving in Guyana. "Grover has learned to work, to do something for himself for the first time."
Joanne Washington said her mother-in-law wrote "friendly letters" and "seemed happy." The last letter was in April or May.
"I can't thank Father [Jones] enough for what he done for us, for bringing us out of the mire and clay and giving us this beautiful home," Cottingham wrote in her last letter to Flynn.
Flynn said Heath, who had sold her Pittsburgh home and parted with her husband, dividing the money between him and Jones, asked in her last letter for a pair of shoes.
"I was going to send them to her," Flynn said yesterday. Of her relatives, she added, "I tried to talk them out of going there."