Jonestown: The Forensic Photos: A review

(Jason Schwechter is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. He can be reached at

It happens again and again. Bits of history are lost, only to be found again by amateur sleuths.…

This story begins with the purchase of some cabinets at an estate sale. Inside them, Chase Mehan found an archive of photos and slides belonging to an unknown forensic photographer in the U.S. Air Force. A letter at the beginning of the resulting book, Jonestown: The Forensic Photos, tells the story of the cabinet and how the author came into his possession. Unfortunately, this letter contains more text then the rest of the book combined.

Instead, the book comprises photos, many without any captions at all, none with more than one-to-three lines of text. For so little, you would hope they would at least read well, that the author would make sure that the text was factual and had a good flow. To the contrary, it is clear from the photos without any context, and the numerous errors in the captions that do appear, that this book was thrown together.

But what else was I expecting? The author has no knowledge of Jonestown. He didn’t reach out to established authors or online resources, including this site. Instead, all the author apparently knew was that he could capitalize on a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of hundreds, and since the tragedy occurred more than 40 years ago, not many people would be interested in anything beyond the titillating gore. This seems especially true, since the only person whom the author didcontact for advice on the disposition of the photos was Nico Claux, a man described on Murderpedia as “The Vampire of Paris,” a serial murderer who engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism. Now there’s an authority on grisly deaths.

Still, with such an intriguing title, and the promise of “over 250 photos” mentioned in the introduction, and the circumstances of the unlikely discovery of the forgotten work of an anonymous photographer, I expected much more that I got.

First off, I expected to see a complete set of new images. Second, I expected the promised 250 photos instead of the 165 that appear in this volume. I expected to see the work of a professional photographer, professionally reproduced, professionally published.

It is true, there were many brand new photos that I had never seen, but there were others the originality of which was that they were reversed images of previously-published pictures. One obvious example, on page 19, is a photo of a cargo plane that transported the bodies back to the States: the tail number of the aircraft is backwards.

The lack of the author’s familiarity is also obvious in the order – or lack of it – in presenting the photos. No one associated with the clean-up of the Jonestown site, the transfer of the bodies to the States, and the identification of the decomposing remains will ever describe the experience as anything but chaotic, and yet, with photos arranged in an almost random order, the resulting confusion seems almost deliberate. As an example: There are two pictures of troops on a truck that may look as if they were taken on the same day at different angles. One appears they are going into Jonestown for the first time, and in the second, they have snow shovels… the snow shovels that the military requested after being at the site for several days so they could recover the last bodies without them falling apart.

Once we’re in the military morgue – and the pages devoted to the mobile freezers, caskets, all things related – we get to the forensic photos in full color! There are actually are some important photos in this section, including a photo of a switchblade knife next to a placard showing “23-B”. This is the toe tag for Donald Sly, aka Ujara, known – if for nothing else in his life – as the man who attacked the congressman while he was still in Jonestown. With a knife. Was this that knife? There is no caption for the weapon, much less the context – even a speculative one – for its inclusion.

The photos that follow are in fact unique to this book, and incredibly graphic, since they consist of identified remains of Jim Jones, Annie Moore (the only other person besides Jones to die of a gunshot wound), Annie’s sister Carolyn Layton, and Ujara. People of all ages, from infant to elderly, show up here. Some photos are simply of bloated bodies, but others show more advanced stages of decomposition.

From a research angle, this book may offer more than meets the eye, things like that switchblade, or the articles of clothing that can be matched to what people were wearing. Still, this is not a coffee table book. But it could have been so much more, if the author spent a few extra hours writing copy to accompany the pictures. It could have been a dispassionate portrayal of a sensitive humanitarian operation and a considerate presentation of death, rather than an obscene celebration of the grotesque.

These are pieces of history, and the images should be preserved, just not by Chase Mehan.

As a footnote to the researchers and attorneys who read this review: The author claims the copyright to the contents of the book. However, these photos were taken by a photographer working for the US government. As such, there are two important issues: 1) these should be public domain; and 2) it is possible that these photos were “lost” before a decision could be made to declassify them. In other words, the author may be claiming a right to be the only one to make money on photos he has no authority to possess in the first place. It is a question that requires more knowledge of the law and more money than I have to challenge either the author or the publisher.