Shedding Light on Jonestown: The Forensic Photos

I have always wanted to see the official autopsy photos of Jim Jones. They were said to be lost to history, and I was told more than once that it was pointless to try to find them. But something told me they were still out there.

In the summer of 2022, I learned that they had been located, along with many other forensic photos never seen before. I was so confident in their existence all along, but the reveal was still an important moment, a piece of history coming to light 44 years after the massacre.

Even with the announcement of the collection, someone said those from Jones’ autopsy were not included in it. I knew that would be untrue. They were in fact among those published in October 2022 in Jonestown: The Forensic Photos, by Chase Mehan.

I had long anticipated seeing Jim Jones, but I also wanted to spend some time to identify others who died in Jonestown, not only for informational purposes, but also to humanise the remains. After receiving copies of the book in November, I identified as many bodies as possible. Those identifications and other observations are located in this article’s sidebar.

The photos in the first 33 pages of the book are familiar to us, beginning with the cover photo of the vat in Jonestown. After that point, the forensic photos of post-mortem procedures, up close and personal shots in the morgue, appear. They are very different from anything else, plus how rare they are cannot be emphasised enough as they were hidden from the public until now.

This book does not cover all 918 people who died, neither does it show bodies opened up for internal dissection. This means there are undoubtedly other photos in existence, but they remain unseen.

Bodies were transferred from Guyana to Delaware towards the end of November 1978, but formal work on their identification did not begin until December, as seen in this book. They are all deteriorating severely at this point, but there are a few varying stages of decomposition despite everyone dying on the same day. An exception is the collection on Sharon Amos and her children. Those autopsies took place in November 1978 before any decomposition began, so they are immediately recognisable.

Unfortunately, many people cannot be identified due to lighting and overexposure on the ID tags. They are difficult to read with accuracy, although the one of Jones himself – ID number 13B – is clear. Then there are tags with a clear letter and number, but no information available to put a name to the person. This is the case for ID numbers 80E, 81D, 50B, 81G, 14G, 99G, plus number 68 with an unclear letter. A few people appear to be adults. Others look like children, and in one case, a baby with a partially visible number. Their young ages could explain why they do not appear on the main identification lists.

Body bags labelled 5E and 97E appear to be holding parts of more than two people. Number 33E is another unavailable identification with illegible writing below, but with closer inspection at the features, mouth, head shape and ears, it resembles Mr. Muggs the chimpanzee.

My plan to put names to numbers still worked successfully as I was able to accomplish several identifications with certainty. In fact, the more I return to the book, the more I find.

The story of the Jonestown dead is told without much text and description. Many of the photos, from the death scene, to the arrival of responders, and finally the forensic examinations and morgue procedures, have no captions. Still, the images are set on the pages in a way that’s easy to follow, despite some of them being flipped and printed the wrong way around.

While my assistance would been useful in the development of Jonestown: The Forensic Photos to make it more informative and accurate, I’m glad to be able to share identifications and corrections in this article so the information is available now.

This book is not for everyone. The moral aspect could also be questioned. However, the author and publisher made the right decision by putting the images in a book instead of posting freely for all to see. The contents are not trivial, meaning they should not be shared trivially on the internet. It is better that the photos ended up in the book rather than casually floating around online.

As a historical document, it’s fascinating as well as shocking. Caution should be taken if you think it may affect you or replay in your head. Even if you can handle the regular death photos in Jonestown that have been shown so many times, what is seen here is worse. Severe stages of decomposition, a personal look at individual bodies, it’s *very* graphic, even for the most hardened or desensitised viewers. They are not the average death photos in magazines and documentaries with bodies piled on top of each other in the jungle. Faces are visible. The people are shown as individuals, naked in body bags, on examination tables in full view. The situation has no filter. It seems almost too personal, as if the public shouldn’t be allowed to view them in the first place. That’s probably a different debate.

The usual photos of the Jonestown aftermath are already in circulation and can’t be avoided. The exploitation of these forensic photos can be avoided. They are a more intimate look at the Jonestown dead than what has been in the public eye forever, but describing them cannot prepare a person for seeing the reality of them.

Considering the rarity of this historic document, as well as respecting the copyright and some dignity owed to the subject, everything in the book should stay there.

(Jolene McDonald is an admin of the Facebook group Jim Jones Cult Leader created in February 2018, and the creator of a blog – the Jim Jones Information Blog – to share some of the informative posts from the group. The posts from the blog also appear here.

(Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Beyond Lynetta, Six Unique Books, and The Jim Jones Archive: An Introduction. Her collected works on this site are here.)