The question is simple and straight forward: were the deaths in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 the result of mass suicide, or was it murder? In my opinion it is ultimately both, but the case for murder far outweighs that of suicide. To better answer the question, I simply have to analyze the numbers.
Webster’s defines “suicide” as the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally, especially by a person of years, of discretion, and of sound mind. If you view the definition of the word as a set of criteria against which to judge the data, you can begin to see why the Jonestown tragedy was not a “mass suicide.”
Of the 913 people who died in Jonestown and at the Port Kaituma airstrip, 279 were 17 years old or younger. By themselves, the children and adolescents of Jonestown comprised more than 30% of the total population. It has been commonly accepted by most researchers that these deaths should be considered murders. Children cannot commit suicide, especially if we judge their actions against the cited definition. They simply are not “persons of years.”
Looking at the opposite end of the age spectrum, I believe that the seniors should be considered murder victims as well. At least 162 of the Jonestown victims were 65 years old or older. Many of them relied upon the support and assistance of fellow community members to ensure their daily needs were met. Age and infirmity limited this group’s ability to think and act for themselves and in their own best interests. As such, their capability to refuse to drink the poison was severely diminished. They just could not have properly defended themselves.
Adding the seniors with the children, the numbers show that at least 48% of the dead in Jonestown – nearly half the population – didn’t commit suicide because they simply could not commit suicide. They had to have been murdered. Based on this figure alone, the argument for “mass suicide” begins to lose credibility.
That leaves approximately 472 victims to consider. This figure represents everyone in the middle, between 18 and 64. Of this remaining population, how many people believed Jim Jones when he said that if the children are left to survive, they would be butchered and shot? How many believed Jones when he later said, “They’ll torture our people. They’ll torture our seniors”? Without quantitative numbers or other concrete data, there is no way to answer this question, but I would suppose that at least half of the remaining population felt Jones was telling the truth. And if they believed him, then they had to make the conscious decision that it would be preferable to drink poison than to be shot. As such, I would ask: was there a real choice in the matter when, either way, the ultimate outcome was death? Would you offer a vegetarian a “choice” of beef or pork? I feel that they did not have a real choice; therefore I would consider these people to have been murdered.
Given my calculations so far, I figure there are about 236 people left to account for. It is a known fact that some people were injected with the poison. From his own cursory examinations of about 200 of the Jonestown dead, Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the Guyanese state pathologist, said he counted approximately 70 bodies that had injection sites. It is not known if these 70 were unwilling to participate and were injected by force, or if they just couldn’t drink the poison and preferred the injection. Also, since the exact demographics of this small group are unknown, their numbers cannot be subtracted from the total. It is possible that these 70 could actually overlap into one or more of the other categories. Perhaps 50 of the 70 were seniors and the other 20 were children. So, since they cannot be subtracted twice, I would (temporarily) leave 236 victims left to account for.
However, what can be done with the injection information that we do have is to presume that there were other victims of injection that DO NOT fall into any of the other categories, and therefore can be subtracted from the remaining figure of 236. Remember, Mootoo did not examine each of the 913 bodies, but of the approximately 200 bodies that Mootoo did look at, 70 of them, or 35%, had been injected. So, if applied in proportion, 35% of the remaining 236 victims comes out to approximately 82 people.
At this point, I count 759 murders. This leaves approximately 154 victims to account for.
What is left is largely speculative, but it is speculation based upon what we know about Peoples Temple and its history. For example, there was undoubtedly a number of people – even if the number is unknown –who thought, if only briefly, that Jones was only performing another loyalty test, and therefore went along with it, believing that he would eventually let them off the hook. Some would say that when the children started dying, they would have figured out that it was for real. I would argue that some people, even under the strained circumstances, may have believed that the potion contained a sleeping agent, and therefore still believed it wasn’t real even when children and some adults were fainting away. Add to this number the people who participated out of fear of reprimand if they balked. Also, since the children were the first to die, we have to consider the number of their parents who decided that life was no longer worth living and resigned their fates to a cup of poison? Can any of these people truly be considered as suicides? I don’t think so, so I would consider a big chunk of the remaining 154 to be murder victims. I might be double- or triple-dipping with this group, so I’ll consider a big chunk to be 50% of the total remainder.
What we are left with is approximately 75 honest-to-goodness, for the cause, for Jim Jones, revolutionary suicides. That’s at best. Depending on what figures you look at or who you talk to, my numbers up until now are too conservative and the final figure of 75 real suicides might be too liberal of a final total. Some would argue that there were far fewer true suicides. However, 75 of 913 is not even 10%. So how could we ever call the Jonestown tragedy a “mass suicide”? I don’t think we can.
This is not a matter of semantics. The people of Jonestown did not have the freedom to choose whether they would live to see the next day or not. There was only one option: death. The only “choice” they were offered was whether that death would be by their own hand or by someone else’s. That’s not choice, that’s murder.
I’ll give the last word to Bart Lee, an attorney who did some work for Temple in the 1970’s.
“You ask [about] Jim Jones: ‘could he be convicted?’ Yes, Murder One [of] Congressman Ryan on Federal charges, with special circumstances for the death penalty. 913 counts of Murder One for the deaths at the camp [and at the Port Kaituma airstrip], with special circumstances for the death penalty. He is a mass murderer.”
 Other articles elsewhere on the Net and on this website – including two others by Tim Carter and Jim Hougan in this forum on the question of murder and suicide – give different figures for the number of bodies that Dr. Mootoo examined and the number of injection marks he saw.
The discrepancies come from Mootoo himself, who reported various numbers from his time at the scene in Jonestown, from the Guyanese inquest held within a few weeks, and from later interviews. That those numbers varied in the telling may be attributable to the fact that Dr. Mootoo gave his specimens and samples to “a representative of the American Embassy in Georgetown, expecting that they would be forwarded to American forensic pathologists.” They were not, and no one knows what happened to them.
It is now impossible to reconcile the discrepancies and present a definitive number, since Dr. Mootoo died many years ago, and records of the Jonestown deaths are not longer available from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology or any other government agency known to have forensic evidence from Jonestown.
(Josef Dieckman has written extensively about both the so-called death tape (Q 042) and the “day after” tape (Q 875). His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)