To Be or Not to Be Was Not the Question

Was it murder or suicide?

Where Jonestown is concerned, no question is more politically resonant, in part because our answer reveals as much about ourselves as it does about the event itself.

It is a question, moreover, that leads to other questions, some of which are awkward for everyone involved. If suicide, why? If murder, who did it?

Were those who died “victims,” or were they “heroes”? Did they conspire to commit “revolutionary suicide” in affirmation of values they held more important than life itself? Or were they slaughtered by government agents – or, what’s worse, by their friends and loved ones? Is Jonestown most appropriately compared to the Masada, or to the Holocaust?

The evidence that we have is fragmentary. Only seven autopsies were conducted on 913 bodies, and the results were inconclusive. How could they not be? The bodies were embalmed prior to autopsy, which would certainly have muddled the results. So, too, cyanide breaks down rapidly in the body, which probably explains why no traces of the chemical were found in five of the seven autopsies.

Compounding the uncertainties surrounding the events in Jonestown is the fact that nearly all of the records of official proceedings, trials and inquiries held in Guyana were destroyed. Guyana was gripped by political turmoil in 1980, culminating in an arsonist’s destruction of government buildings in which Jonestown-related proceedings were archived.

Which leaves us with Doctor Leslie Mootoo’s account as the best evidence of what occurred, as well as the testimony of eye-witnesses.

Doctor Mootoo was the Guyanese state pathologist, and one of the first to enter Jonestown after more than 900 people died there. Having trained in London and Vienna, Doctor Mootoo was the only competent person to examine the dead in a timely way. And it was his conclusion that more than 700 of those who died were probably murdered.[1]

This conclusion was based on several observations. For instance: whatever the cause of death, the children – of whom there were some 260 – could not be held responsible for their own deaths. Whether the kids were duped, coerced or murdered outright, the adults were obviously responsible.

As for the adults themselves, Mootoo reported that 83 of the 100 bodies that he examined had needle-punctures on the backs of their shoulders – suggesting that they had been forcibly held down and injected against their will.[2] As if this were not evidence enough of foul play, Mootoo noted that syringes containing cyanide, but lacking needles, lay everywhere on the ground – which led him to conclude that they had been used to squirt poison into the mouths of those who refused to drink. Still others were tricked into thinking that they were taking tranquilizers: bottles containing potassium cyanide, but labeled “Valium,” were scattered on the ground around the central pavilion.[3] Based upon this evidence, it would seem that as many as 700, and possibly more, of the Jonestown dead were murdered.

No other conclusion seems reasonable. Once Dr. Mootoo’s findings are accepted with respect to the cause of death – cyanide poisoning – his judgment on the manner of death must also be respected.

Which raises an obvious question: why didn’t people just run away? According to survivors such as Stanley Clayton and Tim Carter, a security cordon of armed guards (members of the Peoples Temple, wielding shotguns and crossbows) prevented all but the quickest and most clever from escaping into the bush.

This information is corroborated by American soldiers such as Charles Huff, who helped to evacuate the bodies. According to Huff, “We saw many bullet wounds, as well as wounds from crossbow bolts.”

In light of this, it seems clear that most of those who died at Jonestown were victims of homicide. To argue otherwise would be comparable to arguing that those who died at Auschwitz “committed suicide” because they walked to the gas chambers.

In a way, it is a wonder that the issue is still debated. That it is has less to do with the evidence than with the agendas of the debaters and, in particular, those who have a stake in the argument that new religions are inherently dangerous – and that what makes them so is the practice of “brainwashing.”

A more sensible conclusion would be that totalitarianism is not confined to the Right, nor even to governments. Sometimes, it’s even closer to home.


[1] Other articles elsewhere on the Net and on this website – including two others by Tim Carter and Joey Dieckman 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.

[2] Altman, Dr. Lawrence, “Bungled Aftermath of Tragedy,” American Medical News, April 27 1979;22(17):suppl 6-7, p. 7.

[3] Horrock, Nicholas M., “Some in Cult Received Cyanide by Injection, Guyanese Sources Say,” New York Times, Dec. 12, 1978.

(Jim Hougan is an investigative reporter. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. His website is at He may be reached at