In recent times, the online auction service known as eBay has become nearly a household name. It’s probably a safe bet that people who don’t even own a computer know of eBay. And who among us with access to the web hasn’t browsed their pages looking for a rare book, record, coin, or childhood toy? They have everything! Well…nearly everything. Certain items like old body parts and guns are banned from sale on eBay. But those banned items aside, if you want “it”, there’s a strong possibility that someone somewhere has the “it” you seek for sale on eBay.
My own experience with eBay has its origins in literature about Peoples Temple. My local options – the library, the university – for borrowing books were less than ideal. I decided it would be easier to own the books than borrow them over and over. So, I opened an account and right away began building my “PT library.” Indeed, 18 books later, I am still looking, for I have a long way to go before the library is complete.
My journey along the way, however, has been punctuated with some surprising finds regarding PT and eBay. For instance, the first time I saw an original, still-sealed copy of the “He’s Able” record, I nearly fainted. I lost that auction, but was flabbergasted two weeks later when another copy of the album – also sealed, also in mint condition – was being offered by eBay. Ever since then, I have been like a bloodhound, continually sniffing and searching for more PT items. And what I found often surprised me, and sometimes outright shocked and angered me.
In addition to countless sealed copies of the “He’s Able” record – how many albums were pressed? – sellers on eBay have offered original Temple pamphlets and handbills. One seller offered a package deal of a sealed record, one of Jim Jones’ business cards, and a picture of Jones which – if I remember correctly – the seller claimed sat on the namesake’s desk in Jonestown. More recently, I have seen a personal letter up for auction. The letter was from Guyana, written by Lue Dimple Goodspeed to a Robert Lee in Richmond, California. The seller claimed that Robert Lee was a Temple member who had been in Jonestown, but had moved back home sometime in 1978. After making some inquiries, I joined the auction and attempted to win the letter and accompanying items. What bothered me the most – in fact, what drove me to continue bidding – was that high bidder for the auction told me that his interest in the item was purely fiduciary. He said he wanted to hold it for a few years and then make some money when he eventually sold it. In other words, for him, that letter is nothing more than an investment.
Most recently, a seller offered one of Christine Lucientes’ business cards he claimed he took from Jonestown during the post-debacle clean up. Obviously, that auction generated a number of questions from a few of us who were watching it. The most obvious question we pondered was who exactly the seller was and what was he doing in Jonestown. As of this writing, the seller has not responded in detail.
By in large, vintage items that were directly generated by the Temple are few and far between when compared to “other” PT items, such as the CD copies of the “He’s Able” album, of the “death tape”, or of Jones’ sermons. Then there are the books, magazines, and newspapers that all came out immediately after the tragedy, and I have bought a few of them. The list of “other” items includes trading cards, vinyl copies of the “death tape”, CD’s of the FBI files on Jonestown, and even a typed transcript of the “death tape”.
Incidentally, the FBI disc that is often offered on eBay is actually the same information that is available for free via the FBI FOIA reading room.
As for motives, it’s pretty obvious why people sell these items: they want to put some money in their wallets. But why do people buy this stuff? I, for one, can say that I have bought the books, magazines, and newspapers so I could build my own library. I bought the first “He’s Able” record because I believed it was a rare find, although, as I say, I have since seen literally dozens of sealed copies. (I have bought other copies of the record and passed them on to former Temple members.) I bid on that letter – my bid was financially backed by other interested parties – because I did not feel it was right to let it fall into the hands of some sick, morbid individual who wanted it as a souvenir. On the contrary, I wanted to see it put away in a safe place, like the California Historical Society, where it would be kept away from the “wrong” people, yet be available to the “right” people. My motives are clear.
However, I fear that many of the people that bid on PT items, especially the “Temple property” type items, for all the wrong reasons. They bid because they want the item(s) for the shock value, or, as in the one example I cited, they want to resell the item later for personal gain. I have come to two conclusions: 1) something is very wrong here and 2) something should be done.
To its credit, eBay has policies in place to keep “objectionable” items from being auctioned on their website. However, eBay maintains no consistency in allowing or banning the items I have mentioned. It removes some items, like the Christine Lucientes business card, because they have been deemed inappropriate (The seller told me that eBay called the card “murderabilia”). Another seemingly benign – perhaps even educational – CD of Jim Jones’ sermons and excerpts from other tapes recorded by Peoples Temple, was also pulled for the same reason (see earlier story here).
Yet other items – much less authentic and advertised in terms designed to titillate – remain up for sale. One CD was listed in early September 2005 under a headline of “Jim Jones/Joneston/Religion/Cults/Crime/crazy”, and described as “people downing their arsnice laced cool aid and committing mass suicide–a chilling cd and not for the faint hearted!!!!” Another item was described as “a complete set of 39 cards in MINT condition called ‘DEATH Cult – Jonestown Massacre Memorial Cards – issued in 1988… Includes the booklet, a giant puzzle on the back, and the plastic protective case. The artwork is macabra black and white, very crude and graphic with an emphasis on the absurd and bizarre.”
Who is making these decisions at eBay, and what standards do they use? Or, because there are so many Temple-related items – so many items, period – does the online auctioneer review items only in response to complaints? If so, who files the complaints?
So, is this a battle to pick? Is there anything here to fight? By bidding on these items, I am only helping support the very thing I would like to prevent in the first place. But to obtain these items and keep them away from sickos and weirdoes, I have to bid on them. It’s the classic vicious cycle. And I am burdened by it.
(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 email@example.com.)