Behind the Conspiracy Theories of Jonestown

(Nicole Mekler wrote the accompanying paper for her high school History Extension course in Australia. She can be reached a )

On the 18th of November 1978, more than 900 people died in the Guyana Jungle. Five others were shot on Port Kaituma airstrip. The deaths of approximately 909 Jonestown residents were publicly attributed to mass suicide. The events at Jonestown led to an explosion of speculation and conspiracy theories, principally because the events were never given an authoritative history. The focus of my essay is in explaining why conspiracy theories surround the evidence of Jonestown.

I approach my question through an examination of the conspiracy theories, the evidence used by conspiracists and an explanation of why an authoritative history is unreachable. An examination of the links between context, evidence and perspective provides some insight into why conspiracy theories prosper.

The evidence that emerged from Jonestown is insufficient and incomplete. It does not support any conclusive history of the events. Conspiracy theories began to emerge in response to a perceived failure of evidence. I examine this evidence and its flaws in order to illustrate the foundation of these conspiracy theories. The examination focuses on how differing perspectives interpreted the lack of probative evidence, and how the gaps in evidence were interpreted differently by those with vested interests, particular agendas and alternative perspectives. The reactions and evidence can be illuminated with reference to the socio-political context in which Jonestown was founded and in which the massacre took place. Essentially, this is deconstruction of the history of the Jonestown massacre, but it reflects more generally on the reliability of evidence and historical accounts.

Initially, I became fascinated with the idea that from the evidence I could construct a plausible theory about what actually happened at Jonestown. As my research progressed, I discovered that that it would be impossible to determine with any degree of academic validity, the facts. My focus was reapplied to an investigation of why the facts could not be determined, the mass of conspiracy theories that emerged and the many   different interpretations of the evidence of the Jonestown massacre.