On Buying Jonestown and its Variations:
eBay Marketing of a Tragedy

In recent years, I have become interested in how artifacts of the Jonestown/Peoples Temple story end up on the Internet, especially on sites such as eBay which provide a marketplace to buy and sell these items. The merchandise most available on eBay over the years have been books about the tragedy, and music and videos with Jonestown themes. In other words, it is mostly mass-market, post-tragedy material, produced by people with no connection to peoples Temple. But there are exceptions, the occasional personal item or unique piece of history which, in my view, would be better off removed from the public marketplace and designated for a historical collection where it could be studied and viewed by the general public, and most of all, preserved.

I now have several searches on eBay regarding Jonestown historic memorabilia – including Rev. Jim Jones; Jonestown; Peoples Temple; Indianapolis 1978; San Francisco 1978; and newspapers 1978 – but it’s been a slow year with regards to finding and obtaining such history. In early September 2012, I lost a bid for a letter from Congressman Leo Ryan which went for $202.50. Normally, an item like this letter would probably reach a $1,000 in a bidding war but I lost and didn’t place a higher bid in time.

Over the past year, I was lucky to have bid and won on three carefully preserved San Francisco newspapers regarding the Jonestown mass murder/suicide.

Because Jonestown occurred about ten days before the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, I am notified of listings for newspapers for those events as well. One item asking for $450 has lingered on eBay for months. Apparently, no offer has been made that is acceptable to the seller. I find it interesting that Milk memorabilia gets more attention than Jonestown and Moscone combined.

For the searches about Rev. Jim Jones, I often learn of the book, Raven, by Tim Reiterman, perhaps the most definitive popular work on Jones. Once I found out about a yearbook from Jim’s high school – with his picture as a student – but I was unable to win the item. Sometimes, I will see a picture of him up for bid as well. If it was autographed by him, I would definitely bid on it. His autograph is something that would be rare in my opinion.

There are items like the book, Heavenly Deceptor, by Nathan Landau. I purchased an autographed copy, but the author has signed his name in pencil which could easily be erased.

Perhaps the most significant find this year was an advance copy of Leigh Fondakowski’s book, Stories from Jonestown, which, as it turns out, was not authorized for distribution or sale to anyone, especially since the book has undergone extensive rewriting since this edition. Even in its current form, though, I give it high marks and now better understand Tim Carter and Stephan Jones. While I have not yet seen her play, The People’s Temple – the research for which led her to collect these stories – I can only imagine history coming alive on stage, even if only for a couple of hours.

There are lighter moments in this effort. The Peoples Temple searches often come up with a combination of Shirley Temple who appeared in the film, Young People, as a child. I have to laugh when I see her items, along with Peoples Temple from Ocean Grove, New Jersey or Peoples Temple from Japan in that category. In addition, my “Indianapolis 1978” searches often come up with memorabilia for the Indianapolis 500 that year… but I am not interested in motor racing.

My “San Francisco 1978” search doesn’t always help me to learn more about Jonestown and the San Francisco press of 1978, but I still manage to get some items like newspapers of which I’m very protective and keep in plastic containers.

Of course, the “1978 newspapers” search often comes up with many other items from that year, like the election of the new pope; sports news like a Muhammad Ali fight, the World Series, or the Super Bowl; the last issue of a Chicago newspaper; and editions for the blizzard of 1978. If nothing else, I learn about the times in which Peoples Temple spent its final year in existence, and what life was like in the country they left behind.

(Sylvia Marciniak is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles may be found here. She can be reached at Sylviastel@aol.com.)