There is no simple answer to this question. Both the source and the foundation of the first number – 383 bodies – are unknown. It is also of course far removed from the final number of 909. The answer that follows is speculative, but it is based on the best credible evidence we have. We are open to revision, if additional credible evidence is provided.
At first, the Guyanese army reported that 408 people had died. The number stayed constant for four days, then started to rise: on Thursday 23 November, the death toll made its biggest jump, to 700; on Friday it went to 780; by Saturday night, one week after the deaths, the final toll of 909 was reported.
There are a few suggestions for the increased count. Using her journal which she kept during the period as a resource, Rebecca Moore wrote in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: “U.S. Army volunteers had been bagging bodies since Wednesday. As they worked, the stacks of dead did not diminish. Apparently no one could accurately calculate the number of bodies until each was removed from the pavilion area.” (The fact that the bagging process did not start until Wednesday would also account for the largest jump in the estimated body count, which, it is also important to note, was a round number of 700, rather than a specific number.)
There are other factors at work as well. The first count did not indicate the location of the bodies that were counted. As it turned out, an unknown number of bodies were found in other places besides the infamous pavilion, including in dorms, in Jim Jones’ cabin, in outlying areas. Whether these were included in the initial count is a question which remains unanswerable.
The simplest explanation may be the best. The Guyanese Defense Force arrived in Jonestown a day after the deaths to find a scene that was as chaotic as it was nightmarish. No one knew if there were survivors in the jungle, armed and poised for attack. There was evidence of some looting before the GDF arrived – ostensibly by local populations – as well as paper and debris swirling around the encampment. And there were hundreds of bodies, an unimaginable scene, the display made more frightening by the brightly-colored clothes many of them wore, the visual effects of decomposition which had already set in, and the aroma of death. By the time the GDF completely secured the site on Monday 20 November, it had been hopelessly compromised as a crime scene.
In that atmosphere, someone presented a body count. Did that person walk around Jonestown and make an actual tally? Did that person look over the sea of bodies and make an estimate (one that would be completely without context in that person’s life)? Did the person receive several reports from different soldiers and either add them, average them, or consider where each had been? Again, the answer is unknown.
In other words, the first realistic count came later that week, when volunteers from the U.S. military actually started doing something about the removal of the bodies. That’s when the world learned, there was not a single layer of bodies. The more people whom the military removed, the more they found. And the count kept going up and up, until they were finally all cleared.
By then, of course, the damage to the historical record had been done. This changing body count has been a source of numerous conspiracy theories – the most popular of which is that a number of people from Jonestown fled into the jungle as the deaths were taking place, but that the CIA (or other unknown dark, sinister forces) captured these survivors, killed them sometime during the next several days, and smuggled the bodies back in – but we hold to the simpler explanation.
While the initial count was incorrect – and thus begs the question “why” – alternative explanations than those reported in State Department and Pentagon cables are even more problematic. The first and biggest problem is, the count didn’t go from 408 to 909 in one adjustment. It was incremental. Using the conspiracists’ own logic, the only way for this scenario to unfold would be if people were killed in stages, a few hundred at a time, and their bodies smuggled back in without anyone noticing corpses showing in new places or adding to the size of existing piles.
The second problem is, for the conspiracists to be right, there would be have to be hundreds of people – from State Department officials who monitored the removal of the bodies, to the Army personnel who actually cleaned up Jonestown, to the unknown assassins of the additional 500, to the known Jonestown survivors who returned to the settlement to aid in identification – who participated in the conspiracy from the start. It also means the assassins accounted for absolutely everyone, and left no witnesses or other loose ends. Finally, the conspiracy of silence would have held without a single crack in the armor – no deathbed confessions from a remorseful participant, no quickie bucks for a tell-all tabloid article, no growth or remorse or apology or attempt at closure – for more than 30 years. That strains credulity.
The standard of proof used by some conspiracists seems to say, in brief: here’s our explanation, and you have to prove us wrong, or else we’re right. Our opinion is, if you have a different explanation from that held by the majority of scholars and official documents, the burden is on you to prove yourself right.
There are problems with the simple explanation and the majority view. We don’t know everything. We admit that there are gaps in the knowledge. But that doesn’t mean that alternative theories – based on speculation with no supportive evidence whatsoever – have equal credibility.