What is the explanation for the changing body count in Jonestown the first week?

There is a relatively simple explanation for why the initial figure of 383 bodies was so wrong, given that the final tally of 909 was so much greater. It was impossible to accurately count bodies on the ground until they were removed.

At first, the Guyanese army reported that 408 people had died. Major Randy Johnson, the officer in charge of the Guyana Defense Force when it first entered Jonestown, provided the earliest figures. He based his estimate of 400 dead on the fact that he had been told that 400 passports were found. Since the assessment was made from the ground rather than the air, it was difficult to judge whether that number was correct.

The figure stayed constant for four days, then started to rise once the U.S. Army Graves Registration team started to bag the bodies, beginning on Wednesday 22 November. On Thursday the death toll made its biggest jump, to 700, as bodies began to be shipped out; on Friday it went to 780; by Saturday night, one week after the deaths, the final toll of 909 was reported.

Relying upon the journal she kept during this time as a resource, Rebecca Moore wrote: “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” (A Sympathic History of Jonestown, pp. 16–17). 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 were other factors at work as well. The first reckoning did not indicate the location of the bodies that were counted. As it turned out, an unknown number of bodies were later found in other places besides the pavilion and surrounding area, including in dorms, in Jim Jones’ cabin, and in outlying areas. Some were found stacked on top of each other, separated by sheets.

In other words, the first realistic count could come only after each body was removed. The more people whom the military volunteers 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 (and unsubstantiated) explanation is that hundreds of people from Jonestown fled into the jungle as the deaths were taking place, but that the CIA (or other unknown forces) captured these survivors, killed them sometime during the next several days, and smuggled the bodies back in. The fact that the Guyana Defense Force was on-site the afternoon of Sunday, 19 November – less than 24 hours after the deaths – would make this impossible, however, and not merely implausible.

Originally posted on June 15th, 2013.

Last modified on January 2nd, 2020.
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