(Matthew Thomas Farrell is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Jonestown as a Novel. His earlier writings for this site are collected here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It’s no secret that there is an underground market for merchandise relating to both the famous and the infamous. The selling of “holy artifacts” has a long and storied tradition (literally — Chaucer devoted one of The Canterbury Tales to it) but the vending and collecting of more nefarious relics from equally execrable owners is a relatively recent phenomenon. Sure, in the late 1800s, Jesse James’ mother made a small fortune selling pretty much any pistol she could get her hands on as having “once belonged to my son” — some legit, most less-so. Flash forward to the 20th Century — July 22, 1934 to be exact — and Biograph Theatre bystanders dipped scarves and handkerchiefs into John Dillinger’s blood… only to sell them to collectors. A couple of years later, carnival barker Charles Stanley bought Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled Ford 730 Deluxe “death car” and toured the country with it as an added attraction. Working a similar scheme in the ’60s, a man named Bunny Gibbons bought the ’49 Ford sedan owned by serial killer Ed Gein (who later served as the loose inspiration for Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs). Gibbons then charged the curious 25¢ for the privilege of sitting in Ed Gein’s Ghoul Car. It’s worth noting that Gibbons paid $760 for the Ford and more than made his money back.
Indeed, even the U.S. Government occasionally gets involved in such vending. In September 2004, the feds sold David Koresh’s ’68 Camaro for $37,500. More recently, in May 2015, they auctioned off a number of Ted Kaczynski’s items. The typewriter that wrote The Unibomber Manifesto went for $11,000, but the top-shelf-seller was a package deal of the hoodie and sunglasses immortalized in the FBI WANTED sketch. The gavel fell at $20,025.
Clearly, there is a market for such stuff out there, at least among people with weird tastes and entirely too much disposable income. And full disclosure: I would likely consider myself among them if I had more money to burn. [see this article’s Post-Script/Coda for an elaboration comment.]
The unofficially-technical term for such fare and ware is murderabilia, that word being coined by Andy Kahan of Houston’s Crime Victim Office in 2001 when he (successfully) sought to make the vending of such paraphernalia illegal in his state. His rampage against murderabilia was somewhat successful: as of this writing, Texas, California, New Jersey, Michigan, and Utah all have statutes banning (or at least regulating) sales of such sundry stuff in one way or another.
With acknowledgement to Kahan, I personally prefer to coin my own term: morbidabilia. This helps encompass such oddball groups like Heaven’s Gate or Solar Temple: they didn’t murder anybody except themselves. Since I once saw a fountain pen owned by Marshall Applewhite for sale, I think the nomenclature umbrella needs to be expanded. And whether one thinks the Jonestown tragedy was a mass-suicide, mass-murder, or mass-mix-of-the-two, there’s no serious debate that Peoples Temple — and its artifacts — should be under this category’s shadow.
Whatever the case, any novice’s first stop to find such items is eBay. Indeed, previous issues of the jonestown report have discussed this in depth. Unfortunately, in 2001 eBay changed its seller’s Terms & Conditions to specifically exclude such stuff — quite likely due to Kahan’s efforts. In theory these items are long gone, but in practice one can still find them as long as someone else hasn’t lodged a complaint to get them de-listed.
Likewise for the novice artifact hunter’s second stop: Amazon. At one point, JFK assassination aficionados could get fresh lawn clippings from The Grassy Knoll. More to the Jonestown point, I recall back around 2000 seeing someone selling packets of grape Kool-Aid which (according to the seller) were purchased from an Indianapolis convenience store built on the site of what was once Jim Jones’ childhood home. Putting aside the fractal-levels of FAIL! there, such stuff is now gone from current listings, so sadly you’ll just have to limit your Amazon shopping to bare essentials like canned unicorn meat or some post-apocalyptic battle cruisers for the kids.
So: if anyone wants authentic artifacts — from either serial killers, crazy cults, or (in this jtr context) — Peoples Temple, you’ll just have to dig deeper.
Not surprisingly, something of a cottage industry has sprung up around such moribund mementos. In researching this article, I found about ten such sites offering various relics and trinkets related to the over-all morbidabilia topic, but only two of them actually had actual Peoples Temple paraphernalia on the docket. This is understandable: by definition there are only a finite number of Jonestown artifacts still extant in the subsequent 37 years, so it’s hit-or-miss if a cache has been uncovered or someone is willing to part with a keepsake. I’d be surprised if there weren’t more sellers out there than what I found within this article’s deadline, and with better wares, too, but I am on deadline, so I’ll leave it up to those truly curious with a Tor-browser and some spare Bitcoins to deep-spelunk the Dark Net for PT/JJ artifacts.
Still: a comparison of the two sites I know of (currently) peddling Peoples Temple mementos is interesting. I contacted both sites with some questions of object provenance — and believe me: I have some questions about authenticity — but as of this printing have not heard back from either.
www.supernaught.com is quite likely the first website to devote itself to this morbidabelia matter. It was founded in April 2001 — when eBay changed its T&C — by vendors seeking to skirt the ’Bay’s policy change. Amid Ted Bundy letters, Charles Manson correspondence, and even Ed Gein’s fingerprint blotter sheet, you can find some Peoples Temple mementos.
They are currently selling several self-addressed RSVP envelopes bearing the San Francisco P.O. box ($395) and one with the Guyana/Georgetown address ($695), a “God is Love” award certificate [unasigned, so feel free to fill in the blanks with your name!] ($695), a “Peoples Temple clothing tag” — almost certainly a tag from stuffed animal toys made at Jonestown— ($600), and a QSL authentication card from Jonestown’s short-wave radio station ($500). More on that card in a minute.
The high-item on the docket is a hand-written letter (and accompanying stamp-cancelled envelope, dated December 2, 1962) allegedly from Reverend Jones himself. I will leave it to others better versed in chicken-scrawl — or at least Jones’ own (supposed) handwriting — to translate it into English in terms of content. Asking price: $78,000.
Now: keen readers here have likely noted that I disclaimed the epistle with qualifiers like allegedly and supposed. Here’s why: Jones’ graphology displays a distinct loopiness — like in how a capital “J” is displayed, for instance — that is conspicuously missing here. Compare the supernaught letter vs. a known sample of Jones’ signature, and you’ll see what I mean.
For those who are click-lazy:
As mentioned, supernaught.com has not responded to my questions on item authenticity and provenance. Still, I’d like to think I’m a nice guy, so for purposes of this piece will float them a pass on provenance: authenticity issues aside, I’ll give them a benefit-of-the-doubt and assume they genuinely believe in good faith they have a sample of Jones’ writing.
For those wondering, the (alleged) Jones letter is actually the second-highest-priced item on the site. The top dollar award goes to a bundle: a hand-written and autographed “story” with an accompanying cover “illustration” by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Normally $150,000 but (as of this writing) it’s on sale for just $125,000! (Go get your checkbooks; I’ll wait.)
At the other end of the spectrum was www.redrumautographs.com [Editor’s note: This site is now defunct. For some reason.]. Hopefully enough people have either read or seen The Shining that I don’t have to explain the site’s name. It was founded in February 2009, and aside from the expected John Hinkley postcards, autographed Manson polaroids, and letters from David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, there are a couple of Peoples Temple trinkets.
Tangentially related is an autographed publicity portrait by Congressman Leo Ryan ($299.99), but more on-topic are — or were — some Peoples Temple agricultural pamphlets and a QSL identification card. During the course of writing this article, both were sold… and since a QSL card appeared on supernaught during the course of this piece’s research, I have a hunch I know who the buyer was.
They also were once selling blank stationery that had a Peoples Temple letterhead from a northern California address, though over the course of writing this article it was sold and de-listed. Like my inquiries with supernaught, I received no reply on article provenance; given that the address would’ve placed it at 40+ years-old and the graphics displayed seemed very un-aged, I was kind of curious.
Redrumautographs does have other Jonestown-related items, though in my humble opinion they are functionally worthless: for $10 you can get a transcript of the Q042 “Death Tape” (available free here), as well as “copy of original” reproductions of a number of photos of Jim Jones. One of them is one of the black-and-white portraits of Jones taken by the NBC crew on November 18, 1978. Using some simple Google-image Ju-Jitsu I am able to find all of the pictures offered available on-line one place or another, so “copy of the original” is at best a flexible description.
By the way, If you’re wondering, the highest-priced item on redrumautographs is an autographed portrait purportedly signed by Benito Mussolini. The price: $2,999.99.
Obviously, it’s a seller’s market, and that’s assuming the sellers are honest and working in good faith that their items are legit. Whether anyone wants to pay the ticket prices is a separate matter.
One final comparison of the sites might be worth making. As mentioned, Supernaught has a letter (supposedly) signed by Jones for $78K. Redrumautographs has a photo (supposedly) signed by Benito Mussolini for just under $3K. Who’d have thought that Dad would be worth more than Il Duce?
The motives for one either selling or buying such morbidabilia is a separate topic I have tried my best to skirt. The obvious option is “profit” — especially for the sellers. You can be cynical and think the same of the buyers: they can almost certainly “flip” a sale for a hefty plus-sum in a few years. There are obvious exceptions, of course: Bob Hope once had the world’s largest stockpile of Nazi memorabilia. Since I don’t think anyone would accuse Mr. Hope of being a closet-Nazi, it’s likely safe to think of these trinkets as “war trophies” — tokens of his golden glory days.
For what it’s worth, though, I have empirical evidence that mercenary motivation is not always the case among the sellers.
In the 1990s I was spontaneously trying (and failing) to write a science fiction novel using the Branch Davidian/Waco disaster as its framework.
Was it “poor taste”?
Was it “sarcastic”?
Well, you’ve read this far, seen my style, so you know it was!
But was it “in good faith”?
Well, in my own way: I’d like to think so.
My intent was to present a sci-fi variant of actual Branch Davidian dogma and let ’em hang on their own petard. Let the reader decide if this was “crazy” or not.
So: in an effort to get into the antagonist’s (ie: my novel’s cyber-punk David Koresh’s) head, I researched Davidian theology a little more than is humanly healthy. I didn’t agree with it, but I had to at least understand it enough to try to write it “right.”
With me so far? Good.
In that context, I found an eBay seller that was an actual Branch Davidian who was fortunate enough to have been out-of-state when the ’93 conflagration went down. The Events didn’t diminish his faith, either. Nice guy, actually — if a bit strange, though that’s a separate story — and I’m genuinely glad he didn’t die in The Fire.
Whatever the case, he was on eBay selling some Koresh sermons on home-made CDs. I am satisfied from the audio — plus his explanation of provenance — that they are legit.
Anyway, he told me that his motives on sales were (and I’m paraphrasing here): “sure, the money’s nice, but this is my way of evangelizing Koresh’s message.”
I respect that. I don’t agree with it — at least the underlying theology, no sir! — but yeah: I actually respect that.
So there’s always an exception to “the rule” where one might think that peddling morbidabelia is all about the mercenary.
 On a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch, Graham Chapman once observed that “a murder is only an extroverted suicide.” If one assumes the inverse of this to be equally true, then maybe Kahan is on to something. Still, I’ll stick with morbidabelia: I like the internal alliteration, which bounces of the lips better. I’m weird like that.
 The technical term for making a copy of a CD is “burning” it. Unfortunately, referring to home-generated Koresh sermon compact discs as “burned” is just too feeble and pathetic a pun for even me to stoop to… You’re welcome.