(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the October 20, 2015 edition of Pacific Standard Magazine.)
Nearly 37 years after the mass suicide in Guyana, South America, researchers are using thousands of government documents to try to paint a clearer picture of what happened.
November 18th will mark the 37th anniversary of what has become known as “Jonestown,” where 918 members of the Peoples Temple—a religious cult that originally formed in 1950’s Indiana, before moving to California, and ultimately to Guyana, South America—were left dead, most through willfully drinking cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Flavor Aid. It was the final act of notorious leader Jim Jones, who attempted to create his visions of a “socialist paradise” in that small nation.
Seeing as nearly everyone who belonged to the Peoples Temple died that day, most of what is known about the event is by virtue of Jones’ meticulous archiving. Archive.org is chock-full of Peoples Temple ephemera, including an audio recording of Jones preaching to his followers before and during the mass suicide on that final, fateful day. Yet despite the general feeling that now, decades later, we know all there is to know about the tragic events in Guyana, lingering questions remain.
“How many people were drugged on the final day?” a former member of Peoples Temple, who didn’t travel to Guyana, writes in an email. “This is something I used to dismiss. But with the release several years ago of [Freedom of Information Act] files that address the psychotropic drugs found in Jonestown and my personal interactions with others who were in Jonestown on the final day … I’m no longer willing to dismiss this.”
There’s a slight sense of concealment, a gray tinge that still colors the events 37 years ago—and researchers have dedicated their professional lives to figuring out exactly what happened.
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“It’s kind of like a 19th century map that has the outline of the continent and the major rivers,” says Fielding McGehee, the principal researcher for the San Diego State University-sponsored Web-based clearinghouse Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. “What we’re trying to do now is fill in individual villages, small creeks, things like that.”
McGehee and his wife, Rebecca Moore, a retired SDSU professor of religion, have been researching and uploading documents for the past 14 years, but their investigation started well before then. This work is personal for Moore, who had two sisters die in Jonestown—one lived with Jones during the last decade of his life; the other was Jones’ personal nurse and, most likely, the last person to die in Jonestown. Thirty-six years ago, the two of them decided to turn their grief and rage into something constructive.
There’s A Slight Sense Of Concealment, A Gray Tinge That Still Colors The Events 37 Years Ago.
Since then, McGehee estimates that he and his wife have filed between 200 and 300 Freedom of Information Act requests in an attempt to reveal everything the government knows about what happened that day; they’ve extracted some 57,000 pages from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the incident. Some have been slightly redacted—“the documents have a bunch of pimples,” as McGehee puts it—but even those haven’t been hard to interpret. (When there’s a 50-page document with a bunch of blackouts that are five letters long, and they’re always preceded by the name “Richard,” and at some point in the document someone failed to redact the second half of Richard McCoy’s name, it doesn’t take Encyclopedia Brown to piece it together.)
Despite the mountain that McGehee and Moore have de-classified, there’s a specific group of 200 pages that McGehee is particularly keen to get his hands on. The FBI, in its refusal notices, claim the documents have been withheld under the “privacy exemption”—wherein the release of a document would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”—leading McGehee to believe the pages were a part of the diary of someone at Jonestown. “Our claim is that this guy is a public figure, he was at a public event,” McGehee says in defense of his right to the documents.
Currently, McGehee’s legal struggle is to pop these final 200 pimples. Not so much because he believes they will reveal something incredible, but because, until they’re released, the picture remains muddied. For now, it’s up to the judgment of a court.
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That’s not to say they’re done sifting through the 57,000-page deluge. A lot of their work isn’t necessarily about simply reporting statistics; there’s also an aura and emotional component that needs to be parsed. Three years ago, for instance, McGehee and Moore began making sense of the cable reports from that day, the chaos of which might help explain how various conspiracy narratives—that the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI, the State Department, and Richard Nixon were, somehow, probably, responsible—were born.
“The Embassy was overwhelmed and devastated, as were the military people who went in, as were the people from Peoples Temple who survived,” McGehee says. “It was just massive chaos and confusion and misunderstandings about what was going on.”
One of the pieces of “proof” that conspiracists have pointed to in the past is the wavering estimates of the dead in the days after the tragedy. Immediately, it was reported there were 400 dead. Then, 700. Later, 900. Ultimately, 918 was the final tally. A jump from 400 to 918 in a matter of hours is quite disturbing, particularly if you’re already suspicious of the government. (A older popular theory goes that the “extra” 500 dead bodies were political assassinations that The Powers That Be thought they could conceal in the pile.) But after going through the State Department’s transmissions, McGehee says the problematic count is not evidence of some grand conspiracy, as much as it simply mimics the turmoil that took place.
“Here’s this little backwater embassy in a country that has fewer than a million people, and you get this Telex that a congressman has been assassinated,” McGehee says, referring to California’s Leo Ryan, who traveled to Guyana to investigate the Peoples Temple and was assassinated shortly before the mass suicide. “It comes at them fast.”
These Types Of Inexplicable Questions Are What Keep McGehee Up At Night.
Additionally, there’s no rule book on how to handle the logistical concerns of something like that: Where do the bodies go? Do they get buried on the spot or await further inspection? And it’s mighty hot outside, meaning de-composition is a factor—the decision needs to be made rapidly. Oh, yeah, here’s a huge barrage of military and reporters coming in to investigate the goings-on, and you have to coordinate that too. “Is this Earth-shattering information? Not really,” McGehee says. “But it definitely adds more of a human dimension to it.”
One of the biggest, most improbable questions left unanswered, and perhaps a contributing factor to why so many people are primed to believe there must be some conspiracy at work, is how Jones manipulated his followers. Every day, Jones read the day’s news over the settlement’s loudspeakers. “And sometimes he would make stuff up as he would go along,” McGehee says. In one instance, trying to stifle thoughts of escape in the minds of his African-American contingent, Jones claimed the United States government was putting black people into concentration camps. His lies were so numerous and so implausible that McGehee wonders how any of Jones’ followers could actually believe him.
These types of inexplicable questions are what keep McGehee up at night. In fact, there’s a whole page on his site called The Questions for the Ages, where people—former members of Peoples Temple and inquisitive outsiders—consider these unanswerable questions.
“How did Jim Jones’ affiliation with the Disciples of Christ denomination enable him to get away with what he did?” asks former Temple member Bernie Blanton. Dorothy Brooks wonders, “Why would my aunt leave her family—a brother, sister, nieces, and nephews—the people whom she claimed to love for a group that she barely knew?”
That last question haunts McGehee the most.
“We know the path of Jim Jones … from an evangelical preacher in Indianapolis [to a] self-proclaimed socialist/Communist in the jungles of Guyana leading people to their deaths,” he says. “But how do the people who joined in 1950s and end up dying in Jonestown make those leaps themselves?”
The answers to those questions, unfortunately, are locked away for good.