Some anniversaries should be remembered, others you would rather forget. This one cuts both ways. Forty years ago, on November 18, 1978, in a place carved out of a remote jungle in Guyana, over 900 people were murdered or committed suicide. Jonestown. A name that will live in infamy.
Time Magazine’s New York bureau chief Don Neff and I were in Miami, working on a Columbia-related drug story for the magazine that day, and word hadn’t yet reached the outside world about what happened in Guyana. Sunday morning’s edition of the Miami Herald changed all of that. The headline said that a U.S. Congressman had been shot in Guyana. Details were sketchy, but it appeared that Rep. Leo Ryan of California, some aides of his, and members of the press, had been attacked during a visit to the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, (better known as Jonestown). The congressman was there to investigate claims that some of his constituents were being held in Jonestown against their will, and he had gone to get them out.
Neff and I immediately decided to head down there. Having an American Express card proved valuable, we charted a jet, put the charge on my card, and off we went to Georgetown, Guyana, a place 2,000 miles away in South America.
When Neff and I arrived in Georgetown late Sunday, I ran into my good friend and fellow photographer Frank Johnston of the Washington Post. He had linked up with Charles Krause of the Post who had been shot along with Ryan and the others, but survived. Krause was still reporting the story, and is my kind of journalist! Frank briefed me on what he knew about what had unfolded, and told me some of the names of reporters who had been killed. Two of them, Don Harris of NBC I had known from when he covered President Ford a few years earlier, and photographer Greg Robinson from San Francisco.
The following morning at a Guyanese government press conference, they announced that there had been some mass suicides, but due to poor communications it was not clear exactly what had happened. There was even talk that there might be some Jonestown militants who fighting the government, and were holding out in the area. The officials said a small press pool would be taken into up there, and rightly chose Johnston and Krause to make the trip.
Neff and I, however, were determined to get there on our own, which proved to be a saga in its own right.
A national emergency had been declared and no unauthorized planes would be allowed to fly into the Jonestown area. The networks all had out-of-country aircraft standing by, but the government said that no non-Guyanese pilots or planes would be allowed anywhere near the place. Neff and I switched into high gear to try and find a pilot and an aircraft and pilot that would pass muster with the Guyanese. And we found them. The only ones in all of Guyana, in fact, that met their requirements.
Now we needed permission to take off and land at Port Kaituma, the nearest runway to Jonestown, the place where Leo Ryan was assassinated, and where the journalists were also killed. We needed the information minister to green light it with the director of aviation, and after several hours of spirited conversation she agreed, except for one slight problem, she didn’t sign a letter to that effect. The aviation director was a real stickler for protocol and wanted the piece of paper. Finally we pleaded with an extremely efficient secretary to the minister who signed it for us, and it worked. When we found out that we would be getting the flight we invited NBC’s Fred Francis and a cameraman along who had been unable to get their own ride. It was the least we could do for them after their colleagues were killed.
The small Cessna we rented had a few issues that we noticed when we got in it. There were bullet holes in its side and seats. Also some dried blood splattered around. The pilot told us that the damage was caused by Larry Layton, a close follower of Jim Jones, who tried to kill the passengers along with him in the plane. His other passengers were Jonestown defectors. One of the passengers disarmed Layton before he killed them all. This happened in Port Kaituma at the same time as the other shootings of Ryan and company. The pilot was a gutsy guy to go back there less than a day after the shooting, and we definitely gave him a bonus.
(Layton was the only former Peoples Temple member to be tried in the United States for criminal acts relating to the murders at Jonestown. He was convicted on four different murder related counts, including conspiracy and aiding and abetting in the shootings of Congressman Ryan. He served 18 years, and was released in 2002, and to this day is the only person ever to have been held criminally responsible for the events in Guyana.)
As we winged our way north, the pilot said he would fly over Jonestown. We were still at a distance, but it appeared to me that there were scores of people alive and gathered around a big tin-roofed structure in the middle of what appeared to be a small village or compound. As we drew closer it turned out I was wrong.
I’ve seen a lot of shit in my life, more than two years in Vietnam covering the war guaranteed that, but nothing prepared me for the shock of what I witnessed that day. The people who I thought were gathered around the pavilion were dead. They looked like colorfully dressed but lifeless dolls strewn along the ground, most of them facedown, many of them huddled together in groups. There were hundreds of them. I don’t wish that sight on anyone.
The pilot circled a couple of times, tipping the wing so I could photograph the tableau of death, then headed to land on the dirt strip at Port Kaituma a few miles away.
The twin-engine Otter aircraft that had carried the ill-fated Congressional delegation, one of its tires shot flat, was off to the side of the runway. This was the scene of Rep. Ryan’s death, along with the murders of Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and temple defector Patricia Parks. Nine others were injured but survived including Jackie Spier, a Ryan aide, who is now the Congresswoman in her bosses’ old district, NBC’s Steve Sung, and San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman. The bodies and the wounded were evacuated to Georgetown before we got there.
We walked around the disabled plane, and there was still evidence of remains at the scene. We buried them by the side of the runway.
A Guyanese military helicopter gave us a lift into Jonestown, a distance of about six miles. As the chopper approached the isolated settlement, the smell of death wafted up from below. It’s something that you can’t get out of your system, it’s a unique and unsettling odor. I fashioned a facemask from a towel that I’d brought from the hotel and sprinkled some cologne on it. It didn’t help, the dead had been in the 100+ degree for almost three days.
As I walked among the corpses it was eerily tranquil, as if they had just gone to sleep and forgotten to wake up. Other than bloating from the heat, they were fairly intact. I was used to the wounds of war, bodies torn to bits, burned, battered, blown up. This was different. Families with their arms around each other lay face down, in some cases the little feet of their children sticking out between them. One dead child was by himself, the adults, maybe his parents, a few feet away. It was sickening. They had deliberately murdered their kids. More than 300 of them died in that isolated outpost, a third of the 918 who perished at the whim of a monster.
The only living thing in Jonestown outside of the few Guyanese authorities surveying the site was a blue and yellow parrot perched above a small group of the dead. He seemed to be surveying the scene, and I wondered what he witnessed, and remember joking to myself, “If only he could talk.”
I moved silently through the still life of horror, carefully stepping over bodies that were under a large pavilion, taking pictures, documenting the unspeakable, doing what I was trained to do. It wasn’t easy.
At one end of the building was what appeared to be a throne-like chair where Jim Jones had sat to rule his subjects. Above it was a black sign with white letters printed in capital letters:
THOSE WHO DO NOT
REMEMBER THE PAST
TO REPEAT IT
The scene struck me later like the moment in Stephen King’s, “The Shining,” where novelist Jack Torrance, instead of writing his book, is typing the same thing over and over for hours on end:
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
It was that point in the film where we realized that Torrance was either totally mad or possessed by demons.
Near the throne was a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and a microphone where Jones had exhorted his followers to commit, “revolutionary suicide,” and to take the poison that ultimately killed most of them. It was all on audiotape, and is one of the most chilling things you will ever hear. There is screaming and shouting in the background as he tells them,‘Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity.’”
Just behind the throne on a wooden walkway outside the building was a giant vat filled with a purple liquid. It was Flavor Aid, (not Kool-aid), laced with cyanide. It is where people lined up with their cups to dip into the deadly mix. Dead bodies lay near the vat, and all around the area. (My photo of the purple poison surrounded by dead bodies was used on the cover of Time Magazine and became their biggest seller ever to that point).
The corpse of Jim Jones had been dragged out of the pavilion and lay a few feet from the devil’s brew. He had apparently been autopsied on the scene, and his abdomen was crudely stitched back together. Jones appeared to have died from a single gunshot wound to the head. On top of everything else it was an even uglier sight, but I photographed him anyway. It was his show, and thankfully the end of the play.
I reread my book Shooter to refresh my memory on all of this, and will quote exactly what I wrote about the aftermath:
“The wars I have covered, for all their violence and gore, have never given me nightmares. Somewhere in my subconscious is a safety valve that spares me that. Not so with Jonestown. A week after my departure I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I’d dreamed that I had walked into a room and encountered the bloated—but living—body of Jim Jones, seated on his throne. I turned to escape but found my path blocked by one of Jonses’s followers, flesh dripping from his bones. I twisted into wakefulness just as a rotting hand reached for my throat.”
I should add that I slept with the lights on for the rest of that night!
Flash forward 40 years. Time hasn’t really brought any understanding to me of why people would do such a thing. To blindly follow a crazed leader unto death, and to murder your children doing it, doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then. As a person who has always had a fierce streak of independence, it’s pretty much unfathomable. As a father, I’d like to think that I’ve passed some of that along to my three sons. It would be my greatest gift.
David Hume Kennerly