The mass murder of 918 members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known by its informal name “Jonestown”, on November 18, 1978 have spurred numerous conspiracy theories. These include the alleged involvement of outside forces in the deaths, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Soviet Union. These theories often include the assertion that the events that occurred in Jonestown were a result of CIA experiments in mind control or similar methods of social experimentation. The proponents of these theories often state their belief that these mind control experiments which were, according to them, responsible for the deaths at Jonestown were a covert example of Project MKUltra in practice. According to Rebecca Moore, “In the twenty-three years since the deaths in Jonestown, conspiracy theories have blossomed in number and sophistication.”
Headlines in the New York Post, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Examiner originally cited reports from the Guyanese army that 408 people had killed themselves while more than 500 others managed to flee into the surrounding jungle.
The U.S. military arrived several days later and the body count quickly rose; first it was 700, then 780, to a final tally given seven days after the Guyanese report of 909 dead, 4 followers dead at the Temple offices in the capital of Georgetown, and 5 members of Representative Leo Ryan’s delegation, including the Congressman himself, murdered at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Only 167 Jonestown inhabitants were reported to have survived.
In explaining the discrepancies, one U.S. official said the Guyanese “couldn’t count” while another said that the 400 corpses initially found had just been stacked in such a way that they hid more than 500 more. The dead littered the compound, with piles of bodies decomposing atop one another near the pavilion, and corpses in other buildings or far-flung positions were not readily apparent.
While the total number of settlers living in Jonestown at the time of the massacre has never been properly verified, based on the population estimates there could be anywhere between 20 and 120 followers not accounted for. Conspiracy theorists and at least one Congressional aide claimed these people formed the so-called “Red Brigade”, which was armed guards (or perhaps brainwashed assassins) who carried out the attack at the airport as well as providing more typical duties maintaining security along the roads and around the compound.
The day Leo Ryan was killed, his top aide Joe Holsinger, who later became head of the DNC, received a White House call detailing the exact number of people killed based on “a CIA report from the scene.”
According to the New York Times, the first trained medical official on the scene was the Guyanese coroner Dr. Leslie C. Mootoo. He and his assistants examined over 100 of the bodies during a 32-hour period and found that the adults had all been injected with cyanide in places which they could not have reached without assistance, such as between the shoulder blades, and that many of them had also been shot. (Charles Huff, one of the first U.S. soldiers on the scene, also reported having seen “many gunshot victims”, as well as other victims who had been shot with a crossbow, all of whom appeared to have been attempting to flee.) Mootoo also felt that the children were incapable of consenting to suicide. Based on his preliminary findings, Mootoo speculated that the majority of those who died in Jonestown may have been murdered.
Despite Guyana law requiring an autopsy for any unnatural death, the Americans insisted that the cause of death was readily apparent and additional inquiry was not necessary. Relatives and officials back in the United States complained about being kept from the remains, and according to the New York Times, Dr. Sturmer, then President of the National Association of Medical Examiners, sent an open letter to the U.S. Army complaining about the handling of remains and the illegal cremations of most of the Jonestown victims. For a number of reasons, some legal and some merely logistical, the bodies were not flown out of the remote jungle location of Jonestown for up to a week before being flown to New Jersey, which allowed significant decomposition to occur. Ultimately seven autopsies were conducted but the medical examiners were not informed of Dr. Mootoo’s preliminary findings and the corpses were far too decayed for injection sites or other wounds to remain identifiable during the procedures.