The victims of one of the most bizarre tragedies in American history, the mass suicide of 909 members of the San Francisco–based People’s Temple Christian Church in their jungle compound, are memorialized in this haunting photo album.
The People’s Temple preached a strange mixture of Pentecostal Christianity, doctrinaire communism, and messianic worship of the charismatic Rev. Jim Jones, who was a politically influential civil rights and anti-poverty activist even as he exercised a secretive, paranoid, and abusive control over his flock. Negative press reports sent him into voluntary exile at the Temple’s “Jonestown” plantation in Guyana, where he subjected his followers to Soviet propaganda films and rambling monologues on the conspiracies he thought were targeting them. After Jones’ “Red Brigade” security guards killed Congressman Leo Ryan and four other members of a delegation that arrived to investigate Jonestown, Jones ordered his followers, including nearly 300 children, to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid drinks. (A chillingly calm “death tape” recorded Jones and other Temple stalwarts exhorting parents to poison their kids—and parents applauding the speeches.) Barbour, who knew some of the victims before they went to Guyana, gives few details of these events in her slender commemorative volume, focusing instead on simply naming the dead and presenting their portraits, mostly taken from passport photos. The roster ranges from 2-month-old Charles Henderson to 97-year-old Ever Rejoicing and includes Jones and other perpetrators along with innocents. Ironically, given Jones’ fulminations against racism and sexism, the victims were mostly African-American and many were female. Barbour intends the book mainly as a historical document and an aid to families (she includes forms for readers to contact her about misidentifications), but in these artless photos, the victims’ humanity—smiling, hopeful, unguarded—shines through. She adds no commentary or editorializing, but the mere alphabetical arrangement, of, say, the Baisy family—mother Shirley and six kids—conveys the loss with heartbreaking eloquence.
A poignant reminder of the Jonestown madness and the lives it destroyed.