In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Guyana After the Jonestown Massacre

Rolling Stone's 1979 story piecing together what happened after the tragedy masterminded by Rev. Jim Jones

January 25, 1979 1:10 PM ET

Dead bodies lie near the compound of the People's Temple cult in Jonestown, Guyana after over 900 members of the cult, led by Reverend Jim Jones, died from drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

The others were already in Guyana. Stuck in the Miami airport, through no fault of my own, I paced. I was a journalist, a ghoul, with a desire to go where no sane man would wish to go. A smiling woman with large, syrupy eyes tried to pin a candy cane on my shirt. She explained that the Hare Krishnas were feeding people all over the world, and she had this record album and a book and a magazine – "Like, it's rully ecstatic" – and would I like to cough up a donation.

"Doesn't this Jonestown stuff make you wonder about yourself?" I asked.

"What?" She looked up at me in shock.

"Selfless commitment," I began.

"It's the oldest... "

"They killed the babies first," I said.

"... religion in the world. We have... "

"Potassium cyanide."

"... members in all... "

"Dead," I said. "Men, women, children, old, young, black, white... "

Her eyes glazed over and she turned from me, walking rapidly in the general direction of the United Airlines ticketing desk. I followed along after her, the way so many of them had hounded my steps over the years in airports all over America.

"They were people who couldn't look into themselves," I insisted. "Good people. People who fed the hungry. Who helped others. And now they're lying out there in that goddamn jungle... "

She stepped up her pace.

"... swollen. Grotesque. Nothing more than thirty or forty tons of rotting meat."

She ran from me, her bag full of magazines and albums thumping against her hip. I felt both ashamed and full of fierce, brutal joy. There were a dozen of them at least, between concourse A and concourse H, and I got every one. All you had to do was "Jonestown" them and they fled like rats.

While I was raging through the Miami airport, Tim Chapman, a husky twenty-eight-year-old photographer for the Miami Herald, was doing some of the best work of his life. In Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, he had talked his way onto a flight to Jonestown, where the bodies still lay, three days after the massacre that culminated in the death of more than 900 members of the Reverend Jim Jones' Peoples Temple.

From the helicopter it looked as if there were a lot of brightly colored specks around the main building. At 300 feet the smell hit. The chopper landed on a rise, out of sight of the bodies. Other reporters tied handkerchiefs over their faces. Chapman didn't have one, so he used a chamois rag. It turned out to be a good idea.

Chapman was telling me all this about three in the morning the day I arrived in Georgetown. He wasn't drinking, but his words slipped out in slurry bursts. He hadn't been able to sleep much.

"The first body I saw," he said, "was off to the side, alone. Five more steps and I saw another and another and another; hundreds of bodies. The Newsweek reporter was walking around saying, 'I don't believe it, I don't believe it.' Another guy said, 'It's unreal.' Then nobody even attempted to speak anymore. It was overwhelming. Bizarre."

Chapman talked about how he kept moving, shooting wide-angle shots of the hundreds of bodies. "There were colors everywhere: raincoats and shirts and pants in reds and greens and blues; bright, happy colors." Chapman saw two parrots on a fence, a red and yellow macaw and a blue and yellow macaw. He moved around to get that angle: the contrast of life and death.

"I started moving to my left," Chapman said. "And I was battered by the smell. It hit me. Went right into my chest. I started to gag, and turned my back. Seeing it, plus the smell... " He wadded the chamois into his mouth, bit down, got some saliva into it and tasted the leather. That helped some. "Then, I found if I kept my eyes moving and let my camera be my eyes, I'd never really see it. I shot verticals and horizontals, moving to my left. And then there it was." Chapman shrugged helplessly. "There were piles upon piles of bodies. What do you call it? There's no definition. Nothing to compare it to."

Outside our hotel, a tropical rain battered the windows. Inside, an air conditioner cranked up to full-high howled mechanically. The bodies, Chapman said, were in grotesque disfigurement. One woman's false teeth had been pushed out. He saw a child, maybe five years old, between a man and woman who were swollen in death. He remembered that the child wore brown pants and a blue shirt. He wasn't as swollen as the man and woman. The children didn't seem to swell as much. Just for a moment Chapman stood there, hating the parents. They had a choice and the child didn't.

When the other reporters left for Jones' house Chapman decided to stay with the bodies, and he moved through them alone. He stopped for a moment, and in the stillness, he heard a body working. "It was ... gurgling. And it came from a black woman in a red shirt with viva written across the front. She wore gold earrings and she was arm and arm with a black man. Her head was swollen to the size of a bowling ball. Her eyes had popped completely out of her head. The entire eyeball was resting outside the socket." Chapman paused. "It didn't bother me then," he said. "I knew it would get to me in a few days.

"This is going to change my life," Chapman said softly. He lost the thread of his thought momentarily and his eyes went blank. In Vietnam, they called it the 1000-yard stare.

I waited for a while, then asked. "What else?"

"Okay. I moved to my left. There was a vat and then I saw Jones. As I moved toward him, I got a real bad whiff. I stepped away, almost tripped on a body, stumbled to get my balance, and as soon as I bent down, I was suddenly too close to one. There was a tremendous adrenalin shot, a fear." He had then stepped back and tried to tell himself that he had to go on, that he was an instrument of history.

"It was really sickening at this point. The bodies were all, well, they were oozing – literally. Fluids running out of the bodies on top of bodies. Some of them had guts hanging out. They had burst in the heat. Eyeballs, intestines, bodies virtually held in by clothing. Somehow it all reminded me of Salvador Dali's Resurrection of the Flesh. Did you ever see that? And I thought, 'What I'm doing here is a form of art."'

Chapman told me he saw seven needles. One was sticking out of a man's neck. Another was totally bent, as if it had been shoved into someone or something with a lot of force. There was about half an inch of milky fluid in the syringe.

There were some dogs that had been shot and some dead cats. Chapman decided not to photograph them. He thought there were a lot of sick people in the world who would be more angry about them than "this mind-boggling, nihilistic thing, this questioning of the very value of human life."

Chapman chose not to shoot any photos of Jones. It had been done, and besides, he felt that somehow any more photos would glorify the man. He never got closer than fifteen feet to Jones. "He was wearing a red dress shirt and it looked to me as if it had burst open because of the swelling. From where I stood, it looked as if he wore a soaked white T-shirt. Either that or his skin was bulging out, because you could tell it was holding in liquids and goo.

"His head was all blown out of proportion. There was a wound under his right ear and it was oozing. One arm was up over his head, stiff in rigor mortis. The skin was stretched tight over the hand, and it looked desperate, like a claw."

There was something else, something about the arrangement of the bodies that struck Chapman. Jones was on his back. Most of the others were face down, their heads pointing to Jones. "I could tell," Chapman said, "that it wasn't their final statement. It was Jones'."

Somehow that single thought was the most terrifying thing Chapman said that morning.

The Park Hotel is a big, faded, white, four-story frame building surrounded by palms. Someone in the Guyanese government had decided to put all the survivors of the massacre on the same floor with the survivors of the Port Kaituma ambush (during which Representative Leo Ryan of California and four others were murdered; he had traveled to Guyana at the request of some constituents, who were troubled about relatives living in Jonestown).

On the second floor of the Park is a large ballroom. A white ribbed dome rises some seventy feet above the floor where there are a dozen or so tables with three or four chairs apiece. Just under the dome is a balcony, which leads to the rooms. The ballroom is open to the wind on three sides. A white wooden railing keeps inebriated guests from stumbling off the floor and plummeting into the gardenias below. In deference to the periodic downpours that last an hour or more, there is a green metal awning, hung with pots of various tropical flowers and ferns. I thought of the place as the Graham Greene room.

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