Examining Delaware's Ties to the Jonestown Massacre
Forty years later, we reflect on the crucial role our state played in the aftermath of the 1978 tragedy.
Jonestown, located in South American country Guyana, from an aerial view. // Photo courtesy of The Jonestown Institute
One by one, Richard Ferris unzipped the disaster pouches shipped from Guyana to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He measured each decomposing body, determining age, race, gender and shirt size. He cut the lips back to break the jaws and expose teeth for dental records. He removed skin from the tips of fingers to help produce what would suffice for prints. "Determining race was difficult, other than by hair," Ferris recalls. "The bodies had roasted in the sun."
Now 78 and retired, Ferris was one of six embalmers called upon to manage the carnage of the murders and mass suicide orchestrated in a South American jungle by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones on Nov. 18, 1978. Ferris is the founder of R.A. Ferris & Co., a crematory in West Chester, Pa., where 70 of the 918 bodies were transported in the weeks that followed. It would be the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until 9/11.
James Schaeffer-Patton is an investigator with the Delaware Division of Forensic Science. In August 2014, he uncovered the remains of nine abandoned Jonestown victims in a foreclosed Dover funeral home. "Literally, all I knew about Jonestown [before that] was, 'Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,'" he says.
For Jim Jones, government types like Schaeffer-Patton were the enemy. And as Jones' paranoia grew, so did his obsession with vigilance. In the summer of 1977, he fled with almost 1,000 followers to his self-made utopia, which had been under construction since 1975, fulfilling his belief that it's "a church's duty to have a place of protection for its people."
Scenes from Jonestown circa 1978.// Photos courtesy of the Jonestown Institute
California congressman Leo Ryan's November 1978 arrival in Jonestown, with staff and media in tow, only exacerbated doubts and fears at the compound. Notes were passed from followers looking to return home. Feeling betrayed, Jones snapped. Ryan and four others were gunned down at Guyana's Port Kaituma airstrip as they attempted to leave by plane.
Jones then summoned his followers to meet at a pavilion surrounded by armed guards. He instructed them to bring their children, come forward and drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Instant genocide in the name of revolution.
The bodies of Jones and his followers were transported from Jonestown to Dover. Several, including Jones', were autopsied. The somber process led one medical corpsman to conclude that "heroes go to Andrews, and the dead go to Dover."
In 1978, Dover Air Force Base's Port Mortuary was one of only three spots in the country that had the capability of handling something of this magnitude. The others—Travis Air Force Base and Oakland Army Base—are in California, which was also home to the bulk of the Peoples Temple members. Insiders believe the U.S. government sent the bodies to Delaware to quell hysteria. "It was by design," says Schaeffer-Patton, a New Castle native who now lives in southern Chester County. "If the bodies were brought to the families' backyards, it could've been a security issue, so the federal government put 2,000 miles between them."
Fielding McGehee has close family ties to Jonestown. His wife, Rebecca Moore, lost two sisters—Carolyn and Annie—and a 3-year-old nephew—Carolyn's son, fathered by Jones—in the tragedy. Annie and Jones were the only two with gunshot wounds. McGehee and Moore made multiple trips to Dover, requesting that neither be embalmed before an autopsy.
"At the end of the process [in Guyana], the military requested snow shovels ... to scoop up the remains," says McGehee, who now heads the West Coast-based Jonestown Institute. "[Delaware was] completely petrified that these bodies were ending up in its backyard. They wanted the bodies out of there as soon as possible, and politicians erected all kinds of barriers that contributed to the anxiety, grief and consternation of relatives in California."
Forty years later, Richard Ferris is initially reluctant to recount his role in the aftermath. But his reticence thaws over the course of our conversation. "I had trouble breathing when I got home the first day," he says. "The next day, they issued us gas masks."
Ferris' involvement stemmed from industry relationships with local funeral directors Andrew Nix and Earl Ford, who had the embalming contract for Dover at the time. Neither is alive today, but Nix & Nix Funeral Homes still operates in Philadelphia. Ferris was charged with hiring other trade embalmers during a Thanksgiving morning meeting seven days after Jonestown. Among those, only former Drexel Hill, Pa., resident John Fatz and William Rigby of Media, Pa. are still living. Two others and Nix's son, who embalmed Jones, are deceased.
The Evergreen cemetery memorial to Jonestown victims// Photo courtesy of The Jonestown Institute
The bodies of Peoples Temple members were in the jungle heat and rain for two days prior to their discovery, and it would be several days before all the victims were collected and delivered back to the United States.
Due to extreme decomposition, traditional arterial embalming wasn't possible. Over a week of eight-hour-plus days, the team worked with an instrument like the one used to drain fluid on a knee. Without a venous system left to pump embalming fluid through, formaldehyde was injected into the extremities. "It's all we could do," says Ferris, who claims that there are State Department photos of the process that he's never been able to locate. "It's not like we were trying to set a Guinness world record or anything, but Elwood and I could do a body in 10 minutes."
Ferris estimates that he and Elwood handled 760 of the 918 bodies. After the formaldehyde injections, each was treated with powdered and gelatinous formaldehyde, wrapped in a new sheet, zipped into a fresh disaster pouch and labeled with the original body tag. Once hermetically sealed in metal caskets, the bodies were moved into a shipping container on the base for transport and storage.
Ferris went to the State Department to argue the case for cremation. "I said, 'You're doing this all backwards—I have a crematory in West Chester. I should be cremating rather than embalming,'" he recalls. "It made perfectly good sense."
Pete du Pont, Delaware's governor at the time, maintained that the bodies couldn't be cremated there because none were state residents and they lacked permits. And there was no cremation chamber in Delaware at the time. Ferris handled 70 cremations in West Chester. "I had to charge extra to also get rid of the metal [caskets]," he says.
The Delaware funeral homes selected to handle the disposition of identified Jonestown bodies were inundated. Pat Edwards was working for Dover Air Force Base as an assistant in civilian personnel at the time. "There's a military saying, 'Just get it done,'" says Edwards of the global recruitment effort she was involved in to secure military and civilian personnel for every job related to Jonestown.
There were people needed for clerical duties, food service, security and more. A tent city went up—"a whole compound that tripled the size of Port Mortuary at the time," says Edwards, who's now in her 47th year at Dover.
Edwards disputes the claims that there was any sort of opposition to the bodies coming to Delaware—and she'll never forget the smell of so many deceased. "The stench stayed here for months, and it was devastating," says Edwards, who's now a 436th Force Support Squadron community readiness consultant for the Airman and Family Readiness Center. "You wouldn't understand mass casualty until you've smelt that smell. It's totally unique."
Bill Torbert Sr. was responsible for Jones' ashes after his cremation in New Jersey. A semi-retired funeral director and former Delaware senator, Torbert kept the remains of the man he refers to as "Jimmy" on his kitchen counter over the 1978-79 holidays. He was awaiting directives from family members to scatter them over water, finally doing so a mile off Bethany Beach. In the process, he also scattered the cremains of seven others who died in Jonestown.
After letting the ashes fly, Tolbert had some trouble with the door of his friend's single-engine Piper. "No, no. It wasn't [Jimmy's spirit]," says Torbert, who kept the location a secret for decades. "I just couldn't get the door closed again."
Jim Jones in scenes from Jonestown.// Photos courtesy of The Jonestown Institute
While Torbert handled disposition for some 100 victims, others shared in the responsibilities. Four years ago, at Dover's Minus Funeral Home, 38 neatly stacked boxes of unclaimed cremains were discovered. It attracted the attention of the governor's office, which called on forensic investigator James Schaeffer-Patton's unit. Nine of the labeled boxes matched the names on the Jonestown victims list. Schaeffer-Patton theorizes that there may have been more.
The first box he examined was labeled "Ruth Atkins," along with her death date (Nov. 18, 1978) and location (Jonestown, Guyana, S.A.). "I went to [then chief forensic investigator] Mike [Price] and said, 'Tell me this isn't what I think it is,'" he recalls. "Mike said, 'No shit!'"
Schaeffer-Patton searched the names of Jonestown's dead on his phone, contacting seven of the nine families. Remains were claimed by four. One person feigned interest, but didn't return additional calls. "I took the hint," says Schaeffer-Patton. "I was told that I might run into that. The stigma is still too strong."
Another family member asked that the ashes be interred—as Atkins' were—with the other unknown or unclaimed victims in the mass-grave memorial at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Calif. Schaeffer-Patton has been invited to the 40th anniversary event at the site on Nov. 18. He's not sure if he will attend.
A memorable breakthrough was the return of Maud Ester Perkins' remains to her husband, Irvin Ray Perkins, in California. "It's an odd call to make blindly," says Schaeffer-Patton. "But I'll never forget what he said: 'I tried for seven years, calling [officials] several times a week, several times a day, and I was always told that someone would get back to me. Here we are 36 years later, and someone finally got back to me. I searched for seven years for my wife and son, who also died that day.'"
Delaware doesn't have strict guidelines for storing or disposing of cremains. Family members from Minus Funeral Home didn't return requests for comment, but Ferris says some places will hold the ashes until they're paid.
"I often wonder if more Delaware funeral homes have more Jonestown ashes," says Schaeffer-Patton. "We definitely, unintentionally ripped open old wounds, but we also provided some closure."
McGehee's Jonestown Institute is a survivor's network that's helped alter the negative stigma associated with the Peoples Temple. Its research has produced what amounts to a Jonestown census—a list of the 918 who died, including 307 victims under the age of 18. Sponsored by San Diego State University, the Jonestown Institute's website has up to 3,000 hits a day. "The site is half the size it will eventually be," says McGehee. "There are still FBI reports and 400 tapes to transcribe."
There are also survivors to find—and engage. Some 87 followers were elsewhere in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978, and perhaps 55 of them are still living. There were another 1,000 Temple members back in the United States who were cleared and waiting to go to Guyana. Another 3,000 regularly attended services and had membership cards. The Peoples Temple lost 20 percent of its membership in the massacre, then collapsed back home within six weeks, making it a relative hiccup compared to other religious movements or cults—tragedy aside.
Bryan Kravitz never made it to Guyana. He was working with the movement's publications group and operating its direct-mail campaign when Jonestown occurred, though his department's equipment was packed and his group was ready to go.
In October 1971, Kravitz had spent three nights at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, where Jones
held a series of rallies, a staple of his recruiting. Kravitz's encounter led to a Friday night departure on a bus to Indianapolis, the geographical genesis of Jones' Temple. Within a week, another bus shuttled him to a service in San Francisco. By Sunday, he was at Peoples Temple headquarters in Redwood Valley, Calif.
Ultimately, Kravitz's work repairing typewriters delayed his departure to Guyana. Now 69, he's the only known Jonestown survivor living in our area. Another, Odell K. Rhodes, was one of 11 members who escaped 30 miles into the jungle the night of the massacre. He lived in Darby and later Conshohocken, passing away in 2014.
Scenes from Jonestown circa 1978.// Photos courtesy of The Jonestown Institute
"When I was in California, I never felt at home," Kravitz says. "I was the wandering Jew in the desert for 40 years. One thing I've noticed … if you were part of the Temple, so much of your life died."
Kravitz left with the Peoples Temple largely to escape his father, Lenny Kravitz, and his famous Philly business, Lenny's Hot Dogs, a Nathan's of its era. "I figured the Temple would straighten things out—that I'd gain my own integrity," he says.
But then Jones started reminding Kravitz of his father, and it was "more of the same," he says.
He left what remained of the Temple on Jan. 1, 1979. "Life went on," he says. "It had to."
But Kravitz eventually circled back, marrying fellow Temple survivor Kristine (Johnston) Alles. They divorced in 2013. "We were so connected—it was like we both had the same deep cut," he says. "But because of that, we weren't a good match. Now I have a kind woman who listens to me. I needed a really kind person to get through, or it would’ve been the end of me."