The impact of the Jonestown Massacre still resonates four decades later, especially in communities throughout the tri-state area that played a key role in the aftermath, writes J.F. Pirro for Main Line Today.
The Jonestown Massacre was the single largest loss of American civilian life from a deliberate act until Sept. 11, 2001. On Nov. 18, 1978, Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple sect that fled to South America, orchestrated the murder and mass suicide of more than 900 of his followers, including children, after instructing them to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Richard Ferris, founder of R.A. Ferris & Co., a crematory in West Chester, was one of six embalmers mobilized to manage the aftermath. Seventy of the 918 bodies were transported to West Chester in the following weeks, even though most of the victims were from California.
“It was by design,” said James Schaeffer-Patton, an investigator with the Delaware Division of Forensic Science. “If the bodies were brought to the families’ backyards, it could’ve been a security issue.”
Ferris hired other trade embalmers seven days after the event, including former Drexel Hill resident John Fatz and William Rigby of Media.
However, due to the extreme decomposition, traditional arterial embalming was not possible. So Ferris argued for cremation with the State Department.
“I said, ‘You’re doing this all backwards; I have a crematory in West Chester. I should be cremating rather than embalming,’” he recalled.
In the end, Ferris handled the 70 cremations in West Chester.
Four years ago, Schaeffer-Patton, who lives in southern Chester County, discovered the abandoned remains of nine more victims in a foreclosed funeral home in Dover.
He found and contacted seven of the nine families, but only four remains were claimed.
Read more about the Jonestown Massacre in Main Line Today here.