Jonestown's Medicine Man

A young Houston physician designed a lethal cocktail that killed more than 900 men, women, children and babies at a place that was supposed to be a paradise but is better known as Jonestown.

It was not ready for the roughly 600 people who migrated from Peoples Temple churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles within the previous year. Each individual or family was supposed to have his or their own cottage; the gardens were supposed to yield lush tropical fruit. Clearing of the land began in 1973. Peoples Temple members back in the States were updated through letters and taped interviews with their loved ones that were shown in the California congregations.

Peoples Temple had long since ceased being a church in the traditional sense; for years, Jones told his congregation that the only thing the pages of the Bible were good for was toilet paper. Peoples Temple was a sociopolitical organization, and in the Bay Area, Jones was a revered liberal leader.

But increased media scrutiny, including a series in The San Francisco Examiner and a 1977 investigative piece in the magazine New West, based on interviews with defectors, told the tale of a delusional, paranoid madman who abused and exploited his flock. At the same time, Jones was embroiled in a convoluted child-custody battle with two high-ranking defectors. Fueled by paranoia and an increasing dependence on barbiturates, Jones wanted to leave the States, and he wanted to take as many followers as he could with him.

Children were the first to be forced to drink Larry Schacht's infamous potion, which was mixed in a battered vat. More than 270 kids ages 16 and under were killed.
AP Photo/Frank Johnston, Pool
Children were the first to be forced to drink Larry Schacht's infamous potion, which was mixed in a battered vat. More than 270 kids ages 16 and under were killed.

Although the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was supposed to be a shining example of a socialist society, there was a power elite, and as the community's only doctor, Schacht was part of it. He had a respiratory therapist and a few nurses to help him, but for the most part, Schacht alone was responsible for the well-being of nearly 1,000 people, from infants to the elderly.

Meanwhile, Jones was the community's conduit to news from the States; the compound's residents were cut off from the world. Incoming and outgoing mail was censored or altogether trashed. Loudspeakers blared Jones's interpretation of world events, tales of government oppression and race wars and a society rotting from the inside out. The addresses ranged from exaggerations to outright ­fabrications.

In one such public address, from May 1978, Jones describes a bloody Hispanic uprising in Houston — an "absolute revolution...killing some 17 police. Houston is really rocking and reeling from the resistance of the...Spanish-speaking, the Chicano population."

At any time, Jones warned, everyone in the community was subject to a fascist invasion and must be willing to commit "revolutionary suicide."

People who showed signs of hesitancy, and even those who were late to meetings, were subject to a variety of punishments, including time in "The Box," a six-foot-by-four-foot underground locker. Persistent violators were isolated in a cabin called The Extended Care Unit, where they were plied with Thorazine, either intravenously or in specially prepared meals.

This was the kind of society Schacht was willing to lay down his life for, or at least that's what he says in the recording from the summer 1978 meeting where residents pledge to give their lives.

"And we've decided to take our lives, and I've decided to take my life, because we can't...give to the world what we really want to give," he says. "We really want to give what we are, the way we work here together, the cooperative Marxist-Leninist communist lifestyle we live and uphold, we can't...give to the world what we really want to give."

It is highly unlikely that anyone outside of Jones's inner circle knew that by this point, the idea of "revolutionary suicide" was not just philosophical, and not even suicide. Despite Schacht's sanctimony, he had already been tasked by Jones with finding the best method to kill everyone in the community­.

"I need a good book on forensic medicine — tells many different ways people are actually killed," Schacht wrote in a letter to Jones around the time of this suicide drill. "I recall seeing a book in the States with color photographs."

I do not trust myself, I've seen too many "white" Jews, educated scum, hauty, narcissitic, weak bastards not to fear that very same pattern in myself [sic].

— Larry Schacht, letter to Jim Jones, undated (likely July 1978)

Larry Schacht grew up in a house where he learned that being different and outspoken has real consequences.

Ezra and Mona Schacht were communist, antiwar Jews living in Houston in the 1960s; they practically rolled out the red carpet for whoever it was who burned a cross on their lawn and fired buckshot at their house.

A Peoples Temple member who knew Schacht would tell federal agents in 1978 that Schacht told him that he was "motivated in his cause primarily because his parents had been harassed when he was a child since they were Jewish and that his parents were very pro-integration." But it wasn't just bigots the Schachts had to deal with; it was the government.

The Schachts were on the government's radar as early as December 1963, when Ezra's and Mona's names popped up in a U.S. Secret Service memo generated during the investigation of the Kennedy assassination.

"Mona Schacht is an official in the State communist party and considered the top ranking communist in the Houston area," the memo states. Secret service spooks also saw Mona and Ezra speak at a March 1962 "Picnic for Peace" in Austin's Zilker Park, an apparently suspicious event that also featured such potential enemies of the state as "a folk singer affiliated with leftist movement, and several members of the Young People Socialist League of Houston."

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Gorgo Aleksandr
Gorgo Aleksandr

I read this article last night, precisely. It is absolute madness what our ludacris beliefs can make us do =(

Judy Ohr
Judy Ohr

Stick to posting recipes! What a horror to relive that terrible time.

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