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.

Schacht had been proud enough of that internship to immediately write to his sister and mother, who had moved from Houston to New York City.

In her reply, Mona Schacht wrote, "Congratulations and may your future be full of good news always." The kudos may have been slightly diminished by the fact that Mona got her youngest son's middle name wrong on the envelope. It was addressed to Lawrence Jay Schacht.

It was his brother Danny's middle name.

Survivors say Schacht credited Jones with turning his life around by sending him to medical school.
Peoples Temple Collection, California Historical Society, MSP 3800.35.0822
Survivors say Schacht credited Jones with turning his life around by sending him to medical school.
Larry Schacht (center) told Jim Jones (right) he wanted to first test the cyanide on one of Jonestown's pigs.
Peoples Temple Collection, California Historical Society, PC 010.07.0740
Larry Schacht (center) told Jim Jones (right) he wanted to first test the cyanide on one of Jonestown's pigs.

Sex is a key issue + I know I really haven't faced it. The fact that I was nothing before you found me is not thought of enough. I want to even it up.

— Larry Schacht, undated letter to Jim Jones
_____________________

The speed of Schacht's descent into contempt for himself and intolerance of others in his 16 months in Guyana is astonishing.

Crawling out of a brain-frying meth addiction and into a respectable hospital internship was a platform for pride. Here's what's not: Sticking a mentally unbalanced, inexperienced intern into the depths of a jungle compound where he is responsible for the medical needs of 1,000 people who aren't allowed to leave without the express consent of a drug-addled lunatic.

In the beginning, Schacht might have been as naively optimistic as anyone about the experiment in utopian ideals that was the Peoples Temple Agricultural ­Project.

A person reading the Project's Summer 1977 Progress Report might be impressed by the community's classrooms, the sawmill, the gardens, the piggery, the chicken coop and the cottages. Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham apparently was; the booklet includes a photo of the smiling official standing next to an equally happy Jim Jones.

The booklet boasts of a developing medical clinic featuring a doctor "and two licensed medical practitioners, one in neuro-surgical specialty, and the other in pediatrics," which was simply not true.

Also, while Schacht may have been licensed in the United States, he had no license in Guyana, which is something that wiped the smile off Prime Minister Burnham's face when he found out. The government would have been happy to grant a license to Schacht if he had followed protocol and fulfilled a one-year internship in Georgetown, but Jones didn't want the young doctor out of his sight. Schacht was forced to make up for this lack of real-time training by listening to Sunday-morning lectures conducted by a network of medical professionals around the world who gathered via ham radio.

Based on an interview author Julia Scheeres conducted with one of the network's doctors for her book A Thousand Lives, "Schacht's questions were so simplistic — about basic procedures to set broken bones or treat skin rashes — that the [network] members were surprised to learn he was a practicing physician."

Leslie Wagner-Wilson, who escaped from Jonestown the morning of the massacre, was a nurse in the medical department. The 21-year-old, who aspired to be an ob-gyn, arrived in Guyana around the same time as Schacht and saw him unravel under the demands of his job.

At first, Wagner-Wilson recalls, Schacht was "lighter in his spirit and more open." But he grew troubled enough to complain to Wagner-Wilson about Jones, which was a major infraction — residents were told to rat on anyone who complained or made overtures about leaving.

"One situation that really had me concerned about him, because he started getting really tired [and] really, really upset. He said he had been at Jim's house all night, and, you know, he was sick and tired of it. And then he kind of stopped himself...for him to even speak that, he was taking a chance."

Unbeknownst to Wagner-Wilson, Schacht found her attractive, which may have added to the doctor's stress. His letters to Jones during his time in Guyana show a man almost completely overcome with sexual frustration.

Annie Moore, Jones's personal nurse (and the person believed to be responsible for shooting Jim Jones in the head before shooting herself), picked up on Schacht's pent-up urges and relayed her complete annoyance in an undated letter to Jones.

"He told me he was still hung up on sex and relationships...He has done this before, but I never thought of him as coming on to me, probably because I don't wish for him to. I told him if he wanted to fuck, he should clear it with you...and I'm sure you would OK it. Then he would get it out of his system. Then he said that maybe he didn't really want to, that he was not agressive, so he never made much headway with people [sic]."

Moore writes that, contrary to what Wagner-Wilson says, it was Schacht who was always pestering Jones for sex, which suggests that either Schacht was lying to Moore or Moore was lying to Jones.

Although Moore found the doctor repulsive, and while she "personally [felt] the urge to kill him most of the time," Moore told Jones that, if necessary, she'd be willing to have weekly sex with him so that "maybe I could line him with care & all the ego building he needs."

Although the "Letters to Dad" were mandatory, and although each person was expected to confess to sins real or imagined, there is an especially miserable streak in Schacht's letters. Instead of generally beating himself up in a paragraph or two, he tends to write page after page about what a terrible person he is and how he doesn't deserve to be called "Doctor."

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4 comments
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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