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.

She stresses, "It's hard to talk about someone who's dead that played such a major part. Because you want to show the compassionate side of them — because it was there."

The last time Wagner-Wilson saw Schacht was November 17, 1978, the day before the deaths. She and a friend were sitting on the pharmacy steps, "and I remember him coming out of the office with a really concerned look on his face, very intense. And that's the last I remember of him."

The next morning, Wagner-Wilson and ten others escaped into the jungle, pushing their way through 30 miles to a military outpost and freedom. Strapped to her back was her three-year-old son, Jakari — Jonestown's youngest survivor.

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.

Symptoms of cyanide poisoning are Increase of respiratory rate at first and then depression, blue color, Headache, loss of consciousness, asphyxia and seizures which precede death (often). [sic]

— Larry Schacht, undated memo to Jim Jones (likely May 1978).
_____________________

The one area in which Schacht seemed to have found real purpose and direction was plotting the deaths of every man, woman and child in Jonestown, including ­himself.

Only those in the inner circle knew that Jones was planning a real "revolutionary suicide" months before the November visit of U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, whose subsequent murder by Peoples Temple members at the Port Kaituma airstrip triggered the Jonestown deaths.

Schacht's responsibility was perhaps the most important: finding the best way to kill ­everyone.

In a January 1978 letter to Jones, Schacht explains that "there is a good chance I can develop germicidal means. Botulism + staphylocci [sic] in process now." He's also aware of the fear and panic it could incite, and is thinking of ways to minimize such complications. He's confident, ­proactive.

"I am quite capable of organizing the suicide aspect + will follow through + try to convey concern + warmth throughout the ordeal."

At the same time, a nurse named Phyllis Chaiken was offering her thoughts on the same subject. In an undated letter to Jones, she suggests dispatching armed guards to round up everyone in the pavilion. The next step would be to call random names. Then, one by one, each individual would be escorted away from the pavilion and shot in the head.

"If Larry does not believe they are definitely dead, their throat [would be] slit with a scalpel...The bodies would be thrown in a ditch." Like Schacht, Chaiken was mindful of the panic this might cause.

"It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remain[ing] on the ground might increase the agitation," she suggests.

Ultimately, Schacht's research paid off and he came up with what he thought to be the quickest, cleanest method: cyanide. His undated memo to Jones says it all.

"I had some misgivings about its effectiveness, but from further research I have gained more confidence in it, at least theoretically. I would like to give about two grams to a large pig to see how effective our batch is to be sure we don't get stuck with a disaster like would occur if we used thousands of pills to sedate the people and then the cyanide was not good enough to do the job."

He adds further down, "Cyanide may take up to three hours to kill, but usually [it] is within minutes." He requests a particular article on acute cyanide poisoning from a medical journal, and just in case anyone back in the States asked, "We could say that a child was brought in to our free medical clinic who had ingested rat poison containing cyanide and we want this article on the subject."

The scene, as reported in various news media and by government officials of Guyana, was said to be grotesque in the extreme.

— Autopsy of Larry Schacht, December 15, 1978
_____________________

There is no way of telling what went through Schacht's mind when he saw the words from his memo put into ­action.

His voice is not one of those identified on the infamous "death tape" that captures the administration of the poison to children. According to Odell Rhodes, one of the few survivors who actually witnessed the event, the residents were called to the pavilion and surrounded by armed guards. After it was made clear that everyone was going to die, the first to step forward was 24-year-old Ruletta Paul, carrying her 18-month-old son, Robert Jr.

Rhodes stated in a Guyana coroner's inquest that Paul "took a syringe filled with this brownish liquid and squirted it into the child's mouth; this said syringe had no needle. She took another syringe which also filled with this brownish liquid and squirted it in her own mouth."

Rhodes was standing by the table that held the vat and syringes, so he was close enough to Schacht that the doctor told him he needed a stethoscope from the nurses' office, apparently so he could later make sure that people were indeed dead. He may have started this process as soon as people collapsed, hence his being too occupied to be heard on the death tape.

One thing's for sure, though: Schacht would have known that an aide of Jones's was lying when she tried to reassure the parents who hesitated in coming up to the table after hearing the anguished screams of the first children to ingest the poison.

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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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