Cover Story: Larry Schacht, the Doctor of Jonestown

On the day of the Jonestown massacre in November 1978, three native Texans played significant roles.

Sixty-year-old Christine Miller, born in Brownsville, is heard on the infamous "death tape" trying to negotiate with Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones to save the lives of more than 900 people. With incredible courage and dignity, she calmly suggests alternatives to drinking poison in a display of "revolutionary suicide."

She assures Jones that she isn't afraid to die -- almost certainly a lie -- but that she wants to explore all the options, such as the previously discussed plan of fleeing to Russia. She was opening a door, throwing a lifeline to others who may have wanted to speak up but were too afraid. "But I still think, as an individual, I have a right to...say what I think, what I feel. And think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals," she says.

Her words were in vain.

She was shut down by Jim McElvane, a 46-year-old native San Antonian, who had only come to Guyana a few days before.

"Christine, you're only standing here because [Jones] was here in the first place," McElvane says. "So I don't know what you're talking about, having an individual life. Your life has been extended to the day that you're standing there because of him."

McElvane succeeds in extinguishing the only voice of dissent heard on that tape. A few minutes later, the killings begin.

That's when the work of the third Texan, whose voice is not heard on the tape, becomes apparent. He played the most important role that day. His name was Larry Schacht, and he was born in Houston. He was Jonestown's only doctor. He was the man who came up with the idea of using cyanide to kill more than 900 men, women, and children.

Barely 30 years old, this former meth addict is a virtual unknown. Unlike Jim Jones, whose history has been studied extensively in the decades since the tragedy, Schacht's back story is only understood in pieces, told by former Peoples Temple members, and letters found in the thousands of internal Temple pages government officials collected in the wake of Jonestown. This week's cover story, "Medicine Man," uses these sources to follow, as best as possible, Schacht's trajectory from Houston to California to Guyana. Unfortunately, as is the case with most studies of Jonestown, it tends to raise more questions than it answers. Schacht tends to remain an enigma; an obscure individual who nonetheless helped perpetrate one of the darkest days in American history.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow