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The Jonestown Doctor Works Out How to Kill Everyone With Cyanide

In this series, Newsweek reconstructs the events leading to the Jonestown Massacre as it happened in 1978, day by day.

November 8, 1978: On November 8, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about Ryan's planned visit to what the paper called Jones' "jungle hideaway." Ryan told the Chronicle that he was going "to investigate the living conditions of more than a dozen minor children and other relatives of his constituents," adding, "I intend to stay down there as long as it takes to find out what is going on."

At a rally in the Jonestown pavilion that evening, the Temple leader announced Ryan's visit in aggressive terms. "We may have an invasion, not with guns, but with hostile racists—one hostile racist congressman that...represents all anti-Black feeling...they're planning some kind of violent action against us. An entry into our project by force. We shall meet that force, but it is better if the Guyanese can meet them."

Here is an edited version of the audio from that evening (from the Jonestown Institute).

In Georgetown, Jones' aides pressured the Guyanese government to refuse to arrange transportation for the delegation and to provide "police protection" for Jonestown so the community would "not be obliged to use self-help methods to restrain them."

Meanwhile, mysterious packages began to arrive at the house the Temple rented in the capital, "Lamaha Gardens." The residence served as a base for high-ranking aides who worked as Jones' liaisons with Guyanese officials; it was also the place where incoming Temple members spent their first night before boarding a boat for the day-long river journey to Jonestown. In the leadup to Ryan's trip, orders were radioed down from the settlement warning people not to open parcels arriving from the States and to keep them locked in the garage.

Jonestown bags memo
A memo instructing that none of the bags delivered to Jonestown should be opened. Jim Jones was stockpiling cyanide and other items to kill the residents of Jonestown. Julia Scheeres

Most likely, the mystery packages were canisters of cyanide. Several survivors would tell the FBI that large quantities of the poison began arriving at Jonestown shortly before Ryan's visit.

As part of his "Revolutionary Suicide" fantasy, Jones had directed his medical team to find a way to kill Jonestown residents and to be creative about it—there weren't enough bullets to shoot hundreds of people. The team submitted their ideas to Jones as memos, later found by FBI agents. "It would be terrorizing for some people if we were to have them all in a group and start chopping heads off or whatever—this is why it would have to be done secretly," nurse Ann Moore wrote. She suggested poisoning the settlement's food or wells, or corralling residents in an enclosed space and then releasing carbon monoxide. Other medical team members suggested slitting residents' throats with scalpel or starving everyone to death.

Jonestown doctor Larry Schacht
Jonestown doctor Larry Schacht Public domain / University of Houston

But it was Dr. Schacht—who stopped attending to residents' health problems on Wednesdays and instead researched ways to murder them—who came up with the solution.

At first he tried growing cultures of toxic bacteria that cause botulism and staph infections. But he couldn't grow enough to kill 1,000 people. Then he struck upon a better idea. "Cyanide is one of the most rapidly-acting poisons," he wrote to Jones. "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 the cyanide was not good enough to do the job... cyanide may take up to three hours to kill but usually it is within minutes."

Jonestown doctor memo
The Jonestown doctor, Larry Schacht, outlines how to kill a pig with cyanide. Julia Scheeres

Although the paper trail doesn't reveal what happened to the "large pig," it does show that Dr. Schacht ordered 1 lb. of sodium cyanide from a chemical company in California—enough poison to kill 1,800 people.

Julia Scheeres is an award-winning journalist and author. Her books include Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.