January 30, 2013, Houston Press, Cover Story: Larry Schacht, the Doctor of Jonestown, by Craig Malisow,
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 America in history.
Autopsyfiles. org: Jonestown Autopsies: Lawrence Schacht Autopsy ...
Autopsyfiles.org - Laurence Eugene Schacht Autopsy Report http://www.autopsyfiles.org. Page 2. Autopsyfiles.org - Laurence Eugene Schacht Autopsy Report ...
Through them, and the stories of survivors, Scheeres sets out to humanize the nearly 1,000 lives — a third of them children — that ended on that horrible day, Nov. 18, 1978.
Not an easy task. Some survivors who made it back to San Francisco after the massacre were treated as "baby-killers," and denied food stamps. "It was far easier to condemn Jones's victims," writes Scheeres, "than to comprehend them." Scheeres, whose best-selling memoir "Jesus Land" detailed her time at a "religious rehabilitation camp" in the Dominican Republic with her adopted African American brother, has an intuitive understanding of life under an oppressive ideology, and a reporter's eye for telling detail.
She introduces us to many unforgettable people: strong-willed Edith Roller, Jonestown diarist, who taught elderly residents to read, wore Peter Pan collars and missed her solitude. Stanley Clayton, a former felon tormented by Jones, who still returned to the love of his life. Teenage Tommy Bogue, who liked to watch "Creature Features" and kept trying to escape. Elderly Hyacinth Thrash, who never lost her Christian faith but stayed in Jonestown to be with her sister.
On the other side, she traces Jim Jones' history of using secrecy and compliance to keep people bound to him, a "jarring blend of affection and threat" that was in play from his beginnings as a Pentecostal minister in Indiana. He faked assassination attempts, made people sick so he could heal them, and coerced members to sign "confessions" of child abuse and other crimes to be deployed should they defect. And yet, by the time his Peoples Temple arrived in San Francisco, countercultural haven, "the veneer was spotless." Even Jones' wife Marceline, Scheeres writes, did not know about the most basic fraud. Jones packed people into his church, won powerful friends, and a seat on the city's housing commission.
San Francisco Temple members thought Jonestown would be a communist utopia, but it became "a vacuum of reason where paranoia played out unfettered." Scheeres has a keen eye for Jones' political hypocrisy. "In San Francisco, Jones once told an aide that the way to control people was to 'keep them tired and poor.' In Jonestown, he kept them tired, poor, and hungry."
Night after night, Jones detailed complicated threats against the community, and proposed mass death as the only solution. And yet, even in April 1978, after numerous (staged) attacks, fear drills and "suicide votes," residents still spoke up against Jones' disturbed fatalism: "A woman stood to speak: 'I feel that ... we owe our commitment to socialism to stay alive as long as possible.' " But Jones had already directed Jonestown's doctor, Laurence Eugene Schacht, to design a "last-stand plan." He enthusiastically obliged. "His one free day each week was Wednesday, when he stopped healing Jonestown residents and instead researched ways to kill them."
In taut, brief scenes, Scheeres brings us into the life of the settlement with heartbreaking immediacy. Stories of near-escapes and the interventions of concerned relatives, pieced together from hundreds of letters Jones did not allow to be sent or delivered, have us asking the immediate questions: Who's going to survive? And how? Her bone-chilling moment-by-moment account of the horrific final day will make you reconsider everything about those iconic aerial images. The mass poisoning began with the children: "Their deaths were anything but quiet. ... Aides were dragging small corpses into rows to make room for more Temple members."
What she does not do is give us the why, the context that we long for to explain such an inexplicable tragedy. She does not try to historicize Jim Jones, makes no grand claims that Jonestown represents the final death throes of the 1960s counterculture. In short, she has no comfort for us. One gets the feeling that for Scheeres to step too far outside the walls of the Jonestown compound would feel like a betrayal of those who lost their lives there. So she keeps the focus steady, small and zeroed in on those lives. You will not be able to look away.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of "Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden," published by Grove Press in August.
SCHACHT, Laurence Eugene
Photos Courtesy of California Historical Society, MSP 3800
Better known as
Date of Birth
Age at Death
Place of Birth
Redwood Valley, California 95470
Residence (JT) Abbreviated
Information on__Source of Death
House Foreign Affairs Committee report; FBI document 89-4286-1302 (prepared 12/78)
Occupation outside__Peoples Temple
doctor (PT occupation record)
Occupation inside__Peoples Temple
Entry in Guyana
Doctor; "Explosives committee" (FBI document 89-4286-1207); Planning commission (Raven)
"We loved each other when we were young” - Linda Hopkins Lowe Crutchfield
“Remembrance of Larry Schacht” - Sherrie Tatum
“The Opening Door ” - Sherrie Tatum
“Your dear voice… ” - Sherrie Tatum
"We loved each other when we were young" - Linda Hopkins Lowe Crutchfield
“Remembrance of Larry Schacht” - Sherrie Tatum
"The Opening Door " - Sherrie Tatum
"Your dear voice… " - Sherrie Tatum
A guest visiting the Jonestown clinic, with Dr. Larry Schacht (center) and Jim Jones (right), Jonestown, Guyana