Real Crime

What Was It Like to Die of Cyanide Poisoning at Jonestown?

close up of cyanide bottles at Jonestown
Members of the Peoples Temple cult at Jonestown drank cyanide mixed with Flavor Aid to commit suicide. Photo by Matthew Naythons/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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    What Was It Like to Die of Cyanide Poisoning at Jonestown?

    • Author

      Adam Janos

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      What Was It Like to Die of Cyanide Poisoning at Jonestown?

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      January 28, 2020

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      A+E Networks

On November 18, 1978, cult leader Jim Jones orchestrated a suicide of 918 followers in the jungles of Guyana at their settlement, Jonestown. The mass death relied heavily on cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, with followers lining up to drink the lethal poison.

A&E Real Crime spoke with Marcus Parks—whose podcast “The Last Podcast on the Left” ran a five-part, 10-hour special on Jonestown—to learn more about the last fateful hours of the men, women and children who died that tragic day.

Tell us a little bit about what it feels like to die by cyanide poisoning. Is it painless?
It’s horrifying. It is not in any way a painless death. The deaths in Jonestown took anywhere between five and 20 minutes. First, your entire body starts to convulse. Then your mouth fills with a mixture of saliva, blood and vomit. Then you pass out, and then you die. Your body is deprived of oxygen completely. It’s a horrific death.

Maria Katsaris, [one of Jones’s mistresses and right-hand women] comes onto the microphone [on the audio recording the group made of their suicide] and is directing them on where to stand in line. [After hearing many children crying], she says, “It’s not painful, they’re just crying because it tastes bitter.” But it was undoubtedly extremely painful to each and every person.

(Listen to audio of the Jonestown deaths here. Warning: It contains graphic content.)

Who came up with the idea of committing suicide? 
They talked a lot about revolutionary suicide. It was something they talked about at meetings: the best ways to do it. They thought about guillotines, lining everyone up in front of a ditch and shooting them in the head. Eventually, the idea of poison started coming up during these brainstorming sessions. It’s not clear [who came up with it first]… Jim Jones is definitely the one who put it into practice.

What about using poison, specifically? Why not use one of the other methods?
That’s one of those existential questions that isn’t really answerable because all the people who had the answers are dead. But it was efficient, it was something he knew he could get people to do and it was fast… You’re talking about killing over 900 people. One little-known-fact is that it’s estimated that the entire process, from beginning to end…took four hours.

Was it just cyanide?
Cyanide, Flavor Aid and a touch of Valium.

Who made it?
Dr. Larry Schacht, and he had a couple of nurses as well. He was the Jonestown physician. He was a guy Jim Jones had taken off the streets. Jones had an uncanny ability for putting people in positions where he knew they would excel.

He wasn’t a good doctor. The nurses did the majority of the work.

How did he know how to make the poison correctly, with the right proportions of each ingredient?
It was something he’d been working on for a while. He’d ordered the cyanide in the summertime [a few months before the suicides].

Why ‘Flavor Aid’? Was it just the drink of choice at the commune, or was it brought on specifically for this purpose?
It was the drink of choice on the commune. It was cheaper than Kool-Aid.

The thing with Jonestown is it was not supposed to hold 900 people. It was for about 500 people.

So most of the time, they ate rice with little specks of meat in it. They drank Flavor Aid, which was a knockoff Kool-Aid. And that was a treat.

I imagine it was also used to mask the flavor of the cyanide?
Yes. But I’m sure it still tasted like bitter almonds.

Was there blanket group obedience for the mass suicide or were there differing degrees of enthusiasm?
Jim Jones had told them that if the government comes they’re going to torture you, castrate you. So there’s a person who gets on the audio tape [during the suicides], and he’s looking at the kids convulsing… He says I would rather see our children die like that than die at the hands of the people coming to get us: the CIA, the American government.

When that guy comes on and says that, people cheer. It’s harrowing.

The way [Jones] did it was—in an evil-genius way—brilliant, because he had the kids go first. And once the kids are gone, what do the parents have to live for? He just cascaded grief down. He broke them one last time.

What about reports that some people were injected with cyanide, instead of ingesting it like the others?
There were [bodies] found with bent needles in their arms. They refused to go, I think. [Personally] I think they said, “I’m not going to do this,” and so they were made to do it. They forced them to do it—if you’re not going to be a part of the revolutionary suicide, we’ll make you a part of the revolutionary suicide.

Regardless of what he told his followers, what do you think Jones’s logic was for instigating this mass suicide?
Jim Jones wanted to be a great man. Jim Jones thought doing this…would make him great, that his name would ring out in history. And it does; everyone knows who Jim Jones is, but not in the way that he believed. He thought people would take it as an inspiration. Revolutionary suicide was about inspiring people. The last line of [one of Jones’ mistresses] Annie Moore’s suicide note was, “We died because you would not let us live.”

But instead of being a martyr to socialism, he’s a joke. He’s a punchline—”Don’t drink the Kool-Aid”—which is highly offensive. But at the end of the day, that’s Jim Jones’s legacy.

Related Features:

Was Jonestown a Mass Suicide or a Mass Murder?

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians: 6 Things You Should Know

Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre

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