Making Plans to Die

The deaths in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978 required a great deal of planning and decision-making beyond the mere wishes of Jim Jones. Members of the leadership’s inner circle had to determine how everyone would die, and what mechanisms needed to be set in place to effect their plans. Insofar as the plans included cyanide poisoning, the logistics had to include the medical department, including Jonestown doctor Larry Schacht as well as the nurses who would eventually mix the poison.

But the ideas for death were not limited to poisoning, nor were they limited to the top leaders or medical personnel. In addition, the residents of Jonestown presented their own ideas on how everyone could die. These suggestions appear most often in the form of written responses to periodic questions on how community members viewed their own deaths, or what they would do in the event of a final White Night. The questions were primarily loyalty tests for people to demonstrate their commitment to the Cause, and those who  failed to answer satisfactorily were flagged for counseling. Even as contrived as some of the proposals may have been, though, they demonstrate how conversations surrounding death – including murder and suicide – became part of the daily discourse, with the horror of the subject eventually fading into mundanity. It all contributed to making the unthinkable events of the last day not only rational, but even inevitable.

This page details some of those ideas and plans.

  1. “A select group would have to kill the majority”, a memo from Annie Moore, spring 1978
  2. “Cyanide is one of the most rapidly acting poisons”, a memo from Larry Schacht, late spring 1978
  3. “People will be escorted to a place of dying”, a memo from Phyllis Chaikin, fall 1978
  4. “If we have no alternatives, blow up the boat,” a note from Christine Lucientes and Jeff Carey, date unknown, RYMUR FF-13-A-26 – FF-13-A-28 NEW
    1. PDF
    2. Text
  5. “Burning ourselves is not a usual topic of conversation,” a note from Edith Bogue, January 26, 1978, RYMUR EE-1-AB-19-a – EE-1-AB-19-b NEW
    1. PDF
    2. Text
  6. “Hunger Strike or Burning,” a note from Shirlee Fields, date unknown, RYMUR EE-1-F-12 NEW
    1. PDF
    2. Text
  7. Responses to “The Final White Night” Question
Originally posted on February 11th, 2021.

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