Murder by Thorazine:
A Look at the Use of Sedatives in Jonestown

Nurse’s office in Jonestown
Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

In the 35 years since the horrible events of November 18, 1978, most historical, psychological and sociological studies have focused on the final hours of Jonestown and the factors that contributed to that day. In this paper, I will attempt to look at something that was occurring in Jonestown’s shadows away from the sun-drenched pavilion, over a more extended period of time and unknown to most of the community’s residents: the drugging of dissidents at the behest of Jim Jones. In particular, I will be discussing the use of Thorazine as a method of drugging to insure compliance of individuals who were housed in what was called the Extended Care Unit, or ECU.

The ECU was located in a building that was adjacent to the infirmary and was staffed by medical personnel under the command of the Jonestown doctor, Larry Schacht. It was a place where “sensitive” work was given to some of the nurses, etc, in Jonestown: that work was the drugging of individuals whom Jones had deemed a threat to the community.

The people who ended up in the ECU were seen as malcontents, potential defectors, and dissidents, or in other words, the threats to Jonestown’s welfare and even its very existence. They disagreed with Jones on a myriad of subjects, but most notably, they disagreed with his policies. For example, Temple attorney Gene Chaikin apparently clashed often with Jones on numerous subjects, especially on the Temple leader’s practice of threatening Guyanese officials, U.S. government agencies, and hostile relatives, that the community as a whole would commit suicide if they did not get what they wanted in any particular situation. Jones felt that these threats would reduce outside interference, while Chaikin felt they demonstrated a juvenile response to crisis. The Temple attorney paid a heavy price for his actions: he was placed in the ECU and spent most of the last months of his life drugged on Thorazine. (My story on Gene Chaikin from last year’s edition of the jonestown report is here).

There is no way of knowing how long the ECU was active, or for that matter, how long different individuals were assigned to it, but we do know some details about its operation and who some of the individuals assigned to it were. We also have accounts of Jonestown survivors who describe several people stumbling through the community in a sedated state, including a couple of young women whose crime was rejecting Jim Jones’ sexual advances.

For my analysis, I looked at those FOIA documents that were listed as medical records. In section J-1, I found a compendium of what could be called the “hard drugs”: tranquilizers, anti-psychotics, barbiturates, etc. Listed amongst the drugs in J-1 is Thorazine, 100 mg tablets.

Thorazine is a powerful anti-psychotic drug that was popular for many years until it was replaced by a new generation of safer, more effective medications. Thorazine was most commonly prescribed for schizophrenia, and 100 mg tablets were used for severe cases of schizophrenia, with a prescribed dosage of one tablet every six hours. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, the prevalence rate of schizophrenia is 1.1% of the population of the United States over age 18 at any given time. When we take this number and extrapolate it to the population of Jonestown, which had approximately 1000 people – and indeed, if we drop that number by 300, the number of children in Jonestown who, because of their age, would not have been considered for a Thorazine protocol – we could expect to see that no more than seven schizophrenic adults who might have been candidates for the medication. This number would be further reduced when we realize that it was the Temple’s policy not to allow people with significant physical, emotion or mental disorders – such as schizophrenia – to emigrate to Jonestown. If this is the case, one has to wonder, if not to treat schizophrenia, what was all of the Thorazine in Jonestown being used for? I shall discuss this further later in the article.

Most notable about Thorazine are its side effects, which are powerful and gruesome. First, Thorazine is well known for having a powerful sedative effect on those who take it. Indeed, many patients who have taken it are likened to zombies due to its power of sedation. It is even said that taking Thorazine is akin to having a “chemical lobotomy.” Another notable side effect is what is called “the Thorazine shuffle”: individuals on the drug have a hard time keeping still and find themselves needing to walk in an ungainly gait. Other common side effects are dizziness, drowsiness, weight gain and sexual problems. Thorazine use can also have very serious consequence such as tremors, drooling, nausea, restlessness, twitching and uncontrollable movements, high fever, stiff muscles, confusion, sweating, high heart rate, seizure, low heart rate, fainting, and slowed breathing.

Thorazine was not intended to be used as a tranquilizer/sedative, especially when one takes into consideration the nasty side effects. But if the purpose of the ECU was to control dissent, though, sedatives like Thorazine would have worked. And in fact, it was used for that reason. Thorazine is categorized in FOIA file J-1 – by whoever created and maintained the ledger – as an “MT,” an internal abbreviation for “Major Tranquilizer.”

Let us turn our attention to some of the people who were drugged and kept in the ECU. In addition to Chaikin, we have the following:

Barbara Walker: In the August 25, 1978 entry for the journals which Edith Roller kept, she notes that Barbara Walker had attacked Stephen Jones because he was unreceptive to her advances. Edith states that, in a community meeting that day, Jones ordered that Barbara Walker be “sedated.” Additional evidence that she was periodically kept in a “no-capacity” state also appears on Jonestown tape Q 734, and Tim Reiterman includes her on his list of those who were known to have been drugged in his book Raven (452).

Shanda James: Several sources – Reiterman in Raven (452), Debbie Layton in Seductive Poison (176, 300), and Julia Scheeres in A Thousand Lives – list Shanda James as a woman who was drugged, although the reasons given for the sedation are not corroborated. However, the consensus seems to be that Jones demanded she be housed in the ECU after she rejected his sexual advances.

Vincent Lopez: Vincent Lopez was a young man who apparently got into trouble on numerous occasions, but according to Raven (452), after he tried to escape into the bush and was brought back to Jonestown, he was sent to the ECU.

Charlie Touchette: Known as a curmudgeon throughout his life, Charlie Touchette’s negativity threatened to bloom into open defiance against Jones, and he was drugged, according to Raven (452).

Christine Talley: According to Dianne Scheid, in a story – written as a letter to herself – in this edition of the jonestown report, “Christine Talley calls you to her bed in the medical unit. She asks if you would get rid of the pills she has not been swallowing but hiding in her cheek. She tells you she’s been watching the other person in the unit who has also been drugged, as they intended her to be, and has been mimicking her. She tells you that the reason she has been sent there was her refusal of Jones’ sexual advances.”

Many of these individuals were still seen after they had been placed in ECU, but it should be noted that it was visibly apparent they were under the influence of some sort of powerful medication. Shanda James, for example, was seen walking around Jonestown, but she had to be held up by another person because she was so out of it. Eugene Chaikin was also seen outside of the ECU, and his twilight state suspended at times so that he could do some detailed legal work for the Temple, but those periods were apparently of limited duration. The fact that people were still seen and were, in some cases, still active within the collective doesn’t change the fact that their behavior was being seriously manipulated through the use of drugs.

There may have been others who were sedated in Jonestown, but these are the six individuals for whom we have credible accounts.

So what does section J-1 of the FOIA documents tell us about the usage of Thorazine in Jonestown? To begin with, it shows us that Thorazine was indeed being used there, despite the fact that no individuals with debilitating psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia were permitted to go to the “Promised Land.” We can look at the log and see that quantities of Thorazine were being sent to the Nurses’ Office (occasionally noted as the “N.O.” in the log) on a regular basis. We also know that the ECU was housed next to the Nurses’ Office and that it was staffed by medical personnel who were tasked with keeping dissidents under control.

The first notation of a date for Thorazine entering Jonestown is April 27, 1978, with a quantity of 105 pills. The first entry of its use that shows that six pills were dispensed on May 17, which may have some significance in that it was four days after the momentous defection of Deborah Layton-Blakey. On May 22, a much larger amount of 30 pills is dispensed, and indeed, by June 3, a little over two weeks after the first pills were dispensed, all 105 pills in the initial batch were gone. It would be another six weeks – July 13 – before the next bottle of Thorazine enters Jonestown, and a final bottle arrives two months after that, on September 19. The difference is that these bottles each contains 1000 tablets.

The use of the pills escalates as well. After the arrival of the first 1000-pill bottle, the 100 mg pills are shown to be dispensed to the Nurse’s Office roughly every other day, with the number of pills on any given day ranging from 15 to 36. A huge number of pills, 100, are noted as going out to the Nurse’s Office on October 2, the day that Feodor Timofeyev, the consular of Soviet Union embassy in Guyana, visited Jonestown. But the largest transfer – 135 pills – occurred on November 5, immediately after the Jonestown leadership learned that Congressman Ryan is coming in two weeks.

That last date is significant for another reason: On the same day as this large movement of the medication to the Nurse’s Office, Annie Moore – one of Jonestown’s nurses as well as one of Jim Jones’ closest confidants – wrote a memo to Jones in which she states her belief that Joyce Touchette, another member of the medical staff, is trying to poison the Temple leader. The paranoia that had been threatening to consume all of Jonestown for many, many months, was finally taking a very firm grip on the collective.

The information found in section J-1 of the FOIA release is both fascinating and vital for understanding what was going on in Jonestown. Taken with the first hand accounts of survivors, it paints a new picture of life in Jonestown in its last few months. It validates the allegations of survivors that individuals whom Jones saw as a “danger” to his power were sedated/drugged into submission in the Extended Care Unit. It also shows us that there were individuals, such as Eugene Chaikin, who may not have been aware enough of their surroundings to be able to make the decision that they wanted to die. In the case of those individuals who were housed in the ECU, then, I believe Jones and his nursing staff committed murder when they administered poison to the dissidents. Furthermore, the information in J-1 illuminates a series of ongoing decisions undertaken by the ECU staff that were medically contraindicated and morally reprehensible. Even disregarding the actions of the nursing staff on Jonestown’s final day – if we can – their acquiescence and participation in administering a policy of silencing dissent through sedatives was also criminally irresponsible.

This is just the beginning of my research. There is more information in J-1 and other sections of the FOIA documents that detail the types of medications (innocuous and not) that were in Jonestown during its existence. I hope to examine these records further to help paint a more complete picture of what was going on in Jonestown in its final months.

(Bonnie Yates earned a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Illinois University. She has performed work in an Adolescent Suicidology lab, including the gathering, compiling and interpretation of data. Bonnie is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles appear here. She may be reached here.