What are the facts about the cyanide in Jonestown?

There are many aspects to this question: How much was on hand when the deaths began on November 18? How long had it been on site? Who ordered it? How could anyone procure such a large amount? Did the people who worked with it in Jonestown know what it was for? Virtually all of the questions falls into the category of what survivor Tim Carter calls “the unanswerables.”

How much cyanide was on site? During the Guyana Inquest, Guyana’s Assistant Chief of Police C.A. “Skip” Roberts testified, “I also saw about 7 (1 litre) bottles containing Potassium cyanide with labels and two litre bottles containing potassium chloride.… I got back one report from the analyst that in a bottle labelled valium there was also cyanide.” At the same inquest, survivor Odell Rhodes testified, “I saw the label ‘Potassium Cyanide’ on those bottles which I had aforementioned as gallon bottles.”

How long had the cyanide been in Jonestown? According to research done by CNN for its documentary, Escape from Jonestown, which aired in 2008, “cyanide was being bought and shipped to the Rev. Jim Jones’ jungle compound in South America for at least two years before [November 18]… Sources in Guyana said the Jonestown camp began obtaining shipments of cyanide — about a quarter to a half-pound of the deadly poison each month — as early as 1976, well before most of Jones’ followers made the move there.” According to CNN correspondent James Polk, that information was given by “a person who had first-hand involvement in the sale of cyanide going back at least two years prior to November 1978. I was referred to that source by a quite prominent person in Guyanese circles, who also was aware of that aspect of the history of this tragedy.”

While not directly contradicting the timeline, several survivors puts the time – and size – of the acquisition much closer to the final day. Survivor Juanita Bogue was reported as saying that “[a]pproximately one month prior to the suicides Dale Parks, while unloading supplies from the boats, observed several cases of cyanide. He called the agronomists to find out if they ordered it as some form of insecticide, however, no one had knowledge as to who requisitioned it. The cyanide was then placed in the storage hut other chemical supplies and was not seen again.” That account was seemingly verified by Dale Parks’ father Gerald, who said, “he had found hundred pound bags of ‘mono floro phosphate,’ and thought that it was an insecticide. [Parks] stated that Russell Moten [Moton] told him that it was poison.” (Dale himself said he “had no knowledge regarding the presence of cyanide at the Jonestown settlement.”) Monica Bagby said she had “[o]bserved cyanide at Jonestown, Wednesday, a week prior to Ryan’s visit.” All of these witnesses had survived the deaths by leaving with the congressional party; all of these interviews were conducted in December 1978 by FBI agents as the survivors returned to New York.

Richard Clark, who led the group of “picnickers” out of Jonestown on November 18, gave the most detailed recollection in his interview.

Clark recalled the arrival of two bags of cyanide at Jonestown, approximately one week before the arrival of Congressman Ryan. The cyanide, along with other supplies, arrived in Guyana aboard the ship “Cudule” [“Cudjoe”]. The supplies were moved to a store house area just outside of Jonestown, where Clark was working at the time. He stated the cyanide was packaged in two bags weighing approximately ten pounds each and marked “cyanide”. At that time, Jerry Parks was managing the storehouse and placed a third empty bag over the two bags of cyanide in order to keep the domestic animals from accidentally eating it. The next day Russell Moten (phonetic), came to the storehouse and asked Clark if he had seen the bags. Clark showed Moten the location of the bags and Moten took both bags and took them to Jonestown.

A memo written by Jonestown doctor Larry Schacht speaks of testing cyanide on “a large pig to see how effective our batch is,” but the memo is undated – its only contextual note is that it was written after Debbie Blakey defected from Jonestown in May 1978, and its urgency suggests Schacht wrote it soon thereafter – nor is there any indication whether any tests were carried out.

Finally, a memo from Jonestown nurse Annie Moore lists poison as one of many options to effect a “revolutionary suicide,” but as with the Schacht memo, it is undated.

Originally posted on March 18th, 2019.

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