The Saying "Drinking the Kool-Aid" Came From the Jonestown Massacre — Someone Got It Wrong

No one in Jonestown actually drank Kool-Aid but they did drink something else and it was partially made by one man.

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Jun. 13 2024, Published 10:12 p.m. ET

Old advertisement for Kool-Aid; Jim Jones speaks into a microphone
Source: Getty Images

Content warning: This article discusses suicide and murder.

When the bodies of more than 900 people were found in the middle of the jungle in Guyana, South America, the scene was overwhelming. Most of them were U.S. citizens, which prompted the U.S. government to offer to pay to have them interred there, per Time Magazine. The Guyanese government wisely said no.

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Most of the bodies were found facedown with many people clutching each other. Of the 918 individuals who passed, 300 were children. It was clear that some had been injected with a mysterious fluid while others had died after drinking what looked to be punch. It would later be determined that the drink was poisoned. Since that day in November 1978, many believe that most of the victims of the Jonestown Massacre died after drinking Kool-Aid laced with something, but that isn't exactly right.

The victims of the Jonestown Massacre
Source: Getty Images
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Did the victims of the Jonestown Massacre drink Kool-Aid?

According to the Houston Press, the Jonestown Massacre victims mixed cyanide into Flavor-Aid and not Kool-Aid, although some conflicting reports have stated it could have been a combination of the two. It isn't clear how people came to believe it was Kool-Aid, but that eventually gave birth to the saying, "Someone drank the Kool-Aid," which meant they were buying into something. You know, kind of like a member of a cult might. At least one survivor detests that turn-of-phrase.

Forty years after the murders at Jonestown, Congresswoman Jackie Speier wrote about the experience that set the whole thing off, per Politico. In her book UNDAUNTED: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back, Speier, a young congressional aide on a fact-finding mission, discussed their purpose for going. Her boss was Congressman Leo Ryan, and some of his constituents reached out to him regarding their loved ones in Guyana, so he went and brought Speier along.

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On Nov. 17, 1978, shots were fired at the delegates as they were attempting to board their flight. The delegates were joined by a few family members as well as some cult members who were defecting. Several people were shot to death, including Ryan. Thankfully Speier and a handful of others lived. Nearly 40 years later she would admit in an interview that the words "drink the Kool-Aid" infuriated her, per SFist. She said it's "always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there."

(L-R): Jackie Speier after visiting Jonestown; Congressman Leo Ryan smiling
Source: Getty Images
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One man was responsible for creating the poison that killed everyone at Jonestown.

Houston Public Media spoke with Jeff Guinn, the author of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, about the doctor who concocted the poison forced on the victims of Jonestown. Larry Schacht was a drug addict who left Houston and ended up in California where he went through an addiction recovery program offered by the Peoples Temple. "Basically they'd lock you in a room and let you get out cold turkey. When you finally recovered it was understood you owed a lot to the church," said Guinn.

When Schacht recovered, he told the teachers he wanted to become a doctor so they sent him to medical school in Mexico. Upon graduating, he was certified in the U.S. Once Jonestown was open, Schacht was sent there to be the settlement doctor. He had no prior experience and brought books about acupuncture, natural childbirth, and how to survive in the woods.

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Schacht was primarily responsible for legally ordering drugs from the U.S., mostly because Jones was severely addicted to several types of opioids. Jim Jones, the founder of the Peoples Temple, used Schacht in other ways as well. He would often convince parents that their daughters were doing OK by having them write home and tell their folks they were engaged to Schacht, a doctor.

Bottles of cyanide found at Jonestown
Source: Getty Images
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Before he relocated the Peoples Temple to Guyana, South America, Jones had been preaching about suicide as a revolutionary act. Realizing he was close to being outed as a fraud, Jones told his followers that they needed to demonstrate their commitment. In February 1978, he told everyone that soldiers were coming to kill them so they had to drink a cup of punch he passed around. A few didn't want to do it but those who did were congratulated by Jones. It was a test.

He then had Schacht order a pound of sodium cyanide which was enough for 1,800 lethal doses. Schacht experimented on pigs they were raising to get the right formula needed. Because he had already tricked them once, come November 1978 many people believed there would be no poison in the drinks.

This changed when Jones started using syringes to shoot the concoction into the mouths of children. A few hundred willingly consumed the toxic beverage but most people were forced to do so. This was not suicide. It was murder. And it was facilitated by Dr. Larry Schacht.

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call, text, or message the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Dial or text 988, call 1-800-273-8255, or chat via their website.

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