By Shena McAuliffe

Marceline Wanted a Bigger Adventure

True Story, Issue #26

There isn’t much to see in tiny Richmond, Indiana, the birthplace and final resting place of Marceline Mae Baldwin, the mild-mannered nurse who became the wife of charismatic preacher Jim Jones.

I would not have come across the grave of Marceline Baldwin Jones by chance. I like walking in the older, hillier section of Earlham Cemetery, where the crumbling graves are sometimes topped with the rain-softened shape of a lamb or praying hands, and the old Quaker names are in cursive scripts or simple block letters: Eliza and Caleb and Levi and Alice. Marceline’s grave is in a newer section, an orderly corner far from the road, where the stones are organized like little villages, so their backs face each other and the heads of the dead rest together, sometimes arranged around the base of a tree. I looked up Marceline’s grave on, and then located it on the cemetery map. I have visited deliberately, driven by twin habits of walking and curiosity. I do not know exactly what I am looking for.

It is a hot day in early spring, and I have sweated through my shirt. I have not brought water. I stand before the headstone. I see no evidence that anyone else has been here recently—no flowers or plants, no folded scraps of paper or envelopes. I hear the banging of a construction site somewhere far beyond the row of slender trees that marks the back edge of the cemetery. A few birds chirp.

Marceline Mae Baldwin was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1927. She was a Methodist, a daughter and sister. She was, by all accounts, a generous and mild woman all her life. According to her cousin Avelyn Chilcoate, Marceline longed for a life outside the small town; the two young women, both nurses, had plans to move elsewhere together, maybe to somewhere in Kentucky. But then, in 1948, Marceline met a strange young man named Jim Jones, an orderly at the hospital where she worked, and together they stepped into the stream of history.

• • •

Jimmy Jones was born in 1931 and spent his earliest years living with his parents in a shack without plumbing in rural Indiana, not far from where Marceline is buried. They say he was a strange kid, and that he had a hard time making friends. They say he was very intelligent and obsessed with death and religion, that he occasionally performed funeral ceremonies for squirrels and rabbits, and that even as a teenager, he busied himself reading Stalin, Marx, Mao, Gandhi, and Hitler. Jimmy’s father was a veteran of the First World War, his lungs severely damaged by mustard gas. He couldn’t work because of his ragged breathing—there were times he could barely walk—but Jimmy’s mother was ambitious and worked hard at whatever jobs she could get. For some reason, she did not allow her son in their house when she was out, so after school he wandered the streets, ducking into a store to “steal” a candy bar (which his mother would pay for on the weekend) or into the pool hall, where he might find his father, or he practiced dramatic sermons standing on a stump at the edge of the woods. Later, Jimmy coached younger boys at baseball, naming the local team after the Cincinnati Reds. When Jimmy was in high school, his mother left his father, and Jimmy moved with her to Richmond, Indiana, the small city on the border of Ohio where I have lived for the past three years. A serious young man, he sometimes preached on the streets in Richmond, a Bible tucked under his arm, and he graduated early from the public high school, which is still the city’s only public high school and stands just across the river from my house. At sixteen, Jimmy got a job working nights at Reid Hospital, and it was there that he met the pretty, intelligent nurse with green eyes.

• • •

My first thought was that she was angelic, just glowing, shining, a will-of-the-wisp and obviously special. I wondered, “Whatever does she see in him?”

—Jeanne Jones Luther, cousin of Jim Jones,

on the first time she met Marceline 

No smile, but a warm, worldly gaze that could hold you forever. She is truly stunning, so sure and deep. She is exactly what her young Jimmy Jones needs to become a man.

—Stephan Jones, son of Marceline and Jim Jones,

 describing his parents as he sees them in a photo

 taken during their courtship in the late 1940s

• • •

When Marceline was twenty-two and Jim was nineteen, they married and moved across the state. In the years that followed, Jim was in and out of college, in Bloomington and Indianapolis, at IU and Butler. Marceline continued working as a nurse, and for a time, Jim worked for a monkey-importing business, selling pet monkeys door to door in Indianapolis.

Early in their marriage, Jim admitted to Marceline that he didn’t believe in her God, but when the Methodist church committed to a new platform focused on racial integration and the alleviation of poverty, among other values that agreed with Jim’s socialism, he decided to become a student pastor at a Methodist church. Marceline was thrilled, somehow seeming to forget that he wasn’t actually Methodist, and maybe wasn’t even Christian. Jim was a gifted preacher but soon became dissatisfied with the structures and routines of Methodism. He began preaching on the revival circuit, where he developed the kind of drama and charisma that drew crowds and donations. He began to perform healings, pulling “tumors” from people’s mouths like coins from sleeves, like rabbits from hats. (In reality, they were rotten chicken livers he had learned how to palm.) Finally, he opened a small Indianapolis storefront church of his own. His parishioners were mostly African American women, and his services included helping them solve everyday problems, such as writing letters to the electric company to restore their power. His congregation outgrew the storefront, and in time, he bought a downtown building that had recently been vacated by a Jewish congregation. He named his church Peoples Temple, the apostrophe deliberately omitted because apostrophes indicate possession—ownership. The people of the temple were black and white, young and old, and Jim Jones was their leader, their reverend, and a socialist.

“Jim has used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion,” Marceline explained in a 1977 interview, many years after she had come to terms with his lack of—and use of—Christian faith. Religion was a means to an end for him, a way to connect with the dispossessed. As for Marceline, she remained a faithful Methodist for a long time, but it isn’t clear to me whether she still believed in a Christian God when she died.

Marceline gave birth to one son, whom they named Stephan, in 1959. Over the years, she and Jim adopted six other children: an eleven-year-old girl who may have been part Native American, three Korean orphans, a white American boy, and, in 1961, a black American boy they named Jim Jr. They were the first white couple in Indiana to legally adopt a black child, and they called their family a “rainbow family.” Jim and Marceline were deeply committed to civil rights and egalitarianism, and Jim was appointed to the Human Rights Commission of Indianapolis. But all this, of course, was only the beginning of their story, and these things are mostly forgotten now.

• • •

In a deeply segregated city, [Peoples Temple] was one of the few places where black and white working-class congregants sat together in church on a Sunday morning. Its members provided various kinds of assistance to the poor—food, clothing, housing, legal advice—and the church and its pastor, Jim Jones, gained a reputation for fostering racial integration.

Rebecca Moore, professor of religion and sister of Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, devoted members of Peoples Temple who both died at Jonestown

His message was always very stark . . . brotherhood, all races together. You were accepted just as you were, you were not judged by the way you looked, or how much education you had, or how much money you had.

—Rick Cordell, early member of Peoples Temple

• • •

Jim Jones combed his black hair in a soft wave that dipped over his left eyebrow. His part was straight, and he kept his sideburns neatly trimmed. His nose was round and his cheeks were fleshy. He was a good-looking man—face full enough, eyes warm enough. He wore a sport coat and sunglasses, always the sunglasses.

• • •

Marceline shares a headstone with her parents. Walter and Charlotte Baldwin had visited their daughter in Jonestown in 1978, only weeks before she drank the poison, and then she was gone. I imagine them purchasing the plots and the stone, their own deaths still years in the future though their daughter’s life was over at the age of fifty-one. Two of the Jones children—Lew Eric and Agnes Pauline—are buried beside their mother. Their stones are set slightly apart from hers, almost as if to protect their privacy in death. They were adults themselves—aged twenty-one and thirty-five—when they died in Jonestown, and they had children of their own who also died that night. Lew’s son, Chaeoke Warren Jones, was a year and a half old when he died, which means he would be my age now, if he had lived. He is buried in a memorial site in Oakland, California, along with his mother, Terry Carter Jones, and many of the unclaimed or unidentified victims of the massacre.

As for Jim Jones himself, no one wanted his body buried in their cemetery, their town, their state. At first, the Baldwins and Jim’s two surviving children planned to bury him in Earlham Cemetery, but the people of Richmond protested. His body was sure to draw an unsavory element, as well as possible violence at the funeral. Along with the rest of the bodies from Jonestown, his body was first flown from Guyana to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, but the people on the East Coast didn’t want him buried in their states either. Some states devised sudden laws about whose bodies could and couldn’t be interred within their bounds to ensure he would not be buried in their soil. In the end, his body was cremated, and his two surviving children scattered the ashes over the Atlantic.

• • •

In part, Marceline’s grave is just a destination for a walk in a town where I have walked the same routes too many times, a town where I am sometimes bored by the walks, sometimes saddened by them—the boarded windows and potholes, the dogs that snarl and fling themselves at fences as I pass. I suppose I am walking here to meditate on Marceline, though I do not valorize her. She is mostly a mystery to me. Thinking about her makes me wonder about loyalty and love and how they can blind us, about agency and belief, about devotion and delusion. Perhaps I am only a lookie-loo, seeking her grave to stand safely near tragedy without truly experiencing it, to feel the buzz of some electrical darkness. It has been forty years since the deaths at Jonestown. There is nothing here but names on stones, bodies deep in the earth, invisible, still, and decayed.

• • •

When I was twelve, my dad took a new job and my family moved from a small town in Wisconsin to a Denver suburb, where the yards were fenced and treeless, the grass brown much of the year. The cost of living was higher than it had been in Wisconsin, and my sisters and I were old enough that it made sense for my mom to go back to work full-time. Our new home was, according to me and my sisters—and maybe my parents too, though they kept quiet about it—an ugly “suburban hell,” and my sisters and I spent our unsupervised after-school hours indulging in MTV and other television we’d never been allowed to watch before. I still know well the songs and music videos that were popular in 1989, that first year in Colorado. Metallica’s “One” tells the story of a World War I soldier who loses his limbs, sight, hearing, speech, and soul to a land mine. I was haunted by the image of a quadriplegic body draped in a sheet and isolated in darkness on its hospital bed. Skid Row’s “Eighteen and Life” captured my imagination like a cheap novel, depicting a young life far more desperate and violent than my own middle-class existence. In these narratives, I recognized suffering, and I recognized my own safety and privilege.

Shortly after the move, my parents joined Amway, a pyramid scheme in which all members “own their own business” and earn a percentage of every product ordered by the business owners who join after them—beneath them on the pyramid. For a couple of years, my folks spent hours listening to cassette tapes that offered tips on how to approach friends, family, and strangers to get them to attend their meetings and join the business. At least one night a week they hosted a meeting in our living room, or attended one in the living room of their “sponsor,” the person they’d joined under, or in the living room of one of the business owners near to them in the pyramid. The goal was always to bring a few “prospectives” to the meeting and get them to join. I spent many evenings babysitting for a one-year-old named Kelsey—a baby whose habits and expressions I grew to know well, a baby I grew to love—while her parents attended meetings with my parents. My dad shaved his beard during those years because Amway told him a clean-shaven face was a more successful and appealing business face.

One summer, my parents rented an RV and our family traveled to Spokane, where my parents attended the Amway Family Reunion, a convention where people like my parents listened to speakers meant to inspire them to get rich, and to teach them just how to do it. While my parents attended meetings, I babysat for Kelsey in the hotel. On the final morning, a Sunday, we attended a church service in the hall where the meetings had taken place. Amway had their own worship band, the Goads—even the band name was a spur, reminding you to get off your ass and sell and praise and live your best capitalist life. I think it was after the church service that we accepted an open invitation to visit the home of one of the top businessmen in the organization, who lived nearby. I had my picture taken in his garage beside his red Corvette.

Amway seemed a cocktail of capitalism, self-help, and religion. Make money for your family. Be your best American self. Get rich while helping others get there too! I don’t hear much about Amway these days, but in the years after my parents let their branch of the business dwindle and die, I heard it mentioned now and then, usually as the punch line to a joke about rubes or sleazy businessmen.

I often wonder how my parents escaped the jokes and derision of Amway, why they were naive enough to join. They joined in the organization’s heyday, but still: Wasn’t it the sort of thing you stayed away from with a knee-jerk “no thank you,” the same way you might hang up on a telemarketer? I think my parents did make a little extra money in those years, getting a percentage back on the products they bought that they would have bought anyway—the list of products was endless, everything from laundry detergent to cereal bars to plaque-fighting chewing gum—but how had they fallen for it? How had they so fully given themselves over, believing that they too could be millionaires, or at least a little wealthier, believing they’d earn college tuition for my sisters and me, or the sports car neither of them had ever desired?

When they quit, they argued about it. My mom wanted to keep their spot in the pyramid, making their small profit off products, but my dad wanted a clean break. Those in a pyramid scheme make no real friends; each person is using the others for financial benefit, and after they quit my parents spent a lot of time making formal apologies, calling friends and family they’d propositioned and then lost touch with, presumably because they’d offended them. My dad apologized to me and my sisters, too, for spending so much time on it, for letting those years pass too swiftly, with too much focus in the wrong places. It seemed there was something sticky in my parents’ argument about quitting—some paradigm had lured them and shifted their vision, an illusion they now had to dismantle and release. Amway isn’t a cult, and no one was going to ask them to drink poison, but it was a scheme that demanded they entangle their hopes for the future, their family, and even their faith, with their finances. It asked too much to be a safe venture.

• • •

For some months in the early 1960s, the Joneses lived in Brazil, one of the places Jim believed would survive nuclear holocaust, based on an article he had read on the topic in Esquire. And then there was the big move of Peoples Temple from Indiana to Ukiah, California, another safe area listed in the Esquire article. The people called Jim “Father,” and Marceline was “Mother.” Jim told Marceline—and his followers—that maybe he was God. Jim told his people to sign over their money and their goods, their social security checks. Sometimes, if they disobeyed, he beat them. There were drugs—lots of drugs—and Jim had sex with the men and the women of his temple. Some people left. Some people filed complaints. But the temple also helped people recover from addictions, and fed them, and helped them get jobs, and paid for them to go to college. It was an interracial, socialist family that shared what it had with every member, no matter their race or background.

Although Marceline couldn’t bear any more children, she loved the ones she had, both adopted and biological. Her back ached with rheumatoid arthritis, and she couldn’t have sex anymore, or not very often, but she stayed married to Jim even after he openly took a lover. Jim lived with Marceline for part of each week.

• • •

When I think about Marceline, I think about the strange avenues of our lives, the unexpected digressions, the ways, in retrospect, our paths can seem both fated and surprising, an impossible balance of magic and choice.

Never did I imagine I would live in Richmond, Indiana, a town to which I moved because there is a college here, where I am visiting assistant professor. I am forty-one years old, childless or—depending on how I spin it, depending on the day—child-free. I am standing in a cemetery at the grave of Marceline Baldwin Jones, a woman to whom I have no specific connection, but I would like to leave something here—flowers, a scrap of silk, a marble—some token that says Rest in peace, my puzzle, or Someone was here. I remember you.

Who else has stood here and marveled that they are standing at the grave of a woman they never knew, at the surprises of Marceline’s life, the surprises of their own? And who has stood here who knew Marceline and wondered all the more at her unlikely path?

Stepping closer to Marceline’s headstone, I now notice two pennies, heads up, resting on the back ledge, evidence that others wanted to leave something too. But my pockets are empty. No dandelions or violets grow here. I have only a small notebook, a pen, and my phone.

• • •

In 1977, an article in New West magazine made public some of the darker secrets of Peoples Temple. Former members reported that they had been harassed and coerced, that public humiliation and physical abuse of temple members were par for the course, that under threat of abuse and humiliation members were forced to donate belongings and property, including the deeds to their homes, that Jones faked healings of temple members, and that once he had feigned being shot so that he could also feign healing his own gunshot wounds. The temple ran a number of youth homes that received funding from the state, and a couple who had supervised one of the homes reported that state money meant for the care of boys who lived in the home was given instead to the temple.

Jones got wind of the article before its publication and, bracing for the fallout, he and hundreds of his followers moved to a settlement in Guyana, a newly independent socialist country where the people were mostly black and English was the official language. The relocation had been in the works since 1974, when the temple had leased more than three thousand acres of Guyanese land on which to build their communist utopia. A smaller group of Jones’s people had been in Guyana for over a year, working to establish the settlement. The New West article raised doubts that everyone in Guyana was there of their own free will and questioned whether people would be able to leave should they decide Jonestown was not the life they wanted.

Deep in the jungle, the settlers built small frame houses and tried to grow food, and they named their village Jonestown after their leader. Jim Jones ruled over it, and ruled over them. He spoke to them for hours over a loudspeaker, late into the night after they had worked hard all day. He lived with Carolyn Layton and Maria Katsaris, his two long-term lovers. For a time, Marceline stayed in California, leading Peoples Temple there and defending her husband to the press and the government. In October of that year, she moved to Jonestown, though she often flew to Washington, DC, to defend her husband before Congress or the courts. Sometimes, when Jones was feeling especially ill or drugged or had another commitment elsewhere, Marceline—Mother—spoke for him.

• • •

When I was twenty, in college, my parents came to visit me on a Sunday, and I took them to church with me. They had raised me Catholic, but I had been attending a nondenominational Christian church that gathered in the high school a few blocks from my house. We walked in the front doors of the school, past the taxidermied impala, a type of antelope that lives in southern Africa with long, thin legs and lyre-shaped antlers, for some unfathomable reason the school mascot.

We entered the auditorium. Spotlights lit the stage, where the worship band played songs with a lot of major chords. People waved their hands and closed their eyes and sang. I, too, closed my eyes and sang, and sometimes I raised my hands and imagined God’s love as warm and yellow, like sunlight through my heart. The pastor, Johnny Square, was a compact, athletic man, always stylishly dressed in a suit, a passionate speaker. Johnny Square called on us to take some particular action that demonstrated our faith. He challenged us—and said that to disobey him would be to disobey God.

A few weeks later, my dad sent me a letter, though he lived only an hour away and I saw him regularly, and we sometimes also spoke on the phone. He wrote that he was worried for me, that he worried about my passion and idealism, that he knew how easy it was to follow powerful emotions, that he worried about obedience when it was demanded by a preacher, that he worried about cults.

I suppose a part of me was angry about the letter—at the lack of trust it exhibited, or at the challenge to my independence, as well as to my faith in Johnny Square, a man I had respected and considered a spiritual leader. But I don’t remember the anger. I remember I thought my dad was sort of right.

For months before the letter arrived, my faith had been shaky. There were things about Christianity that I just didn’t believe, and didn’t like, and I had been trying out churches, riding my bike to a different one each week, seeking one that felt right, that really fit my idea of God and faith. My skirt would get tangled in the spokes as I rode, and I would arrive disheveled and feeling shy. I had started to skip a week now and then, and then I skipped more weeks than not. I shaved my head, something mildly symbolic of grief and newness. I took a lot of hikes and runs, and I spent countless hours behind my camera, photographing burnt trees and roadside firework stands and plastic baby dolls and orange peels. I spent entire nights, entire weekends, in the darkroom printing photographs. Gradually, in this way, art replaced my religious faith. I remember what it was like: not a sudden revelation, but a slow unwinding, a letting go.

Do I see in Marceline something of myself? Another path I could have taken, had I been born in a different time, had I found the perfect pastor, even—or especially—one whose faith was based on communism and not the Bible?

• • •

In the US, suspicion and worry about Jones and Peoples Temple gained steam. Family members of Jonestown residents formed a group, called the Concerned Relatives, and wrote letters to the Guyanese government and the US secretary of state, urging an investigation. In 1978, led by former temple lawyer Tim Stoen, the Concerned Relatives launched a human rights lawsuit against Jones, who quickly countersued for damages.

Complicating matters, Tim Stoen’s five-year-old son, John, was in Jonestown and was at the center of a bitter custody battle. Jones claimed he was the child’s father, and perhaps he was. Stoen had signed an affidavit stating that it was true, but perhaps he had done so under coercion—not an uncommon tactic for Jones. Stoen’s wife, Grace, had left Peoples Temple in 1976, and her testimony against Jones was included in the New West article. Tim Stoen had remained a member of the temple and moved to Guyana with John. But in 1978, Tim Stoen, too, defected (or escaped), and joined Grace’s custody battle. Courts ruled in their favor, but Jones refused to release the boy, even though the court ruling meant that he would be arrested if he returned to the US without surrendering the boy.

In the fall of 1978, California congressman Leo Ryan, heeding the requests of the Concerned Relatives, contacted Jones and expressed his wish to visit Jonestown. The request made Jones angry and nervous. It was Marceline who pleaded with him to be reasonable. They had nothing to hide, she said. Why shouldn’t he visit? They would show the congressman what they were doing, and that people were not kept against their will. Eventually, Leo Ryan visited. The visit went horribly awry; on November 18, 1978, one of the people of Jonestown shot the congressman dead on a runway in the jungle of Guyana.

• • •

Marceline Baldwin was born in Richmond, Indiana, and her body was returned to this place where I stand, a place that no one much knows or recognizes. Google immediately defaults to Virginia when you type “Richmond.” But everything begins somewhere, and Jonestown began here, when Jim Jones met Marceline Baldwin, a woman with intelligence, compassion, social grace, and beauty. Her father was on the city council; she knew how to move among the educated classes and the politicians, and Jim learned from her. A typical Midwesterner, she was loyal to a fault. I think of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit song, “Stand by Your Man,” how Jim’s good times paralleled Marceline’s bad ones—until the times were bad for everyone. Afraid or miserable, betrayed or heartbroken, she had children with him, and she believed in his mission of equality and socialism. She stayed.

• • •

Is this part of what it means to be curious? I want to know about the pale bark of sycamores, a tree I don’t remember seeing in the West, and about the ways people in different geographic regions slice their pizza (in Indiana: squares), and about the unknowable and surprising pathways of our lives. I live in here, in Richmond, Indiana, where Jim Jones once preached on street corners and Marceline Baldwin nursed people back to health. And so I read about Peoples Temple and about Jonestown. I look up the location of Marceline’s grave and I walk to it. This is another way of knowing a place: I follow my curiosity with my feet. Marceline’s stone and the strange path of her life are the shapes over which I drape my curiosity today.

• • •

I met the man who is now my husband at the wedding of our two best friends. After the wedding, we were at a pub with the bride and groom and other wedding guests, and in the din, he told me about his childhood in a commune, a “community” in which his parents still lived. He was delivered by a midwife in a cabin his dad had built on the shared community land in California, not far from the ocean. He was the first child born within the community, and when they knew he was a boy, his dad went out and waved a blue flag from the top of a hill to let the others know. My husband spent his first years in California among tepees and hand-built shacks and gardens. Pottytraining meant learning to use the outhouse, which scared him because it was full of spiders. He spent his days running naked with the other community children.

This was in the mid-1970s. In the early ’80s—only a few years after the deaths at Jonestown—the community sold the California land, where they were stretched by bad financial decisions and harassed by fearful neighbors. They moved to rural Nevada, and after a year, most of them moved to Salt Lake City, where the community remained for the rest of my husband’s childhood, supporting itself with a chain of natural food stores and other small businesses.

Sometime between California and Salt Lake City, my husband’s mother became sick, and in prayer she promised that if she was healed of her illness, she would remain faithful to their spiritual leader, Norm, and to the community, where everyone meditated twice a day and believed in prophets and energy and love. She was eventually diagnosed with Graves’ disease. Her thyroid was irradiated, and she has regulated her hormones with levothyroxine ever since. She remained committed to the community and her faith, even after Norm died, and even after her husband wanted to leave the community.

As my husband grew up, the community changed financial models many times, shifting from shared finances to more independent finances, and with each new iteration, people left the group. When I met my husband, the community had moved back to California and owned a handful of stores there and in Arizona. There weren’t many people still living on the land with the group, but many people visited them regularly for meditation or joined them for retreats. His parents stayed through it all, meditating twice a day, working for the stores or the church or the land.

When he told me part of this at the pub after our friends’ wedding, I was intrigued. I’m a sucker for a good story, and as he spoke I imagined him as a suntanned baby in California, running among goats and flowers and guitars. But little of what I learned about the community in the months and years that followed, or when we visited his parents, aligned with my previous ideas about communes. The community members are teetotalers, for one, and Norm all but forbade extramarital or premarital sex. Their religion is an amalgamation of Eastern and Western beliefs and practices. Over the years, there were many betrayals, both financial and personal. There were broken friendships and broken hearts. A couple of years after my husband and I married, his parents finally left the community. They still meditate every day, and they remain in touch with some of their old friends, but they live in Washington now, far from the people they worked, prayed, and lived with for more than forty years.

I note the similarities between my husband’s family’s community and Peoples Temple: The way that socialism shaped the members’ lives and practices. The way they followed the directives of a single flawed and demanding man. The way some people stayed no matter the losses and betrayals and poor business decisions. The way their faith demanded everything from them. And I wonder at the differences. My husband’s parents’ faith demanded their lives, but not their deaths. How does one see this invisible line? Would they have refused? Would I?

• • •

After the congressman was murdered on the runway, the community of more than nine hundred people gathered at the center of Jonestown. There was a large pot filled with dark liquid resting on a table—grape Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide. Jim Jones told his people to drink the liquid from little cups, but first to use preloaded syringes to press the liquid into the mouths of their children so that their children would not be tortured by the capitalists and the government. He told them it was not suicide but a revolutionary act that would communicate their socialist ideals to the world. They could not go on living in such an unjust society. And they put the syringes to their children’s mouths, and they drank from the cups, and they lay down in the dirt, and they died.

• • •

Marceline found solace in her children.

—Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown

• • •

All this, of course, is what we remember. Not socialism but “Kool-Aid.” Not communism or public services or racial equality but fallen bodies, sneakers and dungarees and corduroys and T-shirts, so many bodies lined up and piled in the dirt. In photos taken from above, they appear like bags of garbage strewn across the land. The people of Jonestown dead together, facedown in the dirt.

On the recorded audiotapes from that night in Jonestown (they always recorded Jim Jones’s speeches), Jim speaks to Marceline, saying, “Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother,” asking her to stop crying and pleading. He asks her to obey, to drink the liquid, to die with the children, to die for The Cause. His voice is remarkably calm. After the children and the babies were dead—around three hundred of them—Marceline drank the liquid and died.

When I read about the tapes, I was surprised. I had always thought—though it was mystifying—that Marceline drank quickly and willingly, that everyone in Jonestown drank willingly, blindly, with devotion. I thought that to “drink the Kool-Aid” was to be a sheep, a gullible follower. But not everyone drank willingly. The group was surrounded by men with guns, and some of their bodies bore welts where they had been injected with cyanide when they refused to drink from the cups on their own. And the children died first, many of them at the hands of their own parents—an act more powerful than communism or socialism or God or Jim Jones. The children died first at the hands of the adults. How, after that, could the parents go on living?

Jim Jones died of a gunshot wound that he probably inflicted on himself. He did not press the syringe to his lips. He did not drink the juice from a little cup.

• • •

I think my mom did the best that she could do with what she had because it was all that she could do . . . there were a lot of things that kept her there.

—Stephan Jones

Love of her children was foremost, as well as a sense of responsibility to all of Jones’s followers, who she believed were good people, genuinely trying to change the world for the better.

—Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown

• • •

Marceline Baldwin Jones was once in love with a man, her husband. She was idealistic, committed to fighting racism and sharing resources and caring for children. She was loyal. But her life, her death, her loyalty, became a chilling warning against holding too tightly to ideals. Be moderate; love reasonably, her story whispers, opposing every message of love and idealism and generosity I have ever heard. This whisper is part of what draws me to her story and to her grave, part of what puzzles me. Why did you do it, Marceline? What happened to you, Marceline? Why this blind spot? Why did you stay?

• • •

Reid Hospital in Richmond, Indiana, where Marceline Baldwin met Jim Jones, was built in 1905 and served this small city for more than a hundred years. In 2008, the hospital sold the buildings on the original site to a group of developers and moved into a new facility up the road. Through a series of bad decisions, worse circumstances, and greedy betrayals, the old hospital was twice handed off from the original development group to other developers, but eventually all plans fell through; the last pair of investors stopped paying taxes and all but vanished from Indiana. The abandoned buildings have been rotting ever since. By the time I moved to Richmond in 2015, the old hospital was a hulking ruin, shameful, overgrown and broken, jagged and spray-painted. Thieves had stripped it of its valuable metals and set fire to the structure more than once. Even in a town with plenty of abandoned buildings, the hospital was a riveting eyesore of toxic decay, a testament to poor management and Rust Belt poverty.

But after a decade of vacancy, the building is finally, as I write this, being demolished. The place where Jim Jones met Marceline Baldwin—the woman who would become his wife, who would model for him effective political behavior, who would make possible his ascendancy as leader of Peoples Temple, and who would die at his side in a jungle settlement in Guyana—within another month or two, that place will no longer stand. But I will not see the demolition to its completion. My move is already planned, and I will be gone from Richmond before the building is gone. There are poisons locked within the old structure—asbestos certainly, and maybe mercury and lead. It is a scar that will not heal before I leave.

But I stand in this cemetery, by Marceline’s stone. I have read too much about her, about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I have let whole days dwindle to darkness as I read, questions swirling, wondering why I cannot look away. But today, the woods behind Marceline’s grave are beautiful and straight and still against the sky, and the first leaves of spring are bright, tender green in the understory, and now I walk toward them, into the forest.

About the Author

Shena McAuliffe

Shena McAuliffe is the author of Glass, Light, Electricity: Essays, and The Good Echo, a novel. Her stories and essays have been published in Conjunctions, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, AGNI Online, and elsewhere.

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